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The Quiet Victims of Nashville’s Tornadoes

A strange screaming came from the woods thirty-six hours after tornadoes leveled parts of East Nashville. The tornadoes touched down twenty-plus miles from our house, and local creeks had flooded but nothing more serious. The cries weren’t human, yet we never heard anything like them before.

Mason walked behind our house to investigate and saw our neighbor’s two dogs attacking a deer.  Mason immediately knew the deer was hurt, so hurt he couldn’t or wouldn’t move. His leg looked broken. The animal didn’t have spots but he was too small to be an adult. Mason shooed away the dogs, and they instantly obeyed. The dogs are giant beasts but mostly well behaved and harmless. That hurt deer must have triggered something wild in them, because they had ganged up on him.

The deer stopped screaming as soon as the dogs disappeared. If two domesticated mutts were beating up that defenseless animal, what would happen when the coyotes got to him? And a lot of coyotes live around us. We hear their Wildling-like calls almost daily.

We tried calling Walden’s Puddle, a badass wildlife rehabilitation center outside of Nashville. They had helped us in the past with a fawn and a baby falcon. I got a busy signal. I tried calling every fifteen minutes for the next three hours, but those tornadoes displaced uncountable animals, both domestic and wild. They must have been overwhelmed, and no one ever answered.

As the sun hovered over the tree line, we reluctantly agreed to call the local wildlife commission. We couldn’t let that little guy suffer any more than he had. And a pack of coyotes tearing him apart would be akin to medieval torture.

The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission sent their game warden.The warden said even if a natural disaster hadn’t overwhelmed Walden’s Puddle, they wouldn’t be able to save the deer. He said a car must have hit him. I don’t know if he was trying to make us feel better, but it didn’t work. I heard the gunshots from my office.  The warden shot him twice, once in the head and once in the chest, and both times I flinched.

In many ways, I feel strange even writing about that deer in reference to the tornadoes because so many people lost so much. Twenty-five people even lost their lives. But, I wouldn’t be an animal activist unless I pointed out how many local nonprofit organizations need help right now, organizations just like Walden’s Puddle. 

Late that night, the moonlight glowed white on the grass. We had so much rain this month that it’s been a long time since I saw moonlight. A coyote suddenly started howling. He was so close it sounded like he stood outside the fence. A few seconds later his pack answered. Their baying rose and fell in that frenzied otherworldly yipping. They had found the dead little deer.


Coming Home: Sara’s Hugs

Do you know what makes up for every hour I’m away from my pack? It’s coming home to one of Sara’s hugs. I start thinking about that hug on Sunday night as soon as I leave the racetrack in whatever city I’ve been staying in for the past four nights. Last weekend, I worked in Pomona, CA. Next weekend I’m going to Phoenix, AZ and the cycle continues twenty-four times each year. Sunday nights are the end of my workweek, and each one feels like a mini-Christmas Eve. I even have trouble sleeping the night before I fly home because I’m so excited about seeing my freaks.

Sara has always been the quiet one, so quiet it’s easy to forget she’s in the same room. She stays close to the pack, but always at the periphery. Sara doesn’t cuddle like Ade or Floyd. She doesn’t seek afternoon or evening rubdowns like Meadow. Sometimes, Sara has a mean streak and bares her teeth if anyone invades her personal space. But, she has her reasons. Her first six months on this earth were brutal. Just like humans who survive traumatic incidents, she suffers from PTSD. And just like with people, it’s not a condition that simply goes away. It heals and fades, but it can’t be erased because it makes such deep marks.

My Monday morning flight home is always excruciating. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short hop or a cross-country slog because every minute ticks past like an hour. During those flights, I listen to podcasts or audio books, play solitaire, force my mind on anything except for my dogs because thinking about them only makes time move slower. But, once the plane descends, once we break through the clouds and Nashville spreads out below me in all its musical glory, I start getting butterflies.

I drive home 80 mph, weaving in and out of traffic with the focus of a racecar driver. As soon as I pull into our gravel driveway, I look for the dogs’ outlines through the picture window. They’ve been watching, waiting. The evidence of their lengthy stakeout is obvious, an abundance of nose art smudged across the window’s lower half. I open the car door and hear their barks, not the warning kind but the excited kind. I walk across the deck, swing open the kitchen door, and stand back.

