A Cautionary Tail

Capone the 70lb pit bull.

On March 4th the face of a beautiful one-year-old pit bull filled the screen as I opened my Facebook account. His name is Capone. He was surrendered by his human who cited “personal problems” as her reason for relinquishing him to the system. So often our personal problems become theirs. The evolution of animals as family has made its way through parts of society, but we’ve such a long way to go. Still, if an animal’s quality of life will suffer because an individual or family chooses to uphold their side of the bargain we make with our companions, regardless of the adversity they face, is it better to re-home them? Certainly this must be determined on an individual basis. Who knows what agony Capone’s adopter experienced when she knew she could not keep him.

Capone was slated for execution at noon that Wednesday. A snow storm was headed east.

We had three hours to put a hold on him so he would be spared for one more day.

An urgent call for potential adopters.

When all the online paperwork was finished there was one half hour to spare. A half hour more of life, had no one spoken for this dog. But he was safe, for now. We are in Richmond, Virginia and he was in Manhattan. I proceeded blindly, not tempered by reason or practicality, but for the sole purpose of saving his life. With the bosses' blessing and two days off for the trip, I planned to depart at 6am the next day. The dogs, Molly and Mazzy, were in the car with their winter coats packed, sleeping bags spread out, for their trip to meet the big guy in the Big Apple.

The snow began an hour into our journey. It piled on 95, at times slowing traffic to 20 miles per hour. The windshield was constantly coated with dirt and ice and the shoulders of the road were littered with vehicles less fortunate than us. We powered on in our Suzuki Grand Vitara, 4 wheel drive the whole way.

We made it in ten hours.

In New York we made our way to NYC Animal Care and Control and found a parking space directly in front of the doors. This made it seem as if the trip was blessed by some higher power, but our luck was about to run out.

"I had let Capone down."

When they brought Capone down we met him outside. He was one of the most beautiful dogs I’d ever seen, with a golden coat and rippling muscles, head the size of a basketball and a wide goofy smile. My little pibble seemed comfortable with Capone, but my small, 9 year old mix, the dog who’d been a loyal hearing ear dog for two deaf pit mixes, seemed terrified, growling and barking and trying to make herself big next to this giant of a pup. It was an unusual reaction from her and my heart sank. I tried to make light of it and went inside to talk to the staff. The adoption counselor remarked on Molly’s behavior, freeing me to express my fears that this may be a poor match through no fault of Capone’s.

“I don’t want to be ‘one of those people.'” I confided in him. I wouldn’t leave Capone to be put down. After some discussion I learned that Rebound Hounds (www.reboundhounds.org) had stepped up to rescue Capone if he wasn’t adopted. One way or the other the dog’s life would be spared, but I was crestfallen as I piled my dogs back into the car. I was plagued with the knowledge that in spite of my best intentions, I had let Capone down.

Molly sat on my keys and locked me out.

So we left New York City, getting lost for an hour before finding the turnpike. In New Jersey we hit a drift in the right lane and slid toward the guardrail, thankfully not out into traffic. I put the car into 4 wheel low and crawled out of the snow bank and down the exit ramp to get gas and collect myself. After pumping gas I turned to get into the car and found all the doors locked. My old dog Molly was sitting on my key chain. She had locked me out with her hairy little bottom. It was bitterly cold and my fingers instantly began to freeze. I knew it would not stay warm in the car much longer. I knew I’d have to break the window, but not before pleading with Molly to press the “unlock” button, suddenly hoping she had Lassie-like tendencies. Her brown eyes stared quizzically into my own. Smart as she is, she either couldn’t understand my pleading or was still mad at me for assuming she’d be happy with a big brother, and curled into a doggy circle as the warm air inside the car began its slow cool and my panic set in. I had to get into my vehicle one way or another. It would be a cold ride home with no window.

I was close to crying when a trucker came walking across the parking lot toward me. He held an unfurled coat hanger in his hand. It may as well have been a lance and his brown jacket a suit of armor.

“I saw what you were doing. My dog just did the same thing to me!” He said and pointed toward a big rig with a dog seated in the passenger seat.

He jammed the hanger through the rubber seal of the driver side window and tried for a good 15 minutes to get the doors unlocked to no avail. Then two more guys came up. They held the antenna of their pick-up. Bending it slightly, they pushed it through the window. With my trucker friend helping guide them, in just a few tries they pressed the button to unlock the doors. I would not have to shatter my window. They refused my offer to pay them for a new antenna, saying simply, as they screwed it bank into its place on their truck, “We always use it for this.” 3 heroes at a New Jersey gas stop. They are indelibly tied to my memory of Capone. There are still really decent people out there; people who would help a complete stranger on a freezing night.

So then came the philosophizing as we headed back out into the night and I wallowed in

self-pity as I drove, white-knuckle grip on the wheel. The optimist might have a different take on all this. So far we were all alive. Indeed even Capone was at least alive. I would have to take solace in that. There is always something worse that can happen.

I looked through the rear-view mirror at Molly and Mazzy as they slept on their sleeping bags in

the back, the initial shine of a car ride long since tarnished, giving way to the kind of exhaustion an overly long journey can induce. They were cozy and warm. I thought more of Capone and hoped he had a warm blanket and a few hugs as he moved over to Rebound Hounds for the next leg of his journey, a cramp of guilt sticking with me as we pulled out of Maryland and into Virginia. And all these dogs left behind and in our prayers and good intentions make me think now of a line from the Sylvia Plath poem called The Jailer: "My ribs show. What have I eaten? Lies and smiles."

At 2am we arrived home. I ran Molly and Mazzy out into the backyard to potty before bed, cheering them on quietly in spite of my fatigue (sorry Cesar Milan, it’s just how we roll: peepee and poopoo are much like a sporting event at our house). As I waited in the quiet dark for them to run up the stairs I tried to figure out what was learned on this otherwise fruitless journey. I tried to figure out if I was accidentally a bad person. The hopeful rush of well-wishers as I informed them of my plan to race up to New York to adopt Capone, the joy at the prospect of bringing home a big brother for my pups, the anti-climactic departure as I drove away without him; the heavy little empty place in me that was supposed to be filled by Capone; what have I learned?

The words of the Urgent Help Center employee at NYC ACC:

“We see too often situations where people adopted a dog to save them and the dog ended up returned, in a bad situation, MIA or dead, so I would advise you to think through the worst case scenario and what you would do. Let us know if you have any additional questions.”

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