Adopting a Rescue Dog

May 26th, 2011 by Charles Siebert

A rescued dog proves to be the model of loyalty and affection, which makes giving him up again all the more difficult.

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The Responsibility Project

I once had a dog that barked at hay bales. The mere fact that Vic – an abandoned pit bull terrier from Brooklyn, N.Y. – ever encountered hay bales is extraordinary. But when he did, he barked at them. And barked. He’d bark at them from a distance, sitting in the backseat of our car with our two other adopted dogs, Roz and Olive, whenever we drove through the farm fields surrounding our summer cabin in the country. And he’d barked at them up close, straining at the lead to get away when I pulled him one day across the field next to our land just to show him that a hay bale was nothing to be afraid of. Vic – easily the smartest dog I’ve ever known – seemed to know differently, and I’ve never been able to look at hay bales the same way since.

When I first met Vic 10 years ago, I was the one who was straining to get away. Pit bulls are not treated very responsibly in city neighborhoods like mine. The vaunted Yankee Terrier was once considered America’s ideal family dog – a much-decorated war hero; the esteemed canine protagonist of writers from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to James Thurber; the star of The Little Rascals TV show and of every imaginable product endorsement from RCA phonographs (the pit bull’s ever-alert head quizzically tilted toward “His Master’s Voice”) to Buster Brown Shoes to Levis Jeans. Now, however, they’re more apt to be kept as weapons.

The Humane Society estimates that more than 40,000 people are involved in illegal organized dog fighting in the United States. Hundreds of thousands more engage in makeshift, street-style fighting held in city playgrounds, abandoned apartments or back alleys: quick, often lethal skirmishes arranged to settle scores, lay down quick bets, or earn bragging rights and “street cred.” Kids can order pit bulls online, last minute. They then further stoke the firepower of their purchases by feeding them gunpowder or glass shards, or starving them, or sewing bottle caps under their neck skin. After battles, the combatants are often tossed in a dumpster or, like Vic, left to wander the streets.

I first saw him a few blocks from my apartment building, coming straight toward me, Roz, and Olive as we were returning home from our daily afternoon walk in the park. He had the classic broad, pit-bull forehead and muscular jaws, his coat white but for one light tan patch over his right eye. There was a notable gray burnishing around his neck where I assumed a metal collar must have been. This I actually took as a positive sign: pit bull owners also abandon dogs that aren’t mean enough.

I stood on the corner, hoping the traffic signal would change. Vic, however – we named him after that iconic RCA Victor dog – was soon upon us. I pulled Roz and Olive in close to me, and turned to face him. He stopped in his tracks, looked up, then politely sat and waited. When the light changed, he followed me across the street, and the next, and the next, obediently negotiating each intersection and walk signal along the way, like a regular citizen of the world.

I’d heard a story a few years earlier about an abandoned pit bull mother in our neighborhood. She had a litter of pups, just six weeks old, taken from her so they could be trained for fighting. The people who’d adopted that mother pit bull told me that every night before going to sleep she’d line up all her different chew toys in a semicircle around her belly to simulate her stolen babies. Vic, I soon convinced myself, was one of those purloined puppies. When we reached my apartment building, he sat once more, looked up with a quizzical tilt of that broad, noble head, and I was sunk.

I promptly escorted him up to our apartment and into the bathtub, trying to wash off the accrued dirt and grime of a troubled past. Then came the hard part: securing Vic’s future. I listed him with an online adoption service, but posting a picture of a pit bull for adoption is tantamount to writing its death sentence. I then made a series of fruitless calls to friends. Finally, one agreed to take Vic in “on a trial basis.” Six months later, there was Vic at our country cabin, giving hell to the hay bales.

Nothing egregious had happened during his tenure with my friend. Shortly after I dropped Vic off with her, she’d moved into the upstate mansion of her wealthy fiancé; for a time at least, it looked like a canine rags-to-riches story. But Vic soon mucked things up. He’d simply get too excited about meeting people who weren’t being mean to him. He’d run up and literally throw himself against visitors: full, sidelong thrusts of solid muscle that, coming as they were from a pit bull, especially terrified the people and pets in that rarified neighborhood. My friend and her fiancé dropped Vic back at our Brooklyn apartment one late spring afternoon a week before their wedding. It was just a temporary arrangement, they said, until they returned from their honeymoon. But upon settling back into their life, they soon got themselves a lovely, chocolate-brown, purebred retriever that far better suited them and their environs.

I can’t blame Vic for barking at hay bales. They must have seemed to him as alien and unpredictable as human kindness. And for his part, he made me feel profoundly safe. The quintessential Yankee Terrier, he immediately assumed guardianship of our family and our land. One day, he took the full brunt of a porcupine assault intended for a hectoring Roz. The quills were so embedded in Vic’s chest he’d eventually have to be put under by a local country vet to have them removed. On another occasion, he chased off a pod of coyotes closing in on an unwitting Olive. Having already lost one dog to coyotes on that land, Vic’s vigilance became invaluable to me.

As that summer drew on, Vic was beginning to look very much like a part of the family. Then, one morning in September, a phone call came saying that my mother’s lung cancer had spread to her brain and that she didn’t have long. As badly as I wanted to keep Vic, my wife was right to insist that we wouldn’t be able to juggle three dogs back in our Brooklyn apartment while also tending to my mother in her final days.

Once more I was on the phone. I tried everyone I could think of; in the end, the best I could do was place him at a kennel not far from our cabin. The kennel’s owner, Linda Adams, had boarded Vic, Roz and Olive for a couple of days earlier that summer. She’d taken a particular liking to Vic and promised she’d do everything possible to find a good home for him.

I cried on the drive back from the kennel that day. Unruly things, emotions; my mother was back in New York dying of cancer, and I was shedding tears over a pit bull. Vic had always given me a lick on the cheek when I’d left him, even if it was just to go to bed at night. But when I leaned in to tell him goodbye at the kennel that day, he made a point of keeping that big jaw of his clenched, and then he turned his head away, as though to say: “You’re not coming back. You’re like all the rest.”

In the ensuing weeks, most of it spent at my mother’s bedside, I received a couple of hopeful calls from Linda. Twice, a local farm family arrived at her kennel and adopted Vic. Even my mother, who could care less about dogs, rejoiced at the news; she hated sad endings. But in the end, both families returned Vic within a matter of days. He drove them crazy with his hay-bale barking.

“Don’t worry,” my mother told me at one point. “He’s not your responsibility anymore. Things will work out.”

She was right about the last part, anyway. A few weeks before my mother’s death, Linda called to say that a young man from Montreal had seen her newspaper listing about Vic and drove an hour-and-a-half to come get him.

“It’s worked out perfectly,” she said. “He loves dogs, and he lives in the city. No hay bales!”

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals