Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teach Your Children

A few years back, I got a call from a rescue group upstate I'd never heard of or spoken with before. They had a blind pug puppy they'd rescued from an outdoor pen and were looking for a breed-specific rescue to take her.

A week later on a Saturday afternoon, I was parked at a corner gas station on Broadway in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. It was February and still a bit nippy, so I sat in the transport van and watched participants arriving for the Barkus Dog Parade. If you never been to the dog parade in Soulard and you live within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend it. Everyone's invited. Dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes parade through the neighborhood dragging two-leggers behind them - many in costume, some dressed to match their humans, which is a real hoot! I found it so entertaining just watching people and dogs preparing for the event, I didn't even see the RV pull up. A sandy-haired young woman knocking on my window startled me. Then I saw Baby.

"Here she is!" she smiled. "She's a sweetheart, but she can't see a thing." With that, she handed me a bundle of squirming six-month-old pug puppy and an envelope of vet records and took off with her friends and their own costumed canines. I looked at the blind pug puppy in my hands. Baby was walleyed, both orbs out of focus and clearly useless. I sat her in the car seat. She immediately jumped out and paddled her way back up to the driver's seat. "Well," I said, "they shoulda named you 'Fearless'!" Needless to say, she rode back to Illinois on the driver's lap. Baby was unusual, the first blind puppy I'd had. Although I had placed many blind dogs over the years, most were adults.

At home, I sat Baby on the ground in the back yard. After the requisite sniffs, she started spinning in tight circles that seemed to widen more and more as she spun. I was terrified I'd gotten a mentally ill dog, a whirling dervish that would never be adoptable! Even the other dogs were fearful, ogling this odd behavior with great trepidation. No one got too close. Baby spun and spun until she grazed the edge of a tree trunk.

Suddenly, she stopped.

As I watched in amazement, Baby located and thoroughly examined the tree with her nose and paws. After a minute or so, seemingly satisfied, she moved to the other side. The spinning commenced.

 It was not insanity I was witnessing. It was navigation.

Baby had adapted to her blindness incredibly well. In fact, she had developed her own technique for making her way through unfamiliar terrain. I dubbed it "circular navigation".

Baby was an incredible teacher, an energetic and amazing young pup. But who'd want a blind puppy? Puppies are ideally for families. But when people go to adopt a puppy for a child, they want perfection. They want the expensive sneakers, the state-of-the-art game console, the perfect puppy.

A young woman named Chris - a single mom of three - put a dent in my tidy assumption by adopting Baby. She called after speaking with her vet about the ramifications of having one sighted dog and one blind dog. "He asked me what made me think I could tell the difference", she laughed. I silently thanked that vet for knowing something most people do not: As humans, we depend heavily on vision. It is our first sense. But dogs are different. Hearing and smell are primary. Vision is third. Once a blind dog learns it's surroundings, few people can tell the difference.

Over the years, I've gotten a few pics from Chris and her family, all with Baby featured prominently. Unless you looked very closely at the smiling family holding their two dogs and one cat before the lit Christmas tree, you wouldn't notice anything unusual about that fawn pug in the middle.

Rather than choose a puppy for her family who fit the general public's ideal, Chris chose a puppy most people would probably want euthanized. In doing so, she had given her family a tremendous gift.

Kids with perfect puppies would never get to witness the wonder of "circular navigation", or experience the amazement of seeing a sightless animal walk a hallway and turn corners as if they had 20/20 vision. They would never use their imaginations to walk through the house with their eyes closed, never experience that empathy that might give them an insight into what replaces darkness in a blind dog's world. They'd never love something that others might perceive as defective. They'd miss the very important lesson that perfection is not necessarily what most people think it is, nor is it all it's cracked up to be.

Would Baby help instill an exceptional compassion and insight into her adoptive family? Maybe.

I so wish that, in choosing a pet for their kids, more parents would consider what message they are conveying:

I bought a purebred puppy for my child: Buy what you want. Overpopulation among companion animals is not our problem.

I adopted a rescued animal for my child: This animal is worth loving, too; there are just too many animals. 

Our pet is neutered: We care about animal suffering and about the millions being killed because there are not enough homes for them all. We will not contribute to that. Our pet is a family member, his/her well-being is our responsibility.

I adopted a deaf puppy for my child: This animal is worth loving. From this experience, you will gain insight into a soundless world. You will learn hand signals, and know how to protect another being from dangers they can't hear.

I adopted a puppy with no eyes for my child: this animal deserves a loving home. You will learn how other senses compensate for lack of vision. You will love a being whose appearance may horrify others and through this, learn to love the soul and not the exterior.

I adopted a senior dog for my child:  The elderly should be well-cared for and treated with love and respect, not discarded. Loss is a natural part of life. Sometimes doing the right thing requires a bit of sacrifice.

When I originally went to write the blog called "Teach Your Children", I wanted to include examples of families who had adopted special pets, but I ran into a roadblock.

There weren't any.

Other than Chris, I could find no one with children who had added a special pet to their families.

My question is this: Do we really want a ME society?

I think back on the Special Olympians who stopped their competition to help a fallen comrade. Is it just me, or wouldn't we like all of our children to grow up with that kind of heart? In a world where reality TV rules and contestants eliminate each other any way they can for cash prizes, do we ever stop to wonder what they've sold?

Baby is still out there somewhere. I've lost touch with her wonderful family, but I'll never forget them. Or her. Because it was such a special experience.

I learned something priceless.


jacque said...

well said, melanie! having a blind kiddo myself, i can agree that it truly opens your eyes. :)
(pun def intended)

Jodi said...

I LOVE this story. We have a blind(no eyes) pug named Belle and she does the same thing. She is amazing and the best thing that has ever happened to our family. Everyone always says were so great to adopt her but she has blessed us more than we could ever do for her. She is truly our little angel girl