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Continued from last week’s blog:
I tried to meditate while waiting for Edgar to return so we could finish our interview. No go. Rather than popping the interfering thought-balloons that came to mind, my mental jujitsu made them grow quicker and stronger. OK, open your eyes then, Steve. Take a deep breath. Tendrils of stress clawed up the back of my neck like they always do when I’m unsure of what to do with my hands, or worse yet, when I don’t know how to tell an important story. So I opened my eyes, fidgeted a bit and looked around for something to distract me… something to divert my mind from the possibility that the words I wrote about Edgar wouldn’t affect people. The fact that my storytelling might not save a dog or two or a million hadn’t formed until that moment but now that the thought was here, it’s presence was overwhelming. So… I sent my mind back to the last moment I still had confidence. What did Edgar mean when he said: “Rescue was scary for a Rez Dog?”
More importantly, what did I know about Rez Dogs in the first place? The first Rez Dog I ever photographed was dead, lying in the middle of the road. I blew by that dog doing 85 in a 65 and didn’t slam on the brakes for ten full seconds. But stop I did. Then I argued with myself. Left brain said, “Dead dogs might have disease or smell bad.” Right brain chimed in, “If you’re going to tell the Rez Dog story, you have to tell the whole story – the good and the bad. Suck it up, Sunshine.” (CNN and FOX, you listening?) Then came the U-turn and thirty horrible minutes while I took pictures of a beautiful dog that wasn’t able to cross the road. I am here to tell you, Documentary Photography isn’t as romantic in practice as it is on TV. How did this dog die on a road without traffic? Not a single car, truck or bicycle passed the entire time I was there. It didn’t make sense. Eventually, clarity took hold. I had forgotten… “The Rez” has a weirdness that can be experienced but not explained. That first Rez Dog taught me that my white man world view doesn’t apply on the Rez. Maybe that was it… maybe I needed to lose all my preconceived notions and listen more actively to what Edgar said about being a Rez Dog. Maybe then I’d understand well enough to tell a compelling story.
That did the trick. I was able to meditate for a full fifteen seconds before Edgar returned with a friend in tow.
EDGAR: Steve? This is Bessie. Bessie, Steve.
Bessie is an eighty-five pound Rottweiler and she walked with the comfortable stride of an Alpha. I remembered the days when Rottweilers were the Dogs from Hell before Pit Bulls became all the rage. Some of that fear remained. Bessie smiled but the gesture didn’t provide the comfort she intended. Her teeth were in excellent shape except for the pointy one on the bottom that was cracked in half. It gave her an evil genius kind of vibe. We sniffed each other with wary politeness and shook paws.
EDGAR: Bessie is a foster dog who has lived on this property for years. She was rescued from a schoolyard in Crownpoint, NM – a cute puppy tied to a cinderblock… with bailing-wire. Bessie, I’m trying to convey to Steve what it’s like to be a Rez Dog. Assuming he’s bright enough, he’ll hopefully come to understand why rescue can be scary as hell.
Bessie evaluated me with wariness but this was to be expected. Rez Dogs learned their fear of humans the hard way. As a result, they’ve become the best judges of human intention in the world. Maybe I was giving off a scent of hesitation or outright fear because she smiled again and climbed onto my dog bed and made herself comfortable. Her tongue was warm and wet on my ear and I wasn’t at all sure of proper etiquette. Could I wipe off the spit or should leave it to dry? I wiped it off and Bessie sensed that I wasn’t going to be scared away from her or her story under any circumstances. She smiled with sensitivity, and that’s a big trick for a Rottie with a broken tooth.
BESSIE: My story isn’t entirely unique. I was born into a dog fighting family. The Alpha human got a huge rush from watching us destroy each other. He made money from it as well and I was training at eight weeks out of the womb. My puppyhood? Pffft. This man was super poor and I was super strong, so I was sold to a buddy of his that lived a few hours on the other side of Crownpoint. Distances are long on the Rez and no matter where you go, it’ll take a minimum of two hours to get there. People learn to be efficient with their time and gas money and the only way the handoff would work was if I was dropped off in the morning by my first human and picked up in the afternoon by the guy who was supposed to be my second. The weight and the wire were their way of ensuring I’d still be there for the pickup.
