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Essay: A Dog's Life, Act II


April 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

I WAS back in St. Croix, where I had lived for a couple of years in my 20's, sitting by the harbor, listening to a steel drum play. It was New Year's Day and I was having dinner with friends, reliving the strange mix of craziness and calm that had been my Caribbean life. A wave of nostalgia passed over me, and for a few moments I imagined what things might be like if I'd never left. Maybe this explains why, when a skinny little stray – part of the island's seemingly never-ending army of forsaken dogs – approached my table, tail wagging, it didn't seem like a bad idea to bring him home with me. Perhaps I think I was trying to pocket a little bit of St. Croix.

This wasn't the first time I had considered getting another dog. Just the week before, I had dragged my husband to the pound on the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico and fallen in love with every flea-bitten beast there. Now, alone on St. Croix, without Mr. Reasonable, I was unstoppable. And when that raccoon-eyed puppy with bulging ribs and sweet brown eyes laid his paws on my lap and licked my face, it would have taken heavy machinery to pry me away from him.

Caught up in the moment (and perhaps in a piña colada or two) I decided not to think about the fact that I already had two dogs – at least one too many for my Brooklyn apartment. And that my husband had shouted "No!" into the phone when I called him with the news. Or that I was flying out the next morning to another island, and then another, before my return to New York. None of it seemed to matter as I scooped the dog into my arms and deposited him in my hotel room, smiling at the desk clerk as I slipped up the stairs.

When I woke up the next day with the dog snoring next to me on the bed, I admit I had second thoughts. How was I going to take care of this street dog, along with my hyperactive pugs, while trying to work every day from home? And house-training – I hadn't even thought about that nightmare. But what was I going to do, put him back on the street? No, I told myself as I examined the welts and scars on his belly, there was no going back. I'd made the decision and, for better or worse, I had to live with it.

After a vet visit hastily arranged by a friend (the dog received a rabies shot – most domestic animals only need proof of rabies vaccination to enter the continental United States), and a wondrously easy response from the airline to my extra baggage, I was on the way back to Vieques to reunite with my mother. I was later reminded that she had rented a strictly no-dogs house for her two-week vacation.

The look on her face when she saw me emerge from Customs with a 30-pound mutt suggested she wasn't pleased. But, probably seduced by the same island tonic that had come over me, she laughed, said I was nuts and that the dog would sleep outside. I figured he wouldn't mind. He had, after all, been homeless.

That day we sneaked him past the beach guards and took him swimming. He was hesitant at first, as if he'd never seen water, and I guessed his life had involved a lot more begging than doggy paddling. But after much cajoling, he swam out to me and half an hour later was zipping around like a pro. We spent the rest of the afternoon napping in the sun, he in a hole he dug and redug in the sand, I on an old beach chair.

The next day we packed for San Juan, where we would spend the night before returning home. When we arrived at the airport, I opened the back of the truck and found that the travel kennel I'd bought was gone. I must have forgotten to reload it when I was shifting luggage around. My mother – whose island self always wears off the day of departure – rolled her eyes, as if to say "I told you this dog was a cockamamie idea." But when we entered the terminal, I spotted an abandoned kennel, complete with chew toys and a lambskin cushion, and got a what-do-I-care shrug when I asked an airline employee if I could take it. My mother just shook her head and warned me that luck doesn't last forever.

In San Juan we finally found a taxi driver who would ferry a dog, and he dropped us at our hotel. The first thing I noticed was a sign screaming "Perros, No!" so I took the dog for a walk while my mother checked in. No one seemed to notice me smuggling him in and out under my coat and we escaped the next morning undetected.

I arrived at the airport very excited. It had been an interesting couple of days but I couldn't wait to get the dog home. He was the picture of good behavior as we crawled through the hourlong check-in line, lying obediently at my feet. The desk agent fell in love with him immediately and we chatted about pets – she was about to get one – as she clacked away on her computer with one hand while stroking the dog with the other. Suddenly, the smile on her face disappeared and I knew my luck had ended. It had to be at least 45 degrees at my destination in order for the dog to fly as checked baggage, and he was too big to fit under the seat. She called another agent over and the two took turns making phone calls and trying new things on the computer.

"I'm sorry," the agent finally said. "I don't know what to tell you." I asked if she could check on flights to warmer places, but they were booked for days and I had to get home. I asked if the rules couldn't be bent, just this once. She shook her head no – they would lose their jobs.

Despite my mother's warning, I couldn't believe my fortune had ended then, after everything had gone so right, and I started to cry. What would I do, just let him go?

Pay a taxi driver to take him to a shelter and hope he'd be adopted? The agent looked at the growing line behind me and tried the computer one last time. A few agonizing minutes later she smiled a smile that said she had found a way. If I got a letter from the vet he'd seen in St. Croix saying the dog could withstand the temperature, he could fly. The only catch was that it had to be an original. This meant getting it sent by overnight courier.

The next thing I knew the agent was on the telephone to her grandmother telling her she was bringing a dog home for a few days. When her grandmother resisted, the agent whispered "Está llorando" ("She's crying"). She hung up and told me to have the vet's letter sent to her and she would arrange for the dog to fly to New York as soon as possible.

Our new puppy landed at J.F.K. two days later, in the freezing rain. I let my husband name him; I thought it would help with the bonding. I recently sent the American Airlines agent a Polaroid picture of my three dogs, the pugs in their hooded sweaters, Zeke in his parka. I think Zeke likes Brooklyn, but I'm sure he has moments when he misses the warm sun and carefree island life. I know I do.   

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