The Gift of Guru
Okay, my last post about Guru wasn't completely dishonest, but I do feel compelled after coming to grips with the full brunt of my agony of the past week by filling in some details. Much as I appreciate the many condolences about his departure, I fear some people think he has gone to a new home where he is getting the care and training he needed to succeed. I'm sad to report that's not the case, and I've gone through the roller coaster of emotions with rescue dogs that can range from joy to heartache. In this case it was the latter, mainly due to human stupidity.
Let me start at the beginning.
Two months ago when I got the unexpected call about a basenji being placed with me, I didn't fully understand that I was even being considered as a foster dad then. The rescue group needed a place for this very troubled pooch to be calm since previous assignments had not worked out. After three failed placements where he had attacked other dogs, people and finally trashed the house of a dogless house, there was no other option. What was not expected was that after showing agitation and panting when he arrived, within five minutes he was calm. After 15 minutes he was snuggled up next to me, and I agreed to give him a last chance.
Our time together alone was perfect. He responded to every command. In the rare case where he tried to chew something or jump where he wasn't supposed to, he obeyed on the first command. We had some good initial walks. Adoption seemed imminent.
But signs of aggression started emerging. I started investing in trainers, the first one bailed, the second said it would take months, maybe years and thousands of dollars and still might not work. I kept paying and moved forward. When I was in New York, he attacked the sitters who refused to return. I tried a supplemental trainer.
There seemed to be signs of improvement, with him even looking back at me for guidance on our walks. And then we'd pass another dog or jogger and he'd growl, lunge and sometimes grab a person's jacket as I became the target or increasingly hostile scorn and cursing in the neighborhood. I opted out from walks and let him keep in the house and yard, only to have to deal with him wanting to tear down the fence when he heard the dog next door.
My pleas of placing him with a more experienced foster through the rescue group got a response that the only option was that he'd have to be put down since he was, in a word, unadoptable.
Details of his troubled past started emerging. He was probably the product of a puppy mill. He was placed in a pet store where he left unattended much of the time and in a pen where he lay in a bed of his own feces. No one seemed interested in buying him, and he was marked down to half price and finally adopted by a woman in suburban Sacramento, an Iraq war veteran with severe physical and mental scars from the war.
She projected her many issues on to him and put him on anti-depressants. She made him her protector and baby, pitting him against various significant others and family members who moved in and out of the house. Only this week did the rescue group learn that there had been previous attempts to have Guru turned over to them because of his aggressiveness.
Had I known all of this, I probably never would have brought him in. But I only saw the full potential of his aggressiveness over the past two weeks during several close calls and a blood dripping biting incident last Saturday. At the same time, he became ever more affectionate with me. But the question remained if he might one day turn on me remained.
The only option offered to me by L__________ with the rescue group was having him put down, something I refused to consider until I was away this week and could gain some objectivity. I ached when I made the decision but knew it was right.
The second I walked in the door, he greeted me with an ecstatic whimper that seemed to say he loved me more than life itself. The last 18 hours with him were excruciating and glorious as he showed me so much love and appreciation. I longed for him to show a dark side so I would be further convinced that I was making the right decision.
I had come to perceive L_________ with the rescue group as heartless, even though she kept emphasizing that she was dealing with 200 adoptable dogs in desperate need of homes and this was a dog that no one would take or that it would be a great risk to put him in another home. I opted out not going with her to the vet, knowing I would likely collapse. I just asked that she make his departure as quick and unemotional as possible. Then I thought she was awful when she greeted us cheerfully and petted Guru as if nothing was wrong. She smiled and said that it would be a quick procedure and that she would be back in 45 minutes. How could she be so emotional? At least Guru seemed calm and confident as he walked away with her, and he disappeared from my sight forever.
Nearly two hours passed before she returned. I was sure that my wonderful, kindly vet had intervened and was going to take Guru into her own home. My heart sank when the doorbell rang and there stood L____ with the empty collar and leash. She had an ironic smile and shook her head silently as she walked in, hanging her head as she settled in my leather wingback chair. Finally she broke down in tears and said, "This was one of the hardest endings I've ever been through." Guru required several injections of sedatives before he was finally out, and L________ had bandages on her arms from where he attacked her.
She remained for more than an hour as we bonded over stories of wonderful pets in our past and I moved from seeing her as someone with a heart of stone to a saint who drives easily 2500 miles a week rescuing basenjis from wacko owners, shelters and danger. And, of course, she does it all as a volunteer out of the love of the basenjis. Most of the stories have happy endings, but sometimes there are cases like Guru -- wonderful, loving, gorgeous basenjis who have been so damaged by ignorant humans that think they are their babies and not canines needing protection, boundaries, rules and affection. Humans and animals operate in radically different worlds and too many people fail to see that place where we do connect is precious and should not be misconstrued as a place to fulfill our own dashed dreams.
By the time L________ had left, I'd agreed to become a volunteer with the rescue group, one possible assignment being helping a 28-year-old man who this week learned he is HIV-positive and may have a support basenji.
When I made the arrangements for Guru's procedure, I decided to have a private cremation afterwards so I could scatter his ashes in my back yard with my cats and give him a memorial stone. The thought that he was no more than another discarded and unwanted animal was more than I could deal with. In his two months with me, he earned his right to be honored next to my two wonderful cats who shared my life for 20 years.
My intent was that I was going to adopt him Tuesday night, a bit of news I could add to the jubilation of knowing we will soon be saying President Obama. As I heard about the continued news about the polls, it made me cry knowing that this won't happen.
A basenji will, indeed come into my life. Every time I cherish my time with him, I will thank Guru for teaching me that every moment of frustration is worth it, that nothing can equal the joy of seeing that little curled tail relax and wag. I don't think I will ever be at peace with the decision I made. Many times I have regretted it and wonder if there might have been one more resource out of there that might have helped Guru succeed. He reminded me that I still have the capacity to love and endure trying circumstances. I picked one of the most difficult breeds to foster and one of the breeds' most challenging members. But I don't regret a minute of it.
Thanks for enduring this long post, if you've made it this far, and I will try not to obsess on this sad chapter again soon.
UPDATE: Thank you to the many old friends and new ones who have expressed such compassion. If you would like to honor the memory of Guru by making a contribution to help more basenjis find wonderful homes, you can visit this page on the Basenji Rescue and Transport (BRAT) site.