May 21, 2010
We now have a puppy. And, yes, we are crazy. Paula and I were very clear with the students in our pre-trip preparation: no dogs. Paula spelled it all out to the students while I nodded silently in agreement: you will see them everywhere and they will break your hearts, but we can’t bring them home with us. I’m aware of my own hypocrisy in attempting to regulate my students’ attachment to homeless animals in China. I have two beloved, adorable, hilariously funny, cute, cuddly, idiosyncratic, baby-bunny-decapitating and squirrel-slaying bad-ass hunter cats back in Rutledge, PA who go by the names of Smokey and Cirrus (and who answer to our calls!), and who began their lives as hungry and abandoned street kitties in Beijing. My husband and daughter found Smokey shivering and hungry behind a cardboard box in our parking garage in Beijing. Within an hour and a half of having brought Smokey into our home, my husband managed to purchase $60 U.S. worth of kitty supplies at a pet store. Within eight hours Smokey had been seen by a Chinese vet and was officially ours. Cirrus arrived in our home after attaching himself to my leg during one cold Beijing winter commute home from Shangdi light-rail station to our apartment building in the jiayuan’r. Houdini cat that he is, he managed to get into the building, the elevator, and up to our apartment in a series of stealth moves that had me finally say, “O.K., little miss, you’ve found yourself a home” (I thought he was a she, and first named “her” Tara).
Though we tell the students they won’t be able to bring pets home with them, this is really only a half-truth. Getting Smokey and Cirrus back to the U.S. with us was a piece of cake, facilitated by a relocation company. All we needed was a record of their immunizations, and these were in Chinese. Apparently American veterinary medicine is so advanced we figure we can take on any disease that hits our shores, no quarantine necessary? The cats traveled in crates on the same flight that Jazz took to D.C. two months before our move, and like many new immigrants, they lodged temporarily in a friend’s apartment in the Big Apple, where they paced at the windows and drooled over Brooklyn pigeon. I admit I haven’t researched this in awhile, but I assume if our students really wanted to bring a pet home with them they could: after a bit of time, paperwork, immunizations, and some transportation expenses. But it’s completely impractical: we are only here for three and half weeks and have a program to participate in. No time for feeding, nurturing and sheltering stray animals.
But we now have a puppy, one with four names: “Taz” (named by the student who first gave him shelter); “Chester”, suggested by the Provost back at Widener, denoting Widener’s location in Chester, PA; “Dou Dou”, meaning “little bean”, given by the Chinese students who helped in the puppy’s rescue; and “our puppy” the most dangerous name of all, and the appellation most frequently used by Paula and me in reference to this little being. Before you go shaking your head or your finger at me too sternly, the details are important here.
Robin, Widener Social Work faculty who has been teaching at CTBU all semester, was walking by a building on campus and heard a pitiful crying. She spotted a very tiny puppy writhing between two buildings, it’s eyes barely open. She managed to elicit the help of some Chinese students to form a chain and reach between the buildings and pluck the puppy out. She then went about trying to figure out what to do with the puppy. A grounds-keeper said he would keep it for her, and he took it to an abandoned basement where he placed it in a box. Robin went and got a baby bottle and some milk for the puppy and gave it to the grounds keeper, then went off to teach. Later in the day, Robin was still haunted by this whole encounter and took a Widener student, Jes, with her back to the building to check on the puppy. The puppy was there, the bottle next to its box, having sat out un-refrigerated all day. Jes took one look at the situation and said: “I’m taking this puppy”.
I didn’t find out about the puppy until 11:00 pm, returning with Paula and Robin from the blind massage place (yes, I know, I’m addicted to Chinese massage). “Jes, has a puppy back in the dorms.” Huh???? I bid Paula and Robin farewell at their respective apartment complexes and headed back to the dorms where I’m staying with the students, fully aware that I was about to have my heart-broken by this animal. Jes’s light was out and she appeared to be sound asleep, and not wanting to wake her and the pup I waited to knock on her door until the next morning, which is when I met “our puppy.”
