I watched them as I worked outside among my flowers, as I walked to the mailbox, or as I drove out of the driveway, thin hollow bodies lying in the warm dirt or on the porches of the broken and bereft trailer homes across the street. At times a car would pull up and I would see the tableau play out again, the dogs jump up and run over, tails wagging, begging, careful to stay out of the way of the person climbing the rotting stairs to the porch. A door slams, they stare at the door in anticipation, sure that it will open again for them and this time they will be seen and acknowledged, maybe even fed, but the wagging slows and the head falls and they return to the dirt, to the warmth of the sun. They are ghosts in that place.
The old Tupperware bowl full dog food was empty each morning, at first licked clean and then over the weeks, a few kibbles carelessly left here and there, evidence of expectation, a trust that the bowl would be full again. I was sure that there were three of them, two females who obviously had puppies, probably hidden away under a trailer or the dilapidated wooden shed on the back of the property, if alive at all, and a red male dog. The females had think patchy hair and I could see the fleas racing across the inflamed skin of their backs and bellies. Around each of their necks was a collar, loose and now faded, implying ownership, but only in the most literal sense of the word.
At first they ate their food and left at night, but slowly I would find one or two still hanging out under the carport of my house, usually the large momma dog or the young male. Momma dog, whom we called Ava, was friendly, but her eyes were tired and empty and swollen with infection and although she allowed me to touch her, she didn’t wag her tail or raise her head, but if I stopped she would butt her head against my chest as I kneeled down next to her. The male was healthier than the females and other than a slight thinness, he looked good, his coat was thick and his eyes were clear. Over the next few weeks as I watched them go back and forth across the street, I came to believe that although allowed to run loose, the male was cared for by someone in one of the trailers. I think he sensed the hunger and greater need of the other two, as more than once I’d seen him walk with the two females to the food bowls and then silently move aside for them and stand guard as they ate their fill.
The other momma dog was much smaller, she had a longer black and white coat and her ears were covered in spots, like a dalmation’s coat. I would see her out by the gate or in the field next door when Ava and the male were here, but she couldn’t bring herself to us, maybe she feared pain or mistreatment at our hands, but I could see her struggle, her need to believe we would be kind, but yet willing us to go inside so she could approach and eat. One night my husband called me to come outside and see something and it was the little black and white momma, she had surrendered and rolled over on her back, softly crying in relief, submitting, as my husband rubbed her small belly.
From that day forward the momma dogs spent most of their time with us, but the male came and went and one day I saw a family move out and we never saw him again. Neither momma appeared to have milk left so I wasn’t sure if there were puppies, but for short periods of time each day they would disappear. I didn’t know if they were still being drawn to the only home they had ever known or if possibly they were leaving to feed puppies, so we began the waiting game.
We didn’t have to wait long, soon the little momma, now called Sissy, brought her puppies to us, four little balls of happiness, bellies swollen with worms, but otherwise healthy. She was a good momma and she knew it and she also let me know that she was done with them and she never left our house again. Vetted and vaccinated, the puppies were soon adopted out with the help of Pup Squad, a wonderful rescue that focuses on rescued puppies. Ava, however, was still leaving at times, but I didn’t know her reason.
Late one night Ava came back and she brought her reasons with her, two large swollen hairless pups. As I walked out the door, Ava was waiting and wanted me to see her puppies. She would run to them and then back to me and if one would try to run out of the garage, she would nudge them back in again towards me so I did as she asked and picked them up and held their smelly little bodies to me and I told her I would take care of them. She seemed to be at ease after that and, like Sissy, never left us again.
Vetted, spayed and completely healthy, Sissy and Ava are still with us, along with our 9 other dogs. Their hair is soft beneath my hands and their eyes are bright. It’s hard to find an adoptive home for two bonded dogs, and I would never separate them, so we accept that they may be with us forever, but they are older, easy and perfectly content.
Both of Ava’s puppies had two types of severe mange and lost all of their hair – twice. They looked like two small piglets running around and required much medical care and little Wilma developed benign growths on her body, which were easily removed, but delayed her attendance at adoption events. Beautiful unique Betty with her black and orange fur and calm demeanor was adopted quickly by a loving family and it took Wilma some time to adjust to her absence, as Betty was her touchstone, the one who ran things and she was at a loss as to how to act now that she was alone.
Wilma, now 7 months old and 45 pounds with a shiny tan and black coat, was healthy and ready to be adopted. We went to adoption events together, but it was difficult for her, in the past she took her cues from Betty so she didn’t know how to react to the noise, all the other dogs and people and at times I was afraid her fear made her seem unfriendly. I would sit with her on the floor, rubbing her head, talking to her and a few people would read her profile and say hello, but pens of little soft puppies are so cute and attractive, so often she was passed by without even a glance. Now Wilma is 9 months old, she won’t be a puppy much longer.
I wish an adopter could see what I see. I wish they could see her excitement as she licks my chin with her whole body wiggling in joy; I wish they could see her try to sit in my lap like she is a tiny puppy or watch her chase a ball and bring it right back to me. All these little things that make her so wonderful, the ways she rolls in the fresh-cut grass, how she always has a toy in her mouth and wants you take it from her so she can take it back again. Most of all, I wish they could see how much she needs a family of her own who can focus on her, bond with her, and make her their own and watch her grow from this energy filled older puppy to a wonderful adult dog. In my mind I can see her laying on a rug in someone’s living room as they watch TV or running in circles when the reach for the leash to go for a walk and far later in time, I see the same kind hands that she’s known for so many years rub her faded white head as she naps on the couch.
So I will keep trying because this is what I want for Wilma. Her forever family must be out there waiting to find her and when I know it’s them, the ones who will love her and see her as I do, with sadness and joy, I will cradle her sweet face in my hands one last time. As she licks my chin I will tell her that I love her and that it’s time, her family is waiting, and then I will let her go, not from my heart, but from my hands.
Rhonda Alford Owens
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