His name is Graham, and he smells of death. Not the “rotting in the ground” type of death, but rather the “impending cloak of doom” type of death. What happened wasn’t his fault. You can tell he doesn’t understand as he stares off into the yard through his sealed doggy door with a slap-happy smile on his face, a single stream of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth. The eyes that stare at you only project love: love for people, and love for you specifically. This is why you love dogs; the way they look at you as if they see only you and nothing else.
His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him. He desires to be a part of the real world again.
You know that won’t happen, because this is it for him.
Death row–there is no going back.
“People think that pitbulls are bad. And they’re really not. It’s all in how they’re raised. A lot of people just make awful assumptions.” Laurie fingers the silver wire of one of the many dog cages lining the animal shelter hallway, her hands traversing up and down the triangles but not really seeming to feel anything. I watch while looking down, unsure of where my eyes should actually be. On him? On her? On nothing at all? Her gaze shifts sideways, drifts over the beige red nosed beauty of a pitbull within the cage before focusing on something over my shoulder. “You don’t hear about all of the good dogs, the good pits, that are out there,” she tells the wall, not looking at me. “You only hear about the bad ones, the ones that fight, the ones that get into trouble. Pits are such devoted dogs. And they’re so smart. They’ll do anything for you, if you just ask. But they need to be trained right. I wish the shelter could find people to do that.”
I nod quietly, unsure of what to say.
“So, you know the Great Lakes Pet Expo? We brought some dogs there last weekend.”
I’m not sure that I do. But I quickly realize that she’s going to take me there.
You look around the room. The Great Lakes Pet Expo is busy; lots of people, lots of pets. You realize this shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a pet expo, so it’s expected that pets will be there.
Graham is ready. Sitting. His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him, sweeping the ground and showing that he is ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice. The first person who comes to them will be greeted and licked into happy oblivion.
The dog next to him is ready too, but in a different way. You remember Nosey, from previous outings. He strains against his leash, stretching his handler’s arm out like that character from The Fantastic Four movies. Where Graham is waiting for people to come to him, Nosey is out and about in everybody’s business.
Graham hates this, you can tell. He wants attention, and he’s trying to be patient. His people say be good, so Graham is good. He just wants to make people happy, but no one will come close to him because they don’t want to come by Nosey. Patience is not Nosey’s strong suit; he’s too pushy. They will never find a forever home this way.
Nosey is ruining everything.
“We send a lot of these dogs to foster homes for whatever reason. Like, if we want them get more social with people or dogs, or just get some love or whatever.” Laurie sticks her fingers through the holes of the cage, despite the big red sign that says she shouldn’t. I watch as Graham’s tail action increases, swishing back and forth behind him. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth: Love, love, love, love, LOVE!
“We do a lot of handling on the Pit Crew. I’ve worked a lot with this dog a lot. Sweetest dog ever.” She points into the cage. “This one handler named Tim took another dog, Nosey, home with him. They had this dog for a while, but nobody checked on exactly what they were doing with the dog. He had a lot of problems.”
You watch as the man on the other end of the leash yanks Nosey back on his prong collar. You should never choke a dog that way; it only makes them pull more as they try to escape the pain on their throat that they don’t understand. You want to free Nosey, but you don’t. You stay back. Graham’s handler takes him a few steps away and makes him sit again. Graham follows every command like a champ, and his tail swishes back and forth in anticipation of what’s to come. The more Graham’s handler smiles, the happier Graham becomes.
Nosey growls at a passing dog. Someone yells at the man to take him home, he doesn’t belong there. Not when he’s aggressing towards other dogs. You imagine that Graham is laughing. If Nosey goes away, Graham will be adopted—of this, you are sure. The man says no, he can handle it, he can handle it. You watch. You aren’t sure that he can handle it.
It looks bad on the shelter, someone tells him once no one is watching. Nosey obviously doesn’t want to be here. You agree. But your two cents don’t belong in this situation, so you remain silent. The handler insists on staying, insists the dog is fine.
Both dogs stare into the crowd of people, or, rather, the sea of legs and knees and scary shoes that come a little too close. No one stops; no one bends down to introduce themselves. Everyone moves very quickly past Nosey’s growls, so quickly that Graham worries he might be kicked. He stands up on all fours, as still and majestic as the lion statue you passed in the entryway; the white stripe in the middle of his beige back prickles with static as his nerves overtake him. Graham tries to keep a smile on his face, his big, fat, red tongue dangling out as he looks for a human to match his smile. But there are no faces at all. Only legs. Graham shifts backwards, his butt slowly lowering to the ground and his mouth closing, the orange pattern above his eyes that passes for human eyebrows knitting together in concentration.
Graham eyes Nosey as he strains again against the handler. You can see the wheels turning in Graham’s head. Why can’t Nosey just sit down already? Why can’t he be nice? Didn’t his mother ever tell him that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? Doesn’t he want to be petted? ‘Cause Graham wants to be petted. Very much.
