A couple of years ago, during a visit to Austin, Texas, I took a personality test at a dog shelter. No, I am not a dog. The test was designed to ensure that I was making the most responsible, mature and, hopefully, lasting decision in selecting the shelter dog that I did. Looking back on that experience, however, what strikes me is just how irresponsibly and immaturely one can behave in the course of performing a deeply responsible act.
You’d no doubt instantly forgive the misdeeds I’m about to relate had you too arrived at the creature being kept in kennel cage number 252: a tiny, twice-abandoned bundle of gray-and-white carpet lint with long, pipe-cleaner legs, a slight underbite, and the proverbial black button nose and eyes. Two names, “Olive” and “Cricket,” were listed on the data sheet taped to the bars. Though the sheet listed her as a “border terrier mix,” I’d have guessed the first ever successful mating of a Maltese and a spider monkey. Still, whatever mix of cockeyed progeny, bad behavior, and human malfeasance had led to this animal’s double exile, I instantly lost all reason. I was, in a word, sunk.
Diane, the shelter worker who escorted me through the facility that day, seemed immediately suspicious of my interest. In her mind I was already committing a classic dog-adopter faux pas: going on first impression, mere appearance, ignoring all the shelter’s equally worthy, dime-a-dozen, mid-sized mixes in favor of a classic “cutesy” type. And yet somehow this dog’s strangely calm and mute presence among all her barking and bounding shelter mates only further bewitched me.
Back at Diane’s office computer, we soon got the skinny on Olive/Cricket: a spayed female, approximately two years old, found three days earlier roaming the grounds of a nearby community. The records offered no information on the original owner; the second owner, a guy named Forbes, was listed as having adopted Olive/Cricket seven weeks ago. A message had been left on Forbes’ answering machine, giving him a three-day deadline to reclaim his pet.
“That’s by the end of today,” Diane said, turning to look at the clock. “It’s 4:30 now. We close at 6.”
My hopes began to soar. Then Diane checked further: four other people had dibs on Olive/Cricket before me, and my dreams of surprising my wife back in Brooklyn with what seemed like the perfect compliment to Roz, our other shelter-adopted terrier mix, began to evaporate. I suppose I should have taken the broader view, should have been pleased that this dog had so many eager adopters. Instead, I got desperate. Maybe I could pay the others to just go away. Or maybe I could bribe Diane to sneak me to the top of the list. I even jokingly suggested the latter. Diane laughed nervously and shook her head.
“Sorry,” she said, turning back to the computer to review again the daunting list of would-be adopters ahead of me. Then I saw her eyes widen.
“There is one possibility,” she said. Number two on the list was a rescue group devoted to the adoption of dogs like this one. If I could persuade them that I was the ideal adopter, that would legitimately leapfrog me ahead of them to the slot just behind the first person on the list, someone named Welch, whose 36-hour deadline clock for claiming his prize would—now that Forbes’s deadline had passed—begin ticking the next morning.
The following day and a half of waiting seemed interminable. In the interim, a kind of frenzied, dual-pronged detective mystery ensued: the shelter trying to determine my worthiness as an adopter, while I made repeated visits to Olive/Cricket’s kennel in an attempt to divine what sort of devil might be lurking under that adorable exterior such that two prior owners would discard her.
On my morning personality exam, meanwhile, I may have exaggerated some, readily checking the “Agree Strongly” box for such character traits as sympathetic, emotionally stable, and responsible. As for my method of choosing Olive/Cricket, I didn’t even attempt to prevaricate, instantly checking “Love at first sight.” I also seemed to have convinced the shelter’s rescue group coordinator, in our afternoon interview, of my maturity and poise, although as we exited her office I overheard a young couple at the shelter’s front desk ask after a “cute little dog called Cricket.”
“No!” I called out, running up and nearly knocking the startled pair over. “Forget it. She’s spoken for.”
By closing time that day, with a good 15 visits to kennel 252 under my belt and still no word from Welch, I was losing all control. During one visit to Diane’s office to ask if there’d been any calls, I spied on her computer Welch’s phone number. Back in my motel room I phoned him. I got his machine. I kept phoning, well into the evening. Nothing. Finally, I left a message. “I need to know your intentions regarding Olive/Cricket,” I told him. “I’m prepared to negotiate, even to offer….” And then someone picked up the phone and smashed it down. The next morning, only hours from Welch’s noon deadline, I phoned Diane at the shelter to say that this Welch fellow seemed to have anger issues and should be disqualified. She laughed, sort of.
“Relax,” she said. “Things are looking good.”
Two years now into having Olive—my wife and I opted for the culinary half of her dual identity—it’s hard to imagine what led to her abandonment. While she may have briefly brought out the devil in me, she has none whatsoever in her. For months after bringing her home, she followed me wherever I went, button nose pressed to my legs, even when I’d get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water. Now, in the course of our daily park walks with Roz, it’s heartening to see Olive dare solo, field-long dashes, nearly out of sight, merely because she feels she can.
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.”