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Author: Melissa

The Lionfish Hunter

As y’all know I like to pay tribute to people who help animals. Last month Mason and I visited the Puget Sound Goat Rescue. For September, I interviewed an environmentalist who is passionate about saving the reefs off the Florida coast. Meet Gus Sims.

 

The Lionfish Hunter

Gus Sims is an Emmy-winning cameraman. He shoots all sports, but I met him through drag racing. On most race weekends, Gus roams the pits, the starting line or return road and shoots drivers and racecars. He should smell like burning rubber, steaming clutch discs, brake cleaner. But he doesn’t. He smells like the sea.

Gus looks like he spent a lifetime on the water too. He’s tan, ageless with sun-bleached hair and a toned physique. For the most part, he’s a quiet man. That is until he starts talking about scuba diving.

Gus and I have been carpooling together for the past year. You learn a lot about someone when you ride an hour to and from racetracks in cities all over the United States. That’s when I learned how talking about scuba diving enlivens him. When Gus isn’t at a racetrack, he’s underwater. He dives in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And he’s helping to save his backyard by hunting lionfish.

Why should we care about the lionfish? Native to the South Pacific, the lionfish don’t belong in our waters, but somehow, whether by hurricane or as a stow-away under a ship’s ballast or released from some rich guy’s aquarium, they have arrived. And they are destroying the balance of marine life from Alabama to North Carolina.

Lionfish are striking, exotic, flamboyant creatures. They wear burnt-orange or maroon stripes and dazzling fins that flow around their bodies like designer scarves. But don’t let their beauty deceive because they are venomous creatures. An even bigger problem is their appetite. They eat everything, but maybe most importantly they devour the small fish that keep the reefs clean. Already taxed by higher water temperatures and bleaching, our coral reefs are struggling to survive, and if they fail, they’ll take an entire marine ecosystem down with them. Some experts predict it would end the ocean’s fishing industry.

Another issue is the lionfish doesn’t have a predator, meaning nothing along our shorelines can kill them. And they just keep reproducing. A female lionfish can have as many as 2 million eggs per year. The only reason these invaders haven’t caused an underwater apocalypse is because of men like Gus Sims, aka lionfish hunter, aka badass.

 

Q&A with the lionfish hunter

When was your first encounter with the lionfish?

I saw them in the Bahamas 10 plus years ago. I noticed them in the Keys about 6-7 years ago. That’s when I became active in eradication. You have to be certified by State of FL to kill and remove them from the sanctuary. Other places in the Gulf and Atlantic can harvest anytime without restrictions…meaning anyone can hunt the interlopers.

 Approximately how many lionfish have you killed?

I’d guess 30 in 3 years. I’ll take one that I killed and use it as a teaching tool to show people, kids, other divers. Some people hear of the problem but show-and-tell is just one more element to helping the public understand.

How would you describe a lionfish?

They are beautiful creatures but bad Mama Jama’s for the reef ‘s ecosystem.

Have you ever been stung by one? Did it hurt?

No. But a small prick may result in swelling and a few days of pain. A more intense sting can be painful and limit mobility for a while.

The lionfish is edible. Do you ever eat them?

There are many ways to prepare them. There is a lionfish cookbook and everything. We usually just fillet and chop raw and make ceviche. Dip is good.

Sometimes we will take our kill to REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation.) They dissect the animals and study stomach content. We are always trying to help gather any type of information that will help combat the problem.

What’s the reward?

I do believe the work we are doing is paying off. The one I killed yesterday was the first one I have seen in a while. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that there are enough of us looking and trying to deal with the problem. And we are seemingly doing a good job.

We will always be battling the issue because of how many eggs are laid each year. All we can do is try and maintain the population and not let it get out of hand again. One kill is one less.

(For more about Gus and his underwater adventures, you can visit his website right here.)

