In the thin and fragile winter sunlight, the large silver blue pit bull stands in the worn dirt outside of a makeshift wooden shed. With his back hunched over and his tail tucked between his legs, he appears as though he were curling himself up against the cold even while standing. He is tied with a cable coated in plastic that wraps around his neck and disappears to some attachment inside the shed. From my porch I can see his ribs, his spine and his hip bones as he huddles, bow shaped, in the wan, duplicitous sun. He turns slowly three times before curling up on what appears to be a piece of worn cardboard, his only cushion against the bare and frozen ground.
It is mid-morning in January and it is 5 degrees outside. It is so cold you expect your breath to freeze into a cloud of frozen spun glass in front of your face. But it is too cold even for that. Cold, dry and brittle, I try not to breath without my mouth covered by a scarf. It is too cold to remain standing on my porch, even dressed well against it, even to feel sympathy for this sad creature. On a day like this, sympathy doesn’t warm you, hope doesn’t warm you, even the flush of anger doesn’t warm you, because it is quite simply too cold. All you can do, all you want to do, is go indoors to escape it.
I go inside and prepare to call Animal Control for the third time.
If you have never called Animal Control or Child Protective Services or the police on your neighbor, then it might be difficult to imagine that this is something you need to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for. I think we all like to believe that in the face of injustice we would act swiftly and decisively. We don’t like to acknowledge that we have a very thick set of social filters that enable us to remain detached from this kind of protective action involving the authorities: we don’t want to get involved, we don’t really know what is going on, maybe we will make matters worse. Better to wait, see if something changes, maybe it will go away on its own. And perhaps deeper down, the fear of being judged ourselves and of possibly having that same judging scrutiny turned on us. And below even that, in our deepest and darkest place, the fear that we won’t be heard, won’t be believed, or will be dismissed. That when we open our mouths to speak, all that emerges is silence.
So something inside has to shift significantly to overcome all of this inertia and resistance. Something within us needs to change to recognize that helplessness comes from the choice not to act and that whatever the result, action is the only way out of the feeling that you are powerless. Your uncertainties and vacillations will not comfort you. Time does not heal all wounds and will not be a palliative remedy to the suffering you see in others. You don’t need power to make something happen, you only need the courage to give voice to your experience in order to share it with another. Like a child learning to give a speech at a school assembly, you need to walk out to the center of that stage, plant your feet, and S-P-E-A-K. Use your voice, use your breath, use your hands to gesticulate. Do not be silent and do not be silenced by ephemeral thoughts in your head and lurking fear in your heart.
The first time I called Animal Control it was 27 degrees outside and I thought that surely it could not be acceptable to leave a dog tied outside when it is below freezing. I left an “anonymous” complaint of concern for the dog’s welfare. The second time I called it was 13 degrees. This time I left my name and address and I made sure it was clear to mention the dog had no food or water and that the owners were rarely home to care for him. When I looked up the complaint, it simply read “unable to make contact” and was closed. The third time I called, I asked them to help me understand how the animal welfare process worked and whether they had left notice for the owners, and let them know that things hadn’t changed. The phone representative checked in with Animal Control dispatch while I was on the phone, said they would continue to try to follow up with owners, and told me to call as often as I felt I needed to. While encouraged by this, I expected that I would need to wait until the dog looked hungrier, colder or sicker than it was now for further action to occur.
Animal Control was out at the house within a couple of hours.
They propped open the door of the shed so the dog could sleep off of the ground, filled a bucket with water, and left a notice on the door of the house regarding their visit. The pit bull remained outside of the shed during their visit, excited for the unexpected company, but retreated into the shed once they had left to escape the frozen and unyielding winter ground.
Within a couple of days, the pit bull was gone.
I don’t know what became of him. I hope something better…that he is not tied up, cold and alone, in another yard somewhere. And while I am relieved not to see him suffering before me each day, I miss him. He was a constant, a reminder. He was a stick that poked and scratched me uncomfortably. He was someone I looked for and thought of and cared about. His lonely existence revealed the desire in me for connection, and reflected the idea that we want not just to be visible but to be seen as our true selves, as of value, as of worthy of love and belonging, regardless of our breed, appearance, or status. He had no voice of his own and his presence questioned me whether I too had no voice? Could I not speak for him? Must I remain silent?
