On empathy for humans and animals

Hi friends,

This post is about pets. I know I promised you CRT this week. I even outlined out a nice little post about how I teach race and politics in the classroom and to my kids. I’ll post that two Thursdays from now, because we’re in the midst of a move and had to make a heartbreakingly tough decision in this week, so I wrote about that.  This is post isn’t strictly political, but of course a big part of culture and  politics is the way we create norms and expectations for each other, and how we model decision making and empathy for our kids.

When I was a kid, I was constantly bringing home stray dogs that my parents would figure out a way to…rehome, though we didn’t call it that then. I remember a chihuahua named Cheechee who would only move his bowels in the comfort of the underside of my brother’s crib. That one was gone quickly. I remember two beautiful dogs I found as a teenager – right when I was discovering beat writers. I named them Kero and Ginnie for Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. In college, I briefly had a dog named Hobbes (I was in a philosopher phase) whom I also passed on to my parents when I realized how much I liked traveling. They found him a home too. I assume my parents used word of mouth to find new homes for these dogs, though I never really asked. We also always had family dogs, but these other pups were different – we were waystations for them on their way to a new home.

I haven’t done research on this, but I’d be interested to read a paper about the sociology of pet care in this country over the past 30 years – spay and neuter your pets. No pet shops (remember, dogs used to be in store windows!) No puppy mills. No breeding. Fostering animals. Animal rescues. A real effort to highly institutionalize and systematize the way that animals find homes. And I have so many friends who foster animals and volunteer at humane societies, run rescues – it’s tough work. It’s a losing game, always with more pets than humans.

When Jim and I moved in together in 2011, pre kids, we adopted Lucie first. We found her on craigslist, instantly fell in love with her weird Gozer body, and drove out to Nutly, NJ, where she was being fostered. They’d found her at a high kill shelter in New York City, on death row. They cleaned her up, got her spayed (she’d had multiple litters of puppies and was likely used as a breeding dog). Called her Sweety. When we went to see her, she crawled on Jim’s lap and into his heart. We stopped at Chipotle on the way home, and she howled for him the whole time he was inside getting burritos. We named her Lucie.

A few months later, I found Lucie pacing in front of her crate. I peered inside and saw that she had brought an opossum home, which she was now jealously guarding. It was alive, and hissing from its new home in the crate in my kitchen. Jim got rid of the possum, we decided Lucie needed a more appropriate friend, and we started looking for a second rescue dog. We found people who were surrendering another pup in Brick, NJ. We took Lucie for a visit, the two dogs began chasing each other through the yard, and they became fast friends (and occasional enemies).

When we moved to Boston in December of 2013, and when Cyrus was born that January, Lucie had had enough. She didn’t like apartment life, or the new human, or the bitterly cold Boston winter. We were attacked by a loose dog on a walk a few weeks later – the dog threw herself at Lola’s neck, knocking over Cyrus’s stroller, sending Jim to the hospital for a hand x-ray and Lola for multiple stitches. Poor Lucie had had enough. She moved into retirement with Jim’s parents back in Whiting. She was so happy there, and they were so happy with her. We’d visit, and she and Lola would wobble at each other and do old lady romps around the yard. When Lucie died of cancer in July of 2018, Jim’s parents buried her under the bird bath in their yard. On our next visit Lola went right to the spot and promptly marked it.

In 2016, we took Lola to Nebraska with us. She became crabby in her old age, but always gentle with the kids as our family grew to add first Alma and then Maisie. We called her Nurse Lola for her careful attention when any of the kids would cry. In 2020, she began to whine all the time. We first thought it was anxiety, but found out that it was in fact a brain tumor.

When we found out we had to put Lola down, I called my wonderful friend Rhonda, who has twin boys a bit older than Cyrus. They had recently said goodbye to their old dog Jasper, and I needed to know how she did it. I was dreading the conversation with my kids, having to break the news.

Rhonda advised radical honesty with them, letting them know Lola was sick, and she wasn’t getting better. That our job was to be kind and love her, and the way we were showing her that we loved her was by making this choice for the vet to help her not hurt anymore. We had that conversation with the kids, and they got it. We talked about it over and over again for the next few weeks, and they asked lots of questions about whether the vet could help her get better and why she was so sick. And we cried some sad tears, all of us, and hugged her, and said goodbye. It was sad, but we did it as a family. It was their first real time to think about death, and how sometimes love means making hard choices. We said goodbye to our sweet pup on a bitterly cold morning in February. Jim took her to the vet, and held her, and cried.

As the Nebraska pandemic winter ground on and on, I found myself drifting to Petfinder, where one day I encountered a red and white pup and instantly fell in love. Jim said no, that we weren’t ready, we should wait, but my heart broke for the pup. He made so many great arguments, but I persisted. On a day where the real temperature was -32 (note the negative sign), we loaded the kids into the care and drove to the middle of Kansas to meet this dog.

And I knew then that he wasn’t the right dog for our family. How to explain knowing a decision is wrong and doing it anyway? He was a tornado of energy. Jumping on the kids to get them to play. The couch. Us. I attributed it to no exercise and freezing temperatures and isolation. I thought we’d be able to calm him and love him into a manageable form of exuberance. We said yes.  Five miles in, the dog tried to jump the seat, so I climbed in the trunk and held him. He ate our snow shovel that drive. We got home, named him Mars, and he proceeded to destroy our house. He would wear himself out and curl up into these tight adorable balls. He would sit on our laps. He would run Cyrus down like he was a puppy. He would lick Maisie’s face and she would giggle.  He wasn’t aggressive then. He was just a giant, manic puppy. I wanted to love him. We couldn’t handle him the way he was.