A Dog, a Mob Boss, and a Bloody Blue Ribbon

Miss Annie Daisy

I’ve been waffling about posting this blog because it’s still hard to admit my disease. Then, I ran into Mort, a Vietnam vet, on the greenway. He also suffers from depression, and he was having a bad day. When I told him about my disease, his face changed. For the next twenty minutes, he told me how thankful he was to find someone who understood. For the next week, we walked together every day. That’s why I finally decided to post this. Because I want everyone who feels like Mort to know they aren’t alone.

 

A Dog, a Mob Boss, and a Bloody Blue Ribbon

 

I went through my third episode of clinical depression six years ago. That spring the only company I craved was my six-pound dog Miss Annie and Tony Soprano, a fictional TV character. I wouldn’t have survived without either of them.

I was diagnosed with depression almost twenty years ago. For two decades, I took all the precautions. I exercised religiously, slept seven hours nightly, and swallowed antidepressants daily. And then, I made the foolish decision to quit my meds at the same time I left a fifteen-year career. I quit taking the antidepressants because of allergy season. The antihistamines made me shaky, and the antidepressants made it worse. I rationalized I hadn’t relapsed in years. I rationalized I’d be safe to go without medicine for a few months. Wrong answer.

During the worst of it, I spent twenty hours a day in bed, only I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t sleep because the enormous weight of nothingness crushed my ribcage until breathing was a chore. Blinds shaded my bedroom in the gray tones of a cloudy evening. If I inched up the blinds, I could see the multiple green hues of spring, but they’d been closed for months. It was winter inside our house, frigid, desolate, dark.

In my serotonin-deficient brain, I felt like a shell, empty inside, weightless. I smelled like greasy hair. My house was filthy too. Dog hair collected in tufts, toppled up and down the hallway, as though they were tumbleweeds blowing across an abandoned Texas town. Anyone who has suffered from clinical depression knows how hard it is to describe the immobility of it, the immobility of the mind and the body. But my dog understood, and Annie never left my side, not once. And she never asked me to explain.

Miss Annie didn’t care that I smelled like body odor or randomly broke down sobbing. She’d been my best friend for thirteen years, my first dog, the reason for my love of all animals. Ironically, Annie and I were opposites. She was a priss, and I’m a tomboy. She was a purebred Yorkshire terrier. I prefer mutts. I like walking in the rain. Annie walked in the rain if I held an umbrella over her head. But none of our differences mattered. If anything, they made us two halves of a whole.

The only solid, definable part of my life during the depression was Annie’s six-pound weight. She curled into a ball against my hip, hair as soft as velvet. I’d run my pinky across her little wet nose, a nose shaped like an anchor, as though some cosmic force interceded when dogs were designed. At the darkest times, the times when I didn’t know if wanted to wake up ever again, when I planned my suicide down to the exact minute I’d swallow the pills, she kept me anchored to the here and now. There were even moments when I ruled out suicide simply because no one else could take care of Annie like me. She was so much a part of me that in some region of my mind, I believed if I died, she would too. As though we only existed because of each other.

My feelings about Tony Soprano had more complicated roots. The Sopranos is a crime drama that first aired from 1999-2007. It’s based on an Italian New Jersey mobster called Tony Soprano. During that spring, I played all six seasons, one after another from dusk until dawn. Sometimes, I didn’t even watch, just listened. As much as I needed Annie’s weight, I needed Tony’s voice. A large part of my obsession stemmed from the fact Tony also suffers from clinical depression. It runs in his fictional family as predictably as it runs through my real one.

In the second season, during the episode “Isabella,” Tony confides to his psychiatrist, “Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit…I don’t feel nothing, nothing. Dead. Empty. Everything I touch turns to shit. I’m not a husband to my wife, not a father to my kids, not a friend to my friends. I’m nothing.” Tony Soprano held a mirror to my brain.

But his mental state wasn’t the only reason I clung to him back then. I also needed Tony because my inner little girl needed a father. I wanted someone to protect me because I was scared and sick, and I wanted that person to be a mob boss. Tony is a cheating, murdering, lying, thieving narcissist, but he loves his daughter Meadow, unconditionally. In the last season of The Sopranos, a mobster from a rival family confronts Tony’s daughter in a restaurant, says she has cream on her lip. He caresses her cheek. Meadow tells her father about Coco’s threatening behavior later over their kitchen table.