I was not silent, and yet now I feel the silence of his absence. It is still winter, and while the sun may warm me some, even in his absence my gratitude towards the cold blue pit bull who inspired me to speak warms me more.
The vet tech said Otto was “not well cared for” by his previous owners.
Otto was picked up as a stray by Leawood Animal Control in Kansas and taken to the State Line Animal Hospital for boarding and care. He was not neutered and wearing a worn black harness without ID tags or microchip. The hospital holds stray animals for a trial period before spaying or neutering and putting them up for adoption. No one came to claim Otto.
Otto was 17 pounds when he was picked up which put him close to 20% below his target weight. When we went to pick him up at the hospital, where he had been living for a month, he weighed 18 pounds. You could see his ribs, all of his vertebra, and his hip bones. His coat was so thin that he couldn’t be clipped short in a standard grooming cut because his skin would show through. Otto was essentially missing his “wire” coat: the thick, coarse hairs that gives structure and weight to his fur. The vet techs said that Otto found life in the hospital very stressful and they had a hard time getting him to eat. Because of the deplorable condition of this teeth, the vet had estimate Otto to be approximately 8 years old.
It is not unusual for skinny, ragamuffin strays to be picked up without tags or ID. And not even that unusual for them not to be neutered.
But Otto is clearly 100% purebred schnauzer. And even in his poor condition, he is very, very handsome.
Purebred + not neutered + bad condition + old age + stray = breeder’s dog dumped when too old to be of use
Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? It is not uncommon in the mid-West. If you find this difficult to believe, there is more…
The vet techs were correct about Otto being a skittish eater. At first he appeared finicky: he’d approach the bowl slowly, sniff just over the rim and then turn and walk away, usually to go curl up in bed. I would have to coax him back into the kitchen repeatedly and even hand feed him some kibble before he would stay at the bowl and eat. And even then he might only eat a portion of the food before voluntarily walking away from the bowl. And there were other strange signs. Otto never asked for food. Not first thing in the morning nor in the evening. He never begged and he never looked for dropped food on the floor. If you stood in front of him holding his bowl and turned away even slightly, Otto would leave the room and curl up in bed. Any distracting movement or noise in the kitchen and Otto would leave. He wouldn’t come back for a second try on his own. He would just go back to sleep.
Otto had no expectation of being fed. And Otto had no comprehension of food belonging to him. Which meant that Otto had most likely never been fed on a regular schedule and had probably been intimidated while eating.
Otto didn’t know the word “cookie”. And he did not appear to understand being given a cookie, showing reluctance and leaving the cookie on the floor the first time until encouraged to eat it. Otto had never eaten anything that wasn’t kibble. He didn’t recognize apples, carrots or other fruit and vegetable tidbits and would leave them alone unless encouraged to eat them.
Teaching Otto to sit before eating resulted in a anxious bowing, scrabbling, grovelling gesture that would have been tremendously funny if it hadn’t been so grotesquely sad.
While Otto was slow to grasp the practice of consistent eating, he immediately found his place with his bed. A plush bed with a thick curved bolster and a reflective layer to generate heat, it is a possession Otto covets. Next to his bed, his most favorite thing is “hugging”: Otto likes to be picked up with both paws around your neck and his whole body pressed against you. An anomaly in a dog, who typically merely tolerate hugging, Otto craves a hug shortly after breakfast and in the evening. Truth be told, Otto will take any cuddling anytime he can get it.
After a month, Otto gained 3 pounds and his coat grew back in thick and shiny. His bones are now covered with a layer of sleek muscle. He loves running top speed around the yard and monitoring the fences that look out onto the street in front. He is a brave protector. He has a home and a duty and a family. He is safe and loved. And he starts doing the “dinner dance” half an hour before he is fed…right on schedule. He sits up straight and tall to “earn” his dinner and eats the whole bowl without looking up.
It is easy to fall into habitual patterns of questioning thoughts about the past: was that a good decision? should I have taken a different course of action? where would I be in my life if I had gone down a different path? Otto reminds me that I needed to do everything that I did in order to be here with him, to rescue him, and to bring him into a home that would help him overcome his past. A past of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for. Of being neglected and abused. Of being vulnerable to strangers. Of being homeless and without family. None of these alter that Otto is worthy of love and belonging, with his own love to share. And that in return, so are all of us, regardless of our past choices or the directions our lives have taken us.