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A Prelude to Sea Turtle Adventures in Costa Rica

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the hardest part of loving my freaks is leaving them. And soon, I’ll be leaving them for ten days. There are two things that make being away worth it. One, I’ll be visiting a magical place, a.k.a. the Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica. I’ve heard rumors that creatures like sloths, macaws, and monkeys live in those emerald green forests, and I’m as excited as a twelve year old to see them. I wasn’t able to sleep last night just thinking about it.

Secondly, I’m going for a good cause. The Osa Penisula is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. A biodiversity hotspot is a place rich in nature but threatened by human development and pollution. Conservation International reports, “Today, species are going extinct at the fastest rate since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.” And sea turtles are quickly become one of these casualties. So, for three days, marine-life advocate Honora Gabriel and I will be volunteering for the Osa Project, a conservation group running a rehabilitation center for sick or injured turtles.

I traveled to Cuba earlier this year to learn about the dog overpopulation problem, and ironically, I’m going to Costa Rica to find out about the withering number of sea turtles. The ocean’s problems have made front-page news on this blog before. Click here for a post about the starfish on the Oregon Coast and here for an interview with a badass lionfish hunter trying to save the Florida Keys.

For me, the ocean means life. If the ocean is dying, then it means that Conservation International is right, and everything else is dying too. Because I love nature so much, and because I’m able, I want to help. I want to witness and write about the Osa Project because if we don’t raise a clatter, then who will?  It’s not like the sea turtles are going to start yelling about the insane amount of plastic littering their home.

I’ll miss my freaks so much that I’ve already devised a way to keep them “with” me. I’m going to drape my beach towel on their dog bed the day before I leave. That way, I’ll smell them every time I dry off. I’m sure I’ll find a few dog hairs too. 🙂

I’m not taking my computer into the jungle, but I will be keeping a diary the old school way. So check back at the end of the month for an update about our sea turtle adventures in Costa Rica.

And as always, thanks so much for reading.

Thankful for My Freaks

When I talk about my dogs with friends or family or even on this blog, I often call them freaks. I mean it with love. We have four dogs in our current pack, and over the years, we’ve lost several others. I’m grateful I met every one of them for a thousand different reasons. But, this Thanksgiving season, I’m going to explain why I call them freaks, and why I’m so thankful for their freakiness.

The dictionary defines the word freak like this, “regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behavior.” That pretty much sums up every dog I’ve ever known. Across the board they are unusual in both their looks and their actions.

Let’s start with their appearance. About twice a week, I cut up an apple, grab a book, and take a long bath in coconut oil. Adriana sits outside the tub, patient and attentive, because she knows I’m going to give her the tiniest slice of every bite. She’s so still when she waits that I can observe all of her adorable differences.

She looks different than me in every way, from her four legs to her tail that swishes back and forth every time I hand her an apple. Blond and white fur covers every inch of her skin. And her nose, that super sniffer, constantly moves with an almost imperceptible twitching. She chews the crunchy apple with her maw wide open, white canines flashing, and manages to make chewing look cute.

During these moments, when I get to focus on how different we are, I also like to think about what makes her unlike any other dog. I think about the fact that Adriana, that all mutts, are masterpieces. They are one-of-a-kind creatures impossible to recreate. They are breeds mixed with breeds until each mutt is singular, until each mutt is a freak.

Their weird behavior is another reason I call them freaks. In so many ways, dogs are just like us. Until that moment when they aren’t, until that moment when they do something so strange, we remember they really are another species. Sure, dogs have friends, but they greet them by sticking their noses up their bums. Dogs enjoy good food, but they also eat poop. And sometimes they roll in it. Like us, they fart, burp, and snore, but they do it in public without an ounce of concern for offending anybody. Sniffing their private parts is also fair game. And they have no problem with cleaning out ears or licking toes, anywhere at anytime.