I watched the episode “The Second Coming” a hundred times. Each time I couldn’t tear my eyes off Tony’s face as he processes Meadow’s story. His rage is palpable. It’s so powerful he can’t sit still. He has to act, has to punish the man who violated his daughter. In the next scene, Tony storms through the restaurant, knocks Coco to the ground, then kicks his teeth out against the tile floor. His message is clear: nobody fucks with Meadow Soprano.

From my earliest memories, my father was the anti-Tony, the antagonist of my nightmares. When I was nine years old, our barn-cat Josie, longhaired and orange, had a litter of kittens. My younger sister and I were each allowed one. I tied a pink ribbon around a kitten I named Taffy and a blue string around one my sister called Coco. Both cats looked like miniature versions of their mother, but their personalities were vastly different. Taffy napped or cuddled twenty-two hours a day, while Coco ransacked the barn.

I spent afternoons sitting on a hay bale while Taffy purred away on my chest and Coco played with my hair ribbons. Pink, blue, yellow, purple, and orange ribbons littered the floor. The fabric wasn’t thin or shiny but hefty, made of a cotton-wool blend, as though it’d been knitted. Coco shredded most of them, and the remains spread like silly string across the planked floor. They were the same kind I used for their collars.

One afternoon, my father was grabbing some garden tools out of the barn. The ribbons annoyed him, and he started shoving them in a garbage bag. Coco must have thought he came to play because he swatted my father’s hand and sliced his skin deep enough to draw blood. Looking back, parts of me knew Coco was doomed when I saw the look of rage that crossed my father’s face. Parts of me will always blame myself for what happened next.

That night a shotgun blast pierced the evening. The ringing afterwards sounded as loud as the blast. I raced downstairs, frantic, but my mother, bent over her checkbook at the kitchen table, acted as though nothing happened. The windows reflected her perfectly coiffed curly hair, gold bracelets glimmering from her wrists. She looked so normal, so calm I questioned whether I had heard the gunshot or not.

“Your father shot a skunk, that’s all,” she said.

Two days after the gunshot, I found Coco’s collar. At first the ribbon blended with the dead leaves. Dried blood colored it a similar bark brown. I reached for it, sure but unsure, wanting to know yet screaming against it. The ribbon was stiff, crusty, but there was no denying it was Coco’s collar.

In retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco’s collar. My idealism didn’t coalesce until years later, until I met Miss Annie and realized the depth of an animal’s personality, but that was the moment when speaking for the voiceless became my life’s goal. If I had acted, if I had hid Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor’s shed, if I hadn’t egged him on or left the ribbons scattered across the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I’m giving back to that little girl who will always blame herself for her father’s mistakes. For me, my depression, rescuing animals, and my obsession with a mob boss are entwined with that bloody ribbon. It’s where all three of them began.

It’s been six years since my last (and hopefully final) bout of depression. I’d been ill for months, bed-ridden for two. The doctor said I’d been low for so long that the antidepressants would take time to build up my serotonin levels. I returned to civilization as though through snowdrifts, but I returned. Miss Annie stuck with me every step of the way, her tiny paws pitter-pattering behind me, her eyes a constant reminder I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t unloved. Three months after I recovered, I started fostering dogs for ICHBA. I named all the homeless mutts after Soprano characters.

***

Please, please, please if you are feeling depressed or suicidal reach out to someone. You are soooooooooo not alone!!!!

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK [8255])

 

Flawless



(Rosebud looking at her pic on Mace’s sweatshirt)

 

Mason and I visited the Puget Sound Goat Rescue the first week in August. It was my third visit in three years. Unlike my previous visits, the temperature last week in Maple Valley, WA was ideal, 73, cloudy with sprinkles of sunshine. Normally, it’s hot, 90-degrees type hot.

