In August, 2011, as I was driving home from the grocery store, I saw a mid-sized black dog lamely trying to limp up a hill on what appeared to be two badly mangled back legs. I was just a few minutes away from home, which is more or less in the middle of a Rio de Janeiro rainforest, and the thought of leaving this almost-crippled dog there was horrifying. Dogs can manage with one bad leg but not two.
At the time, my partner David and I already had seven dogs. One, the oldest, was a dog I got from a shelter back in 2002 when I lived in New York, and she then moved with me to Brazil. The other six were all rescue mutts from the streets of Rio: homeless dogs we found in various forms of injury or sickness and could not get ourselves to walk away from.
Seven dogs were far more than we ever expected to have. Each time one of us would pick up a new dog, David and I would go through the same ritual. The one who brought the dog home would insist that there was no choice ("she's so injured yet sweet; I couldn't leave her"), while the other one would angrily object that we already have too many dogs and that she couldn't stay. Ultimately, the objector would relent only in exchange for a promise we both knew wouldn't be kept: "we can keep her only if you swear you won't pick up any more dogs."
Six months later or so, the one extracting that promise would, in an act of grand hypocrisy, himself bring a new dog home, and the process would repeat itself, though with the roles reversed. That's how you end up with so many dogs. But each new dog brought us so much, added so much unique joy to our growing pack, that it provided its own motivation to do that which we kept vowing we would stop doing. Still, we knew we had to impose some limits on ourselves.
So that was the context as I stopped my car to see what was happening with this badly limping dog. I assured myself that I was only going to help her, not pick her up and take her home.
I walked over to her slowly to ensure she didn't get frightened, but immediately saw that, even if she had wanted to, she could not run away from me. Both of her back legs were being consumed by very deep and ugly sores that made both hind legs virtually unusable. I grabbed some food from the grocery bags I had and gave it to her, and she ate it all as though she had never seen food before. I sat with her for 10 minutes, just petting her, and could see she was an incredibly calm and well-balanced dog. She had likely endured all sorts of difficulties in her life as a street dog in the middle of a forest, and had an internal wisdom that comes from constant struggle.
Forcing myself to leave her there was incredibly hard, but I knew we couldn't accommodate another dog. So I got in my car and very reluctantly drove home, leaving her behind.
When I got home, I did everything possible to forget about her. I distracted myself with work, did some yoga, and reasoned that we couldn't save every dog in need. But it was all to no avail: the image of this defenseless, gentle animal dying a hideous starvation death because she couldn't walk to find food haunted me. So after 20 minutes of futile struggle, I got back in my car and tried to tell myself I was only going to pick her up to get her some medical attention, but not keep her.
I returned to the spot I first saw her and she had only managed to move a few steps. I slipped a collar on her neck and attached a leash to it. She strongly resisted when I attempted to walk her to the car – this was obviously a first-time experience for her – so I picked her up, put her in the car and took her to our veterinarian. The vet said she would examine her and conduct tests – the leg wounds were either from an infection or a car hitting her -- and told me to return that night to pick her up.
I called David, expecting him to yell at me according to our by-now familiar script. But he didn't: he was largely supportive, though emphasized several times that we wouldn't keep her. "Of course not," I said, but we both knew that was false. Picking up an injured dog, with all of its attendant emotional attachments and bonding, is the point of no return.
That night, before driving to the vet's office to pick her up, I called to find out what the exams had revealed. The vet said that her leg wounds were badly infected but could be treated with strong antibiotics. She was completely blind in one eye, likely from a prior infection. She was full of all sorts of other diseases common to street dogs. She was anemic, had worms, and her system was suffuse with all sorts of blood abnormalities. It could all be treated, but only with a long, attentive treatment regimen. I know that sealed her fate: she would now be our (eighth) dog.
Then the vet added some rather startling news. "Guess what?" she said playfully. "You're going to be a grandpa."
