Monday, June 28, 2010

Train Wreck

To this day I’m not really sure what happened that night.

I was finishing late; it was at least 10PM and I was pooped. Twice a day visits were great for revenue, but tough on the body. These visits were typically for dogs who were confined indoors and needed to be walked, or for dogs who were let out in the yard during the day and confined in the house at night. Unless I wanted to clean up a mess and/or have some explaining to do with the client, I had to get up early and finish late to care for these dogs. This night, I had just walked and locked in a friendly Great Dane. He had to stay in the house at night or else the neighbor would complain about barking.

I was driving through Redwood City towards the 101 freeway entrance. Yawning, I looked around me at the evening street scene. Well dressed couples dined on Mexican food in an outdoor patio strung with lights shaped like chiles. Rougher-looking folks in jeans and work boots stood outside the small local bar smoking cigarettes and talking loudly to each other. Men walked out of the corner liquor store with paper bags filled with the night’s entertainment. I smiled to myself as I remembered a friend telling me that they sold badly-copied VHS tapes of porn movies from under the counter.

Leaving downtown, I approached the railroad tracks which were dark and deserted. I started to cross them when WHAM, something hit me from the left. Reeling in confusion, I started to panic when I realized that whatever hit me was now dragging me along the tracks. It wasn’t a train – in fact it wasn’t anything I could see. Some invisible thing was dragging my truck along in the dark. As soon as it began, it ended. The thing that hit me rolled on along the tracks and left me parallel to them. Stunned, I sat there wondering what to do when I saw a man running up to my window. Assuming he was coming to help me, I rolled down the window.

“What the f*** are you doing?”
“You stupid f***ing bitch! What were you doing? Didn’t you see us?”

I started to get scared. Someone ranting like this wouldn’t have been a surprise coming from the local bar or the residential hotel, but I was too far away for someone to have walked. I was alone, in the dark, with a crazy person and a disabled vehicle. Then I noticed there were two other men, and they were all wearing vests with a company name on the back. This wasn’t a lunatic, he was some kind of a worker for the railroad. He continued to shout and curse at me, then he walked away. Realizing he was going to just leave me there, I went from shocked to scared to angry. I grabbed a pen and paper and got out of the truck.

“I need your name and phone number.” I said.
The man turned and gave me a dirty look, then went back to speaking with his coworker.
“I said I need your name and phone number.”
“Look, we’re trying to finish this job here. Can you just get the f*** out of here?”

I don’t know what made me so brave, I suppose it was anger and indignation, especially when I realized the nature of the problem. It was late and there was little traffic going that way. Probably figuring it was an unnecessary and time consuming step, the workers had put up no barrier or marker of any kind to indicate that work was occurring on the tracks and cars should stop and wait. I was not leaving without the information. I looked at the business name on the vests and wrote it down.

Walking around to face the man’s front instead of his back, I said, “Okay, I’ll just call 411 tomorrow and report this to your boss.”

Now it was his turn to look scared. He gave me his name, and the phone number, then quickly got into a truck with the other men and drove away.

Surveying the damage to my vehicle, I picked up my cell phone and called AAA. It was now 11PM, my vehicle was wrecked, and I was alone. Waiting for the tow truck, I was too shocked to be worried about the fact that I was a sitting duck in a bad neighborhood. I looked up at the sky and watched the stars twinkle, at least the ones that I could see through all the light pollution. About midnight, the tow truck appeared like an angel and a middle-aged, bearded man changed my flat tire.

“You need a new rim,” he said, pointing to the bent metal. “You can get this into the shop tomorrow?”
“Yes, thank you.” At least someone was showing some concern for my predicament. Bleary eyed, I drove home and went straight to bed.

The next morning when I looked at my truck, I realized how in shock I must have been after the accident. In a sane condition, there was no way I would have driven this vehicle. The front quarter panel was smashed and the wheel well was so dented that, had I made a sharp turn, the tire would have scraped against it. I felt lucky that it hadn’t been worse for me. I immediately called AAA and reported the accident.

