Saturday, October 15, 2011

Seeing Dogs As Individuals

Nothing exemplifies the individuality of canines better than Sarge, whose life I urge you to share with anyone trying to pigeonhole dogs (or any other creature, for that matter) by age or breed or circumstances.

The large, red pit-bull mix spent his first 14 years in a Philadelphia rowhouse where he was repeatedly abused by a despicable person. Then the PSPCA stepped in. For the next six months, the 30+ dogs who called the rowhouse “home” were sequestered in a kennel as evidence until the trial of the despicable person ended.

A young couple—she a geriatric social worker, he a lawyer-to-be—considered taking Sarge as a foster. Their friends spooked them with dire predictions:
“He’s dangerous—he’ll bite someone!”
“He’ll need too much rehabilitation.”

“People will cross the street whenever they see you with him.”

“You’ll lose all your friends.”

However, the young couple weren’t swayed. They believed they would simply be giving a few months’ time in a loving home to an ancient, crippled dog. They adopted the dog, and the dog proved everybody wrong.

Sarge’s lifeline extended well past a few months and he had no intention of spending it inside a house. He bonded immediately with his new people and their dogs (becoming especially enamored of their Elderpug, Mary Todd Lincoln), and he easily bonded with anyone who approached him, regardless of size or age or ethnicity. Medical care, not rehabilitation, was Sarge’s only critical need. Beyond that, the couple realized that everything was possibility for him.

Sarge soon committed to roles he played with aplomb and delight: canine ambassador and healer. He became a card-carrying member of Pals for Life and toured nursing homes, libraries, rehab centers, schools, hospitals, and special events—showering love and attention on those in need or helping his humans instill awareness and compassion in audiences. Sarge “listened” (he was deaf but engaged) attentively to children as they practiced reading aloud to him, and he became a poster boy for pit-bull mixes, senior dogs, adoptable dogs, abused dogs, and banned breeds. As his blog name indicates, Sarge was an Elderbull, pressing for respect for the entire Elderbull Nation (watch the movie). Here’s one of his eloquent posts on the subject:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

—Alfred Tennyson, “Ulysses” (1842)

I am old.

Time has taken away my strength. Gray fur covers muscles that used to bulge. Stubby nubs rest in gums that once housed white teeth. A silver muzzle casts a shadow on my broad jawline. [Callused] skin covers old scars. Arthritic elbows offset my barrel-chested stance.

But do not pity me.

I am no longer defined by my physical self, so eyes that were once fearful now look at me with compassion.

I can no longer breed, so minds that were once greedy now look at me with indifference.

I can no longer fight, so hands that were once malevolent no longer seek to exploit me.

Do not pity me.

For I, as an Elderbull, have a unique role to play.

Though time has made me fragile and weak, time has also given me a gift to reach hearts and minds that were once frozen by fear or ill-will.

Until we see the day where no dog is judged [by] his or her physical appearance, let us not underestimate the capacity for Elderbulls to tread where younger dogs cannot yet go.

Let us view our age not as a weakness, but as an opportunity.

Let us not underestimate the power of the Elderbull.

For even though we may need to be carried, we will plow the way for all dogs to be treated fairly.

Save a life. Open a heart. Change a culture. Adopt an Elderbull.

I started following Sarge’s blog earlier this year and had planned several posts about him. Then I discovered—through another blogger—that he died recently, just two months shy of his 17th birthday.

There isn’t much posted online about his passing, perhaps because Sarge’s young couple are carrying on his important work. They’re continuing his blog, his Facebook wall, and his foundation, keeping his spirit ever present. They’ve moved Sarge from Elderbull status to something greater and more lasting: The Eternabull.

[Pics from top to bottom: Sarge with his sweetie, Mary Todd Lincoln; Sarge’s business card; Sarge “listening” to a child read aloud; and the poster for Sarge’s Sweet 16 party. If you visit Sarge’s blog, don’t miss his experience in a beauty pageant.]

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