Sunday, March 11, 2012

Above all, do no harm

I saw the young 20-something woman with the small dog while on my evening walk yesterday and didn't notice at first that the dog, perhaps a Jack Russell Terrier, was unleashed and uncollared. I was startled when the young woman approached me and said "Sir, is this dog yours?"

"Why no," I replied. "I thought it was yours."

I live in a great area for walking and follow a path, two or three times a day, that takes me down a street lined with shade trees and nice homes, into Germantown, one of Shelby County's nicest suburbs. I can walk there any time of the day or night without fear of any unpleasant incident. I had seen unleashed dogs in other neighborhoods before, never in this one.

The little dog seemed clean, healthy, and well cared for, very friendly, and apparently at home in this neighborhood; he probably thought he was just out on an interesting jaunt, to explore. The young woman and I chatted for a moment about the risk to dogs running about loose; that street, Poplar Pike, though not a commercial thoroughfare, is heavily traveled, and one sometimes sees raccoons that have been struck and killed by cars.

After a few moments, we shrugged at each other regretfully and continued on our opposite paths, with the dog following her.

But it was only a few moments after that when I heard the trot of its little paws and realized it was now following me. I had become the center of its little orbit.

Now what? I could have just walked on, but I didn't like the idea of this rather heedless little thing being struck and killed by a car. I had had a couple of unfortunate incidents over the years as a driver: 30 years ago, on a rainy night in heavy traffic on Yale Road in Raleigh, a dog suddenly ran right under my car as I drove at about 40 miles per hour; there was no possibility of stopping. And three years ago, at dusk, on Sam Cooper Boulevard in Binghamton, a fully grown Great Dane inexplicably launched itself from the sidewalk at my Saturn Sedan as I drove past at 40 miles per hour; the impact killed the dog and cracked a component of the car's air-filtering system; the part fell off into the street a couple of days later.

At another time, almost 20 years ago, I had been driving down McLean Boulevard in Midtown, I saw a cat calmly sitting in the middle of the street while cars drove around it. Getting out of my car, I saw that the animal had been injured, and I got it in my car, where it promptly lodged itself under the front passenger seat, and drove to the Memphis Animal Shelter on Tchulahoma, which wasn't open yet; I stood there knocking until someone finally came to the door around 9:00 and came to the car with one of those rods with a leather loop at the end to retrieve the cat.

I hoped for a better outcome for this little creature. I got him to come to me, and he actually let me pick him up and began to lick my face. I walked up Eastern Drive to where some kids were playing in their front yard and asked them to have their parents call the Germantown Pound. The dad came out a short while later and said he couldn't get an answer, but they lent me a leash. Since I'm one of the 15% of the population that still doesn't have a cell phone, I continued my walk down Poplar Pike with the vague hope of finding a Germantown cop. They are usually quite numerous, especially if you're driving faster than about 35 miles per hour in their nice suburb.

At Poplar Pike and West Drive, I found a man tending some shrubs and asked him if he had a cell phone, but he turned out to be one of my fellow abstainers. When I explained to him what I wanted, he told me that in fact, I was only a couple of blocks from the Pound and told me how to get there, so I kept walking. To see the two of us walking along, one would have thought the dog was mine; he eagerly explored his surroundings, within the limits of the leash, but was also very affectionate, as if I owned him and we were old friends.

As I walked, I thought "I'm taking a dog to the Pound." One of my first pets, when I was a boy, had been a dog whom we called Beauty; we bought a Golden Retriever pup for our kids when they were still small. I thought "I could take him home." Although I've never really cared much for small dog breeds, they fall within the size and weight guidelines for pets in the apartments where I've lived for 10 years. I thought "If this were a movie, the storyline would go something like this: solitary old coot finds a stray dog and takes him home, grumbling all the way, but the dog melts his heart and, eventually, saves his life by barking and licking his face to awake him when the apartment building catches fire during the night."