“So you hit a train?”
“No, I didn’t hit anything, it hit me.”
“You were hit by a train?”
“No, it wasn’t a train, it was something moving along the tracks but it was short, I think.”

The conversation continued in this way – and would ring the same when I tried to explain to friends and family what had happened to me – and the insurance report ended up saying “Hit a metal object next to train tracks.”

“Hi! How can we help you?” A cheerful blonde-haired lady sat at the reception desk of Moon’s Auto Body with a telephone receiver in one hand and a pile of mail in the other. There were papers and boxes all over her desk, and plastic-wrapped auto body parts all around it.

“I called earlier, about the AAA claim. The Toyota truck?”

“Okay hon,” she said, picking up one of the papers from her desk and reading it. “Have a seat.”

As she asked me a number of questions, I looked around the shop. I’d been here several times before and knew the mechanics on a first-name basis. With all the driving I did, I exposed myself to more potential accidents, and they found me. Mostly people liked to back into me in parking lots, leaving me to scratch my head and wonder where that new big dent came from. Thank goodness for hit and run coverage. Suddenly I jumped a little in my seat as I realized the contents of one of the boxes on her desk was moving. Leaning forward, I peered into the box and saw a very sorry looking kitten. He was all grey and tiny, no bigger than the palm of my hand and probably about four weeks old. His eyes and nose were snotty and his coat was dull.

“Where’d you get him?” I asked.
“I hate people!” she said. “Someone threw him in our dumpster. I was taking out the garbage when I heard him crying in there. Had to climb in and get him out.”

I picked up the tiny person and held him in my lap. He felt weak but spirited. He looked up at me with green eyes in a great wise face, and purred.

“The boss said ‘No animals in the office,” she continued, leaning closer to me as she told this part of the story. “So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll just quit!’” She gave me a conspiratorial wink. I assumed that her threat made the boss back off of his ultimatum. Looking at the kitten, I imagine he figured it would be dead in a few days anyway. I continued to hold the little ball of fluff as we finished the paperwork, then I waited for the rental car to be dropped off. He liked to be scratched on his cheeks and purred very much when I did that. When the rental car arrived, I was sorry to give up my new friend.

“I hope he’s okay,” I said to the receptionist. “I’m so glad you found him.”
“He’ll be fine,” she said, “Then I’ll try to find a home for him.”

I thought of the little kitten as I struggled with the insurance claim over the next two weeks. The workmen on the train tracks denied any wrongdoing, and their boss sided with them. The only thing I could get them to agree to was to pay for the damage to my truck. Later, people told me I could have sued and collected a lot of money, but I didn’t know anything at the time and couldn’t afford to call a lawyer anyway. The truck was fixed and my life as a pet sitter went on … until two years later.

WHAM! It was like déjà vu, some strange thing coming out of nowhere and hitting the left side of my truck. This thing, however, was not invisible; it was a large deer. Startled by something, the animal had jumped out of the bushes as I was driving through the wooded hills of Belmont and slammed right into me. Stunned, it lay on the ground for a few seconds, then scrambled to its feet and bounded away. I didn’t realized how much damage it had done till I reached my client’s house and got out to take a look.

“Oh, you’re got to be kidding!” I said to myself as I saw the huge dent in the front quarter panel, the same one that had been replaced after the train track accident. It looked like it had been punched with a very heavy basketball. I sighed as I thought of the trouble: the insurance claim, the time at the repair shop, the deductible I’d have to pay. What a nuisance. At least I hadn’t killed the deer … or it hadn’t killed itself.

The next day I drove to Moon’s and walked into the office to see a different receptionist from the last time. This lady was heavier, and had brown hair pulled up into a pony tail.

“Hi, I called about the Toyota,” I said, sitting down in front of her desk.
“Okay, here it is,” she replied, pulling a paper from a file. The desk top was very neat, and now my paper was about the only thing on it.