My head clearer by dawn, I stared at this little guy as panic began to sink in: he is so little, and is cow’s milk really what he’s supposed to be drinking? How are we going to keep this little guy alive? And where was his mother? Had his “rescuers” misguidedly taken him far from his nest? Had he strayed away from the rest of the litter while his mother was out foraging? Nothing about this sat right with me. In the meantime, we had a bus to get on at 6:45 am: a day trip planned for the Dazu Caves where to see the Buddhist and Taoist stone carvings. I contemplated skipping out on the trip, but knew I couldn’t abandon my responsibilities to the students. A few back and forth phone calls later, Paula and I had arranged for one of our building keepers, Ting Ting, to take care of the pup until Paula could come to the dorms and figure out the next plan. I called Paula from the bus, “We have to find the mother, and if we don’t find the mother, we have to find a vet.” Paula determined the vet part was probably the easier piece of this equation. Robin had made it clear there were no other dogs around, and the pup wasn’t under a building but was wedged between two buildings. It did not seem easy to “find” the mother. Tim suggested we take the puppy back to where Robin found it and leave it between the buildings and let nature take its course. Yeah, right—as if Paula, the Dean of Social Work whose work is on child welfare and me, the adoptee, adoptive mother, and researcher of orphans were about to abandon this possibly abandoned puppy. Seriously.
By 2:00 in the afternoon Paula had located a vet just outside the university gates and had arrived at his office, with Fang Fang (Social Work faculty) there to translate. The vet determined this pup was about 10 days old and in good health, and showed Paula how to feed and care for him. Besides keeping him in a warm and quiet place, he would need to be fed formula, about 10-20 ml every 2-3 hours, and we would have to stimulate his rectum and penis to eliminate. Paula could leave him at the vet the rest of the day, but we would need to pick him up by 8:00 pm and take over his nighttime care.
As Paula was learning all this from the vet, three CTBU students arrived with a very sick older dog with shaking similar to palsy. But they also had another patient with them: a pup identical to “our puppy,” found that afternoon (a full 24 hours after “our puppy” was found) near to where “our puppy” was found, but further outside the building and in worse shape: dehydrated, hungry, weakened. Where was the rest of the litter and where was the mother? The students offered to take “our puppy” home with them, saying the puppies should stay together, but Paula declined this offer initially, at the advise of the vet, wanting to make sure “our puppy” didn’t get exposed to any diseases that the sick older dog might be carrying. The students asked Paula to pay the bill for the treatment of the older dog, giving her pause about their ability to take on the financial responsibility of caring for two puppies. In a check-in phone call with Paula later we decided Paula and I would care for the puppy overnight (Jes was now out of the picture, sick with stomach woes) and try to find a suitable home for him.
I went with Paula to retrieve our puppy from the vet and was impressed with the veterinary hospital. It looked like a fairly modern establishment, smaller but similar to what I might find in the States: sick animals isolated in crates, a range of products and medications on the shelves, sterile-looking implements and exam tables; and a smiling vet in a white lab coat. But there were also Chinese characteristics which I found comforting. Most notably there was an altar to Amitabha Buddha (the Pure Land Buddha), alit with incense and offerings, and the continual repetition of the nianfo on a c.d.—a devotional chanting of Amitabha’s name, believed to help the practioneer enter the Pure Land at the time of death. This evidence of veneration and the beatifically calm presence of the vet himself had me confident this was an establishment committed to the compassionate care of all sentient beings. I felt “our puppy” would be safe in his care and was happy to work out an arrangement with him: until we found the pup a suitable home, he would care for our puppy during the day while we were involved in program activities; we would care for the pup during the nights. Our collaboration was set.
Paula fed the puppy close to midnight while I was back at the dorms, checking in on sick students and packing an overnight bag. I took the 3:00 am feeding shift, bottle at my bedside, prepped and ready. Did I mention how little this puppy is? He roots and burrows into everything—my chest, by armpits, my neck, my hair—both his nose and his tail fervently twitching. He suckles at the bottle clumsily, but desperately, and whimpers until he makes contact with flesh or hair, then settles in and falls fast asleep. His bed is a clothes hamper lined with towels. His eyes are open, but not yet clearly seeing. This dude really needs his mother, but she is nowhere to be found.
