April 26, 2013
Today was the day that everything changed. Just before noon, my wife Sara and I stopped in Modesto for lunch. I was driving us from San Francisco to Visalia, and couldn’t find a viable healthy restaurant on the way. Traveling with our dog, Bea Arthur, limited our choices to just those with outdoor seating. And Bea spending most of the trip whining increased the urgency of getting out of the car. We finally settled on what we thought was a cute café. Once seated, we discovered the place had the menu of a Denny’s with three times the price, and the one open table was next to three women who made the cast of Sex And The City look well adjusted. The women were actively complaining that their boyfriends were paying too much attention to them. Keep complaining, ladies. That problem will work itself out. On top of that, it was cold out. We ate fast and got back in the car. Many miles and a two stomach aches later, Sara finished a delayed conference call and I pulled over so Sara could finally drive. And that’s when we saw him. There was a mutt that couldn’t have been more than ten pounds, running around a gas station. I threw the car in park and Sara started chasing the dog. He was extremely fast – Sara couldn’t come within ten feet of him. I grabbed Bea and started chasing as well. We watch a lot of Animal Planet and this was not as easy as they make it look. I’d imagine I’d also be shaking my fist at HGTV if we ever renovated a house. Someone from the gas station yelled to us that Animal Control had been trying to catch the dog for weeks. “Not trying hard enough,” I thought. I was not going to let this ten pounds of cute outwit me. I noticed the dog was going in circles around the gas station so I had Sara chase it into the station’s retired car wash tunnel as I ran to the other side. When I was in college, I played tackle football with no padding every January. In a game of ultimate frisbee, I ran into someone so hard it took my face three weeks to heal. I once caught a Spring Training home run ball with a slide on concrete. But I have never been so proud of a tackle as I was today. Partially because it’s been ten years since I’ve exercised with any sort of regularity. With Bea’s leash in my left hand, I got my right hand on the mutt’s back enough to stop it from running. The poor dog was terrified – it peed so much I felt like I had squeezed a water bottle. Sara took Bea from me and I tried to feed the mutt a few treats. It was too scared to eat. In fairness, if something 18 times my size scared me so much I peed on myself, my next thought wouldn’t be “oooh, snacks!” Having found the dog in a car wash, I decided to call him “Suds MacKenzie.” Sara grabbed a blanket from the car and we did what we could to clean Suds off and wrap him up. After ten minutes of heavy petting, Suds finally started eating. Again, I was reminded of college. We drove to a nearby Petco and bought $50 worth of supplies. We figured we’d be back home in LA in two days – we could stop by a vet in Fresno to have Suds checked out, and then find a no-kill shelter in LA or a neighbor in need of an adorable friend. We bought a collar so we could walk him, some wipes to finish cleaning him off, a bunch of Nature’s Miracle to make sure our hotel would be fine, and some wet food since Suds’ teeth were mostly gone. Suds wouldn’t walk in the parking lot, probably having never been on a leash before, so I carried him back to the car and tried to find something more conducive to calming a dog than a strip mall. According to Google, the nearest dog park was back in San Francisco. But I saw a patch of green on the map and headed for it. Then something amazing happened – the patch of green was a dog park, and it was the nicest dog park I’ve ever seen. It was large, covered in grass, and empty. Meanwhile, the 60-degree day had magically warmed up to 68. This was order in the universe. The cosmic nature of what was happening hit me. Bea’s whining, the terrible lunch, Sara’s delayed conference call – it all led up to us finding this amazingly sweet animal. And I was wrong – this dog’s name was not Suds. It was Carlin. It had to be. Part for the play on words that I met him in a car wash. But mostly because he inspired me to re-appreciate the universe in an entirely non-religious way. There is also something amazing about having a dog named Bea Arthur towering over a dog named George Carlin. We let Bea explore while we fed Carlin and tried to get him to drink water and get some exercise. But even off leash, he wouldn’t walk. He ate a little bit – but he wouldn’t drink any water. We tried coaxing him by putting some of his food in the water bowl, but nothing. We tried getting him to walk towards the food, and he refused. He tried a few times, but his legs wouldn’t let him. Something was seriously wrong. When we first picked him up, we attributed Carlin’s twitching to fear, his weakness to hunger, and his missing teeth to a life on the streets. It was becoming increasingly clear that Carlin was very sick – and a lifetime of running had only made it worse. He was so scared when we found him that even starving and with bad legs he still outran us. It was simultaneously impressive and sad. But he wasn’t running from us now. He trusted us enough to just lay in the grass, alternating between eating and sleeping, two things he wasn’t able to do with any sense of certainty just an hour earlier. We knew that we had to take him to a vet or a shelter. If this was New York or LA or a dozen other places, I’d have been able to find someone who could help. But we were a few miles north of Fresno – and after a few desperate unanswered posts to Reddit and Facebook, our only choice was to bring him in. I didn’t call Animal Control – they were the same people who couldn’t bother themselves with saving Carlin in the first place. As we drove to the SPCA, we knew there was a good chance Carlin would be put down. We might have been saving his life – but the odds were we just gave him one nice afternoon after a lifetime of fear. Two years ago, this story would have been impossible. I grew up terrified of dogs. I misinterpreted affection for aggression, and I let ignorance get the better of me. It wasn’t until I watched Sara volunteer with strays and we eventually adopted our own that I truly got it. Dogs are a human problem – we created them and we overbreed them. It is our responsibility to protect what we shaped. I love Sara for many reasons. But showing me that my fear was nothing compared to the fear of the four million dogs who go abandoned every year? For that, I will be eternally grateful. Carlin cuddled into Sara’s lap and fell asleep as I drove. Bea’s whining stopped, and she silently laid down in the back seat. Her new little brother was sick, and she somehow knew it was not the time to be selfish. The Fresno SPCA knew Carlin was in trouble immediately. It was obvious to them that Carlin had an incurable condition called distemper, a disease that proves fatal in most cases. Though completely avoidable with a simple vaccination, distemper is one of the worst diseases a dog can contract, and it causes tooth loss, trouble walking, and dehydration with no desire to drink. The worst part is that, while incurable, distemper is treatable if caught in time. Had Animal Control – or anyone else – bothered to catch a scared little dog, while a long shot, his disease may have been manageable. The optimist in me wanted to pay the several thousand dollars for a distemper test to make sure. The realist in me accepted what was happening, and gave my little gremlin one last hug goodbye. I placed the bag of supplies we’d bought on the counter of the SPCA, muttered “keep them,” and walked away. I wish the story ended differently. I wish I could show you pictures three weeks from now, where Sara and Bea and I are all playing with my new doofy little gremlin. But I can’t. When I say today was the day that everything changed, I don’t mean for me. Yes, I am more resigned to help any stray I see, to donate money to rescues, and to use my stage to influence others. But today, things didn’t change for me – they changed for Carlin. His life of fear ended quietly in a hospital instead of in agony in a gas station parking lot. And it ended with three things he’d never had before – love, protection, and the dignity of a name. Not every story has to have a happy ending. Some can just have a happy couple of hours.