Houston, Texas, gets maybe three perfect days per year — one in autumn, one in spring and one more wildcard if you’ve sacrificed the right goats to the right gods. It was one of those perfect days in early October. The leaves in Houston don’t flare scarlet and gold; in just a few days, they shrivel to brown and drop (sometimes as late as December or early January). Images of brisk New England Halloweens and Thanksgivings don’t mirror that gulf-coastal-prairie, continental-armpit breed of autumnal mugginess. But the sky was blue and the temperature peaked in the mid-80s. After the long 100+ degrees and 100% humidity days of summer, that much was a relief.
My wife (fiancé at the time) and I both had the day off. Two lovebirds free to do whatever on this perfect day, we decided to clean the house. We, at least, wanted to bring the outside in but the bungalow that we were renting was built in 1914 and we didn’t trust the old pulley system to lift the heavy window panes. So, we opened the front and back doors.
We had been feverish for a pet. We kept our landlord’s koi in a tiny pond in the backyard. He had wanted to cement over the pond. We had advocated on the koi’s behalf. We fawned over the koi and liked to watch the koi do koi things but koi aren’t very cuddly. My wife had developed a habit of scrolling through the SPCA website just to look at adoptable pets but our landlord would not allow animals in his precious investment bungalow.
As I propped the front door open, my wife said, “I hope a kitten wanders in. I’d keep it.” Well, we didn’t get a cat…
In the time it took for me to walk from the living room to the hallway to fetch a vacuum cleaner, a scraggly puppy — around fifteen pounds, black and brown and mangy all-over — ventured in through our front door. He looked around and at me and just waited. He hadn’t a collar.
I don’t know if my face lit-up or contorted or what but my wife (the puppy hidden from her sight by our couch) could read shock or panic in whatever expression struck me. She asked, “What is it?”
I think I said, “There’s a dog in the house,” though I may have just babbled unintelligibly.
She said, “Get it!”
Suddenly, the pup was aware of stranger danger. He pranced off but he was curious and didn’t prance far. As my wife scurried out the door, I said that he was probably someone’s pet.
“He doesn’t have a collar and he’s hairless!” she said.
“I don’t think he’s hairless,” I argued. “I think he’s brindle.” He wasn’t quite hairless but he wasn’t brindle. He had mange. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and so mistook the gray of his skin mixed with brown and black fur as a brindle coat.
“Get food!” she called back to me.
Only a little nervous that we were about to nab someone’s pet that had Houdini’ed his way out of the yard or (worse) some rabid mongrel, I rummaged through the pantry for anything that might entice a stray. I found, for some reason, a single packet of ranch-flavored tuna. Don’t ask. To this day, I have no idea why we owned a single packet of ranch-flavored tuna. This precious delicacy, I thought, was expendable.
Armed with tuna, I hopped in my car and quickly caught-up with the pup. I had expected a chase but he had only made it two houses down the street. My wife knelt in a neighbor’s driveway and cooed at the pup. The pup eyed her, curious but wary. Then, ranch-flavored tuna sealed the deal.
I squeezed the contents of the packet onto a plate that I had brought along and set the plate in the driveway. My wife and I retreated to the car. We considered ways to coax the little guy into the car but he ate the tuna in three greedy and grateful licks and, then, hopped right through my open car door. He was going wherever the ranch-flavored-tuna providers were going.
“Don’t let him touch you,” my wife warned. “I’m sure he’s diseased.” As if on cue, the pup’s tongue traveled from my neck to cheek to forehead in one long, unavoidable lick.
First, we asked around. Our neighbor’s didn’t recognize the pup but one donated an old, black and orange collar to the cause. It read, “Bad to the bone.”
In the cramped proximity of my little hatchback, the pup’s astoundingly horrid smell became apparent. Acrid and piercing. I have smelt bad smells. I’m sure we all — that is, all humanity — have smelt bad smells. But this pup in my car was the only thing I have ever smelt that was truly painful. My nostrils burned. I once got spicy mustard from some hole-in-the-wall Chinese buffet on the tip of my nose and, without realizing, inhaled. The shock made me gasp. It was like that; only, the pup’s smell was all-up in my nose and the smell wouldn’t subside. We cracked all windows and tried not to breathe at stop signs.
We drove the pup to the Houston SPCA on Portway Drive. On the way, we thought we should give the pup a name so that, one day, when we would look back on this little adventure, we’d know what to call him. Passing the street sign for Portway Drive, we christened the little pup Porter.
The Houston SPCA’s website boasts, “We’re here for animals of every description and species, dedicated to their safety, welfare and happiness.” This statement is flowery, feel-good bullshit. Let me tell you why.
Porter was not our dog. He was a stray. The SPCA would not accept Porter because Porter was not our dog. They consider (not “accept” but “consider”) found animals by appointment only. If he was our pet, they would’ve taken him. The SPCA exists to ease the guilt of those who have a pet and couldn’t love or care for that pet. The SPCA enables those who would rather abandon a living creature than accept the responsibilities that they themselves have taken on — “enable” being operative. The SPCA enables the adopt-reject-adopt-reject cycle.