Besides their atrocious manners, there’s something else freaky about their behavior, something not as obvious but much more remarkable. Dogs have the uncanny ability to read our minds, to sniff out our innermost secrets. They hear what we can’t say to anybody else. Sometimes, they even sense those tough feelings we aren’t able to admit to ourselves. In a Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp writes, “Dogs are fantasies that don’t disappoint.” She says they prance into our lives, sniff out our emotional needs, and then fix them. (If you love dog lit, I highly recommend Knapp’s book.)

Knapp’s words ring true time and time again in my life. For instance, I’ve never had children. For a boatload of reasons, a child wouldn’t work for our family. But, I’m still maternal. I still want to feel needed, nurturing, and devoted to another life. And my freaks have always satisfied all of these instincts.

Years ago, we entered our dog Joe Poop in a Nashville kissing contest. When they announced him as the winner, I reacted as thought he scored the game-winning touchdown for a national championship game. I whooped, karate-kicked the air, and fist-bumped Mason until my hand hurt. In that moment, I was 100%  M-O-M. Joe watched me celebrate with a glimmer in his chocolate-brown eyes, as though he expected nothing less, as though he knew what needed to be done. And he did it. In that moment, I felt such an overwhelming sense of pride I wondered if it was normal to love another creature as much as I loved Joe.

So, during this Thanksgiving week, I want to thank all the weird-looking, strange-acting dogs I’ve ever known for all of their freakiness.

Coming Soon: Sea Turtle Adventures

It stayed brutally hot, like 90-degree and 70-percent humidity hot, until mid-October. Three weeks later we woke to snow on the ground and a thermometer reading 13. I write about animals on this blog because everybody needs a focus. But based on current weather patterns, I’d say we should all be concerned, or at least aware of the environment.

Speaking of the environment and animals, I’m excited to announce that I will be traveling to Puntarenas, Costa Rica with sea turtle advocate Honora Gabriel. In December, we’ll spend a few days on the Osa Peninsula volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group.

After interviewing Nora last year, I became so concerned about the sea turtle’s predicament that I decided I wanted to see what’s going on, and Honora agreed to show me. As a refresher, turtles need our help because six out of the seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

If the Internet allows it, I’ll be doing daily updates on Instagram from the OSA Peninsula starting Dec 7th. If you don’t follow us on Instagram , then why not start now? Just click here.

The Food Thief: A Heist by a Food-Driven Dog

Last spring I caught Floyd in the basement a few times, tongue hanging out, tail wagging. Our basement is unfinished, exposed pipe, concrete floor, and cinderblock walls. It’s not a cozy space, and the dogs rarely hang out in it. So, when I saw him downstairs and so happy about it, I noted it. I remember noting it the second and third time I found him down there too. After a brief investigation, I found nothing suspect and finally guessed Floyd had found some remains our cat had left behind. Floyd has always been extremely food-driven, and he’ll eat anything, so I didn’t put any more thought into it.

We think Floyd is a chow-Lab mix. He’s ten, wears three layers of copper-colored fur, and a spotted tongue. Floyd is the most laid-back dog in our pack. Nothing fazes him, but then again nothing really excites him either. He likes to walk, but he doesn’t love it like Adriana, who races to the door when she hears her leash jingle. He likes car rides, but not as much as Meadow, who acts as if having her head out the window is the equivalent of a ride on Space Mountain. But, there is one thing that gets Floyd riled up and that’s food.

I’ve fostered food-driven dogs before, but Floyd takes it to another universe. We feed the dogs twice a day, morning and late afternoon, and he devours his food so fast there’s no denying his obsession. I timed him once. It takes him 8 seconds to finish ¾ cup of dry dog food, two vitamins, and a dropper of CBD oil. Over the years, we’ve tried everything from training bowls to hiding his food under giant rocks, but nothing slows him down.

And I get it. When we found him, he was living on the street and not doing it very well. He was mangy and emaciated, nothing but rib bones and patchy fur. Ten years later, he still acts like every bowl is his last. Because of his passion for food, we have to monitor his weight, closely. He normally weighs between 45-47 pounds, and it’s important to keep it within that range because he’s had surgery on both rear knees, and arthritis is a continuing problem.

