Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sophie’s Choice: The Decisions That Transform Our Lives

I’ve been thinking even more lately about our departed one-in-a-million pooch—partly because I’ve started volunteering at a shelter, but mostly because we used to celebrate her birthday in May. May was the month 13 years ago that she pawed her way into our hearts.

Before yet another May goes by—this month that would have been her 15th birthday—I’d like to recount her adoption tale.

Envisioning A No-Kill Nation
It started with one woman’s notion that she could make a difference. Her aim was to turn a city with one of the country’s highest kill rates (the number of adoptable pets “euthanized” before finding a new home) into a no-kill city. She created an organization she named PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) and held her first adoption event in 1998.

It wasn’t the little booth setup near a store or festival we’re accustomed to today. The PAWS event covered the north end of the Magnificent Mile of the Windy City and turned into the block of posh boutiques that ended with Barneys New York. Every window of participating retailers in this shoppers’ mecca held puppies, kittens, cats, and dogs chosen from shelters across the city. (PAWS didn’t yet have a brick-and-mortar presence. Just a woman with a mission.)

Diamonds and Dalmatians? Luxury linens and Leonbergers? Purses and Pixie Bobs? Contrast captivates me and the PAWS event promised to deliver on this count alone. It was a must-see occasion for me.

For my husband, not so much. He acquiesced when we turned the outing into a bike ride and I assured him I had no intention of adding any animals to our recently reduced menagerie. (We were down from three felines to one. Plus our dancing-but-mute bird crossed into the other-world. New shades of quiet had enveloped our home.)

Biking Toward Our Future
When the big weekend came, so did a burst of hot weather. We took our time peddling along the lakefront bicycle path, dodging unaware walkers and parents with strollers. Seven miles later, we locked up our bikes near the Drake Hotel and commenced the tour.

Ralph Lauren sported Golden Retriever pups, natch! Escada boasted a Bluetick Coonhound. In the space Chanel had just abandoned for larger digs were rows of cats and puppies. On the floor next to the doorway was a lone adult dog in a too-small cage. You’d miss seeing her if it wasn’t for the ruckus she made every time a puppy was shepherded past her. She raised and extended a paw to us every time we looked at her.

She caught the eye of many, but inquirers were told she didn’t get along with other dogs. This was a deal-breaker, especially for folks who already had a dog in their households.

When the dog extended her paw, she also tilted her triangular-shaped head at a just-right angle and held our gaze with her liquid-brown doe eyes. She was deep-chested; her coat was white with brindle patches, but her head and floppy ears were pure chocolate.

We hung around long enough to hear her story: Her distrust of other canines likely stemmed from fear. It was believed she’d once been attacked by her own kind—a theory arrived at from both her behavior and the scores of scars on her back legs. Her presence at the PAWS event was a last-ditch effort to get her a home. She hadn’t been borrowed from the luxury accommodations of a shelter; she came from the Animal Care & Control Pound and her death had been scheduled for the next day. (At that time, the Pound hitched a bunch of dogs to a cart and wheeled them into a room to be gassed.)

We left. We had the boutiques yet to see and the event was drawing to a close. Already there were fewer animals to ooh and ahh over—they’d been adopted. Of course, my mind kept returning to that ultra-thin, Greyhoundish creature who was facing a very short future.

My husband and I had dreamed for years about getting a dog. It was part of the fantasy of owning our own home with the fenced-in yard…near the beach and miles away from neighbors. We’d even talked breeds (large) and names (Lola). We’d read about rescuing Greyhounds from the track. We’d also agreed that we couldn’t have a dog until our work schedules were sane and we lived at ground level.

Making Informed Decisions
At last we reached Barneys. We stepped inside to get a closer view of the furballs on display. Only one stood out. When my husband picked her up, the mutual affection was obvious. The woman overseeing the Barneys adoptions was also the foster mom to this particular kitten.

“I can’t believe it!” she said. “Everybody loves that kitten, but you’re the only one she’s shown any interest in.” She went on to say that the kitten was on hold for adoption. “But I’d prefer to see her go to you. She’s already bonded with you two. Will you take her?”

What was happening? We weren’t going to adopt anything one minute, and the next we were going to let a dog die while we took home a kitten instead. I told the woman my husband and I needed to discuss the situation.

We left. What happened next is a matter of interpretation.

We proceeded to the nearest restaurant for a break and a bite to eat. To hear my husband’s version, I intentionally stuffed him with fried foods and a milkshake and sat him in the sun, whose heat cast a druglike spell over him and rendered him incapable of making any decisions or thwarting my evil plans.

I have to confess I felt just as overcome by the fried foods and sun, but I clearly remember the rationale I tried to present: The kitten was going to be adopted. She might not receive the same care and love we would have provided; she might not like her new family as much as she already liked us, but she’d have a home. The dog, on the other hand, was going to die. Tomorrow.

What failed to flicker in my brain? Here’s a short list:
1. Dogs were prohibited in our apartment building.
We knew nothing about dog behavior.
We didn’t know whether our remaining cat would accept a dog.
We were clueless about how dogs affect their guardians’ lifestyle.
5. We had no plan for bringing a canine into our household and no accommodations—bowls, bed, leash.
All I obsessed about was the imminent and gruesome passing of that doe-eyed pooch.

We returned to the former Chanel space. Maybe someone had adopted the dog and our decision would be made for us, I thought.

No such luck. The dog extended her paw to us as soon as we walked into the room.

