My stepdaughter, who has been through this twice, deflected me. When she lost a second dog to cancer, her dearest friend's mother brought her a puppy, just like the lost dog, and left her to cope with it. It worked. I wrote a story about that, a few years ago, called "Chains of Love." For her the new chains held. She began immediately, when she heard that Crom had died, to insist that I take this medicine. I resisted, explaining all the reasons that I could not take care of a new dog — my age, my finances, my health, my energy levels. She struck down every argument with a final blow that made me laugh for the first time in days: "Even if you're using a walker and the dog never gets to leave his own yard, you are still a doggie daddy that dogs would line up around the block to have."
True or not, it knocked the last emotional resistance aside. After discussing it with my son, I began to look for a dog.
There is, I will say now, a huge difference between looking for a dog and being given one. Perhaps it was therapeutic, to have my pain directed outward at a problem I could at least make a difference with, rather than inward at a loss I could never recover. The week I spent in shelters, looking at the hopeful faces of the condemned, were like smashing one's hand against a brick wall to drown sorrow.
There are two kinds of shelters. One kind kills the unclaimed, and the other does not. That puts the situation in a moral light dramatically colored. The "no-kill" shelters protect themselves from bankruptcy by two expedients: They charge more for adoptions, and they are very selective in the animals they accept. The shelters that kill may be selective, but ultimately you will reach, as you descent the ladder of hope, one that simply takes all strays and does what it can with them.
The shelters trade amongst themselves. If a no-kill shelter has room for more dogs, they may "go shopping" at the other shelters and adopt dogs they think they can place. This is a good thing. As you descend to the less successful shelters, those with the sick and elderly unwanted dogs, the dangerous ones, the ugly ones, economics dictate that conditions are unpleasant. A shaggy young Rott/Shepherd, nervous and dirty and defensive, surrounded by the stink of unclean kennels and the cries of other equally desperate animals, is more likely to find a home once she has been bathed, calmed, and placed in an environment you would not hesitate to subject your four-year-old child to.
We want so desperately to make the black and white of morality from these facts. To those who judge the killing shelters inhumane, the answer is, What is the alternative, once the dog is there? Hundreds of animals pass through in a month. If the shelter kept them all, where, after a few months, would they put them? No healthy animal would choose to die, I think, but no healthy animal would choose to live the way they live in the shelters, surrounded by fear, anger, and hope disappointed. However touched with love, the shelter is a prison.
And worst of the no-kill shelters (ironically, usually the best known) practice elitist selectivity, stacking the deck with easy placers, moving like gods through the other shelters, deciding who should live and who not, hiding from the grim reality of euthanasia by manipulating their relationship to the homeless. The premier no-kill in my area has a clean lobby and appalling conditions in the kennel area. Their CEO was making $200K+ the last time I looked, and over a period of a week's visits, I watched a dog go from mellow and sweet to constant, frantic barking in the conditions surrounding her.
One local no-kill shelter had roughly two dozen dogs when I visited them on two occasions. Of those, at least four were miracle cases if not hopeless. There was Maggie, the dog I went to see. She was a big adult dog, possibly a mix of Rott and Chocolate Lab, calm and content... as long as you didn't make eye contact at her level. That set her off into raging hysterics. She attacked the chain links to get at me. She could not, the attendant observed with huge understatement, "be around kids." In another cage was a fifteen-year old part collie, beloved of an old friend who died and left her behind. She was a spare, delicate thing, birdlike as I imagined her elderly friend had been. Who would take her home, and why? There was a dog named Bear, obsessed with self-mutilation, two toes almost gone, and feisty, Benjie-like older dog who had been hit by a car and lost a leg. Would they be there forever? Most likely. Is it better to kill them than confine them? Who is to say? Do they have no right to the hope in their eyes? But how many healthy, happy, homeless dogs could be fostered in their place?
I narrowed my choices down to three with a practicality that made me uncomfortable. I was making decisions that would result in some deaths. All the dogs I could not take. I spent some time toying with the ridiculous notion that I could take two dogs. Ridiculous because I could barely afford to feed one, and lived a life that would not allow me to divide my attention between a pair of companions. Of the last three, one was at a no-kill shelter. He was young and outgoing but not pushy; he would find a home, in spite of a deformity of his skull that decided me against him. It was, the shelter's vet insisted, purely cosmetic, the result of abuse. They believed he had been hit in the head with a shovel and left for dead. There was no sign of neurological damage. Barely weeks after watching my beloved Crom die of a brain lesion, I knew this was the wrong worry to bring into my home, however unlikely. His name was Blue, and he found a home later.
The other dog was a different case. He was one among rows of animals at a government shelter — nondescript, not a puppy, not outgoing or demonstrative. His name, slapped on by a bureaucrat for convenience, was "Buddy." It might have been pulled from a hat. I thought at the time that he had the least chance of being adopted, and facillated for an entire day between him and the dog I selected. Did I make the right choice? I consider the question meaningless. I chose, and closed options for the dogs not chosen. If Buddy died a few days later, it was, at least in part, because I chose someone else.
The dog I chose came closest to what I had been looking for — someone who would help me remember Crom but would not replace him, a link to a past I did not want to lose in the diffusion of memory. None of the candidate dogs was black or otherwise visually similar to Crom. "Brody," who became Link as we drove home across town, was a caramel mystery everyone is sure is half Rott, and the rest is anybody's guess: Lab, Chessy, Sharpei, Rhodey. He is the classic red dog: built brickish, post-legged, face no more angular than Legos.
He's a rowdy extrovert, Link. A biter, as the shelter warned me. When they told me about his weak points (mouthy, a bit willful), I laughed out loud. "That's what I like about him," I explained. They worried.
They also told me, and others who know agreed, that he was less likely to find a home than the dog I left behind as second choice, Buddy. Most people, I am told, do not want what I was looking for. Who knows? Either would have been killed within a week, if he did not find a home. But maybe not Buddy. Perhaps he would have been traded up from the ugly meat market where I saw him to the airy, attractive shelter where I found Link. Maybe there he was found by someone who appreciated his gentle melancholy, and taken in by a family who has loved him.
Make no mistake, a new dog is not replacement for the lost. I found the pretense in Robert Parker's recent Spenser novel, that the new "Pearl" was in the process of becoming the dead Pearl, charming but completely antithetic to my own intentions. I looked at Rotts, and I would have taken one if I had found the right one. Had I found a black puppy, Rott-like but without markings, I would have succumbed to sentiment, I'm sure, and the results would have been bad for both of us. The puppy could have done better, and I would have suffered for it. I was not attempting to create the illusion of a soul transferred. Even if it works, it was not what I wanted. It's a terrible burden to lay on a dog.
I was looking for similarity in difference, and "Brody" offered it.
We both have history. It's easy to forget that the dog we choose in our bereavement may be grieving too for the family lost. Even if they "got rid" of him, he may have loved them, and they are gone. Link's history, which I inferred and imagined during our first few months, is a topic for another time.