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The Pecking Order

Miss Annie Daisy

Mason and I took Miss Annie Daisy canoeing on the Red River shortly after we moved to Robertson County, TN. Miss Annie, a six-pound Yorkshire terrier, was my first dog, my soulmate. I took Annie everywhere, and if that meant doing it illegally, then I broke the law. Over the years, I zippered Annie into my backpack and carried her into stores, restaurants, parties, office buildings, libraries, classrooms, movie theaters, and television studios without anyone even knowing. And she never made a peep because Miss Annie felt the same way about me as I did about her. As long as we were together, we were happy.

The Red River derives its name from the color, a reddish-brown mixture with mud as thick as clay. Our research said the slow-moving currents were perfect for a lazy day of floating. We packed sandwiches and a six-pack of beer in a cooler, stuffed towels, books, and clean clothes in a dry bag. We rented canoes from Red River Valley Canoe Rentals in Adams, Tennessee. They said the trip took four to five hours, loaded us in a bus painted like tie-dyed shirts, and dropped us off eight miles upstream. We’d land at the same place we parked.

The afternoon started exactly as planned. We occasionally paddled but mostly just drifted. We saw a herd of deer grazing in a pasture, snapping turtles sunbathing on half-sunken snags, a groundhog standing outside his cave. A red tail hawk swooped above the river’s surface, hunting for a rodent in the greenery lining each bank. We passed farms with cows drinking from the water’s edge, glided under a bridge with an arching trellis. Honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet fragrance.

Miss Annie curled up in a pile of towels I’d arranged on the dry bag. She occasionally stretched or licked my hand. She was perfectly content because Annie loved sunbathing, laid in the sun all year around. When it was too cold outside, she napped in squares of sunshine on the wood floor. But Annie wasn’t a swimmer. I introduced her to water when she was a puppy. We’d been hiking along the Potomac River in Virginia on an August afternoon. At some point, I flipped off my hiking boots and stood ankle-deep in the river. I held Annie where she could feel the water lapping against her undercarriage. She spent thirty seconds in the river before she lurched out. She despised water for the rest of her life.

A few times, I slid over the gunwale and floated for a few hundred yards, but I was the only one. Mason grew up up flipping burgers at the neighborhood pool, and chlorinated water was the extent of his experience. In time he got over his fears, eventually snorkeled off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but back then he wasn’t a confident swimmer. He always worried about what lurked underneath him.

Mason paddled from the stern. He worked outside and sported a farmer’s tan. His chest was pale while his arms were brown, lean, and muscled from running cable up and down a quarter-mile racetrack. His chest never tanned. It didn’t burn either, just stayed winter white. I liked that Mason worked outside, that he came home covered in dirt and sweat. I liked his callused hands and pale chest. Men who work at desks or wear suits never appeal to me.

We snacked on apples and nuts, had a beer, then two more. By the third hour, I could tell Mason had a buzz, but so did I. His hazel eyes, normally so clear, glowed red and glassy. The river forked around a small island. The water merged on the other side, then funneled through a narrow straightaway. The currents in the fork were calm, almost tranquil, but they drastically changed in the straightaway. We weren’t prepared for it. Sun and beer drunk, bordering on drowsy, we hit rough water.

Ripples were the only sign of the river’s strength, but I noticed them much, much too late. The water yanked the canoe and we capsized. The current’s force felt as powerful as an ocean’s riptide. The canoe’s bright red keel scooted past me, but it barely registered. I didn’t consider that we were losing our only mode of transportation. I wasn’t thinking about the clothes, books, cooler, beer cans, and sandwich bags lost somewhere at the bottom of the river. And I wasn’t thinking about Mason either. My only concern was Miss Annie. For a few frantic seconds, raw terror vibrated through every maternal particle in my body.

Mason emerged first, twenty feet downstream. Annie’s tiny head popped up in the opposite direction, right in the heart of the rough water. I can’t think of a better way to define the term split-second decision than that exact moment. I was faced with the choice of helping my husband or helping Annie. Sure, I thought about it, but in retrospect my reasoning was biased. In less than a second, I rationalized Mason was taller, had a chance of touching the river’s bottom. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he could swim. But, even if my logic could have more objective, I can’t deny that my gut reaction disregarded my husband for my dog. It was though I didn’t have a choice. I silently told Mason I loved him and turned towards Annie.

Miss Annie’s black eyes were wide with fear. She wildly kicked her little paws, but she didn’t have enough physical strength for fighting the currents. I positioned myself behind her and created a breakwater. Annie acted as though she’d been swimming her whole life in the calm water between my arms. Once she stood all four paws on dry land, I started searching for Mason. He reached us first. He came slogging through the foliage, barefoot but baseball cap still on his head.

The first thing he asked, “Is Annie all right?”

