I make the mistake of reading Donna’s email before I start a paper that’s due in two days for my graduate work with Doug Glover at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s early. The sky is still black and my reflection in the glass is the only thing I see when I look out my window. Everyday I set my alarm for 4:00 AM so that I can write for two to three hours before the seven dogs and four cats living at the Farnival rouse. Donna, ICHBA’s administrator, wrote to me about Bentley, and the message makes me both incredibly happy and sad.
Bentley is leaving the Farnival. During the first week of March, Bentley’s trainer, Maddison, plans to adopt him and move to Wasilla, Alaska to be a firefighter. It’s too much to comprehend all at once, and I compartmentalize Donna’s email in a far region of my brain, saving it for when I can give it my full attention. Right now, I need to focus on my impending deadline.
But it’s impossible to forget. I can’t stop thinking about life without Bentley. He’s been here for four months and controlling his fear-aggressive tendencies have taken up so much of our energy that when he leaves, Mace and I will notice. And we’ll care, even if we don’t want to.
Struggling with the weight of Bentleys’ departure, I write a few sentences on loading image patterns, and it almost funnels my attention, but when the sky fades to a navy blue, Meadow and Bentley, our two foster dogs, emerge outside my writing room window, playing in the backyard.
Mead and B have fallen in love.
I have no idea how long they’ve been romping outside on this frigid February morning, but they are locked in the midst of it by the time I see them. If today’s any indication of the last ten, it’s the first of approximately three more playing matches they’ll rack up before bed. The color of their fur is similar, a light blond, but the texture is completely different. Bentley, a lab-pit mix, has short and wiry hair, while Meadow’s coat is soft and long. Also a mixed breed, her blend is about 60% German shepherd and 40% Great Pyrenees. They both weigh around fifty-five pounds, but he’s taller and she’s wider. He’s clumsier and she’s faster.
A few minutes later, when they crystallize under the morning’s full sun, I realize I have completely forgotten about literary fiction. Instead, I’m fully absorbed in their acrobatic dance, a fascinating blend of ballet and rugby. She leaps, spins, and lunges around him as elegantly as a ballerina. He’s undoubtedly the rugby player, agile but unsure how to focus his energy, all legs and muscle. He even looks like an athlete, sporting a cut under his eye from a stand off with a thorn bush the day before.
Once in a while, B and Mead split apart and sprint, clocking Olympic-level speeds across our fenced-in half-acre backyard, eyes glistening with pure joy. What a beautiful way to say I love you. At ten-months-old, Bentley can keep up with two-year-old Meadow, but just barely. He’s met his match.
Their bond strikes me as ironic because they are what we call our “special needs” dogs, meaning they require homes with specific arrangements, which limits how easy they are to adopt out. I’ve learned the hard way that these “arrangements” are necessary for their survival. A well-behaved dog has a better chance of living than a special needs dog.
Meadow has only been here for eleven days, but Bentley fell for her the moment he sniffed her butt. Bentley’s been abandoned three times, and Meadow’s been disowned twice that I know about, but this last time wasn’t the family’s fault. After three and a half months, her second forever family cried uncle because they couldn’t control her separation anxiety. Thankfully, they called us instead of dumping her at a shelter.
ICHBA gives the folks that adopt these homeless animals the moniker forever families, but it doesn’t always work out that way. When it doesn’t the emotional strain is tough for all humans and animals involved. Even when, like in Meadow’s case, the separation is more about the well being of both. But Meadow doesn’t know that. For her, the next time she leaves the Farnival, she’ll be on her third round of abandonment and loss, which means that much more emotional baggage stuffed inside her already packed case. Out of emotional necessity, I have to contemplate the alternative. If Meadow had been returned to a shelter in Robertson County, she’d already be dead.
When I write happier essays, I joke about talking with my dogs, and it’s funny and silly (at least for me 🙂 ). But in all seriousness not being able to verbally communicate with animals is the biggest challenge I encounter living in a pack. The worst times are exactly these moments, like when I have to split up Bentley and Meadow or leave them with their new forever families without being able to explain why.
The good news: only six of the 121 dogs rehomed by ICHBA have been returned. Even better news: Bentley’s new mother is a complete badass, tougher than Mason and I put together. When B tried to bite Maddison at a dog park in Goodlettsville, she stuck her hand down his throat. It was an amazing display of fearlessness.