I generally dislike anthropomorphizing dogs that way. I don't think of them as my children. What I love most about dogs is their essential dogness. Beyond that, relating to dogs like your children can be psychologically unhealthy: I once read an article by a smart psychologist explaining that, given their short life spans, it means you'll go through the severe emotional trauma of burying a child once every 15 years.
So I didn't instantly understand what the vet meant. So she tried the more direct approach.
"She's pregnant! With six puppies."
After a long pause, she added: "And they're already fully formed, 10 to 14 days away from being born."
To say that this shocked me is an understatement. I had noticed that the dog appeared fat but assumed she was just bloated with a distended stomach, due to hunger. By now, I had already accepted that we were going to keep her. But "her" now meant "her and her six puppies."
I then realized that I'd have to call David and tell him that I hadn't picked up one dog that day after all. I had effectively picked up 7 dogs, thus instantly doubling our dog count from 7 to 14. Let's just say he wasn't quite as understanding as the first time I called him that day.
But she grew very quickly on both of us. As she got stronger and healthier, her personality emerged. Everything about her was awkward, clumsy and just a bit off. She didn't know how to be a house dog. She was unsure how to show affection. She didn't know how to play with or socialize with the other dogs. She was clearly older, not exactly pretty by traditional metrics (to put that generously), and just generally looked like a pudgy street mutt. So we named her "Mabel," which seemed to fit her perfectly.
But she was so calm and balanced that she was accepted by the pack more quickly than any other new dog we got. And her affection for us was so intense, even if awkwardly expressed, that we quickly formed a deep bond with her.
David and I immediately began planning for what we would do with these new puppies. Even we knew that we couldn't keep them all. We decided we would keep Mabel and one of her puppies, so that they weren't all taken from her, so we then set out to find five families willing to adopt the others.
We knew from experience that finding adoptive homes for mutts in Brazil was extremely difficult, so we resolved to use my platform as a writer to accomplish this. I wrote a post for my personal blog that told Mabel's story, showed pictures of her, and asked whether anyone would want to adopt her soon-to-arrive puppies. I then sent that post out on Twitter. Within a day, we were inundated with emails of people moved by her plight and eager to adopt. Aside from having far more offers from great people than we had puppies, the one problem was that almost everyone we heard from was in the U.S., which left the problem of how to get these new puppies there from Brazil.
Ten days after I brought her home, Mabel began exhibiting all the classic signs of impending puppy-delivery. I put her in my office and stayed with her, consumed with a mix of excitement and anxiety over something I had never before witnessed. She began with the first puppy at 1:30 a.m., and proceeded to spit another one out at roughly one-hour intervals, until the sixth one finally emerged at almost 7 a.m.
It was exhausting and nerve-wracking – at least for me. Mabel was incredibly calm throughout the entire ordeal. It was a stunning thing to watch: each puppy is born wrapped tightly in a membrane, which the mother must quickly and delicately remove lest the puppy suffocate at birth. I had read that if the mother fails to remove it with sufficient speed and agility, it would be necessary to help the process by unwrapping it.
I panicked on the second puppy, and went to help unwrap the membrane, but when I tried to pick up the newly born dog, Mabel leaned protectively over her puppy and shot me an aggressive and hostile glance whose meaning was clear: your help is neither needed nor appreciated. She had the process well under control. She systematically took each puppy, rapidly unwrapped the membrane with her mouth, licked their noses to clear the passage and enable breathing, and then set them down next to one another. Born both blind and deaf, the puppies would occasionally get lost and wander away, but before they could, Mable would pick them up with her mouth and move them back over to her.
For the next three days, Mabel refused to move from her puppies, even to go to the bathroom. I finally had to pick her up and put her outside, where she instantly relieved herself and then literally sprinted faster than I've ever seen her run, back to her puppies. Her devotion to them was remarkable, as was the vicious protectiveness she displayed if anyone got too close to them.