Six years ago, on July 20th, I received some of the best news of my life: my dog had worms. This may not sound like good news to most people, but when I found out, a long, frustrating day turned into a blessed one. For you see, when I learned of his condition, he wasn’t my dog yet.
Let me back up. A few weeks earlier, K and I had put down our fourteen-year-old, chocolate lab, Baxter. While the pain of the loss was still present, it had begun to subside. The emptiness in the house started to seem fillable. The unused leash, that unfilled food bowl, were becoming items wasting space instead of painful reminders. Plus, our other dog, Roscoe, wasn’t doing so well as an only dog. Getting another dog began to seem plausible. We started sneaking looks at the websites of local shelters.
Of course, it was too early to replace Baxter. As we surfed the websites, we told ourselves that we were only looking to get an idea of what was available. We were just trying to plan ahead. During our fact-finding mission, we learned that two shelters were going to hold a joint adoption event at a large park, a true meet-and-greet where we could interact with the dogs outside of the confined kennel environment. The best part — all adoptions would be half price.
“I’m not ready for a new dog,” K said. She still cried when she grabbed the leash to take Roscoe for a walk and the other leash fell down with it. I was about to start a new job and wouldn’t be working from home anymore. No one would be around to help the new dog adjust. What if he wasn’t housebroken? Who would let him out? What if Roscoe and the new dog didn’t get along? Who would help the new guy integrate into the pack? After discussing the situation in the most rational way and determining that this was not a good time for a new dog, we jumped in the car and headed down to the adoption event. We were only going to see what was available, to get a better idea of what we wanted. I’m sure alcoholics have the same good intention of only ordering water when they walk into a bar during happy hour.
We arrived at the park and looked around. We knew most of the dogs’ names already from the shelters’ websites. We met a few dogs and learned more about them from their handlers. None stood out. Then K found Bruce. He was a shepherd mix, about 70 pounds with a snubby nose. A quiet confidence surrounded him. He broke his stoic stance to greet K’s hand with a quick, wet sniff, then he sat back down and turned his head to give her fingers better access behind his ear. As I knelt down to pet him, he leaned into my leg, but he remained alert to his surroundings. He was a protector. He never barked once — just sat calmly, looking around. He was a canine Fonzie.
We started walking around again. “Remember, we’re only here to look,” I said.
“I know,” K responded while looking back over her shoulder at Bruce. We met a couple more dogs, but like the first few, none stood out. They weren’t Bruce.
I then noticed a yellow lab. A young married couple with a baby about to burst from the woman’s belly played with him. Something about this dog drew me to him — he had a constant, strange expression on his face. I wanted to investigate, but I held back. The married couple were already bonding with him, and going over now felt like butting in on a private conversation. I waited and looked at some other dogs. Finally the married couple moved on to browse through the rest of the bargain bin on leashes. I walked over.
His name was Hunter. He was preoccupied with some infinitely interesting phenomenon that only he could sniff from the air. But as he saw me approach, he dropped his big, floppy ears and wiggled his body. He apparently had heard the phrase, “the tail wagging the dog,” and took it literally. There were other backward things about him. Usually when dogs roll over to get the best loving there is, the belly rub, they lie down then roll over. Hunter reversed the procedure. He would roll over then lie down, contorting himself in a tumultuous thud as he flopped to the ground and waited for the inevitable hand to scratch up and down his undercarriage.
As I rubbed his belly, I noticed other oddities. Close up, I could see why he had such a strange expression on his face. His eyes were off-center. In fact, the entire right side of his face shifted back about an inch. A giant hematoma bulged from inside his right ear. When I pulled my hand away from petting him, a film of greasy dog stink coated my hand. His oily skin showed grimy and black from under the blond fur covering his body (except for a curious bald spot on his chest). The shelter had neutered him recently, and his large, newly emptied ball sack swayed between his hind legs with stitches poking out like over-ripe pubic hairs. He didn’t know his name. I told him to sit and he just stood there with a cock-eyed smile. I pointed to the ground and said, “Down.” He started sniffing the grass looking for the treat I was pointing at. I learned that he was a stray. No one knew how old he was or where he came from.
While I was petting Hunter, K had found her way back to Bruce. She was asking his handler everything about him and becoming more attached. She ran through a series of basic commands, which Bruce executed exactly. He never lost that calm alertness. He surveyed HIS park to ensure the event transpired in a dignified, orderly manner. I joined K and Bruce. As soon as I left, the married couple walked back to Hunter. He wiggled his way into their arms and melted into their embrace.
It was getting on one o’clock, and K and I were both hungry. We went to a nearby Burger King for lunch. As we munched on fries and flame-broiled burgers, we discussed the pros and cons of getting a dog.
“Did you see how cute Bruce is?” K asked.
“I thought we were only here to look,” I said. “Do you want another dog?”
She looked at me with a shy smile.
I pressed. “You want Bruce, don’t you?”
