Amid the clamor of New York City, in a silent, dark and dank basement, a baby canine’s chest barely lifted as she struggled to breathe. She was wasted, withered, with crusty skin sagging over her protruding ribs. Clumps of black fur created a pattern of splotches over her emaciated body. And heavy, metal brackets were duct taped to her left front leg. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t move. Stuck on her flank on the cold cement floor as cucarachas crawled in and out of her wounds, nibbling on her flesh. And fleas and infections ravaged what was left of her.
A month ago, when she was kicked down the cellar stairs and left for dead, she whimpered constantly. All she wanted was her Mommy. But as she starved and dehydrated, she could only muster a whimper once or twice a day now. Who was going to hear her? No one had heard her in over 30 days as she suffered, alone and scared. In the nine months it usually takes a human life to begin, her canine life was ending. The rats were waiting in the shadows to feast on her scrawny remains. And they would have their fill within minutes.
Then, the commotion began upstairs. Whimper. Heave. Whimper. Heave. She wasn’t strong enough to exert a bark. If only they could hear her. They had to hear her. Suddenly, footsteps came barreling down the steps. And they were there. Angels in blue. They stuck a needle in her hindquarters. Her pain eased. And as she floated through the air, she felt the warmth of her Mommy’s teat.
Three months later, I went to the ASPCA to adopt a dog. They were all so adorable and desperate to be noticed, but I just didn’t feel a connection with any one of them. As dog parenting is a long-term commitment, I didn’t want to rush anything. So, I went home. I went back to the ASPCA, the following weekend and had the same experience. I just didn’t feel what I needed to feel. Then, a staff person asked, “Would you mind taking a few minutes to look at the upstairs dogs?” Great! More dogs! I had no idea there were dogs upstairs. The staffer explained that the upstairs dogs were less adoptable. Less adoptable? They were old, hurt or sick. After hearing that I felt obligated to at least look. They should have a fair chance at getting a home, too.
It was heartbreaking to see them. They were so sad and, unlike the downstairs dogs, making zero effort to get my attention. And most of them were big, Rottweiler big. My building had a 40-pound weight limit. So, it was impossible. But something told me to stay. I continued to drift through the corridors. And the staffer headed downstairs to help other potential adopters.
Suddenly, I felt pulled down a hallway as if by a giant flesh magnet. There was nothing but one empty glass cubicle after another. No dogs. No people. Nothing. But something told me to keep going. Finally, near the end of the corridor, I felt something, strong, so strong it was a little frightening, pulling me forward. And then I saw it, in the very last glass cubicle, a black lump crowned with a clear plastic cone. I walked up and tapped the glass. No response.
“Hey, there, Baby, whatcha doing in there? All by yourself?”
Still, no response. I feared it was a dead dog and yelled for help. After a few minutes, a staffer arrived.
“Oh my God! What are you doing back here? You’re not supposed to be back here!”
“Never mind me; what about this dog?”
“What about it?”
“Is it, uh, alive?”
“Yes, now, c’mon, we have to go.”
“Go? No, I don’t want to go. I’d like to adopt this dog, please.”
“No, you can’t adopt that one.”
My heart sank because I thought she was going to say it had already been adopted by someone else and I wanted it so bad.
“Because that dog’s not up for adoption.”
“Then, why is it here?”
“That dog just came out of the hospital. It has a lot of problems. It has to have medical clearance before it can be adopted.”
“Okay, well can you get a vet then, please? I’d like to speak to a vet about this dog, now, as I want to adopt it.”
“Look, Lady, there are a lot of happy, healthy dogs downstairs. I suggest you go down there and pick one of them because you can’t have this one.”
“Vet, now, please or do I have to go down there and scream for one.”
“Before you do, let me tell you all the reasons why you don’t want this dog. It had a metal plate put in its front broken leg. If that plate has to be removed or repaired it’s going to cost upwards of $2,000.”
“Okay? It’s on antibiotics that you’d have to pay for if you take it.”
“Okay, huh? Well, the dog has been abused. It hasn’t been worked with by a behaviorist or socialized. It’s most likely going to exhibit fear aggression and bite you. Is that okay, too?”
“Do I look worried about it? Vet, please?”
She stormed off.
I went back to tapping the glass.
“So, you had a rough start, Sweetheart? Me, too. Don’t you worry; Everything’s gonna be okay, now. I’m gonna take care of you as soon as I can spring you from this place. Will you at least let me see your pretty little face? I’d really like to see…”
I turned to see a big, black man wearing a button-down dress shirt and slacks, but no lab coat.
“Oh, Hi! Are you the vet? I asked for a vet.”
“No, I’m sorry, there isn’t one available, right now. I’m the behaviorist.”
“Okay, well, can you help me take this dog home?”
“Honestly, Ma’am, this dog just, just got here from the hospital. I haven’t had a chance to work with it, yet.”
“That’s okay. I’ll take her as is. I’m not worried about behavior issues. I’m sure I can handle it. But I was told she needs medical clearance. How do we get that? And how long will it take? I’d like to take her home, now, please.”
“Okay, I see. Well, let’s take one step at a time. First, did anyone explain to you that this dog has…”
“Problems, yes I know, not a problem.”
“Uh, before we go any further, are you sure you don’t want to take another look at all the dogs downstairs that don’t have…”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“May I ask why?”