The other difference was that my husband Mason made the cross-country trip. He came to meet Rosebud, a three-legged goat. Besides the fact that I mention Rosebud weekly, Mason wanted to meet her because he’d been wearing her picture on his chest since last December, when I bought him a Puget Sound Goat Rescue (PSGR) sweatshirt for Christmas. I was anxious about Mason’s reaction to Rosebud. Until I met her, I thought of all goats as livestock. I knew he felt the same way. On occasion, he even ate mutton. Full disclosure: I tried mutton once at a bar-b-q joint in Kentucky.

Barbara Jamison, a retired corporate sales representative, started the goat rescue in 2001, shortly after she bought her farm. Most, but not all, of the animals come from the slaughterhouse. Others live at the rescue because they were neglected or abused or surrendered by owners unable to care for them. Unlike many farm sanctuaries, PSGR adopts their goats to well-vetted homes. Currently, the rescue has 101 goats available for adoption.

Barbara runs the nonprofit with a team of 45 volunteers over two farms. After being around her for any length of time, I can understand why so many people want to help her. Barbara exudes strength, the kind of strength that is the root of every successful animal nonprofit. Any person who undertakes rescue work fulltime must possess the right blend of compassion and steely strength. Too much of the former and the rescue fails. Too much of the latter and the same applies.

Caring for goats isn’t an easy physical job either. Poop is everywhere. There’s no avoiding it. One volunteer joked she was going to apply for a job as a professional pooper-scooper. We laughed but she wasn’t kidding. It also means slogging heavy buckets with fresh water, carrying hay, and pushing wheelbarrows. It means dirty, menial labor and never getting a day off.

A Llama named Sabrina, two sheep, two dogs, two turkeys, and a rooster also live on Barbara’s farm. It’s a busy place, and goats are busy creatures. Most grazed the fence line. Others crawled on chairs and tables. One licked a salt lick. Another fellow rested in a neon blue kiddie pool. All held my interest for about fifteen seconds because I couldn’t focus on anything until I saw Rosebud. I scanned the field again.

After five minutes passed, I started worrying. Had something happened?

“Oh, you’re looking for Rosebud?” Barbara smiled as though she suddenly understood the real reason we flew 2500 miles. She called Rosebud’s name once before I saw the goat’s shadow move against a barn door. I felt my heart start to pitter. I’d been talking about her so much, I had the irrational fear Mason might not see the same magic in her. That he might be disappointed. That she would be a letdown.

Rosebud stood up one joint at a time, unfolding like a ladder. When on all three limbs, she took her first unwieldy step forward, unwieldy because her weight isn’t distributed evenly. Rosebud wears a deep brown coat that gleams reddish in the sunshine. Black smudges her face and legs. Her ears stick out from each side of her head like mini-winglets. Barbara guesses she’s around three years old. She was a neglect case. In her first home she had become so weak and anemic, she pulled herself around on her front legs. It destroyed her left knee joint.

In some ways, I’m not sure Rosebud knows she’s missing her leg. I fell in love with her on my second visit when I saw her moving her stump as though her hoof was still connected. Like dogs, goats dig the ground before they sit down. As Rosebud made her nest in the leaves and hay, her stump dug in unison with her right limb. That simple motion, brain muscle reacting to the nonexistent caused a rush of pity that resounded for a full five seconds. Just as quickly, a sense of complete joy followed, joy that an animal like Rosebud was given a chance in the world. And that feeling lasted long after my pity.

As Rosebud approached us, I watched my husband’s face and knew he felt the same sympathy I had. But, I kept watching. I watched until his eyes lit up, until I knew he realized there was something completely intact about this three-legged animal. Mason was seeing exactly what I hoped. My husband was learning, like I had, that goats possess complexity. They have emotions and memories. They have personalities. Although I’m not religious, it was the equivalent of realizing goats have souls. My guess is Mason won’t be eating any mutton in the near future.

