Gus Kenworthy might have received more media coverage for taking home a family of stray dogs than an Olympic silver medal last month. We Americans do dote on our pets, and the images of stray dogs roaming the streets of Sochi may have been the first many of us who have not traveled to developing countries have ever encountered. In yet another instance of ‘behind-the-scenes’ services, local governments in the US allocate taxes and levy fees in order to manage their community’s resident animals, both domestic and wild. One would be hard pressed to find any populated burgs in the United States harboring packs of stray dogs like those that captured the hearts of the Olympic athletes in Sochi. Or those that snag onto Peace Corps Volunteers’ the world over.
When I first came to Moldova, the stray dogs were one of the very first things to capture my attention; endlessly fascinating and enduringly entertaining, they continue to hold it to this day. It is so jarring, watching a dog trot determinedly along, unleashed, eyes focused ahead, undeterred by other dogs or cats perched atop a fence or a family of ducks ambling across the road, seeming for all the world as if late for work, an invisible brief case strapped to its back. (I keep waiting for one to pull out a cell phone and start yammering to his buddy across town.) These are dogs with lives, business somewhere, a purpose, a goal. They are beholden to no human being and, for the most part, seemed to be just fine with that state of affairs.
Sure, some are skinny with coats that are burred and matted. Some of them have endured – and survived – obvious encounters with other dogs or machines or barbed wire fences, it’s true. They limp along on three legs or cock but a single ear; perhaps their tail curves at a decidedly odd angle. Yet, they do not appear to be inordinately unhappy. In fact, when they aren’t briskly on their way to some undisclosed but very important destination, they are often scrabbling with each other in that rough and tumble way of puppies or lolling about on their backs in the scrappy sunshine or sitting, sphinx-like, in bemused contemplation of the passersby on the road. Although 99% of Americans would claim these are dogs that need to be ‘rescued,’ I am not quite sure these days what we would be rescuing them from or for.
In Moldova, you see, an animal enjoys quite a bit of free choice. Other than the percentage of the canine population that is chained within fenced gardens, dogs are free to roam about the villages. Even dogs that have a home, so to speak, generally leave it every morning to begin their rounds and only return to it sporadically during the daylight hours. (I have heard tell that this practice – of allowing dogs to move about their world – is more prevalent in the rural towns and mountain hollows of America; having grown up in Southern California, I’ve never witnessed it. In my city, a lone dog trotting down the street would occasion a call to animal control quicker than you could open a can of Alpo.) And if a dog decides his interests would be better served by some other human on the block, he merely begins hanging around that gate to see if some food will be thrown his way or he might be allowed a space under the woodpile out of the rain.
In Romanian there is no word for “pet.” The concept of keeping an animal as a cosseted member of the family is fairly recent here. Dogs and cats are part of the landscape. The notion of spaying/neutering animals is not even on the radar. So it’s been quite different for me to experience the fertility cycle going on in my neighborhood during the last 6-7 weeks. The dog whom I call Buddy (and everyone else refers to as “Dik”) lately has entertained a series of lady friends here at the center. One will come, hang out for a few days, then disappear again, only to be replaced a week later with a new fluffy blonde wiggling her tail. (Buddy seems to prefer blondes.) Interestingly enough, the sharing of the bed does not extend to the sharing of a plate – or at least the one that I provide to Buddy each and every day. He jealously guards my favors and my person as if I, too, am a conquest that has been tamed and trained to provide him sustenance. The Marilyn-of-the-week can look on longingly, but is not allowed to come within a couple of feet of me or his food.
This is a bit of a contrast to Kittyho’s tactics. Kittyho showed up on the outside ledge of my kitchen window one day a couple of months ago and screamed loudly to be let in, for all the world as if I had usurped her apartment and I damn well better make room for both her and her baggage. Her baggage being, of course, (her name is Kittyho, come on!) an entourage of male suitors that tend to gather at odd hours on said kitchen ledge and stare moodily from her to me as if one of us could rock their world. I am importuned to provide food now not just for Kittyho and her impending litter, but for all the Lotharios who may or may not have a paternity suit going. They accept the handfuls of kibble I scatter across the kitchen ledge (these cats are too demonic to be allowed inside) though they don’t appear to need it. Sleek, well-muscled and inordinately large, apparently they either have a team of humans trained to provide or their hunting and foraging abilities are more perfectly honed than the cats I’ve had in the States. (I don’t notice them making much effort to provide for their prospective family, however.)