Floyd, Meadow, and Adriana leap at me, and for a full minute I let them mob me. Adriana licks my shoes, clothes, hands, anything her tongue can reach. Floyd pushes against my shin, wagging his tail so hard his whole body moves like he’s doing a samba. Meadow performs what I can only describe as canine cartwheels back and forth across the deck. Sara is the only dog who doesn’t attack me.

Sara stands at the edge of the madness, tail shyly wagging, eyes glistening and trained on me. She’s waiting for her brother and sisters to get their fill. When the excitement starts to fade, I kneel next to her. She stands on her hind legs, stretches her front paws over my shoulders, and nuzzles my chin with her own. She’s almost eleven and starting to gray around her muzzle, but that’s the only physical sign that she’s entering her senior years. She still walks four miles with us every morning.

I push my face into her soft black fur and breath in her scent. I inhale that earthy, musty dog smell until it encloses me. That smell means home. Sara whimpers, a soft, happy whimper. I could whisper how much I love her, but she already knows. And I know that when I’m wrapped in Sara’s hug, she never wants to let go.


Coming soon: Part 3 of our Costa Rican Adventures aka Mangrove Day


Walking with Lucy


Since everything in my world revolves around canines, I immediately thought about a dog named Lucy when a friend told me about a viral twitter feed. Danielle Muscato asked women, “What would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?” Some women said they would go dancing, to the grocery store, and the park. But many others answered exactly like I did. We would walk.

Full disclosure: I’m a walker. I started walking two decades ago at Penn State and haven’t stopped since. In the beginning it was transportation, but now it’s ritual. I walk six miles a day at home, and when I visit other cities for work, I often walk there.

Walking alone seems like such a simple ask, but for women that activity comes with a whole load of complications that all boil down to one factor. We are the weaker sex. We learn about our inferior strength young. Many learn because of an incident, a reckoning. For me, it happened in the sixth grade. A disturbed boy with messy black hair and laser-beam blue eyes pinned me against the wall and pressed his hard-on against my thigh. I’ve always been thin and athletic and managed to wrestle away, but that second of panic, that second of understanding my physical limitations lingers into adulthood.

We also learn about our vulnerability from other women, a shared lore passed on from one to another. Throughout my life, cousins, friends, mother, mother-in-law, professors, and colleagues have all warned about the dangers of walking alone. Don’t wear headphones. Keep a wide berth of personal space. Never lean into a car to give directions. Don’t make eye contact with strangers, but don’t look down either. Stay away from large groups of men on empty streets. Always carry your phone. And never, ever walk alone in the dark.

Women’s personal reckonings combined with this shared lore creates an internal alarm we all carry. Whether consciously or not, a vigilance exists in every woman. It’s what makes us street-smart, but it also comes with a whole load of restrictions. For years I carried that alarm around like dead weight because it limited where and when I went places, until I met Lucy.

Lucy was a purebred, shorthaired German Shepherd. Someone found her running down Charlotte Pike and surrendered her to a shelter. We adopted her with a small rip in her left ear, but otherwise she was beautiful, colored a warm brown with black markings that aligned like mirror images on each side. She had a stubborn streak and hyper personality, and at home, she acted like a wild child. Lucy was the dog who taught me how much I didn’t know about raising a canine. But she loved to walk as much as I did.

I discovered Lucy’s gift the first time I walked her without my husband. In the early years of my marriage, we rented an apartment in Nashville, right off West End Avenue. It was after ten. I wanted to go to Centennial Park and see the Parthenon, a full-scale reproduction of the Athenian original. For the month of July, the city splashed floodlights on the replica. The lights changed from red to white to blue in waves. But I was alone, and that was the only reason I paused. Was it safe to go to a city park alone and after dark? The more I considered the reason I shouldn’t go, the more annoyed I felt. Then, I became defiant. I leashed Lucy and headed out the front door.

Vanderbilt University was a few blocks from our apartment, and we cut across campus. At one point, three college guys moved towards us. They were loud. Drunk loud. My internal alarm started ringing and my body stiffened. In a span of ten seconds, I rationalized the best case scenario was a snide comment. In the worst, they approached me. I never once entertained the idea they would simply leave me alone.