Rosebud rotated her head like a helicopter when I combed my fingers through her thick, shiny coat. Her brown eyes shimmered with curiosity, contentment, intelligence. At one point, I asked Barbara if Rosebud was up for adoption. She answered quickly, “It’d have to be a really good home.”

I thought to myself there is no better home for Rosebud than right here at this goat rescue.

On our way to the hotel that evening, Mason wore his Rosebud sweatshirt. One word is under her picture. Flawless.

P.S. Special shout out to Ruth Laitila, another animal-rescue warrior. She makes these visits possible. You can see everyday life at the Puget Sound Goat Rescue on their IG feed. And to see all the characters we met at PSGR, follow The Farnival on IG.

Bentley’s Balls

I posted this essay first in 2013, then again in 2014. For the third time, back by popular demand, here’s… Bentley’s Balls 🙂


Bentley, 2013

We clone tomatoes and sheep, why can’t we clone a puppy’s balls? Instead, men walk around with semi-deflated balloons covered by chicken-neck skin that sprouts pubic hair like weeds in a snubbed garden. It doesn’t seen fair. 

 

Like every southerner, Bentley’s manners are impeccable. He sits on command, doesn’t beg for bacon, get on the leather couch, or pee on the hardwood floors.

I found him when he was six weeks old in the trunk of an oak tree on the Springfield Greenway. I don’t know how he ended up in such a strange place, but, now, he lives with my hairdresser in Clarksville, TN. She instilled the manners.

For the past week, he’s been at my house while Laura goes home to Michigan for her grandparent’s memorial service. I’ve found homes for nineteen dogs, but Bentley’s the only one I’ve been lucky enough to puppy sit a few months later. He’s thirty pounds and pale blond. Laura’s vet guessed that he’s a Pit bull-Lab mix.

We’ve walked thirty-four miles in seven days. He has potential. I’ve noticed fear aggression, but if nipped in the bud, it can be cured with socialization, exercise, and discipline. He’s still young and small enough to mold.

I hear his translucent nails clatter down the hallway. His gait is easily distinguishable because it sounds clumsy and inconsistent. He hasn’t established a pattern yet. He bolts through my office door, like he robbed a bank, then suddenly halts.

I swivel around and face him. I bend my elbow, giving him the sign to sit. He sits properly, on his haunches, gangly front legs poker straight. His ears are cockeyed, one hangs in an upside down triangular shape and the other points straight to the side. It gives him an irresistible expression.

Besides his impeccable manners and crooked ears, Bentley’s balls are his best feature. There’s no other way to say it. As he sits in front of me, I have a perfect view. His gonads are downy and slightly pink. They don’t hang but bulge with the size and firmness of grapes. I notice because I don’t often see a dog’s gonads. My mutts were all neutered young.

It strikes me: why can’t guys’ balls be the same? We clone tomatoes and sheep, why can’t we clone a puppy’s balls? Instead, men walk around with semi-deflated balloons covered by chicken-neck skin that sprouts pubic hair like weeds in a snubbed garden. It doesn’t seem fair.

Bentley’s watermelon pink tongue hangs from the side of his maw. His sharp, young teeth are vividly white. Everything about him is pink, white, and clean, even the inside of his cockeyed ears. He shakes his head and grins.

You’re silly, I say.

You’re sillier, he answers.

He lunges for his frayed tennis ball, which was forgotten next to the bookshelf sometime yesterday, and plunks it at my feet.

Let’s play, he says.

Okay, I answer.

I leave my work until later in the day. It’s hard to focus when a puppy wants to play. He bounds away, swishing his tail in joy. For a moment I watch. His balls barely jiggle.

Foster Dogs Who Fell in Love

Meadow and Bentley

It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable.

I miss fostering homeless mutts for a thousand different reasons, but watching the relationships they formed is one of the top five. In fact, the most beautiful love story I ever witnessed happened between our foster dogs Meadow and Bentley.

On a frigid morning five years ago, their silhouettes emerged in the backyard. I watched them from my office window, fingers suspended over the keypad. I was working on a project with an approaching deadline.

