Mason and I started rescuing dogs almost twenty years ago this winter. Over those two decades, we’ve rescued and rehomed fifty dogs. But even after all those mutts, the day we saved our first dog, a Doberman called Puff, remains in my mind as clearly as this morning for two reasons. For one thing, it revealed my life’s work. And secondly, we broke the law.
I met Puff only a few months after Mason and I had moved in together. We were renting an apartment in Nashville, right off West End Avenue. One drizzly winter day, our buddy Larry Penning* called. Larry had recently moved to Tennessee from Kentucky. He was temporarily living with Brian Rose, a childhood friend, until he found his own place.
Brian Rose was wealthy, really wealthy and had plenty of space. Back then, Brian was a racecar driver and traveled from track to track in a motor coach bigger than our apartment.
“Brian’s dog looks bad,” Larry said. “I think there’s something wrong with her.”
“What can we do?” I asked. At that time, Mason and I had two dogs in our own pack and often watched our friends’ canines. On any afternoon, anywhere from three to nine dogs could be found wrestling in our living room. Even back then, my affinity wasn’t a secret.
“The key is under a gnome on the front porch,” Larry said. “The dog is in the backyard, so could you take a look?”
Brian Rose lived in Smyrna, a suburb twenty minutes south of our apartment, in a mansion that sat in a row of identical-looking mansions. I tipped the gnome, red hat and blue vest, found the key, and unlocked the front door.
On the ride, I had tried conjuring a sick dog, the kind who forced Larry to ask for a favor. He wasn’t a close friend, so his call surprised me, but it also meant that animal must have been in trouble. In retrospect, no imagery could have prepared me for my first encounter with an abused animal. Sure, I watched the same newscasts and horror flicks as everybody else, but seeing cruelty in real-life is so much different. Above all, there’s no separation, no screen, no off button, no chance for disbelief whatsoever.
The temperature teetered at freezing. A heavy mist fell from the slate sky. The moment after I saw Puff, I closed my eyes, tilted my face, and focused on the rain coating my cheeks. I inhaled so intently I smelled the hydrogen atoms in the thick wet air. It was as if I was trying to stretch out each second, as if I was trying to find the off button that didn’t exist, not in Brian’s backyard.
But, I couldn’t look away any longer. The Doberman, maybe six months old, hunkered in the corner of a twelve-foot privacy fence. The fence hid her emaciated body from any neighbor’s view. If she could talk, she could have called for help, but without words and behind that fence, she was invisible.
I knew she was a dog, yet she didn’t look like one. She looked more like a dragon, and I named her Puff, after a character in Puff the Magic Dragon, a childhood picture book. Her coloring was gray, like the mist falling around her. The rain painted her coat in the same metallic sheen as a dragon’s. Her ribs, spine, and hipbones jutted through her skin like dragon-size scales, each bone so vivid they could be counted. Her ears were geometrically opposed, one stood straight up, the other pointed straight out. A substance thicker than urine dripped from her vagina.
Either she wasn’t a fighter or he’d beat the fight out of her because she let us approach without showing an ounce of aggression. As I stood and stared at that pathetic animal, I digested the reality of a starving dog living with a rich man, a man who owned a mansion. The incongruity of it infuriated me.
Mason lifted Puff into his arms, retraced our steps through the house, and out to the car. I locked the front door behind us and replaced the key under the gnome. It was as simple as that. We never discussed taking her or not taking her. We simply reacted. Who would do anything differently?
In retrospect, that’s the moment when my idealism turned into action. I’d been an idealist since childhood and had always lived with a need to help others, but I never knew how to direct my angst. Before Puff, that uncertainty caused a lot of guilt, but after I knew I’d spend the rest of my life giving voice to those who don’t speak our language.
We drove straight to the Murphy Road Animal Hospital. Dr. Lewis said some sort of hard blow had permanently damaged the cartilage in Puff’s ear, and she had a urinary-tract infection. She was obviously suffering from starvation. Dr. Lewis, thirtyish and tall with long blond hair, cried when she fed Puff a handful of food, gave her an antibiotic shot, and wrapped a diaper around her backend. She advised feeding Puff small quantities every couple of hours. A week of medicine would cure her infection. Dr. Lewis didn’t charge us for the visit or the medication.