The next morning, after a mere four and a half hours of sleep, Paula and I had a plan. There would be an opening ceremony at 9:30 am at the Distance Learning Center to launch a day of student home visits with local families. We would bring “our puppy” there, warm and cuddly and sleeping, and see if there is a family willing to adopt him. Paula called Han Yan, head of the International Studies Office, and she approved. So we arrived with our puppy ready to put him on display, but although many of the gathered families took photos of the crazy foreigners with the tiny puppy, not one person with the exception of Han Yan, attempted to touch or hold him and everyone said they were “too busy” to raise a puppy. Even the youngsters there seemed more interested in playing with their video games and practicing English with the students than in goggling our darling puppy. Exiting the building, sharing the elevator with a family who had a ten year old daughter, I noted that the daughter peered over the basket, wrinkled her nose and declared, “Hao kelian…” not “Hao keai”: declaring our puppy to be “pitiful” rather than “adorable.” I realized we were confronting some serious marketing issues.
Han Yan accompanied us to the vet to drop the pup off for another day of care. En-route she commented that it would be very hard to find a home for this puppy. People are too busy and it would require a retired person. But she reassured us: in the worse case, the International Studies Office would assume responsibility for the animal, boarding the dog at the vet during the day and rotating his care at night, no worries! This seemed like less than an ideal situation for this poor pup, though admittedly better than being left to die on the street. After the pet drop off, Han Yan grew pensive. She had seen an adorable fluffy white puppy in the vet’s office, also in need of a home. “This puppy (meaning “our puppy”) will be very difficult to find a home for in the city,” she finally spelled out for us, “There is nothing special about this dog. It is cute now, but it won’t grow up to be very cute. People want cute dogs of special breeds, not this ordinary dog. I think we’ll need to find a home for the dog in the country.” I thought about all the dogs I’d seen as pets in Chongqing and Beijing and knew Han Yan was right: they are all purebreds, and most of them are fluffy and manicured and bejeweled. Who else might love “our puppy”?
A few short moments later Han Yan declared she had solved the problem with a few brief phone calls. She called the woman who cleans her house and asked if she knows of a family who might like a dog. The woman is from the nearby countryside, and has a large family that includes retired grandparents, and has offered to take the pup next weekend, upon our departure back to the U.S. We’ll be responsible for him through this week.
It’s twenty-four hours later now, and I’m pensive about our puppy. Talking it over with Jazz, I’m convinced this is the best solution amidst a number of less than ideal possibilities. Our puppy could potentially be reunited with his sibling and raised by these students, but are they really in the best position to provide long-term care? We’d also be exposing him to whatever diseases the un-immunized adult dog may be carrying. Leaving him out with the hopes of his mother’s return was just too risky, and appeared less promising after the discovery of his weaker sibling. Bringing him back to the States might be possible after a few months—when he’s old enough to be immunized, and there is enough time to process the paperwork— but he’d need foster care until then, and this would be costly and pose a burden to our hosts at CTBU. Jazz assures me “country living” for “our puppy” is a huge step up from orphanhood on the urban CTBU campus. I think our puppy’s infant status may work in his favor: as vulnerable as he is, his very dependency may elicit some protective attached care-giving responses from a potential human pack? I have fantasies of elderly retirees in a rural village feeding “their puppy”—wobbling and growing—between rounds of mahjong.
Life’s suffering and cruelty is more visible to me in present-day China than in many places I inhabit in the present-day U.S. Suffering and cruelty exist in both places, but perhaps our adaptations and accommodations to this are so culturally specific that our protections betray us when we loose our cultural footholds. When I returned home last night, I received an email from my sister-in-law, Maria, reporting happy news: they have just added a dog to their family. Attached to the email was the photo of an adorable dog and the barest of details: she is about a year old and still nameless; she was scheduled to be euthanized this weekend at the LA Animal Shelter, and as Maria put it, “She has been a mother and has boobs!” Homeless dogs die, uncared for, all the time in the U.S, as well as China, and this pup would have been killed this weekend had Maria not been drawn to her. As tempting as it might be for me to get upset at the city dwellers of Chongqing who consider our puppy “kelian,” but are too guarded to think of him as “keai”, I’m all too aware of all the black dogs, mutts and pit bulls euthanized regularly in the U.S. because they are less adoptable than the “cuter” canines out there.
“Our puppy” will be heading for the country life, where he will be cared for in the way that local custom dictates. I remain hopeful that there are kind people the world over who will answer the cries of crying pups and their mothers. For today he is ensconced in the care of a sweet-faced vet, swaddled in his plastic basket, sleeping to the chanting of Amitabha in a room filled with the hope of arriving at a Pure Land.