The mutts wore similar blond coats, and in the cold pale air, their fur looked white. I had no idea how long they’d been playing outside, but they were locked in the midst of it at sunrise. If the past ten days were any indication, they would rack up two more wrestling matches before bed.

Their dance looked like a mash-up of ballet and rugby. Meadow leaped, twirled, and lunged around him as elegantly as a ballerina. Bentley acted like the rugby player, agile but unsure how to focus his energy, all legs and muscle. He was a Lab-pit mix and wore his fur short and wiry, while Meadow’s fluffed long and wavy. They both weighed around fifty-five pounds, but he was taller and she was wider. He was clumsier. She was faster.

When their shapes crystallized under the morning sun, I realized I hadn’t gotten any work done because I couldn’t tear my eyes from Meadow and Bentley. Their affection was exhilarating, intoxicating, unfiltered. They couldn’t talk, yet their body language screamed their love, as though they stood on the rooftop with megaphones.

I told myself to focus and clicked open Gmail. I had a note that made me swallow hard, twice. Donna, ICHBA’s head honcho, wrote that Bentley got adopted. An ex-military dog handler, someone who could handle his aggression issues wanted him. They were moving to Alaska.

It was the best news possible. I couldn’t have scripted a better outcome. Yet, I couldn’t celebrate, not quite. It meant separating Meadow and Bentley. Like Romeo and Juliet, their relationship was doomed from the start. Except, it wasn’t so much where they came from. It was that they were heading in separate directions.

***

I was cutting up a pound of strawberries when Meadow and Bentley burst through the doggie door. They had just finished their second round of wrestling.

Meadow dropped on the kitchen’s tile floor and panted in fast huffs. Bentley, equally hot, bounded next to her. In the human world, he’d be called whipped, but canines don’t recognize labels. He feverishly licked her long snout. Meadow, annoyed by his affection, abruptly stood up and pranced into the living room.

Bentley was dumbfounded. He rotated his maw from side-to-side, sniffed the floor where she had been resting. Then, he settled for licking her drool.

Both of the dogs had special needs. Meadow had been adopted and returned once, Bentley twice. Bentley suffered from fear aggression and attacked whatever and whoever was closest whenever he saw strangers. Meadow, on the other hand, didn’t mind being around any human or dog, but she shredded shoes, rugs, towels, furniture, and children’s toys when she was alone.

Back then, I thought it was strange that these two special needs dogs found each other. It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable. I had wondered if they sensed each other’s neediness. In retrospect, I realize that’s exactly what they did. Don’t dogs do the same for us? Don’t they sniff out our emotional issues, then try their best to heal them? Why wouldn’t they do it for each other?

An hour after she snubbed him, Meadow dropped a Kong by his paw. Now, she wanted him to play. Meadow’s fur was still slightly wet from running through the dewy grass and it kinked around her ears like an 80’s hairdo. She was a one-of-a-kind beauty and completely aware of it. Bentley didn’t even try to get off the dog bed. Instead, he gently nipped at her ear. She plopped down, threw her head over his neck and fell asleep within minutes. They napped the entire afternoon cuddled against each other.

***

That evening Bentley and Meadow circled the yard. The winter sun was setting fast but they were unfazed by the fading light. It was their last dance, their last few hours together. They sprinted so fast that when they stopped, they needed a few yards to slow down, like a runway for a plane. Once in a while, they clashed in a flurry of paws and tails. What a wonderful way to say I love you.

They couldn’t have known it was their last dance. Or did they? Dogs can read microscopic body language. Did my body communicate the unease I felt about saying goodbye to a dog who had lived with us for four months? The unease I felt about separating Meadow and Bentley? Or was I projecting my feelings?

What I did know, even then, was that dogs are masters of living in the moment, and even if they had known about their impending goodbye they wouldn’t have acted any differently. On that evening, all that mattered to Bentley and Meadow was each other. So, I watched those two homeless mutts dancing their last dance and felt a profound sense of gratitude, gratitude for witnessing such a beautiful love story.