EDGAR: Put yourself in Bessie’s situation. Life was miserable with the first guy and she had no idea whether the next guy would be better or worse.
BESSIE: I was afraid of becoming a bait dog. Maybe four hours later, some lady comes around the corner in a pickup, but at that point I didn’t know it was a lady. I thought my time had come and I was scared. I barked and clawed and tried to look as tough as possible thinking this was my audition to avoid a horrific death. The weight trailed behind me as I charged the truck and when I got to her door, the lady tossed me half of a bagel. Onion, if I recall. Stumped the hell out of me. I didn’t trust her but I hadn’t had food or water for hours. Still, I couldn’t eat with a dry mouth so I put on the show of my life.
STEVE: What happened?
BESSIE: She got out of the truck – through the opposite door – and set a bowl of water down by the rear bumper. She backed away before I could get to her but man, that water was amazing. So was the bagel.
EDGAR: Trust comes hard and sometimes it’s better to look tough. Sometimes that’ll get you shot and sometimes it’ll get you rescued. It got Bessie rescued. Just because a dog looks mean doesn’t mean it is… but the smart humans know it’s better to leave the rescuing to the people who do it every day. Leave food or water if you want, but don’t try to rescue a dog at the gas station in Kayenta unless you know what you’re doing.
BESSIE: Yup. I chilled out with the food and water while the Truck Lady untwisted the wire. The sense of relief was amazing and I soon found myself wagging my tail and jumping into a truck with a total stranger. Kind of humiliating, but clearly she wasn’t the dog fighter from the south. Karma happens a lot on the Rez, and I try to return the Universe’s favor by showing the new arrivals to this foster home the do’s and don’ts of getting along with a pack whose members are constantly changing. I’m sort of a Foster Home Ambassador. Most dogs move on but for whatever reason, my person decided to keep me here. I can’t explain the loyalty that instills, but know that it’s massive and permanent. I show the new arrivals the ropes… where we can romp and play and where we can’t. What neighbors are cool and which ones aren’t. Mostly, I just talk to them as they arrive, let them know they made it. They were rescued.
STEVE: What was Edgar like when he arrived?
BESSIE: Oh, man. A more pathetic Beagle mix you’ll never see. He had hardly any fur on his back – sarcoptic mange, you know – and you could see his ribs beneath his sunburned skin. He was a mess. “Moth-eaten” is a fitting term.
EDGAR: My rescue wasn’t as scary as Bessie’s but “scary” is a subjective term. As I’d said earlier, I was born in Canyon de Chelly, near Chinle, AZ. I am from the Four Legged Clan and for the Brown Water Clan. I was doing really well for a long time and suddenly, I started to lose fights. I’d lost ownership of the dumpster at the Visitor’s Center and without that, I wasn’t finding enough food. Water became hard to come by. Rez Dogs are the ultimate optimists and I kept telling myself, “tomorrow will be better.” Tomorrow got worse and worse. The Lady Park Ranger would leave food and water for me but if I wasn’t there on time, some other dog stole it. She’d stand in the parking lot and stare at me. She’d squat down and try to pet me but I thought I had life aced. No way did I want to leave. I stayed a foot out of reach for the better part of a month.
STEVE: What happened?
EDGAR: A humane trap, that’s what happened. I was getting weaker and weaker, not nearly as sharp as I had been. Like all Rez Dogs, once any kind of infection or disease sets in, our chances for survival plummet. I was in denial, thinking I was still the stud that emerged from behind the dumpster during that storm eight months ago. The truth was that I was going downhill. Fast. The Ranger Lady started crying every time she saw me and I didn’t know why. Like I said, denial.
STEVE: How did you end up here?