One of her particularly tenacious suitors (he actually looks as if he could be her father, incestuous bastard!) showed up a couple of weeks ago with a very nasty gash on his head, slicing through one ear and gaping through to the tissue below. Back home, this type of injury would necessitate an emergency trip to the vet, with all the stitching, prescriptions, plastic head cones, instructions for bandaging and containing movement and attendant expense one can readily imagine. Of course, none of this happened in Moldova. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a vet in Strașeni. And I, for one, do not have the means to either transport, contain or sponsor this feline monster, nor, I imagine, would he thank me for doing so. And any Moldovan would’ve laughed in my face if I had attempted to enlist help with this endeavor. There was a week or so during which I wondered whether he would make it. The temperature was below 0 every night and the wound continued to seep for days. But over the course of a month, it gradually healed – as far as I can tell without any well-intentioned intervention from my species. He continues to shadow the windowill, glowering in at Kittyho and me as we go about our daily routines. Survival of the fittest in action, I surmise.
Kittyho has other mechanisms for survival in her tool belt. She is a petite, well-groomed hussy, sharp-tongued and temperamental; unlike another feline that attempted to adopt me, she does not take to being picked up or otherwise fondled unless one happens to approach her at just the right moment with just the right stroke for the exact space of time she welcomes it. Otherwise you’re bothering me. Oh, and could you fill up the food bowl again while you’re up? And where’s that milk you’ve been promising me? I had assumed that she had sought me out as much for warmth and respite from her relentless pursuers as the possibility of food, but in that I was terribly, terribly wrong. Every night – frigid temperatures, icy snow, biting wind be damned – she stretches luxuriously before the silhouetted suitors ranged across the fence outside and sashays her way through the open window to begin her rounds. Every morning she returns between 6:00 and 7:00 bleary-eyed and weak-hipped, huddles before the bowl to consume her weight in kibble then drags herself over to her easy chair to curl atop the softest blanket in the house. She proceeds to sleep for the entire day, with brief forays outside to relieve herself or consume another bowl of food. Occasionally, she will leap onto the counter to try to steal the butter. Every evening, rejuvenated, the little temptress is up to tricks again.
Meanwhile, Buddy also has the run of the neighborhood, accompanying me as he wishes down the road when I leave for my biweekly trip to the market. He enjoys scraps from the kitchen three times daily and bags of bones brought in especially for him by the elderly that patronize the center where I live. Occasionally he disappears for days, but just about the time I begin to fret he reappears, wriggling in anticipation of attention, tail furiously wagging and sporting a badge or two of crusty fur attesting to his courage in a skirmish. After enjoying a particularly pleasurable butt scratch (courtesy of moi) he will gather up his little hind quarters in unadulterated glee and shoot across the driveway, circling the buildings like a torpedo, whizzing by bushes and leaping over stones with the agility and grace of a gazelle. Without a doubt, he is one of the happiest dogs I’ve known. Yet no one claims him. He is not the ‘center’s dog.’ He is merely an animal that has staked out a territory amongst a community of humans, coexisting successfully within our boundaried lives.
I contrast his life and behavior sometimes to that of my beloved Zoe back home: she spent her days passing from window to backyard gate, staring intently at any activity that happened within her line of sight, gradually getting more lethargic and less inclined to run whenever she found herself unleashed within the proscribed limits of Irvine’s Central Bark. She never displayed much preference for anything – never cultivated a love for a specific toy, nor was she at all fond of chasing a ball or a stick. She ate her food in a begrudging manner, if at all. I must have tried every gourmet brand made trying to excite her taste buds, to no apparent avail. (My husband ended up buying her a crispy chicken breast daily from the supermarket deli counter after I left to get her to eat.) We walked her faithfully everyday – sometimes twice – but I cannot help but wonder how her personality and hidden passions might have developed in different environs. I can’t say I ever thought of her as gleeful. She mostly appeared resigned. And she never did have the opportunity to spend the night (or week) with a male friend of her choosing…
I know I am probably stirring the hackles of many animal-lovers reading this: how can I possibly believe that a dog living on the street of Chișinău or Sochi or Kiev is better off or happier than one who enjoys the comfort of a home in the United States? I’m not claiming I do. But a part of me wonders how far we should extend the anthropomorphizing of our animals: are they better off when the choices are made by humans? Do we truly know what’s best for them? (After all, we’ve done such a stellar job taking care of so many other species…..) Or do we imagine that the things that make us less afraid, more secure and comfortable – order, predictability, birth control, a steady supply of processed foods, a wall around our properties – elicit the same emotions within them? I admit that I don’t know. But I do recognize a happy animal when I encounter one.
I’m sure Gus Kenworthy’s rescued litter will find wonderful loving families back in Colorado or wherever they might end up. They will visit the vet and get their shots and be spayed or neutered according to protocol. They will be fed well and probably not experience disfiguring encounters with barbed wire. Perhaps, if they are lucky, they will belong to humans with a great deal of land and tolerance for unkempt, burr-matted coats. If so, they will retain a little bit of that choice they’ll never know they lost in those mean streets of Sochi.