His tail swishes back and forth, back and forth.
“Nosey had a lot of problems. Like, he would act aggressively towards other dogs. Not biting aggressively. But aggressive. Growling. Personal space. Very reactive.” Laurie looks at Graham. He waits for her to open the cage door, to come inside, but she can’t. It’s apparent that he doesn’t understand this as he shoves his snout into the wire again and again, his tail swishing back and forth behind him as her fingers graze his nose.
“Nosey jumps up, and gets over aggressive and just….not good with people or dogs. But he was getting better….”
Laurie loves Graham, and Graham loves her. I can tell.
Nosey’s bark is booming, and echoes over the sounds and excitement of the Expo Center. You watch and you see the moment when Graham can’t take it anymore. He’s still sitting, his tail is still going back and forth, but he lets out one single bark.
As you watch, Nosey turns and hauls his handler right back over to Graham. Nosey is barking. Graham barks again and turns his head to the side as Nosey comes too close, a clear cut off to Nosey that he should stop. Nosey doesn’t listen. Graham’s ears press so low to his head that the blush inside is no longer visible; he’s mad; he doesn’t understand Nosey, and he wants no part of him. This is as plain to you as day. You wonder why the handler doesn’t see it.
Nosey barks. Repeatedly.
And suddenly Nosey latches on to Graham and they are rolling back and forth on the floor of the expo center. They are latched on each other, growling and snapping and biting. The sound of jaws snapping and spittle flying fills the air. You can see that Nosey has Graham by the neck and that he has absolutely no intention of letting him go. You are frozen, but other people are scrambling. What to do, what to do? When a pitbull locks its jaw, it doesn’t let go until it wants to let go. There is nothing TO do. The handler sticks his hand right in between the dogs. You want to smack your forehead with your hand; you know to never stick your hand in the middle of two fighting dogs. It’s all completely asinine. Everything freezes.
“Tim, in his infinite wisdom, decided to stick his hand in between the dogs to try and break them up. What kind of moron sticks their hand in between two fighting dogs?”
I would really like to know the answer to that question, but I say nothing.
Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as I reach out and pet his nose, even though I’m not supposed to either. It seems that he would like to know the answer to this question too.
Unfreeze. The handler is missing his thumb. From the tip to the first knuckle. It’s just….gone. You watch in horror as the blood seems to go everywhere. The dogs are separated. Nosey is in a cage, Graham is in a cage. How did they get there?
The handler is bleeding.
God. That’s a lot of blood.
Graham’s tail swishes back and forth, back and forth, but it’s different now. His head is down; his eyes aren’t looking out. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s afraid. You can see he wants reassurance. He wants someone to pet him. To love him.
Nobody but you is paying him any attention.
The handler screams, over and over. He’s sitting on the floor, holding his hand. People are swarming everywhere like bees on a hive. Someone wraps his hand in a towel.
God. That’s a lot of blood.
Laurie is an excellent storyteller. I shake my head, trying to clear the images out of my mind.
“When a dog bites someone, it gets placed in this sort of quarantine.” Laurie trails her hand along the big red sign that hangs from the cage, the sign that states the bite quarantine restrictions. She still doesn’t seem to really see it. “It gets a permanent black mark on its doggy record. Now it’s an animal that bites. Nosey had bit before, but Graham had never bit anyone. He was so sweet.”
I am struck by her use of the past tense as I watch her, at a loss again as to what to say. “What happens to them?”
“Well, they could get put down. It depends on whether they have bitten before, how reactive they are in the quarantine area, if there’s any available no-dog homes for them to go to. ‘Cause once they’ve bitten, they can’t really be adopted to a home with other dogs in good conscience. You know what I mean?”
Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as he sits otherwise perfectly still in the middle of the cage. His nose grazes the bars and his head tilts to the side as he studies us, still not understanding why we don’t open the door. I wish that I could explain it to him.
“Graham bit back. So now he has the black mark. They both might end up being put to sleep. And it’s hard to see. It makes me really sad. I hate to think about a good dog being put down just because it got in a bad situation.”
After a moment of silence, she turns to go. Graham stands up, his tail cutting the air as it swishes side to side. I can almost hear his voice: You’re leaving? You didn’t come in! You didn’t play! Come onnnnnn, I wanna play!”
“Thanks for letting me vent.”
As she walks away, I stay for a moment and watch. Graham sinks to the floor of the cage and lies with his head between his two front paws. He desires to be a part of the real world again, but maybe he is beginning to realize that this probably won’t happen for him.
He thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. There’s no way to explain it to him. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s probably going to die. And he has no idea why.
I wish it wouldn’t happen, but I accept that it probably will. I wish that I could just let him out, just let him run away. But I can’t.
This is it for him.
There is no going back.
His tail stops wagging back and forth.