We took care of business, then I went and sat in another chair as other customers were waiting. I leafed through a gossip magazine, marveling at how many articles could be written about who is having a baby and who is a fashion disaster. If I could spend $10,000 on an outfit, I mused, I wouldn’t care if I was a fashion disaster. While reading the list of Academy Award winners, I saw someone – or something – coming down the stairs from the manager’s office. Whoever it was jumped into the chair beside me, and looked up at me with green eyes in a great wise face. I looked down and saw a big grey cat with shiny long hair and a great plume of a tail. I reached down and stroked his cheek and he smiled and purred. I’ll admit it took me a minute to put two and two together, as it had been two years and I’d forgotten about the sorry creature the previous receptionist had rescued from the dumpster. Could it be?

At this moment the manager came down the stairs, and I greeted him.
“You again?” he joked.
“Yeah, I’ve managed to not have an accident for a while.”
“That’s Auto, our shop cat,” he said, gesturing to my new friend. “He usually sleeps in my office.”

Auto looked up at me and purred, and I’ll swear he winked.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Sometimes the words really flow through me when I'm too tired to think. I didn't sleep well the last two nights, so I was really a space cadet today. Lying on the bench in the dog play yard at the shelter with a white pit bull cavorting around me this afternoon, I thought of the Song of Amergin. The Song of Amergin is an ancient poem spoken by a Celtic bard upon arriving in Ireland a very, very long time ago. It was first written down -- as far as we know -- in Irish Gaelic during medieval times. There is much debate about its exact translation and its meaning. I find that the best way to understand a work is to write it yourself, to create your own version and in so doing understand the spirit of the original work. This is one of my favorites to re-write. Give it a try. What do you think it means?

I am your journey; I am the way
I am your destination; I am the place you leave behind
I am fire on the hill
I am wind in the manes of horses
I am the dance of spring; I am the death of winter
I am the laughter of friendship; I am the groan of loss
I am the goodness of dogs
Who but I knows the song of the earth from beginning to end?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dogo Argentino

“Dogo Argentino.”
“Excuse me?”
“Dogo Argentino,” said the man’s voice on the phone, “The national dog of Argentina, very rare in the U.S.”
I agreed, amazed that there was a kind of dog I hadn’t heard of. Always a bookworm, I had numerous books on dog care and behavior including several large colorful volumes with photos and descriptions of each breed. I had no problem identifying a Cane Corso, a Hartz Polski, or a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, but a Dogo Argentino? This I had to see.

The door opened and I was almost knocked over by something very large and white. “King, no, bad dog!” I recognized the voice of John, the dog’s owner, from our phone conversation the previous day, but I could see nothing past the wriggling mass of white. Pushing my way in the door and closing it behind me, I got a look at the creature who was loving me to death; it looked very much like a pit bull, with muscular body, big shoulders, small waist, and a great jowly maw that was wide open in a pink smile. The only difference between it and a pit bull was size ... this animal was about the height and weight of a Great Dane.

I sat on the couch with King, who attempted to crawl into my lap, and John, who said, “Sorry about that, he’s still a puppy.” Wondering how large this animal would be as an adult, I managed to squeeze my arms out from under his bulk to hand John the paperwork, and we started to discuss the service I would be providing. I was to walk King five days a week while John was at work. King was confined in the kitchen when John was away, and there was no yard so he would have to be leashed and walked down several flights of stairs to the street to relieve himself. Because he was not neutered, King would lift his leg all over the house if left to his own devices. When I inquired why he was not neutered, his owner indicated an interest in going to special breed shows and get-togethers. I would find a leash, treats, payment, and anything else I might need on the kitchen counter. While we were talking, another man came into the apartment, said not a word, and went into one of the bedrooms. John looked uncomfortable. “One of my roommates,” he said. Roommates? The small San Mateo apartment was hardly large enough for one human and one 100-lb dog. As if to answer my unspoken question, John quietly said, “Um, you might see my roommates when they are at home. They don’t handle King.” It wasn’t long before I discovered why the roomies did not want to handle the adorable creature.

I had a couple of days before the service started, so I visited my favorite library in Burlingame to learn more about the Dogo Argentino; the results were not encouraging. I sat on the floor, legs cramping, always too involved in the books to make it to the table and sit in a chair like a civilized person. According to the books, the breed’s most notable characteristic was its aggression, “So aggressive they will attack each other while mating.” Yikes. In the pictures, they all looked the same: large and white with cropped ears and a baleful expression. Oh well, I sighed, I do enjoy those difficult cases after all, this should be no different than my other successes.

