Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Building a Furry Family

Dear Mackenzie,

Last week I had to go out of town. Since you and your mom have been living in NYC while you shoot “Nurse Jackie”, we had to board our dogs while I was away. As I went to pick them up this morning, I realized that though I sometimes complain about our overgrown pack of mutts, I was excited to see them.

Charlie was the last dog I ever bought. I use the past tense not because she’s no longer with us.  On the contrary, Charlie is alive and well and running amok in our house. I use the past tense because I will never buy another animal.

One day about seven years ago we had lunch at a deli that was located near a pet store.  Afterwards, you asked if we could look at the “beautiful puppies”.  Against my better judgment we did, and predictably you fell in love with a cute little Pomeranian/Maltese mix.  Then you did what most children tend to do when they want something. You pleaded with us to buy you this ball of fur.

I could tell that your mom loved the puppy too but she stayed neutral, which emboldened me to put my foot down and say no. To my relief we left the store puppy-less.

That night at dinner, Jamie opined that Dixie could use a play mate (for more on Dixie, re-read my letter to you called “On Playing God”) but I held firm. Then the next day I had the brilliant idea to surprise you with the puppy. Several hours and several thousand dollars later, Dixie had a play mate and Charlie had a home.

I told the story to a client of mine who is active in the world of pet rescue. She in turn told me about puppy mills, and about the millions of shelter dogs who are euthanized every year. Once I educated myself on the issue, I vowed that if we ever wanted another pet we would rescue one instead.

Not long after, your mom was out running errands and stopped to buy dog food.  They were having a pet adoption day at the store, and she fell in love with a big, black mutt named Jackson. “That’s the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen”, I said when she showed us the picture. “And besides, the last thing we need is a third dog”.

That Saturday morning the doorbell rang.  “That must be Jackson”, your mom said sheepishly. “I organized a play date for him with Dixie and Charlie. We don’t have to keep him.”

Now that’s dirty pool, Mackenzie, but welcome to married life. You yelled “let’s keep him” before we even laid eyes on him. The woman from the adoption organization suggested we come meet him outside because “he’s a little skittish”. That turned out to be quite the understatement.

Jackson was huge. The moment he saw me he started to growl ferociously, and the woman told me to “walk beside him and don’t make eye contact.” Great.

The first few weeks were tough.  Jackson clearly had issues from his past and wasn’t comfortable around people, especially men. And by men I mean me. Every time I walked into a room Jackson would jump up, growl, and run away.

You loved him instantly, my sweet daughter, except the time early on when you played a little too rough with him and he snapped at you.  You ran into the living room crying hysterically.  When we asked you what was wrong, you told us between tears that “I don’t like Jackson any more. Let’s return him”. 

This was my chance to be rid of him. But I think rescue dogs, even ones who have known only abuse, have an instinct for real love.  As you were crying Jackson came up to you, rolled over, and started to squeal in apology. It was as if he’d had a chance to think it through and made the distinction between the roughhousing of an eight year old girl and someone trying to hurt him.

So Jackson became part of our family. And wouldn’t you know it, in no time I couldn’t get enough of him either. In a home where he experienced love instead of abuse, Jackson transformed into the sweetest, happiest animal you’ve ever seen.  His deep, menacing bark the only reminder of what his life before us might have been like.

When Dixie died the pack went back down to two.  Then one day I stumbled upon a place called Bark ‘n Bitches, a pet store that rescues dogs from animal shelters and finds them homes. The owner told me she had “re-homed” over a thousand animals who would otherwise have been euthanized.

So we went there “just to look”. You fell in love with a little Lhasa Apso mutt you immediately named “Lucy”.  Lucy was beyond grungy; with hair so long and so matted you couldn’t even see her eyes. Lucy had just been rescued from the Baldwin Park shelter and hadn’t yet been bathed, taken to the vet, or otherwise checked out.  But you were adamant this was the dog you wanted.

The owner told us we could come back in a few days to take Lucy home. When we came back Lucy was bathed, had a haircut, and had something else we hadn’t noticed before: a penis! It turns out Lucy was a he.

And of course while we were there your mom fell in love with some kind of Poodle/Terrier mix, and suggested we take that one too. Since I have no real clout in our family when it comes to these types of things, Lucy became Lucky, the terrier mix became Lucy, and now we have a pack of four.

And today, as Charlie, Lucky and Lucy danced on my lap while we drove home and Jackson licked my ear, I said a little prayer of thanks for our motley furry family.

Don’t tell your mom I admitted that.

All my everlasting love,



  1. four! plus human children! wow, that IS a full house. full of love. wonderful. p.s. i also have a lucy, sans penis, and she's a rescue too. :)

  2. Thanks Annie. Two Lucy's, one with and one without. :)

  3. Norm, you never cease to amaze me, how you can put things into words that many of us feel but can't express. Every pet I have ever had was adopted, and every one of them had issues at first, but love tends to conquer many fears and abuse. I'm thinking about the conversation we had today at breakfast and realizing that it is the same with humans beings. Even when they have experienced abuse, we cannot take that experience away from them,but we can love the fear away.

  4. Thanks for this vivid and heartfelt story. Love it. Keep them coming!

    1. Thanks Deborah! You keep reading and I'll keep writing.