Annie stood by my feet shivering so hard she seemed as though she might crumble. With her hair soaking wet and hanging flat, she looked like an overgrown rat, but she never looked more beautiful to me. I didn’t know what to expect when I found my husband, maybe anger, at least annoyance, but Mason acted as though it never crossed his mind I’d do anything but help Annie first. The pecking order was always clear.

***

Recently, I was shopping for dog food. I passed several racks displaying collars, training leashes, vitamins for joints, brushes for long or short hair, shampoo for hot spots, and life jackets. I paused, backed up. The dog market has exploded over the past decade. Stores now sell items specifically for canines, such as life jackets, that weren’t popular or available when I first met Annie. The yellow, orange, and red vests ranged in size from extra-small to extra-large. The larger ones looked suspiciously like the human version. I picked up the tiniest one, examined the buckles, read the tag. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier was modeling it. Annie passed away four years ago, but I bought it anyway.

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.

Farnival Update: Never Say Never

Adriana and Meadow

I started this blog as way to raise awareness for the animal overpopulation problem in rural Tennessee. When I stopped fostering, I thought I wouldn’t have anything to write about. I was wrong. Over the past three years, I encountered situations unique to being a dog mom, so unique that I composed blog posts in my head, scrawled notes across that invisible notepad addressed to every dog-loving freak out there. For instance, one day I stared at my mutt’s nose sweat swirled across the Honda’s windows and instantly thought, that’s art. On another occasion, I pulled a tick out of Meadow’s clenched butthole with a pair of tweezers and thought, who could possibly understand?  Needless to say, I really missed y’all.

There is never any one reason for a big life change. In retrospect I can’t pin the end of our fostering days on Loubie alone. A big problem with doing any kind of rescue work is that it doesn’t pay. After fostering 30 dogs in two years, I had 53 bucks in my savings account. I had to return to a full-time paying job. So, besides being a dog mom to four fantastic, hilarious, and complicated rescue mutts, I’m an assistant director on a television crew that travels over 100 days a year with the NHRA Drag Racing Tour. Balancing a career in television sports with my pack presents a whole other set of issues we’ll address in the months to come. Have you ever had problems finding the right dog-sitter? Have you ever missed your dogs so much you walk through pet stores just for the smell?

Also coming up: we’ll check in with our friends at ICHBA, interview a lionfish hunter from the Florida Keys, and visit the Puget Sound Goat Rescue, where I’ll introduce you to Rosebud, a three-legged goat.

FYI: At the Farnival we treat animals with as much respect as humans and make no apologies for it.

Dog Hair is Everywhere

Meadow

I can’t cook for poop, so don’t get your hopes up, but I do occasionally prepare a few dishes. A broccoli, ricotta, and onion quiche is one of them. Yesterday, I spent thirty minutes shredding the Parmesan, chopping the broccoli and onions, whipping the ricotta and eggs. The dish baked for 55 minutes, then cooled for ten. When it was ready, I stabbed a big piece with my fork and analyzed the creamy mixture stuffed with vibrant green broccoli (cooked el dente) and sweet juicy onions. The crust was toasted to perfection. The smell alone made me salivate.

Right before I took the first bite, I saw a piece of dog hair baked into the egg concoction. The single strand was longish and light, meaning it was either Meadow’s or Floyd’s. It was too long to be Adriana’s and too pale to be Sara’s. It could easily have belonged to any of them because all our mutts shed. We saved all four from some roadside or other, in some stage of desperation. A human might think the least they could do is keep their fur to themselves for one bloody season. But, it never stops. It falls like snow not rain, continuously, softly layering every surface through every season. Clean sheets, mopped floors, and vacuumed rugs last seconds, not hours.

Mason and I battle it, still. We installed hardwood and tile floors, exchanged our comfy cloth couch and “big-ass” chair for leather. We sweep five times a week, bathe the dogs monthly, and brush them weekly. But the futility of our efforts stared at me from a quiche I spent almost two hours cooking. I paused for less than a second, less time than it took for another strand of dog hair to land somewhere, then shoved the bite into my mouth. I told myself if I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t have known anyway. Besides, it didn’t change the taste at all.

We’re Back….and still sniffing paws.

(Adriana and Melissa)

Hello there! It’s been almost three years since I’ve posted any updates. At that time, I thought I’d never return to blogging, but I miss all you freaks too much. And I miss writing about dogs! With that said, I have to admit the highlight of the last three years is my budding relationship with a three-legged goat who lives in Seattle, WA. I can’t wait to introduce y’all to Rosebud.

A lot has changed, which I plan on updating you about starting around the end of summer. The one thing that hasn’t changed is my penchant for smelling my dogs’ paws. Have you tried it yet? Like I said before, you’ll never want to live without that scent again.