We found a place in Omaha that would do 6 weeks of boarding training for $3000. We watched the weekly videos of him and dared to hope he was better. He came back aggressive – they had made our dog worse. Meaner. He would still have his moments of sweetness and zen, but he would lash out at men. Jim called and begged them to retrain him, but they wouldn’t. We were on our own. I’ve had rescue dogs my whole life, and this was the first one I thought I couldn’t save.

And we tried. He destroyed our furniture. We spend hundreds of dollars on toys. He started eating our house. I was walking him hours upon hours a day. Playing ball. Arranging playdates with other dogs. Maybe he’s bored. Maybe he needs more exercise. He started getting nippy with Jim. I was the only one who could crate him – he’d get anxious, aggressive, throwing himself at Jim. We speculated that something happened at his training center, or in his past life. But we didn’t know what to do.

He’d go whole days without napping. He’d pace, manic. Try to pull our cushions off the couch to eat them after a five mile walk, with a room full of toys behind him. And still, we tried. With three kids. Jim’s dad tried to help, wound up covered in scratches from dominance playing/games/aggression/who knows. The baby could crawl on him and pull on his ears and he’d roll over and wag his tail. But he’d push Alma out of the swing sometimes. If we took off his leash, he’d lose his mind when we tried to releash him, nipping and scratching.

Alma asked if we could dye him black like Lola, so he’d be more like the dog she loved.

Cyrus started shaking his head and saying “we can’t keep a dog like this.” He’d hide behind us when the dog tried to play with him.

Mars was getting worse. Exercise, attention, positive reinforcement and conditioning, cuddles, routines, herbal supplements, trazodone. Conversations with friends about how he’d outgrow the puppy phase and be such a great dog. None of it worked. And he’d have moments of such sweetness, days of perfection, but he would always relapse.

When we finally decided that we needed to rehome him, my husband placed an ad on Nextdoor for a new family for Mars, one without kids. He told a version of our story, leaving out some of the more emotional details. The neighbors flipped, hurling insults and accusations at us for rehoming him. They accused him of abandonment. He got called a killer and a liar. The neighborhood participated in a 3-day flame war before he took down the post.   They threatened to call the cops on us. The neighborhood whipped itself into an hysterical frenzy. Jim didn’t comment once to defend himself, just left it up in the vein hope someone would chime in to defend us or to offer to adopt the dog. A few people sent private messages with names of rescues, but they were all full.

In the meantime, I had taken the kids to Texas and the situation was growing more dire. The dog began attacking Jim whenever he was out of his crate. Chewing through boxes. Four, five walks a day and he’d still shake with the manic energy, chewing and lunging.

I told the kids that we’d need to say goodbye to Mars. And they were…relieved. They knew, even when we were in denial, that this dog was not right for our family.

We called every rescue, Asked all of our friends. No one could take him. So on Tuesday morning, Jim took him to the humane society. We sobbed together on the phone, and we wished him a good life with people who could help him.

The decision – it was the right one for our family. Some of you reading this doubtlessly think we’re awful people for rehoming him. Some of you doubtlessly think we’re awful parents for keeping him as long as we did (though he was never aggressive toward the kids – if he was this would have been a done deal much earlier. He was just an exuberant player with them).

Takeaways?

We spent every cent of our stimulus money on trying to make things ok with this dog. I loved him so much. But as Patty Smyth and Don Henley remind us, sometimes love just ain’t enough.

First, I will be much, much more methodical next time we adopt a dog (which will be a long time from now, trust me). Maybe we’ll foster. We’ll definitely visit the dog multiple times and evaluate for signs of utter calmness and serenity in the chaos of our lives. We’ll go back to our pattern of adopting older dogs, saving the puppy energy for our kids.

One of my teaching mentors used to remind me that our students live complicated lives. When the Nextdoor one-sided flame war was happening, I not only wished that people would stop minding our business, but I also wished that people would try to imagine that we were making this decision out of empathy – both for Mars, our children, and ourselves.

When we talked to our kids about Lola, and when we talked to them about Mars, we talked to them about making hard and right decisions – how sometimes acting out of love is tricky and complicated. I hope Mars has a good life. Keeping him with us wasn’t worth keeping my family in a constant state of unrest.

Please accept my apologies for the very long public airing of grievance this week – I’ll be back in two weeks with a CRT post, I promise.

What we’re reading

What we’re reading right now – I just finished Nadia Hashimi’s beautiful Sparks like Stars– I loved the book, her prose, and her depiction of life in the relationship between the US and Afghanistan. The book needs a warning for a scene with child abuse, but that’s a pretty short lived passage.

I also read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. My book club had picked this book, but I missed that month and I forgot about it. It just reappeared in my Kindle cue and walloped me upside the head. It’s…quite the ride (an inverted Lolita, perhaps?) and made me squirmy and ask lots of questions about transgression in literature. It also made me mad I missed that book club, because I’d have LOVED to be there for the conversation. You’ve been warned.

We’re still trudging (my word, not Cyrus’s) through the Chronicles of Prydain books. I loved them when I was little, but with allowances for the fact that the books are written in the 1960s, it’s difficult to read a book with one female character of note who is constantly reduced to the fact she is female while a mediocre assistant pig keeper gets all the glory. I’m hoping I can persuade him to switch series after the Black Cauldron.