I saw his picture before I ever met him, a small brown gremlin standing on the concrete floor beside his cage at the local animal shelter, big fuzzy ears and wide liquid eyes staring back at the camera with an expression both sad and guardedly optimistic. It was a look I’d seen on other shelter animals throughout the years, the ones still young enough to fend off complete despair but wise enough to understand the sorry circumstances that left them orphaned and endangered.
In early May of 2012, my wife, Becky, made almost daily visits to the Craven-Pamlico Animal Shelter in hopes that our 1-year-old black lab, Lucy, would turn up there after going missing from our backyard in New Bern. We had spent weeks looking for her, driving around and around our small neighborhood and miles beyond, stapling posters to light poles, scanning ditch banks and back yards.
So when Becky sent me the photo of the mournful little dog she’d taken a shine to at the shelter, my immediate reaction was one of surprise–the dog looked uncannily like our 5-year-old Husky/lLab mix, Ben, when he was a puppy. Ben was, shall we say, an unusual looking pup, bearing more resemblance to a bear cub than any member of the canine family. We had never seen the like of him since, and never expected to.
So while I was startled by the photo that Becky sent me, it seemed little more than a curiosity at the time, a way to take our minds off the dawning realization that Lucy, in all likelihood, would never be found. We vowed that we would simply be a one dog family, that the bad luck and trouble we’d had with other mutts in the past was surely a sign that ours was meant to be a single canine household.
But still…those eyes, and that face, so remarkably like Ben…
The first, and probably fatal, crack in my resolve appeared the day that Becky dragged me down to the shelter to get a first hand look at the little beast. When he was led out of his cage and into the waiting area I remember being struck by his resemblance to Ben, but also by the obvious differences. Ben, though he’s always been a kind and loving animal, is at heart a cynical canine poet, a cerebral and at times depressed soul who prefers a cool corner and quiet contemplation. But this dog I’d been brought down to see was a different soul entirely. After a few pats on the head and scratches behind the ears, you could feel the tension fall away from his underfed little frame and see the hesitancy disappear from his eyes. This was clearly an animal that wanted to give himself to someone, that wanted to belong to a family, that might even play fetch, an activity Ben would openly scoff at.
When we asked about his background, the animal control officer could only tell us that he was on legal hold, that no one had been able to get in touch with his owners. By law, we couldn’t even find out why the little guy had been taken away and placed in the shelter.
Several weeks later, while I was at work, Becky called. The dog had been taken off legal hold and was available for adoption. Then she asked the question I had been hoping to avoid, one we both knew the answer to.
I held firm. “No, we agreed, no more dogs. Besides, we can’t afford him.”
Unexpectedly, she concurred, though I could sense the disappointment. That was it; it was settled.
And then I broke.
“Look, just go get him,” I told Becky. “We’ll figure it out.”
I imagined my wife doing cartwheels and screaming in joy after she hung up.
If you asked me right now why I made that decision, I couldn’t really begin to explain it. There was no logical sense to it. All I know is, at that moment, I simply could not bring myself to abandon that little soul to whatever fate awaited him at the shelter, the last stop for far too many animals.
And given what me and Becky found out later, maybe we chose him for reasons that went beyond his unique appearance and winning personality. Maybe it came down to the kind of coincidence some people would call fate.
A few weeks after we brought home our 6-month-old pound puppy, who my wife very astutely named Frankie, we happened to mention the adoption to our friend, Dave, who lives several miles from our house. To our surprise, after showing Dave a photo of Frankie, he responded, “I know that dog!”
And then Dave told us a story.
While working outside one Saturday, he noticed his neighbor had left his two pets, a pit bull and a younger, shaggy brown dog, leashed together outside in the sun while he was away from home. Since it was an especially hot day, Dave walked over to check on the dogs and noticed that the pit bull was laying down in an awkward position, not moving. In an attempt to save the other dog, Dave unleashed it and brought it back to his house.
“He came in and drank so much water so fast that he started vomiting,” Dave told us.
And that’s how we discovered the reason Frankie had been taken away from his owners, why he would lap up the water we put down for him like it was the last drink he would ever get, why he clung to me and Becky like a child deathly afraid its parents might leave the room and never come back.
As I write this, there’s a 60-pound beast sleeping at my feet, long silky hair cascading from his ears and sprouting from his legs like…well, the best we can come up with is a Chocolate Lab/Collie mix, but that’s just a guess; he loves rounding up children but he also perches on the back of the couch like a giant cat, so who knows. At this point he looks not at all like Ben but instead resembles the offspring of a well groomed werewolf and a stunted sasquatch. He’s a handsome, big hearted kid who’s brought untold joy, aggravation, and laughter to our home. He’s even learned to respect Ben’s solitary ways, most of the time.
I’m not sure what became of that first photo Becky sent me of Frankie, before he had a name, when he was just a weird looking pup that was somebody else’s problem. But if I could look back at it now, I like to think I’d see the same thing I saw back then: a kind soul, hoping against hope, for someone to take a chance. I like to think I would look at him, and just know.