“Well, this is going to sound crazy, but the truth is, I fell in love with this dog. THIS dog. I haven’t even seen its face, yet, but I know I want to take care of it for the rest of its life. So, can we get on with it. PLEASE.”
Robert, the ASPCA behaviorist, took me to a room where I waited for him to bring the black lump they called, Lucy. The room was empty, save a folding table. She arrived on a leash and struggled to get in the corner far away from me. She was beautiful, except for the fear on her face. She looked like a frightened black wolf. She shivered in the corner. I squatted down and started to speak to her. Robert leaned on the table and did nothing. I felt he was watching my behavior more than Lucy’s behavior.
“It’s okay, Baby. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m never going to hurt you.”
She stopped shivering.
“I want to take care of you. Take you home. Give you a good life.”
She stared at the floor. She wouldn’t make eye contact or any other type of connection with me. I knew she was going to be work and maybe bite my face off if I took her home, but it didn’t matter.
“Would you be willing to try to give her some of this on your fingertips, or are you afraid?
He pulled a jar of baby food out of his pocket.
“I’d certainly understand if you were afraid given the way she’s acting.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s a great idea. Let me have it.”
I put the gooey mush on my left fingers and extended my arm.
“C’mon, Baby, look what Mama’s got for you. All you gotta do is come and get it.”
She looked at my fingers, but not my face. I could tell she wanted it. Robert just observed and said nothing. After a few more pleads, I put my face down into my arm and remained silent. I felt her move, closer and closer, step by timid step. Then, I felt the tip of her cold nose. Then, the tip of her warm tongue as she licked the Gerber chicken dinner. I lifted my head slowly and said, “That’s my girl.”
And Robert said, “Oh, that’s your dog all right.”
I wanted to cry. And I wanted to pet her so bad. But I didn’t dare do either for fear I would upset her. Instead, I said to Robert, “Great! Can I take her home now?”
“Don’t you want me to work with her first?”
“No, thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got this.”
“Well, I guess you do because I’ve gotta tell you I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t believe she came to you. So, yes, you can take her home as long as you promise to call me if you run into any problems.”
“Okay, I’ll put her back while you go downstairs and do the paperwork.”
“No, I want to take her.”
“It takes a while and it’s probably too much commotion for her with all the people. Don’t worry, they’ll come and get her when you’re done.”
But they didn’t bring her to me. Instead, they repeatedly tried to talk me out of adopting her.
Take a healthier dog. Take one that won’t have so many expensive medical bills. You’ll probably just end up bringing this one back and we don’t want that.
Poor Lucy, she’d never get a home like that. I stood my ground and refused to back down. After I filled out the paperwork and paid, they still refused to bring Lucy to me. They said there wasn’t a vet available to give her medical clearance. I’d have to come back tomorrow. Take the night to think it over. I could change my mind and the next day take a different dog.
I was so upset. I couldn’t sleep all night. I was so worried about Little Lucy. Why didn’t they want me to take her? Tomorrow, would they tell me she was gone? Would I never see her again?
I started calling them at 9:00 a.m. to ask when I could pick up Lucy. I called every couple of hours. Finally, near 5:00 p.m. they told me I could come and get her. Fear hit me like a flying rock. What if she didn’t want to come home with me? Would she remember me? What if she wouldn’t walk out of the building? I packed a bag with dog treats and the little pink and purple flower chew toy I had bought for her, hopped in a cab. And prayed all the way.
I sat in the ASPCA waiting room tapping my foot. Every time the door across the room swung open, my heart jumped. One staffer after the other came through that door, but no Lucy. I was armed with a cookie in one hand and a flower in the other. I was going to persuade her to come home.
Then, I saw one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Lucy was dragging a young woman across the floor, even with her limp. And when she reached me she threw both paws in my lap and buried her face in my thighs.
“Oh, I’ll get her down,” the staffer said as she reached for Lucy.
“NO! Leave her. She’s perfect right where she is.”
Fluffy snowflakes sprinkled her black coat as we walked home. She was so excited she pulled like a sled Husky and bounced all over the street. I couldn’t bring myself to correct her. Joy before training.
The joy ended as soon as we entered the apartment. Lucy messed all over the hallway runner, backed into the corner and shivered. It broke my heart to see she was so afraid of me. I rolled up the rug.
“It’s okay, Sweetheart, I’m not gonna hit you for that mess. I’m never gonna hit you. You mean more to me than any old rug, you’ll see.”
I crouched down at the other end of the hallway and tossed cookies toward her. She stopped shivering, but she wouldn’t take them. So, I went into the living room, turned on the TV and pretended she wasn’t there. After a few minutes, I heard crunching.
Within a few weeks, Bella and I were best friends. New name for a new life. And we’ve shared a special bond for over 12 years, now.
People who know Bella’s story tell me what a wonderful and good-hearted person I am for giving Bella a good home. And I always explain that she has given me so much more than I’ve given her. Sure, I provide food, shelter and vet care. But Bella gives non-material things, spiritual gifts. She is able to love me even after the hell she went through by human hands. She protects me, voluntarily. She makes me smile and laugh even on my worst day. And Bella has given me a capacity for compassion and a propensity for patience that I never had before she came into my life. She’s an amazing being.
Never overlook the upstairs dogs, my friends. Never overlook the upstairs dogs.