Our next stop was at the Davidson County Animal Control office. Mason carried Puff into Officer Janet Cooper’s* cubicle and sat her on the tile floor. Puff slid to the ground. With her diaper and cloudy, medicated eyes, she looked even more pitiful than she had in Brian’s backyard. She was all the proof we needed.
“He’s rich. And he did this.” My voice trembled with anger. Brian’s wealth exacerbated his crime a thousand percent, and I still feel the same way. I have compassion for people who love dogs but underestimate the high cost of feeding and vetting them. I understand how the love of an animal overcomes fiscal sense, and how fundamentally unfair it is that having a healthy animal is becoming a middle-class privilege. But Brian was different. He had paid for a purebred Doberman, yet he treated her without an ounce of empathy. He had the resources to give Puff a healthy life, but instead he starved her behind a privacy fence. In my eyes, that equals torture.
Officer Cooper touched Puff’s bent ear and sighed. She had short dark hair, stocky build, wore a green uniform with creases ironed down the legs.
“How did you get into his house again?” she asked.
“His roommate told me the key was under the gnome,” I said.
“The owner didn’t give you permission to enter his house?”
I shook my head.
“In the state of Tennessee, dogs are considered property. Basically, the way the law reads you broke into this man’s house without his permission and stole his property,” Officer Cooper said.
“We did something wrong?” Mason sounded incredulous.
“According to the law, you did,” Officer Cooper said.
“There’s nothing we can do to him?” I couldn’t comprehend it. I’d been convinced Brian would spend a night behind bars, have his mug shot published in the paper, at least get a ticket. A clock signaled the changing hour. Officer Cooper’s gold badge glimmered with authority. It all clicked together. Mason and I were criminals for rescuing Puff, and the man who starved and beat her was the victim.
The officer cleared her throat. “Look, you have stolen property in your possession, but as far as I’m concerned this dog is dead. She got out of the fence and got hit by a car. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
The silence that filled her cubicle was weightless.
“This dog is dead. Do you understand?” she repeated.
I was too shocked to comprehend that Officer Cooper was doing us a favor, so I left her cubicle without a thank you or a goodbye. Now, I understand she helped save Puff’s life.
I changed in two fundamental ways the day we rescued Puff. One, I discovered a direction for all my idealistic angst. Secondly, I learned that our laws don’t protect our animals, and unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. Even twenty years later, the laws in the United States still fail to reflect our growing awareness of their emotional capacity.
Granted, some statutes have changed. There are now anti-cruelty laws in all 50 states, and some states even recognize domestic animals in custody battles. But in most, dogs are still defined as property, right alongside credit cards and furnishings. Until our laws accept dogs as sentient beings, people like Brian Rose can continue to buy and abuse as many as he can afford.
I hated Brian Rose for a long time after I met Puff, but my feelings have slightly softened. I’m still angry about the disparity between his wealth and Puff’s abuse, but I’ve been able to find some pity for him. Brian Rose wasn’t a happy man. No happy person could have done that to an animal. Last I heard Brian had been indicted on fraud charges.
After all Puff went through in that backyard, we expected her to have emotional issues, but she turned into the sweetest creature. It took her a few weeks to physically heal and put on weight. Once she did, we found her a home with a family who named her Sweet Sara Puff I.
Mason and I saw Puff for the last time right before we moved to Robertson County. She was walking down a sidewalk in Sylvan Park with her family. Her ears were still cockeyed, one standing straight up and the other out, but she wasn’t shivering and starving. Instead, she looked healthy, wearing a Doberman’s silhouette and the goofiest grin, tongue unfurled and all. There was no mistaking her for a dragon any longer because Puff was unmistakably a dog.
*Larry Penning and Janet Cooper’s names were changed to protect identities. Dr. Lewis, Murphy Road Animal Hospital, Davidson County Animal Control, and Brian Rose’s names weren’t changed.