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Dog Sanctuary

An excerpt from The Mountaintop School For Dogs And Other Second Chances

Photo Credit: Janice Levy

A little one was taken out of a cage: a square-headed pup, maybe six or seven months, passing to the cradle of a volunteer’s arms. Another pup came, another. The silence was even worse when it was coming from babies. My dogs were absolutely still. The only movements, in this space of our own sanctuary, came when Shadow left the from the window to rest his legs, then raised himself back up.

I’d read that pit bulls were the mascots of the American Armed Services in the First World War.  I had looked at posters online. Posters of pit bulls used to be everywhere. I saw pictures of pit bulls wrapped in American flags, pit bulls wearing Navy caps, pit bulls shiny and smiling energetically, proudly, draped in parade-like buntings. Looking at their faces, I had a little glow.  It was the first time in my life I had any idea what people are talking about when they talk about “patriotism.” I wasn’t just looking for something historically uplifting about pit bulls to balance what I’d read about fighting.  I looked at the dogs on those posters and I was jelly.

A volunteer at the head of the line held a blanket in her arms. A guy from inside held a pittie he’d just taken from a cage. Another guy sat down on the edge of the truck, his legs hanging out the door. They had reached the stage in the delivery where they were bringing out the ones who needed special handling. 

The guy who was sitting received the dog into his lap as tenderly as if the dog had just been born. I saw a beautiful white and brown face, almost half of each, from forehead to chin, like the running together of the symbols for yin and yang.  The eyelids were partly down. I saw what could have been fight-marks near both eyes. I saw a limpness in the body overall. I saw a normal pittie stand-up folded ear, and then an ear I thought was somehow, I didn’t know how, folded the wrong way. I tried to think of it as “folded,” even though it was so jagged. I will never forget the beat of my heart that didn’t happen when I realized half of the ear wasn’t there.

You cannot look at the partly missing ear of a pit bull and tell yourself that maybe there was a good explanation, like maybe it was an accident. Or maybe the dog was born that way.   I thought I was so safe, seeing the newcomers at a distance. I thought I was prepared. 

Into the blanket went the yin-yang dog. That volunteer was big: a Rottweiler of a person. The way the dog was carried was the same way a child would be carried by a firefighter out of a hell—into safety, peace, a sanctuary. Maybe the dog knew what “rescued” meant. Maybe she didn’t.

The next volunteer also had a blanket. The next dog was tawny and nervous. I could see the trembling. That was when I stopped watching.           

I was standing by the crate Josie was sitting on top of when I turned my head from the window. I didn’t realize, until I looked at her, I had a hand on her.  I was patting her.  For the first time, she was letting me.

Dora didn’t like that at all. She moaned for my attention. Boomer wanted to get down from the chairs and return to his crate. Shadow came over to me, rubbing himself against my leg.  And Alfie?  He stayed at the window, the only one keeping it up, his tail out, his eyes wide open, his body intact, unscarred. He was so unlike his usual “fuck you” self, it seemed a greyhound who looked like him had replaced him.   

Meanwhile Shadow scored points with Dora and Josie by getting the jar of peanut butter to fall off the crate I’d put it on. Naturally it was a plastic jar. The three of them lunged for it as it rolled on the floor, as if they were pretending they had hands to open the lid. 

But they were working off the stress; it was a good thing.  Boomer changed his mind about a nap and got involved too. Some of the label came off from being drooled on and pawed.  Shadow grabbed it. It felt wonderful to see that bit of paper hanging sideways out his mouth, like a vintage poster of a movie star with a cigarette, like he was James Dean or Marlon Brando. I couldn’t believe I was saying to them, “You guys are so normal. You guys are so lucky.” 

I had them  line up to wait their turns to lick my fingers, starting with Boomer. When I brought the jar to Alfie at the window, he ignored me. I put it near his nose. He didn’t even want to sniff it.  Peanut butter was his favorite thing. 

He was still witnessing.

Excerpted from The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Cooney. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


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