What Saying No Means in Rural Tennessee

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing my pack. I may not be able to foster dogs right now, but I can still help by giving a voice to the voiceless. I hope these stories change a few minds about adopting shelter dogs and most importantly, I hope they help the next Floyd and Sara.

(Floyd and Sara)

(Floyd and Sara, 2009)

(Sara, 2009)

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

 

We were driving home after a four-mile walk with our mutts when we saw the abandoned puppies. Our dogs had their snouts pushed out the station wagon’s windows. They looked like wind-riders, ears flattened against their heads, noses slick and working overtime to investigate the cacophony of scents rushing past. Ancient trees edged both sides of the road. Red, yellow, and orange leaves glimmered like jewels in the sky, some raining downwards from the branch-draped ceiling. It was nine years ago, but I still remember that afternoon because it was a perfect October day, too perfect for seeing two starved dogs ditched on the roadside.

The potholed pavement on our isolated, country road snaked like a slinky, forcing my husband Mason to slow down, so when we passed the puppies crouched at the road’s lip, I got a good, long look. The copper dog caught my attention first. Then I saw the tinier black pup leaning against the red one, as though she didn’t have the strength to sit up on her own. Both dogs wore the confused expression of someone who had been dumped in a foreign country without a dime or a voice to ask for directions.

I didn’t know how long they’d been living on the street, but judging by their physical appearance they wouldn’t last much longer. In our society, canines exist in a strange purgatory, trapped between two cultures, existing somewhere along the continuum of natural instinct and domestication. Dogs’ behaviors can still be very wolf-like. But after living with humans for thousands of years, they are dependent on us for their most basic survival needs, particularly food and shelter. Surviving in the wild is often as difficult for them as it would be for me.

“Did you see?” Mason asked.

“Keep driving,” I said.

It sounds harsh, even now, but the practicality of taking home two sick dogs at that time was nil. We already had a pack of four, plus in seventy-two hours we would be flying to Dallas, Texas for work. And those dogs were obviously ill. They needed to be quarantined or they could spread worms, fleas, or worse to our mutts.

“If we don’t do something, who will?” Mason asked.

That was the crux of the problem. Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in the rural south and agencies like ICHBA were nonexistent in Robertson County nine years ago. Of the nonprofits operating outside our county, many had waiting lists or restrictions on health and breed. The bottom line was if we picked them up, they were our responsibility.

We drove to the Farnival in an uncomfortable silence. Mason brooded, pulled the brim of his Nashville Predators hat over his hazel eyes. Thirty minutes after we got home, he marched inside my office.

“I’m going back to look for them,” he said.

I felt the word no rise in the back of my throat. Push the issue, Melissa. Explain the complications and cost of taking in two sick dogs. Say no. Even with all these perfectly legitimate concerns, the word never left my mouth. I couldn’t shake the image of that pathetic black puppy slumped against her brother. If we did nothing, it would be too late.

Mason returned a few hours later cradling the copper pup, who we later named Floyd. Floyd was six-months-old and emaciated, fifteen pounds stretched over a skeleton that should have held twenty-five. We found Sara two days later. Mace said that when he reached for her, she feebly tried to bite him. That image haunts me still, a tiny mound of bones and mangy fur making one last attempt to survive.

Sara suffered from starvation and mange like her brother. But she also had a broken tail and pelvis, and a black vulture or coyote had attacked her. She wore numerous gashes on her paws and stomach that oozed pus. They tellingly resembled claw and bite marks.

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

Needless to say, Sara had a tougher time recovering than Floyd. He regained his energy after twenty-four hours, but for five days Sara’s survival was questionable. We poured all our energy into nursing Sara back to health. Every achievement, from urinating outside her crate to walking across the yard, felt like a victory. Her integration with our pack was the Super Bowl. When Floyd and Sara regained their health, we talked about finding them homes. A few people were even interested, but we always found a reason for saying no.