I walked up the stairs to John’s apartment and listened with a smile to the whining and thunking of a great tail against the wall as I unlocked and opened the door. There was King, as immense and white as I remembered, doing the happy dance. Piece of cake, I thought as I reached for the leash. I was surprised to note its flimsiness, and that of the attached choke chain which was small and thin; the rig looked more appropriate for a chihuahua. Oh well, I thought, that’s what the owner uses, so it must work. After reading the note that read, “King is happy to meet you, have a nice walk!” I slipped the choke chain over the big white jowls and stepped out the door. I was immediately catapulted down the stairs by an excited mass of dog and almost lost my footing. “Easy!” I shouted, pulling on the leash. King slowed down a bit, but this display of self-control was tempered by the pee that started dribbling out of him. I walked as fast as I could down the crumbling staircase, stepping in the urine which was splashing everywhere. We finally reached the bottom where he released a flood of water, then looked very much relieved.

Regrouping, I started to walk and was pleased to find that my new friend stayed pretty much by my side. We explored the neighborhood and stayed out long enough for him to get exercise and do his personal business, then we headed back towards the apartment building; I didn’t want to wander too far, as this was an area known for drug and gang activity. Rounding the corner , we suddenly came face to face with a pit bull, an unneutered male, tied in the bed of a pickup truck by a stout rope. The words, “So aggressive they will attack each other while mating” rang in my ears as I was yanked off my feet. I looked down and saw that my sweet friend had transformed into a snarling, lunging beast who not only wanted to kill the other dog, he wanted to eat him and pick his teeth with his bones. I quickly regained my footing and used every leash-pulling technique I remembered from dog training class to get control. I damn near had to drag King the entire length of the block and into the apartment before his fury subsided. I closed the door behind me and collapsed on the couch, with the great white pup soon in my lap.

After a few weeks I got into the groove, learning which streets to walk on for maximum conflict avoidance. When he wasn’t in attack mode, King was sweet and easy to control, but when he saw another male dog, there was nothing I could do to get his attention. I was quite concerned that he would actually break the leash or collar, so I put a call in to his owner to see what we could do. I had recently become a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and at their latest conference I had learned how to use the Gentle Leader head collar. Similar to a horse’s halter, the device goes around the dog’s head rather than his neck, maximizing control in a humane way. I explained the concept to John, who had never heard of it but was willing to let me give it a try. I suspected that there wasn’t a long line of pet sitters willing to handle Dogo Argentinos, so a suggestion to walk King in a party hat probably would have met with agreement.

Gentle Leader Day. I walked up the steps to the apartment and put the key in the lock, smiling as I heard the thump-thump-thump of a tail inside. “Well now King,” I said to the smiling face, “I have something new for you.” With some difficulty, I fitted the head collar onto the wiggling dog; it was royal blue and looked very nice against his white face. To that I attached a stout leash, and off we went. I didn’t have long to wait for a test situation I rounded a corner and there were two young gangster wannabe guys with their oversize pants and puffy jackets, walking an intact male pit bull. King didn’t hesitate as he leaped towards them snarling, but a little twist of my hand brought him right back to earth. He looked startled and tried again, but I was able to easily control him by simply turning his head away from the threat. Because his head was turning away, the other dog thought he was showing respect, and the situation was quickly diffused.

“Damn!said one of the youths. Look at the SIZE of that dog! How old is he?”
“Ten months,” I answered, to which the other man replied,
“Damn, he’s just a puppy, his nuts ain’t even dropped yet!”

I continued walking him with my leash and head collar, thinking our troubles were over. That changed one afternoon when I returned from our walk to find one of the roommates at home, a young woman named Judy. I had a bad feeling about her right away, something about the way she looked me up and down with a judgmental expression. I introduced myself and made small talk, and the conversation quickly turned to Judy’s complaints about the apartment. She ranted about how John so often left King alone until late in the evening, forcing the roommates to either take him outside or to clean up the pee in the kitchen. She said she wanted to move out but she was afraid of losing her deposit money because of the damage done by the dog. I sympathized, but moved for the door; the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in a stranger’s personal problems, especially if it jeopardized my relationship with a client. The bad feeling continued as I drove to my next pet sitting visit.