Lucy sensed my unease because a heightened awareness vibrated from her every step. She stood perpendicular to my thigh, matching my pace stride for stride. She looked intimidating, like she belonged on a poster for police dogs or a WWII flick. One of the guys caught sight of her, signaled to his buddies. They looked up, paused, digested the woman and her dog approaching. In unison, they moved off the path and circled wide to pass. They never said a word.

Lucy and I kept moving, but I felt as though I’d won some sort of battle. I felt like I could fly. Like I was soaring. I didn’t realize how caged I had been until that exact moment. The moment when I understood what it meant to be the toughest motherfucker in the room.

Lucy and I hiked for five miles that night. We strode down West End Avenue and up Elliston Street, circled Centennial multiple times. Lucy kept her snout high, rarely sniffing the ground. Her pointy ears rotated like satellites towards a couple talking on a park bench, a bum rustling through a trash can, an old man rolling down the sidewalk in a wheelchair. She saw it all before I did. The incident with the college boys wasn’t a fluke either. Multiple people crossed the street when they saw us coming, an act I had always initiated prior to that night.

Before we went home, Lucy and I sat for a solid ten minutes and watched the lights on the Parthenon morph from red to white to blue. Their reflections stretched and shifted across Lake Watauga, as though there were two versions, one real and one abstract. And I got to see all of it because of Lucy. With her, I could hit snooze on my internal alarm. I could forget a lifetime of warnings and enjoy the simple act of walking.

In the following months, Lucy and I trekked miles through Nashville. Often, I wore headphones and listened to music. Sometimes, I carried a phone, but mostly I forgot it. When we moved to Robertson County, Lucy and I hiked in the woods together. We went at night in the winter with the trees so bare it felt like the whole world watched. And I didn’t care who watched because I had my dog. Lucy never left my side, acted completely oblivious to the simple yet rare gift she gave me. She gave me the freedom to walk alone.

Welcome Back, Lucy

Lucy Break 1Lucy returned to the Farnival on Thursday after two weeks of vacationing in Nashville with her co-foster parent Geoff Reed. She’s like a different dog. When she stayed here last month, she was either a timid or aggressive loner, but being at Geoff’s house did wonders for her self-confidence. In the two days she’s been back, Lucy’s been acting like a normal, playful, well-adjusted canine. Because of her aggressive history, I’ve been closely supervising her play sessions with any other dog, but so far (fingers crossed) no more fights have broken out.

Unfortunately, Lucy’s weight is still an issue. Even after a month of diet and tons of exercise, she’s clocking in at 47 pounds, meaning she’s only lost 3 pounds and needs to drop 7 more. Poor Lucy. I walked her Kardashian-sized rump off this morning. At the end of our hot, sweaty, five-mile hike, I let Lucy get a drink in a small waterfall. She sat down in the cold, streaming water, panting so hard her whole body shook, and gave me that “are you kidding me, lady” look. I told her welcome back.

An Urban Hike through Nashville

Mason and I took four dogs – Meadow, Adriana, and our foster’s Dawn and Tony – for an urban hike through Nashville yesterday morning as part of their socialization training. The six of us started at the dog park on the hilltop in Centennial Park, walked down Broadway, passing the Ryman Auditorium and the already-open honky-tonks. Then we strolled along Second Avenue and the Cumberland River, weaving towards the new Convention Center. On the way back, we trekked 21st Avenue to Vanderbilt University, cut across the quad, and ended up on West End near Centennial Park again. We walked a total of five miles.

Dawn – a dog that was feral three months ago – did fantastic. It was a beautiful morning, the first sunny day of spring, and there were people everywhere. We passed a boatload of other dogs, runners, bikers, bums, buses, cars, golf carts, strollers, musicians, students, tourists, horses, a blaring fire truck, and even an ambulance. Her biggest issue was manhole covers, which she refused to walk over. After she tried to jump onto a busy street to avoid one, I stubbornly made her stand on it so that she realized it wouldn’t hurt her. After that, she walked on a few but never consistently.

The real star was Tony a.k.a T-bone. That little lady’s man broke 100 hearts in two hours. From one end of Nashville to the other we had flocks, and I mean flocks of women – young, old, and in-between – that stopped us and asked to meet Tony. That little four-month-old player has never met a stranger, and he kissed everybody and anybody. Here he is jumping into a complete stranger’s arms on lower Broadway:

T bone greeting