She hesitated and finally said, “I want Bruce.” She blushed as she said it. She explained how she still missed Baxter, but Bruce…
“Did you like any of them?” she asked me. “It seemed you liked Hunter,” she said.
I told her I liked them both, but that married couple had all but loaded Hunter in the back of their car. “I don’t think Hunter will be there when we get back,” I said. “Bruce is a cool dog, and I would be happy to have him. After we’re done eating, we’ll go back and take him home.” We hurried back to the event. So much for just looking.
Bruce was nowhere to be found. We asked a couple of the volunteers, but no one knew where he had gone. One told us that there were too many dogs to have them all here at the same time, so they ferried the dogs between the park and the shelters in shifts. Bruce might be back at the shelter. We asked a few more people. Finally we found one of the head organizers. She confirmed it. Bruce had been adopted twenty minutes ago. K and I looked at each other. She was heartbroken, and I felt the same for her. We lost Bruce in exchange for a Burger King Whopper.
I already knew the answer, but I asked the organizer anyway, “What about Hunter?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I believe he was adopted also. A couple with a pregnant woman took him home to see how it would work out. It looks like he found his forever home.” She could see the disappointment on our faces. “You know, there are more dogs at the shelter that are part of the adoption drive. You might be able…” We were in the car and headed to the shelter before she finished her sentence. We arrived at the event just to look, and we’d be damned if we didn’t go home with a dog.
Once we arrived at the shelter, another volunteer showed us to the kennel area. We wandered around the cages looking for another Bruce. None came close. A few seemed promising, and we arranged some one-on-one meetings. None of them were the right dog for us. The shelter started closing down for the day. Eight hours of ear scratching, belly rubbing and command testing, and we were about to drive home alone without a furry head out the window, ears and jowells flapping in the wind. We walked out of the private meeting room into the now closed shelter. The shelter workers could see the disappointment on our faces.
“Couldn’t find the one, huh?” a lady working at the shelter asked.
We told her no and that we had really liked two that were at the park, but they were adopted while we discussed it over lunch. She asked which ones, and we told her about Bruce and Hunter.
“Wait a second,” she said. She walked around the front counter and punched a few keys into the computer. “Hunter’s not adopted yet.”
“But we thought this couple took him?”
“They did,” she said. “But they’re sending him back.”
“We’ll take him!”
As the lady at the front counter started preparing the paperwork, I headed to the bathroom. I couldn’t believe our luck. Then I started thinking. Why were they bringing him back? I thought of his deformed face, his injury, his skin. Exactly what were we getting ourselves into?
As I was walking down the hallway, another volunteer walked in the back door. Behind her was the scrunched up, off-center face of Hunter. He instantly started wiggling as soon as he saw me. I got the low-down from the volunteer holding his leash. After the married couple took him home, they found worms in his poop. They were afraid the worms could hurt their baby, so they sent Hunter back. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life, I was thankful for stupid, fearful people. (Anyone thinking this is a harsh assessment, trust me, the worms can only be spread through ingestion. If that mother was going to eat dog shit, worms were the least of that baby’s worries.)
We signed the paperwork and cut a check. (Half price!) As soon as the door closed when we walked out with Hunter, a raucous cheer erupted from the shelter. We like to think they were celebrating the end of a long, successful day and not because they had just unloaded one of their problem dogs. We weren’t sure, especially since we had to sign an extra waiver acknowledging that our new dog likely had neurological problems because of his messed up face. They were basically telling us, “he’s your problem now.” But it didn’t matter. Hunter was coming home. With us.
We decided to re-name him, since he didn’t know his name anyway. Despite my air-tight arguments, K would not let me christen him Quasimodo. We finally settled on Zeke. The worms were gone within a couple days. The hematoma faded. The off-center, wrinkly face had nothing to do with a neurological problem; it’s because he’s mixed with another breed (Bassett hound is our best guess). Some allergy meds and regular baths eliminated the greasy skin and keeps his fur soft.
K and I have since split up. We split custody of Zeke, so now I only have him a week or two every month. A year ago we learned he’s slowly dying of a liver tumor. It’s not causing him pain and should be a painless way to go, so we’ve decided not to put him through a major operation. He’s slowed down considerably since the day we brought him home, but for years, his tail would still wag his whole body. He would still flop onto his back out of order. And for the first time, I saw a creature without wings defy gravity by falling UP the stairs (he would trip over his front legs while his back legs continued to propel him upward). He’s actually caught two dastardly squirrels and a chicken, been sprayed by a skunk, and given me endless laughs when he would try to catch a Frisbee with his paws instead of his mouth. And although many of his antics have subsided due to age and disease, every morning I’ve had him, I would wake up with him curled against my leg. And as soon as he saw that I was awake, he would slide up along my body and put his head on my shoulder to say good morning. And I’ve been able to enjoy all the antics, smiles, and snuggles because he had worms.