That night I got a phone call from John who sounded very upset. He said that Judy had told him about meeting me earlier that day. I said yes, we had met, and wondered what she told him. “She said you’re walking King with a muzzle!” Exasperated, I explained that the Gentle Leader is not a muzzle, that it does not restrict the mouth at all, that it is merely a humane way of having better control over a large, active (and I didn’t say, vicious and out of control) dog. Today, the Gentle Leader is in common usage, so most people understand how it works, but back then, in the mid-1990's, it was pretty new, so people often mistook it for a muzzle. I was not entirely sure that I had convinced him, so I was uneasy when I hung up the phone. One thing I was sure of, that I had not seen the last of Judy.

Things went smoothly for the next two weeks. I became very attached to King and was always happy to see his wagging, wiggling self. His behavior improved and our walks became easier; after each walk, I would spend some time snuggling with him on the couch, which became increasingly difficult as he grew larger! All was well until I got another phone call from John. “I’m sorry, I have to cancel the dog walking service.” I groaned. I relied on daily dog walking for steady income in addition to the seasonal holiday/weekend pet sitting, and losing a regular client was always a blow. He explained that he was being evicted from his apartment, and he was going to have to move in with his parents. It seems that Judy, concerned about losing her cleaning deposit, had called the landlord and asked for an inspection without notifying John. When the landlord came over, there was King, in his apartment building which had a no pets policy...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Writing and Rabies

I am enjoying a day of writing not because I voluntarily took a day off, but because I am sick. Yesterday, I received my second rabies shot in a series of three. I wasn't a bit worried, as I'd had no reaction to the first shot, so imagine my unpleasant surprise when by evening I felt stiff and developed a blinding headache. Trying to sleep, I tossed and turned with chills and nausea. I got up this morning feeling as if I'd been beaten about the head and neck with a lead pipe.

Why, you may wonder, did I subject myself to this? Hasn't rabies been eradicated in the U.S.? Not quite...

About 50,000 people die of rabies worldwide each year. Only a handful of these are in the U.S., where vaccination programs are in place for all dogs and cats, and for people who may be exposed to the virus. Here in California, a number of wild animals do test positive for rabies, mostly bats and skunks. Occasionally dogs and cats, after coming into contact with these animals, also test positive. Since the disease is 100% fatal once contracted, it's nothing to take lightly.

Dogs, cats, and horses can be vaccinated against rabies. Ask your veterinarian what is recommended for your area. Human pre-exposure vaccines are only recommended for people who have direct contact with possibly infected animals, as I do every day at the animal shelter. For now, I'll take this time to work on some stories about my very first pet sitting experiences in San Francisco. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Four Kittens on the Road to Heaven

I didn’t know that Pearl was blind.

After several months of walking her granddaughter Amy’s dogs, we’d gotten to know each other pretty well. Pearl was frail and spent most of her time at home listening to a police radio; because she lived in the crime-ridden city of East Palo Alto, many of the broadcasts involved shootings and pit bull fights. After listening, she’d advise me where not to walk the dogs that day. I enjoyed her company very much, and it seemed we always had a lot to talk about. This day, we were discussing nationality. I said something about being Irish-American, and she replied, “Do you have red hair?”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Do you have red hair, and freckles?”

I replied that I did, and felt a bit strange, because my hair is not just reddish but bright red, and my rosy freckled cheeks can be seen for miles. Sensing my discomfort she laughed and said she was vision impaired, almost completely blind, but she got around all right with the help of her granddaughter. The conversation continued and moved, as it often did with clients’ family members, to pets. It was then she told me the most interesting story.

