Buster is a fifty pound basset hound we adopted from a large animal shelter in Chicago twelve years ago, back when I worked there. He is nearly thirteen now as his birthday's on October 15. It's rare when an adopter knows her dog or cat's birthday because that information is usually not part of what is available. I happen to know Buster's birthday, though, because he was dropped off with his American Kennel Club papers as a six-month-old puppy. His name was Bilko at the time and he was, in shelter terminology, surrendered because he was not housebroken.
I happened to be at in the lobby as he was brought in because I was waiting for a group of students. I worked in the education department of the shelter. I was helping out with directing people until my class arrived and I saw a woman enter the building, with a distressed demeanor and an absolutely beautiful basset hound puppy. I asked her if she was leaving the dog and she answered with a sad but determined look on her face, "Unfortunately, yes." As I directed her where she needed to go, the puppy looked up and licked my knee before he was led off. I made a mental note, though none was necessary, to visit him later.
When I did go see the former Bilko a couple of hours later, I learned of his story. (That, to me, is one of the saddest aspects of the lives of these homeless dogs and cats: they each have a story and we tend to see them as one, largely indistinct mass without histories, like they simply appear at shelters, prior experiences wiped clean because we usually don't know them.) He, however, had an easy to trace trajectory through his birth papers and various receipts, back to a breeder where the woman who dropped him off - her name was on the receipt from the breeder and the form from the shelter - purchased him.
He was black, brown and white, his coat like velvet, perfect for nuzzling, and he was slim, even skinny, for a basset. His ears were long enough to have an inch or so to spare when they were measured against his long, proud nose, which I came to learn is something desirable in one's basset, at least according to the AKC guidebook to the breed that I read once. He was a beautiful boy, if one goes for that whole long-eared, sad-eyed hound aesthetic, which I certainly do, imprinted in my childhood by a beagle puppy named Duffy that my parents bought and then banished two weeks later. (A story for another day...)
John and I had another dog at the time, a perfect beagle-basset mix named Lenny, also adopted from the shelter. I wrote about Lenny extensively on my old website, Vegan Street. Lenny was not only extremely handsome (a big ol' beagle head on a modified basset body and a pair of the most dewy and soulful copper penny eyes you can imagine: people gasped at his exquisite orbs all the time) but he was just perfection on four legs to us. He fit into our lives so elegantly it was like John and I always had the outline of his particular little puzzle piece next to us, waiting to join the picture. Once we adopted Lenny, everything fit together. But this is about Buster, not Lenny.
We adopted Buster for mainly three reasons: 1. Because I was a little ashamed of working at a shelter and having one measly dog compared with some of my colleagues, who had like ten or eleven. 2. I thought that Lenny might like a playmate. (Ew, that sounded all Hefner-y. Now I'm imagining Buster in short shorts and a poofy blonde wig.) 3. Buster was very lovable. Oh, there is a forth reason, too: because I can make quite a pest of myself when I get my mind set on things, like the three compelling reasons above.
When we introduced Buster and Lenny at the shelter, they didn't maul one another so we considered that a success. Buster bounded after Lenny, skittering across the cement floor, ears flopping, as he brayed like a sea lion. Lenny, for his part, ran in dizzyingly tight circles that Buster's clumsy puppy body couldn't compete with, teasing him with his easy agility. This first meeting set the tone for their relationship: Buster would forever be trying to impress his big brother, and Lenny, dignified and proud, would barely deign to notice. Finally, fresh out of creative solutions, Buster would simply bark with all his might, a loud baritone of a woof, one after the next until he was acknowledged. That bark alone chased a burglar out of our home in the middle of the night two years ago. Well, not the bark alone, I guess: the gnashing teeth at his leg might have also been persuasive.
Our lives together have been complicated a little, not always an easy fit like it was with Lenny, who passed away (I can't bare to say the 'd' word in reference to him) in 2002. Buster pooped and peed all over the gorgeous parquet floors of our apartment in Humboldt Park, pretty much from the day we adopted him until the day we moved out eight or so years later. In our home, he appears to be largely able to control his bladder, hallelujah, but that was one exceptionally long housebreaking period. (John has a funny story about when he was on the phone with a client and Buster walked into his office and started peeing. John didn't say anything because he was in professional mode and his client was talking, and then Buster started pooping. Buster stared at John, clearly agitated but unable to express himself, the whole time.) Buster also had this little flirtation with caprophagia, a.k.a, poop eating, which is every bit as appetizing as it sounds. This is all one thing, kind of like taking care of an infant for a loooong time, but it is the aggression that makes our relationship an uneasy one at times.
The first time Buster growled at me should have been a harbinger of things to come. He had only come home with us from the shelter that day when I took a piece of tin foil away from him and got a growl. I thought that it was just Buster being a puppy, play fighting, but in the coming weeks and months I learned that that was just the way he was wired. He could be unbelievably sweet and affectionate, but there was this other side that would lash out when we would least expect it. After many calls to behaviorists, pretty much every last one concluding that we should euthanize Buster, we simply adapted. No hands above the head, no challenging, if he finds a chicken bone on the street, it's his. One night he was lying on our bed with me and I petted him. Something, I don't know what, perhaps some long ago harsh hand, awakened in him a ferocious response and he knocked me over, biting my face. I screamed for John with blood gushing out of my mouth. John used butterfly bandages and masterfully closed up my wound as I tried not to sob and screw it all up. We should have gone to the hospital but I was afraid of Buster being taken from us. A small scar remains on my upper lip. (Buster also bit a famous - well, famous to us - vegan cookbook author who had the audacity to pet him while she stayed at our home. Stitches and a hotel room were promptly acquired.)
In some ways, Buster is more complicated than Lenny. Life was always pretty enjoyable to Lenny, whereas Buster was always haunted by something. I very much misunderstood him as a puppy, thinking that he was goofy and untroubled. If I had been a more skilled behaviorist, I would have seen his challenges more clearheadedly, seen that haunted look (haunted by what? A few months with a bad family? A hard time getting a nipple as a nursling?) and known that there was a depth of experience there.
I love Buster but it's complicated between us sometimes. I cannot allow myself to be vulnerable to him the way I was when I was bit in the face, so I pet him very cautiously. To love Buster these days is to respect his space and love him from afar. Just as with humans, dogs have their own preferences, their own temperaments. Our son knows that Buster is not a "petting type" dog, has known that since he was old enough to toddle after him. I absolutely think that if Buster wants more of a hands-off approach to affection, that is his prerogative. I think that it's important that our son know that companion animals do not exist for whatever our whims may be; they exist for their own reasons, as Alice Walker's famous quote goes, and if Buster wants his existence to be a certain way, so long as it does not hurt another, that is his right.
Buster appears to have suffered a stroke a couple of days back. He is wobbly on his feet, his head is leaning, he is sleeping a lot and not eating. The fact that he allowed John to pick him up without a bite is telling. The vet believes that if it was a stroke, he should be able to recover fairly well. It could also be a tumor, though, which makes a less favorable prognosis. It is strange to be hoping for a stroke, but that's what we are doing.
He is staked out in the steps, allowing us to pass with the occasional snapping at the cat. He hasn't eaten in two days, but he is drinking and does not appear to be suffering. Buster, his velvet tri-colored coat now much more dull, fully gray in the muzzle, seems to be deciding if he should stay or go. In the meantime, we send him our love, which is complicated but still, somehow, unconditional.
I hope that he knows how much we love him. He does know that life can be complicated, even for a beautiful basset puppy.
Prayers and positive visualizations for Buster, please.