This recent piece in The New York Times inspired me to put to paper some thoughts that have been bubbling up for a while now.
Some of my dearest and oldest friends have never meet my dog, Derby.
Yet, at least once a week, a person approaches me and asks if their child can play with Derby or to see if they can pet him. Actually, that’s the best case scenario. Most times people just reach for him. Once, I heard a parent tell their child “Go play with the nice doggie.” right before they pushed their toddler in my horror-stricken direction.
You see, Derby is not a nice a dog. He’s never been. So my responses to this scenario has evolved from, “No. He’s scared of people.” to “He really doesn’t like people.” to “No. He will bite you.”
Most times I get a surprised “Oh.” (I think directed at my bluntness), or the always awful “But dogs love me!” (trust me—Derby does not), but recently, I’ve been receiving some version of the following statement: “Oh, I had an aggressive dog too once. We had to put him/her/it down, but I totally understand.”
"No. You don’t." is my rebuttal in those instances.
I knew Derby would require special attention when my roommate (at the time) and closest friend Devin and I picked him up from his foster mom’s house. In fact, when I said we wanted to adopt him, her response was “Are you sure?” to which I replied, “Yes, because if we don’t, no one else will.”
You could count every rib in his chest when we first brought Derby home. Weeks of care from his foster mom had only helped him get up to seven of the fifteen pounds he was supposed to weigh. We cared for him and fed him fatty food for weeks more before he was deemed healthy enough to even qualify to be neutered.
I was in the special situation of having the time and affinity to deal with a dog like Derby, and I was terrified that if I did not take him home his fate would have ended up the same as the many dead dogs people love telling me about.
From that first cab ride to our apartment, I knew I was Derby’s guardian in the truest sense of the word. It was my responsibility to ensure that he lived a happy and heathy life. One of my biggest daily challenges in that pursuit is ensuring he does not bite anyone. New York is a “one bite” state, so even a small bite would result in his forceable death.
That has meant a lot of life changes for me. Friends I have known since my first few months in New York City have never met him. A few special people, all of whom also own dogs, have worked their way into his heart, but even then he wears a muzzle when they are around.
Derby has a handful of people that love him intensely, and I have had to accept that that is the best a dog in his situation could hope for. A dog who was beat to the point of broken bones, starved to the point of emaciation, and ultimately left tied to a light pole one windy January night in Brooklyn.
I have spent more money on his psychological well being than I have my own. I feed him an anti-anxiety pill daily and have hired trainers and animal behavior specialists to try to help him get over his fear of humans. However, the best advice I received was from my mom: I needed to accept his limitations before I could ever help him. I have to work to get him to *his* best, not the best I wished for him.
As a result, my husband and I plan trips around the availability of our few friends who can watch him, rarely host guests in our apartment, and go out of our way to avoid his triggers (which include skateboards).
So no, you don’t understand what it’s like to have a dog like Derby.
You’ll also never know the eight years of immeasurable joy he’s brought to our lives.
A happier, healthier Derby.
Derby and his “sister” Belmont, who may be the only creature who loves him more than we do.
I was recently at the National Conservation Training Center for a work event, when someone ran into our room to announce that due to a Riverkeepers event, RFK, Jr. was rumored to be somewhere on campus. The reaction was akin to that of a Junior High School class who had just learned Justin Beiber was in the building.
Environmental issues are intrinsically family values issue. What is taking care of the environment if not investing in the future of your family? If you think it is more important for you to have a good job now than it is for your grandchildren to have clean air to breathe or for their children to have water to drink, then you are not a “family values” person, you’re just selfish.