Pearl grew up in a very different world, one without birth control for humans and animals alike. Her family was large, as were most families at the time, and many sadly died young of diseases and accidents. People didn’t bother with adoption agencies in those days, she explained; unwanted babies were often given, or sold, to childless couples. The animals weren’t so lucky; spaying and neutering of pets was unheard of, so the unfortunate method of getting rid of unwanted puppies or kittens was to drown them in a sack, or dump them somewhere far from home and hope they died or became someone else’s problem. Pearl’s family were farmers, and like all farmers they needed cats to keep down the rodent population which could destroy hay and grain stores.

Pearl’s favorite cat Mollie had just given birth to a lovely litter of kittens, two calicos and two orange tabbies. She snuck into the barn every day to play with them, dreading their fate. One day she entered the barn and they were gone. Mollie was crying and looking all over. When she asked her father what happened, he said he didn’t know, and his face had the expression saying "Don’t ask about it any more." Like lots of other things, some topics just weren’t discussed. Pearl said nothing more, but when night fell she snuck outside, climbed into her father’s car, and drove away into the countryside. She was only 13, but at that age most farm kids knew how to drive. There was only one real road leading away from their farm, so she figured she had a pretty good idea where those kittens had been dumped. Her gamble paid off, and after a long drive she spotted them, eyes glowing by the light of the head lamps. She carefully rounded them up, placed them in the car, and drove home.

The next morning, Pearl’s parents did not ask where she had been, nor did they question the reappearance of the kittens. They probably figured she’d endangered herself enough by driving off alone into the night, and they just let it go. The kittens thrived and lived long lives on the farm. When I asked Pearl why she had taken such a risk, chancing not only the dangers of the night but her parents’ wrath, she grinned and replied, “Well, I figured there was already enough on the road to Heaven for me to trip over, and I didn’t want those kittens there too!”

Pearl’s last day on earth was a happy one. We enjoyed the usual afternoon tea and conversation with many laughs. Pearl said that, despite her heart trouble, she was feeling especially good that day, almost euphoric. At some point I looked at the clock and couldn’t believe it said 3PM. “Yikes, I’d better get on the road!” I said, rising from my chair. She was all smiles as she said good-bye.

At 9PM I got a call from Amy. “Grandma passed,” was all she could say. I later learned the details; when Amy arrived home from work at 6PM, Pearl said she was feeling lightheaded. She insisted a good night’s sleep would put her right, but Amy took her to the hospital. By the time they arrived she was losing consciousness. As the hospital staff wheeled her away, she waved frantically for Amy to come and hear something.

Bending low she said, “What is it, Grandma?”

In a whisper she said, “Don’t forget to call Brigid [with next week's dog walking schedule],” and they wheeled her away. Her heart stopped minutes later.

With the loss of Grandma’s pension, Amy had to economize and could no longer afford dog walking. I sadly arrived for my last visit two days after Pearl had passed away. Before leaving I touched each precious thing of hers: her cane, her Bible (which she could no longer read but still kept in the living room), her police radio, the little tin of cookies we had dipped into just days before. As I touched each thing I said good-bye, and by the time I stepped out the door I was no longer crying. I had a wonderful vision in my mind of Pearl walking down that long road from her family farm, not in darkness but in the midday sun, with Heaven in the distance and the road lined with old friends including two calicos and two orange tabbies, waiting not to trip her up but to lead her home. A smile on her face, she reaches down and strokes them, then walks on.

Adventures in Pet Sitting to Become a Book!

My Dear Readers,

Thank you for being a part of the creation of this book, or series of books! My model is James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. If you like my stories and haven't read his, I highly encourage you to do so.

I apologize for having not posted a story in so long. Work in the animal care field can be all-consuming, but this year I have made a conscious effort to make time for my passion, writing. I have 35,000 words in this particular book and need 50,000 for it to be "novel length." I can't do it alone, so here's how you can help me: first, I need a title. Adventures in Pet Sitting will be a sub-title, but I need something more appealing and attention grabbing for the proper title. Second, those of you who knew me in the pet sitting days, please remind me of funny or touching things that happened. I have a good memory but your jogging it has been a big help.

I am reformatting this blog and promise to post something every week: a story or part of a story, a picture, a request for your input... Comments are welcome and encouraged! I'll post more info and a story later today. Off to walk the doggies now...