EDGAR: Desperation and hunger. I showed up at the Visitor’s Center at the usual time and the red bowl was out and loaded. Cooked hamburger meat… oh, man. That smell makes me misty to this day. I’d never considered the White Ranger Lady a threat and I was so hungry I just went for the meat without thinking… and slam goes the trap. Not sure if you’ve ever been caged, but that is freakin’ horrifying. A total loss of control. Rez Dogs are an independent breed and we hate to lose even a small amount of control over our own destiny. I was angry and not bashful about showing it.
Edgar choked up a bit and looked away. Bessie smiled her scary smile and continued her thought.
BESSIE: He was a total maniac while the Park Ranger Lady drove him two and a half hours to St. Johns, AZ. She had to sedate him with a mild tranquilizer. Our pack at the foster home was nine strong when he arrived and every one of us cringed when we saw him. Pathetic little runt that he was.
That smile again, directed at a silent Edgar.
BESSIE: He was so starved for so long that malnutrition may have stunted his growth. Time will tell but when he arrived a month ago, Edgar was the same size as the two-month-old Rebel.
Edgar smiles big and wide.
EDGAR: In foster care, food was left laying around in bowls in front of the house, in back, near the horses… it was everywhere! I ate my fill and ate some more… became a pooping machine. But I also started to get healthy. Those annoying baths, like every three days. The shots. I hated it for the first few days I was out of that trap but I quickly started to feel better. I’ve loved it here ever since. Rez Dogs know when they’re rescued. We read people pretty well and I knew I was in the right place. Karma, baby.
BESSIE: It was hilarious. Edgar annoyed the people to no end because he hadn’t yet learned to dog very well. Our foster mama would laugh while Edgar would run around the photographer’s legs, lick his ears or generally ruin any shot he could. Total brat.
STEVE: Is that what happens here? Free-for-all playtime?
EDGAR: In a perfect world, Rez Dogs who are rescued would all go into a foster home rather than a shelter. These sanctuaries are run by people who don’t mind opening their home to whatever number of strange, new dogs. They take responsibility for our vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery. They evaluate us to see if we can tolerate cats, if we get along with other dogs or how much we like kids. Eventually, we’re adopted directly or sent to a facility where adoption can be arranged. As soon as we’re gone, another Rez Dog takes our place. Foster people are a higher form of human. Simple fact. The healing that happens here is magic.
STEVE: That’s for real. What’s next for you, Edgar?
EDGAR: I was supposed to leave for the Arizona Animal Welfare League last week but the lady who drives the transport picked up her fourth mama and puppies from the side of the road near Gallup. Can you imagine the work involved in taking care of four nursing mothers? If left on the Rez, they’d all have died from predators, starvation, disease or worse. Like I said, foster people are the better form of your natures… Huh?
STEVE: Four mamas and how many puppies?
EDGAR: It’s puppy season on the Rez, so there are a lot. By the time my transport leaves, there will be twenty-seven of us going to Phoenix and the AAWL & SPCA. The four nursing mamas and their puppies need some time before they’re ready for their road trip. They’ll be traveling as a group of forty-five.
STEVE: Holy crap.
Bessie and Edgar laughed at me without reservation. I immediately knew what to do with my hands and scratched behind their ears with as much ferocity as I could manage. Suddenly, I was a more informed white guy – no longer clueless – and they were regular old happy dogs with really scary stories to share.
STEVE: What can I do for you guys?
EDGAR: Spread the word. There are too many dogs on most Native American Reservations and too many are suffering. Some are working dogs, and they’re doing great. Some are pets, and they’re as well loved as your dogs. But there are dogs out there in desperate need of help. There are Rez Rescue groups out there who are doing amazing work, but the problem is overwhelming. Solving it isn’t cheap. Use your camera. Show people what’s happening out here but more importantly, share the happy stories. Lots of us survive because there are lots of great humans in the world. They rescue, they donate and they adopt. Spread the word. And come visit me in Phoenix.
As always, I cried when I watched a Rez Dog disappear in my rear view mirror.
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