Bentley and Meadow circle the yard as though it’s a running track. They move so fast that when they want to stop, they need a few yards to slow down, like a runway for a plane. The yard is wider than my view out the window, and they disappear out of sight. If I’m not careful Bentley and Meadow’s acrobatic play could occupy my entire day.
Later that afternoon, as I cut up a pound of strawberries for lunch, I hear my foster dogs jump through the doggie door. The doggie door makes a chu-chunk sound when the plastic flap hits the magnet. My back is turned, but I know it’s Mead and B because of the clink of their collars; each one of the seven dogs living here wears a collar with tags, and each set-up has a distinctive jingle.
Glover’s deadline keeps ticking closer, but I haven’t gotten more than a paragraph written. Donna’s email pops back in my mind. She said Bentley’s medical records should be organized and signed by a vet before March. That gives Mead and B three weeks together, if Mead doesn’t leave before.
How strange is it that these two “special needs” dogs fell in love? Do they sense each other’s neediness? Bentley suffers from fear-aggression because his forever family didn’t socialize him. He’s bitten both Mason and me on separate occasions while lunging at strange dogs on the Springfield Greenway. In Meadow’s second-almost-forever home, she shredded the family’s shoes, clothes, furniture, and any dog bed within reach, plus she pooped in every room in the house whenever she was left alone. But here, at the Farnival, together, they act differently.
Meadow spins and drops on the kitchen’s cool tile floor. She’s panting, drooling, and wearing a delighted look, the result of attaining high speeds in the outdoors with someone she adores. Bentley bounds next to her. In the human world, Bentley’s boys would call him pussy- whipped, but in the dog world he can act as clumsily passionate as he wants. He feverishly licks her long Shepherd-like snout. After she gets tired of his kisses, she moves closer to me. Bentley looks dumbfounded, rotating his snout from side-to-side, comparing where she had been to where she moved. He cocks his head, like he can’t believe she left him, then sniffs the floor in a great huffing sound. He settles for licking her drool.
Mud hangs in clumps from Meadow’s long, thick fur, but Bentley doesn’t seem to care. He probably loves her more because she smells like dirt. She’ll need another bath, the third one in just as many days. Unless I lock the doggie door, they have full-time access to our half-acre fenced yard whenever they want to play or use the facilities. It’s been raining for days and the yard is pure slop.
I contemplate locking the door. Do I really want to give her another bath tonight?
Screw it. It’s only dirt. And who knows how much time they have left together. I smile when I hear the double chu-chunk of the doggie door. They’ve gone back out to play.
When it’s late and I’m in bed, I reread Donna’s email because I’ve finally given up on finishing my schoolwork. Bentley is really leaving. He’s going to survive after all. For a few months, we thought he might have to be euthanized and that was a terrible time at the Farnival. Now, he’s going to Alaska. With Maddison. I couldn’t ask for a better home for a dog like Bentley. Maddison will always be his pack leader. As a former military employee taking charge is in her nature, and that’s what B needs.
But it still bugs me that I can’t explain to Mead and B why they can’t stay together at the Farnival. Especially because I’m absolutely certain that they will remember each other (and me and Mace) after they leave. For a little while they might even wonder where we went and when we’re coming back to get them.
This afternoon Meadow played coy, but tonight she’s needy. She gives B a flirty look and drops a Kong on the wood floor while bowing on her front paws with butt wagging in the air, inviting him to play. Exhausted from three rounds of wrestling, running, and an hour-long structured walk in the woods practicing leash etiquette, B doesn’t even try to get off the floor, but he does take a lazy nip at Meadow’s floppy ear. She plops down, throws her head over his flank and smiles with little-girl-pink gums and white teeth, tongue hanging from the side of her maw. Her fur is still slightly wet from her bath and the hair around her ears kinks like an eighties hairdo. She’s a one-of-a-kind beauty and completely aware of it.
I take comfort in the fact that Bentley and Meadow have helped each other with their special needs. Over the past eleven days, as their relationship has grown, I’ve witnessed her separation anxiety ease. And Bentley is too pussy-whipped to be aggressive.
I hope they remember those parts too, the good parts, and I hope next time they leave, each separately, it will really be forever.
Watching their gentle toned-down play I promise myself that tomorrow (no matter what B and Mead are up to) I’ll finish my paper on image patterns in Virginia Woolf’s “The Moth” for Doug Glover. Glover’s nickname at VCFA is “The Slasher.” Word on the street is he’ll make me cry, but in six months I’ll be a better writer. Cross your fingers, folks.