So, imagine our surprise when we took him for his six-month dental checkup and Dr. Dan told us he had gained eight pounds! I hit me right then and there that I hadn’t weighed Floyd the month before. It had been two months since his last weigh-in, and back then, he had been a healthy and lean 47 lbs. I was horrified. Sure, he had looked a little heavier recently, but he still wore his winter coat, and with his three layers of fur, he always looked thicker. But eight pounds?! Mason and I interrogated each other about how many treats we give him daily, then we racked our brains about some other possible food source. But, we couldn’t come up with a single reason for his weight gain. How had it happened?

We found out the reason later that night, when Mason went to the basement to fill up the food bin. For years, we kept the sealed bags stacked on the concrete floor without any problems. We piled them next to a huge Tupperware bin, where we mix up two kinds of food. Mace noticed one bag was extraordinary light, like only half-full light. Guessing I’d already mixed half of it, he checked the top, but it was sealed. He scrutinized the bottom, but it was completely intact. He thought maybe Amazon sent us a defective bag.

Finally, after several more minutes of close examination, he noticed a nickel-sized puncture at the back. The hole blended in with all the dietary information, but it was there and big enough to squeeze out a few pellets at a time.

Mason called me to the basement and showed me the hole.  Around the edges, the puncture had grown a little wider, and the plastic coating had worn away, revealing duller copy. It was the only physical evidence of any heist. That’s when it all came together. Floyd had put on eight pounds in two months because he’d been slowly but consistently stealing pellets from a thirty-pound bag of dog food. He had gotten away with half of it too. That’s why I had found him hanging out in the basement last spring, looking all happy and satisfied.

I don’t know what surprised me the most, his craftiness or his restraint. How did a dog who devours his food bowl in seconds have the restraint to steal pellets so slowly? If he would have ripped the bag open, we would have noticed, but stealing a few pellets at a time never caught our attention. Even after ten years of living with Floyd, he still manages to earn my respect.

Needless to say for the last couple of months, Floyd’s been on a rigid weight-loss routine. Although he’s been happy about the extended walks, he’s been downright grumpy about his diet. So, we are all thrilled to announce that last week at his bi-annual checkup, he weighed a healthy 47 pounds.

 

Farnival Update: Our Nontraditional Family

People often send emails asking about our current pack, so I’ve decided to reintroduce all of them except for Boo, our black cat. I’ll save Boo’s story for another day cause it will take a few pages. For now, let’s just say that at fifteen he still regularly murders innocent wildlife. In other words, he’s perfectly content. So, without further ado, here are the members of our nontraditional family.

Floyd

We found Floyd on a country road with his sister Sara in late October 2009. Our vet guessed they were around six months old. I have no idea what kind of dog Floyd is but I’d bet a chow-Lab mix. He has a spotted tongue, and his copper fur is as thick as carpet. Lately, we’ve been calling him “Old Man Floyd” because he has arthritis in both rear knees, and he’s graying around his eyes. He is, by far, the most laid-back dog in our pack. Nothing fazes him, not other dogs, people, cats, or even squirrels. But he does drop his nonchalant attitude for one thing and one thing only, and that’s food.

Floyd is a certified foodie. He’ll eat anything, even stuff some of our other dogs deny, like strawberries, broccoli, green peppers, raw potatoes, green beans, squash, and spinach. On the greenway, young mothers always love Floyd because he casually saunters to their stroller and gently nudges their baby’s pudgy hands. I don’t have the heart to tell them there’s no special connection. He’s only hoping for a stray cheerio or some mashed banana. Over the years, a lot of people have mistaken Floyd’s chill manner for a certain lack of intelligence. But when it comes to food, he proves time and time again that he’s the smartest gangster in the room.

Sara

Sara is the quiet one, the loner. In the beginning, we thought her aloof nature meant she didn’t really care for people, didn’t really care for us. I used to be surprised and sad when I’d switch on the lights in the bedroom and find her sitting alone in the dark, but now I don’t think twice because I learned that Sara just needs her personal time.