The bigger problem: Porter had mange. It wasn’t a terrible case but it certainly needed to be treated. We offered to pay for the medication and donate it to the SPCA but a receptionist told us that there are an estimated one million stray cats and dogs in the Houston area alone. The SPCA simply does not have the resources to administer medication due to the overwhelming number of animals that come through their doors. We were told that Porter was unadoptable, and even if we just left him on their porch, they would simply give him to a kill-shelter. The kill-shelter would then put him down before wasting any resources because no one wants to adopt a mangy dog. Seriously, that is what we were told. The saintly SPCA would give this poor pup to a kill-shelter and have him put-down.
Maybe it was all an elaborate bluff to bully us into adopting Porter. Or maybe it was just the reality of the situation and euthanizing unadoptable animals is more humane than letting them starve on the streets. Maybe that’s “welfare and happiness” but there is no “safety” in “kill” regardless of how humane the killing is. The Houston SPCA has not earned that “safety” bit in their mission statement.
We tried BARC with the same results. The day was getting late and long, so we decided to address an issue that was within our power to address — that is, to get this pup clean and medicated against mange. We drove Porter to an emergency animal hospital. We didn’t have a leash and were unsure how he would react to strangers who did not offer ranch-flavored tuna. My wife went inside to explain the situation while Porter and I waited in the car. Porter was shockingly good in the car. He slept when we drove and only awoke whenever my wife got out of the car. He’d whimper while she was out of sight but calm down again when she’d reappear.
My wife marched back toward the car followed by a veterinarian wearing latex gloves, carrying a towel in which to wrap Porter, and psyching himself for the worst. My wife opened the passenger door. The vet approached Porter with his towel-draped arms open. Porter leapt into his arms, vigorously wagging his tail — the vicious beast.
While we sat in the waiting room. Two men brought in a chihuahua pup that kept dying and waking and dying and waking again. Epilepsy. After receiving the diagnosis and learning that the condition was incurable and expensive to treat, the men snuck-off unannounced. They didn’t pay and they didn’t take their pup with them. The vet was saddened but not surprised.
Porter checked-out well, which only added to the mystery of his origins. He still had baby teeth, so the vet guesstimated that he was no more than six-months old. But he didn’t have heart worms and he was slightly undersized but still a reasonable weight for his age and build. He wasn’t afraid of humans. His mange, however, suggested that he had been living on the streets for, at least, several weeks. The vet guessed that the stage of mange suggested that Porter had contracted it at least 6 weeks prior. Was he someone’s lost pet? Was he left in a dingy yard, contracted mange and escaped or was abandoned by owners who didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to treat it? Was he born a stray and fed by some generous neighbors whom, for whatever reason, couldn’t take him in?
Our stories got complex and wild. The Houston Heights is a gentrified neighborhood where flipped bungalows from the early 1900s and ranch houses from the 1960s are priced from $500k to several million. (Hints why we rented and did not own.) There once stood at its entrance a dilapidated mid-rise where the tenants still hung their laundry on their porches to dry. Roughly three or four months prior, the tenants were evicted and the building was demolished. Was Porter living in the muddy wreckage and forced out once new development began? We’d also joke that my wife had visited the SPCA website so many times that the SPCA’s covert operatives were able to triangulate our location using her computer’s IP address and her iPhone’s GPS coordinates. They staked-out near our house. Seeing me leave the door open, they seized the opportunity and released Porter on our front porch. Far-fetched? Maybe, but the truth is out there.
My wife and I sat on a bench barely wide enough for the two of us while we spoke with the vet. Porter wedged his way in between and sat snug with his head rested on our laps. He had found his humans.
But our landlord wouldn’t allow pets in his house. So the blitz to find Porter a home began.
We relocated Porter to my mother’s garage. Mom had retired and was planning to move to Florida, so Porter couldn’t stay indefinitely. My wife and I spent October either at work or at Mom’s with Porter. We placed Found-Dog fliers throughout the Heights to which no one responded. We posted notices on adoption and shelter Facebook feeds. We scoured the internet in search of Lost-Dog fliers that matched Porter’s description. I called every no-kill shelter within a 6-hour drive from Houston. They all had the same response: no vacancy but good luck.
I felt sick and couldn’t sleep. Why would no one love this perfectly loveable pup? The experience was heartbreaking. It was intense and frustrating. It was eye-opening. It was for the best. It was worthwhile. It was among the greatest experiences of my life.
By the end of October, my wife and I had irrevocably bonded with Porter. We were his humans. He knew it from day one. I finally figured it out when, after nearly a month of prowling the web and making fruitless cold calls, a coworker called me. She said, “Our dog just passed away and I see this adorable puppy on your Facebook and my kids would just love him.” I said, “Thanks but we’ve grown attached.” But inwardly, I was thinking, “Get. Away. From. My. Dog.”
With the wedding only about two weeks away, my mother and I spent a weekend when my wife was working to drive Porter from Texas to Florida where my wife’s mom and step-dad could care for him. My wife and I got hitched and got out of our lease as soon as possible. We moved from the Heights to a dog-friendly high-rise near the Medical Center. I drove back to Florida and retrieved my pup — no longer hairless but every bit as loveable and gracious to have a forever home.
Porter was the greatest wedding gift we could have hoped for. He’s our starter-child and we’ve been happier, calmer people since Porter has entered our lives because he’s just so good at putting things into perspective. What is work compared to a good romp with your favorite toy? What are deadlines when you should be snuggled on the couch? There’s always time to sniff the daisies and, well, other things. And given the opportunity, would you fill your days with quotas and figures or would you spend all day every day beside the ones you love — playing, exploring and napping under the sun in spring or, in winter, by an open fire.