Testing Our Hearts
We’d read enough about Greyhound rescues to know some of them can’t navigate stairs. If this dog was stair-challenged, how was she going to live in our third-floor apartment? We asked what was known about the dog; we were fed the same information we’d heard earlier.

“Would you like us to take her out of the cage for you?”

“Um, yeah, that would be good.”

Out she came and a leash was snapped onto her. “Walk around the atrium with her, if you’d like.”

The dog dutifully stayed close to us as we walked through the bevy of news correspondents and camera people who were about to interview PAWS’ founder. We headed for an out-of-the-way corner of the atrium and tested the pooch on some stairs. She was fine.

PAWS’ founder walked to our corner after her interview. It had been a long, successful weekend for her and she apologetically collapsed to the floor before talking to us.

An older, affluent woman approached us, remarking on how beautiful “our” dog was. “How long have you had her?” she asked.

“Our” dog was leaning into my husband at that point, placing her claim on him. We explained we were merely considering adopting her. “Well, she acts like she belongs to you. She’s made her decision.” As the woman left, we noticed her tiny canine peering out from her purse, which told us “our” dog didn’t have a problem with all dogs.

The PAWS founder began speaking. “Our” dog had been a special case for her—a real Sophie’s Choice (the rescue community’s phrase for the animals at Death’s door, i.e., the gas chamber). The woman kept talking but I’d stopped listening because just as she mentioned Sophie’s Choice, the background music swelled with the score from Schindler’s List.

Purely coincidental, right? Yet at that moment, the connection felt full of meaning. Made me dizzy (or was it that bloody lunch kicking in?). What forces were shifting in our lives? How many disparate elements had just converged to bring us to this moment?

I had no answer. I just wanted to get away from the crowd and go home with my husband and “our” dog.

Committing to Lifelong Guardianship
So we began the adoption process. Unfortunately, unlike the shelter adoptions being transacted that day, ours was a POUND transaction. If “our” dog had been at a shelter, we could have adopted her on the spot. However, the POUND required us to transport the animal all the way back to POUND HQ—along pothole-filled streets to the South Side—to fill out additional paperwork. We would be chauffeured there by the assistant to the PAWS founder.

That’s when we learned a few of the dog’s numerous idiosyncrasies: She was afraid of anything with wheels on it, especially cars. Cars made her throw up, even before they got on the road. My husband—for all of the dog’s life—had to pick her up and place her inside the vehicle, ears back and tail between her legs. We apologized profusely when she threw up, but the assistant waved it off—said he was used to it, though that new-car smell of his SUV said otherwise.

Once we made it through stop-and-go traffic to the POUND, we had to force the trembling pooch to go inside. Someone recognized her at once.

“Baby! Are you going to a new home?” The woman said “Baby” had been at the POUND for months, which was months longer than most animals spent there. “Everyone loved Baby,” the woman said by way of explanation.

I’m not sure who “everyone” was because no one else acted remotely interested in helping us maneuver through the system and get the heck out of there.

Somehow, we at last completed the paperwork and left with a newly microchipped dog. Our chauffeur drove us back downtown and dropped us off. We walked to a small park to decompress. Figured the quiet of the green space would appeal to the dog as well. It had been a chaotic, confusing afternoon and now we were pressed to answer one critical question: How were we going to get this dog home?

What’s In A Name?
As we puzzled over our predicament, a child ran up to our seated pooch and threw her arms around the dog’s neck. I couldn’t breathe. What if the pooch felt the same way about children as she did about puppies? What if she bit the child? What if…

“What’s her name?” the girl asked.

“We just adopted her. She doesn’t have a name yet. Do you have a suggestion?”

“Yes. Sophie.”

“Sophie? That wouldn’t happen to be your name, would it?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “Sophia Tesa.”

“Then Sophie it is.” Of all the names for a dog my husband and I had entertained, Sophie was never one. But it was perfect, wasn’t it? Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, and now the newly christened Sophia. From that moment on, we referred to the little park as Sophie’s Place.

Our excursion had not unfolded as planned. And so many questions awaited us:
1. Would the cat accept the dog?
[Yes, but the cat insisted on being “top dog.”]

2. Would the dog adjust to the cat?
[Sophie was crazy-in-love with all felines.]

3. Would our landlord negotiate with us about our newest pet?
[NO! “The dog has to GO!” We moved instead.]

4. How much would this adoption change our lives?


Some time after Sophie’s adoption day, my husband happened across an illustration he’d drawn years before and had subsequently forgotten. It was from a play in which his character was supposed to draw a dog, and in every performance, my husband drew a dog that looked just like Sophie.

Coincidence or destiny?


Anonymous said...

that is the best adoption story ever! I acquired my dog off the streets of Desert Hot Springs. He was breaking into the local grocery store, probably needed something to eat and the clerk kept throwing him out into the parking lot, he's a little terrier mutt, where he would run around in circles and then just charge past her back into the store. I finally got hold of him and threw him in my car and took him back to the retreatI was managing at the time On the way back I was thinking about how it would be easy to find a home for a funny energetic cutie pie like him!well 10 years later he's my cutie pie!

C. J. Jackson said...

Ha! And you thought you were just getting groceries that day. Lucky for the dog that you had more sense and compassion than the employees of that grocery store. (Shame on them!) Of course, lucky for you that you've had ten years of unexpected companionship. Thanks for sharing your tale.

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