We found her ten years ago living on the roadside with her brother, and neither of them were doing it very well. But Sara had the worst of it. She suffered from starvation, mange, several infected wounds, a broken pelvis and tail. I don’t know what happened to her out there, but a decade later she still has nightmares.

Sara’s fur is so black and full that she earned the nickname Bear. She is an A student, a rule follower, a serious scholar. She always listens to commands, obeys household procedures, and walks perfectly on my right side with a slack leash clearly shaped in a J. Even when she swims, she does it seriously, like an athlete instead of for fun. We saw Sara let loose once at a leash-free beach on St. George Island in Florida, where she splashed in the waves and chased seagulls so far down the coastline that she disappeared into the horizon.

Meadow

We can’t pinpoint Meadow’s age but we guess she’s seven. When her first family received their eviction notice, they loaded up everything they could fit into their pick-up truck and split. Unfortunately, they left behind everything they couldn’t carry, and that included Meadow. It still baffles us how anyone could have abandoned her because she’s an exquisite beast, inside and out. A blend of a Great Pyrenees and a German shepherd, she wears the fur of the former and the snout of the latter.

Her biggest problem is her anxiety. Meadow gets anxious if she’s not with other animals. In the beginning, we couldn’t leave her alone in the house without finding a roll of toilet paper or paper towels shredded into confetti when we returned. But after five years of stability, she’s improved. Now, we occasionally find a  tissue torn into maybe three pieces, but it happens less and less.

Meadow understands us so well that sometimes I think she knows English. She wears a leash because of county laws and our respect to other dog owners, but she doesn’t need one. Once, we were hiking in the woods behind our house, and a deer broke through the forest less than thirty yards away. Meadow’s eyes widened. She brandished her tail and reared back, as though she was about to hurtle herself after the wild animal. I called her name in a curt tone, the one that meant business. Her reaction was immediate. She obeyed, yet her drooped tail and tucked ears clearly signaled her disappointment, which lasted less than two seconds. Moments later she was happily following me in the opposite direction.

 

Adriana La Cerva

Adriana was born under a bramble patch in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Springfield, Tennessee. When she was two weeks old, I pulled her out of that bramble patch, and she’s been a part of our family ever since. Ade is five, the youngest in our pack. Her fur is blond and wiry and sheds faster than I can sweep it. She definitely has  some Labrador in her genes. but I’m pretty sure she has some breed of hunting dog in her too. She’s smallish, only thirty-five pounds, with floppy ears and a nose that never stops working.

Ade doesn’t only like to walk, but she needs it. On average, we walk thirty miles a week. Together, we’ve walked on greenways and parks all over Tennessee. We’ve hiked on the Oregon Coast, through the California Redwoods, and on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We’ve walked along the Mississippi, Cumberland, French Broad, and Ohio Rivers. And we’ve explored every inch of Nashville, including Vanderbilt University, Sylvan Park, Belle Meade, Centennial Park, Music Row, Germantown, Broadway, the Farmer’s Market, Printer’s Alley, and the Bicentennial Mall. But, no matter how many miles we walk and how much she experiences, Ade still acts excessively timid and shy when anyone invades her personal space.

Several times daily she moves past people and other animals without any reaction at all. But, the moment a dog or stranger shows any interest in her, she barks, and it sounds really mean. A dog behaviorist once told me that I took her away from her mother too early. And although I have no problem with her theory, I also know that back then I didn’t have a choice. If I would have left her in that weed patch, she might never have made it to maturity.

Like people, all of my freaks have issues. They have baggage. Yet, this doesn’t make me love them any less. If anything it proves how much dogs feel, know, and understand. It proves the complexity of their personalities.

Have you ever heard the cliché, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure?” There is some truth in any time-tested cliché, and for me, there’s a lot in this one. All of our dogs were either abandoned or born stray, which means they were worthless to the majority of humans who knew them. But, for us, life without them is unthinkable. They aren’t only valued family members, but they are needed family members.

When We Broke the Law to Save a Dog

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.