But I'm not really set up for a dog like the description I've read of Jack Russells: that they can be very destructive of their environment unless very well trained and can't be left unattended for long. Besides, I thought, it's possible that the owner of such an apparently healthy dog will miss it and call the Pound on Monday, asking if it has been brought in. I kept walking.

Reaching the Pound, I saw that it was closed but found someone nearby with a cell phone who called the after-hours number. The Germantown Police said they would send an officer to meet me and put the animal inside. I walked back to the Pound and waited.

It was a beautiful evening, with the Sun setting and few sounds except birds and the rustling of the wind. What a strange turn this routine evening walk had taken! The little dog seemed to sense that something was afoot and kept jumping up on my trouser leg, looking up at me as if for reassurance; he began to whimper softly.

The Germantown Police Cruiser drove up; the officer's shoulder patch said that he was a member of the SWAT Team (if they ever need a SWAT team for anything in Germantown, it will be the most exciting day in that community's entire 170-year history), but in any case, he was an extraordinarily polite and sympathetic young man of about 26 who thanked me for what I had done. We entered the building and immediately found ourselves in a gamy-smelling dark space, surrounded by the deafening roar of a couple of dozen caged dogs barking, besides the building's alarm, which we had triggered by entering. The officer pointed to an empty cage and asked me to put the dog there while he turned off the alarm.

I took the dog to the cage and led him inside, where I took off his leash. I could tell he was reluctant and really didn't want to go in there, but he trusted me and thought we were friends. I stepped outside the cage and closed it.

The officer, whose heart was really in the right place, immediately stepped up and slid a water bowl through an opening into the cage. He took my information and then said I could leave while he found some treats for the dog. I took a brief look around the place and saw a large, handsome German Shepherd; the sign on the door of his cage said he was 4 years old.

Ahimsa, the principle of doing no harm to any sentient being, is an important tenet of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. I have read that some Buddhist monks will go so far as to sew little fringes with small bells into the hems of their robes; among other uses, these devices are supposed to brush insects out of the way so that the monk doesn't kill one by accident.

I knew that after the officer left, the little dog I had brought there would see the door closed and be left alone in that dark space, surrounded by the roar of his fellow inmates and their outraged protests in the night. A dog doesn't understand why. Everything just is, and the present, for this little fellow, would be the experience of being alone in the dark with strange dogs barking around him for at least the next 36 hours, until his careless owner called. If you or I were so confined and had no more understanding of how, when, or why this might end, we would consider it a kind of Hell.

What if the officer had never shown up? Or what if I had located a policeman who had told me there was nothing he could do? In the middle of a very hot August night, 20 years ago, while on a late walk, I actually did go out into McLean Boulevard and flag down a squad car because I had become aware that a dog had been locked inside a trailer and thought it might die from heat exposure or dehydration; when I explained this, the officer called his superior but couldn't enlist the superior's help and said there was nothing he could do. (I realized afterward that I should have simply said I suspected the trailer contained a shipment of cocaine, and a whole group of officers would have been out there in short order with fire axes to break it open!)

If the officer had not responded last night, I would have taken the dog home. I have a sister-in-law who is fond of Jack Russells, and I would have called and asked her if she wanted another one. Had she said no, I would have started calling various friends. I know an elderly man with two granddaughters, 10 and 14, and perhaps they might like such a pet. In the meantime, I would have watched the dog like a hawk, wondering what he might spoil while my back was turned or I was in the shower. Years ago, when I was 16, our family's Basset Hound made a feast of one of my library books, which I had left open on my bed. Then, he had regurgitated the contents on my bedroom rug.

All in all, I'm afraid I was caught short by this moment. I accepted the officer's thanks and walked back down Poplar Pike to Eastern Drive, where I returned the borrowed leash to the kids whose dad had lent it to me. Then, I walked the couple of miles back to my apartment, poured myself a drink, and thought of what I might have named the dog if I had kept him.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

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