[Author’s Note: since I originally wrote this piece, my sweet Maisy has died. In every way that counts, though, she is still part of our zoo].
Three weeks ago, the dogs got out again. Pulling into the driveway, looking forward to my couch and “Modern Family,” I noticed that the back door was wide open. I live in an old house, and things tend to fall apart; it wasn’t the condition of the house but the implications that gave me an adrenaline jolt that had me throwing open the car door and running inside. If the door was open, the dogs were gone again; they had exploited a weakness in the ancient door and pushed their way into freedom on a frigid Michigan night.
They have been doing this for years, those dogs. In their younger days they traveled for miles, crossing busy roads and municipal boundaries together and returning home in the middle of the night limping and filthy. This time was different, though; in the years since the last Great Escape our older dog Maisy had grown completely deaf. Charlie, about three years her junior, is no specimen of canine health either. His muzzle is streaked with white, and his stamina is not what it once was. I was terrified for them, weeping and preparing for the call from Animal Control. I knew, I knew that at least one of them was dead somewhere, returning to us only for purposes of cremation and some sentimental formal farewell.
I posted on Facebook that the dogs were gone, and within minutes the news spread far and wide. Friends offered to join me in a search, but I told them that it was impossible to know where Maisy and Charlie might have gone. Alone, neither would leave our street, but together there was some Call of the Wild thing that sent them hurtling away in search of better garbage, woods filled with burrs, and squirrels that moved only in slow motion. While I waited, driving aimlessly through the streets with my window down, and a tissue dabbing my eyes, I thought about how I had come to live in a zoo, and the inestimable love and comfort I received from the pure, loyal spirits that are our two dogs and three cats.
The minute we moved into a “real house” from a rental townhouse, I began plotting the acquisition of animals. I had grown up with a dog in the house, and later come to love a series of cats that came to me freighted with circumstances that required me to take them in or let them die. Two weeks after we moved into the house, while my husband was traveling on business, I saw a picture of a beautiful Russian Blue cat in the paper; it was one of those special “Adopt An Animal” fliers that I am no longer permitted even to see. Within the hour I was at the animal hospital paying for his shots and falling in love with our beautiful Max. Although he only lived seven years, dying in my arms from feline leukemia on a sunny February afternoon, he was all that a cat should be – aloof, stunning, and willing to breach Cat Rules to snuggle with my husband, his Person of Choice.
Maybe a month later, my husband traveled to the Cayman Islands on a trip gifted to us by his employer. I was unwilling to abandon a partially set-up house and a three-year-old child, so I stayed home while he sailed with drunken pirates and ate conch fritters. During the five days that he was gone, I decided that it was time to get a dog; looking at another insert from the local animal shelter I saw the long, sad face of “Katie,” adopted and returned twice by the same family, and possibly abused. My childhood dog was also a Katie, and I knew it was an omen. I packed up the kid and drove to the shelter with a checkbook, stopping only long enough to buy a leash and a bag of dog food.
At the shelter, I tried to avoid the sense that I should take all of them home, save them, love them, free them from bars, cement cages, constant noise and impending death. I asked to see “Katie,” and when we saw her, a skinny blonde cocker-lab mix with a sweet, sensitive face, I knew she was my dog. I asked only if she was good with children, and was told that she was skittish but not a snapper or a biter. I was also told that “Katie” wasn’t her real name; the people who had twice selected her, promised her a home and rejected her had called her something else. I looked into her liquid eyes, saw something old fashioned and demure, and named her “Maisy.”
By the time I was writing the check that would release Maisy from durance vile, and signing a sheaf of papers in which I promised to be responsible, Sam had moved to stand in front of a cage housing a small, hyperactive beagle-terrier mix. The dog jumped up in the air, and Sam laughed. The dog tried to force its pointy black snout through the bars to see what a boy tasted like, and Sam laughed again. I turned back to the man behind the counter. “Tell me about that one” I said.
As I left the shelter, with Maisy on the newly purchased leash and the beagle-terrier who was now our Charlie on an improvised rope lead, the man behind the counter shook his head and looked concerned. “Lady, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Yes,” I lied blithely, wondering how I was going to explain to the absent Captain Morgan that once again, he had left town and I had added two more animals to the family.
A couple of years later, we were comfortable with the fact that we had a regal and trouble-free cat, a dog who was skittish from past abuse and required oceans of gentleness, and another dog who was totally insane, failed obedience class and, according to our vet, was bred in such a way that even an electric fence would not keep him on our property. One Sweetest Day, my husband called me from a trail ride through the woods. “I have a present for you,” he began. “It’s the sweetest little kitten; she was on the trail and nobody knew who she belonged to, and if I leave her here, she’ll starve.” Given my track record, I was in no position to refuse. Sophie joined the family, got pregnant within days after I made the appointment to have her spayed, and had a litter in the coal room beneath the house. Of that crop of kittens, those who survived are still living here. Teddy is my beloved and my familiar, and Stripey (named by a 7-year-old Sam) is an eccentric who refuses to go outside and brings us dirty socks all day believing that they are some sort of “kill.” It’s a full house.
When I returned again to that house from my desultory dog search, eyes red and puffy, my cell phone rang in my pocket. “Hello?” I snuffled after I fished it out from among damp wads of tissue.
“Hi,” said an unfamiliar voice, “My name is Diane, I live at 245 Woodbridge, and I think I have your dogs. Are they the ones from Facebook?”
“Yes,” I said, willing it to be so. “I mean, I think so – can you describe them?”
“They both look like older dogs,” she said, “one is very thin and reddish blond, and the other is some kind of beagle. He doesn’t seem to want me to catch him. I have a dog, so I gave them some food and water” The tears started again.
“Those are my dogs,” I told her, knowing that at least for a while my improbable, irresponsible, messy, beloved zoo would remain intact. “I’ll be right there.”
*Please be sure to spay or neuter your pets, and consider adopting animals that really need your love*