SHOULDN'T EVEN BE TELLING you this, but I belong
to a secret society. We are determined, loyal, fanatical. There are millions of
us, everywhere, among you -- working in your offices, shopping at your malls,
teaching in your schools, driving in the lane next to you. You wouldn't know us
by just glancing our way, but we can all recognize one of our own at once, by
the encoded insignia we wear on our lapels. Sometimes we wear it on our sleeves,
or on the legs of our trousers. OK, yes, or on the sofa, or the car seat. It is
dog hair -- the sure mark of the true believers of the First Church of Canine.
Yes. We the Dog People.
In the name of the First Church of Canine, I have topped out my credit card
paying vet bills for strangers' dogs. I have dashed into freeway traffic to
rescue an injured dog. I have "liberated" an abused dog from an abusive owner. I
have smashed a car window to help a dog locked inside in 100-degree heat. I, who
haven't let a morsel of meat cross my lips since Reagan's first term, have
bought 10 59-cent burgers at the drive-through at 2 a.m., and fed them to the
dog I just rescued from the street. I have irritated scores of Muscovites by
standing in line to buy ice cream, and then feeding it to starving Moscow
strays. I have packed my luggage with Milkbones and tossed them from taxi
windows to hungry street hounds in Mexico City. And I take doggie bags home to
Among our church's other acolytes:
* Actors Betty White and Earl Holliman and Doris Day, whose inn in Carmel,
Calif., encourages you to bring your dog, and former actress and home designer
Kelly Harmon, who told me one reason she drives a pickup is to rescue stray and
* The Long Beach lady who monitors the "found dog" ads in The Times every day,
and calls up to warn that unscrupulous people sometimes claim to own the found
dogs -- and then sell them to laboratories.
* Mike Antonovich, the county supervisor with whom I have almost nothing in
common politically, who has begun each board meeting by holding up a homeless
pet -- often a dog -- to the TV camera and asking someone to adopt.
* Nicole the makeup artist, and Antonio Villaraigosa the councilman-elect, both
new converts to the First Church of Canine.
Not Caninian candidates: LBJ, who lifted his beagles by the ears and insisted
they liked it; the man who tied a dog to a rope and dragged him along the back
of his pickup; anyone who freaks out when a dog licks his face.
See what happens when you get me started? It's easy to laugh at my more
fanatical brethren, with their topiary-cut poodles, ringside seats at the
Westminster Dog Show, dog masseuses, dietitians and psychoanalysts. Rudy
Giuliani is paying $1,140 a month in dog support for Goalie, a retired
seeing-eye golden retriever who needs eye surgery. It's even easier to cry about
them. For every dozen Shih-Tzus getting shiatsu, the city of L.A. alone kills
nearly a thousand dogs a week, all for want of good homes and spaying and
neutering. Don't even calculate the unspeakably casual cruelties of dogfights,
mutilation of tails and ears in the name of "looks." In this church, some of us
move from the pews to the pulpit, from dog lovers to dog rescuers, saving them
from the shelters and the streets.
But please, don't call them mutts. They are multicultural canines, dogs so
singular-looking they deserve their own breeds, and so I sometimes make them up.
Osgood is my Highland collie, because if there ever were such a dog, my Osgood
-- long of coat, plumy of tail -- is what it should look like. I keep in a
hatbox, along with the Mother's Day cards my dogs have given me, the photos of
the dozens of dogs I've saved; it is a four-legged family album, and each
picture recalls the lost-and-found tale, the ending almost always happier than
the beginning. Charlotte, the elegant border collie mix who loved to herd guests
at parties, rescued in the rain one night in Larchmont. Frances and Bradley, the
Disney-victim Dalmatians. Kids who saw the movie wanted the dog, and the puppy
mills went into overdrive. Dals are temperamental and high-strung, and too many
Dals got dumped onto the street when they didn't act the way they did in the
movie. Bradley, running in terror in Glassell Park, now lives in the Valley, and
gets to sleep on the bed. And Frances, who is deaf, finally got matched up with
an Idaho woman whose deaf Dalmatian had just died. Bumper, hit by a car on the
Glendale Freeway, hence his name. I hid behind my car, stopped on the shoulder,
and struggled out of my stockings to wrap around his muzzle so he wouldn't bite
me in his fear and pain. Penelope Ann, tossed onto the Pasadena freeway. I was
on my way to interview the president of Nicaragua when I scooped her up, dropped
her at the vet's with orders to give her "the works," and dashed off to my
Woodrow, found half-dead in the gutter by a woman who called me sobbing. Without
having seen him, I phoned an outfit called Pet Taxi and had him collected and
delivered to my vet's office. He hadn't been hit by a car, but he was starved
and exhausted and chewed up. One ear was tattered. One back foot was splayed,
the bones long ago broken and badly healed. I named him Woodrow because his long
bony face reminded me of Woodrow Wilson's, even without a pince-nez (which I
tried to balance on his nose once, just to check the resemblance). He'd been a
street dog all his life, and was so dumbstruck at his luck that he used to sit
by the tub and stare at me when I took a bath, to make sure I didn't try to
sneak out the drain and leave him behind. He died last November, full of years
and love and Science Diet; the cleaning lady, who always spoke baby-talk Spanish
to him as he followed her around the house, cried when I told her he had died.
"My little boy," she wept, "my good little boy."
Some rescues leap into your car; my friends are convinced that stray dogs know
my route home, and hang out there waiting for me to save them. Some take a lot
of coaxing. I carry dog food and treats and water in the car, and I used it all
one evening to get to Penny, an American Staffordshire terrier (vulgarly known
as a pit bull, and a very sweet breed they can be too -- for most of us
Caninians believe that bad dogs are not born, bad dogs are made that way, by bad
owners). Penny was only a puppy, but already mange-bald and terrified of people.
I spent two hours crouched on a sidewalk before Penny would eat my food and let
me leash her. My legs were so cramped I could hardly unfold them to press the
accelerator. And some dogs, no amount of food and murmured words can reach.
Approach, and they run off, spooked, and you can only watch them flee and hope
they can dodge traffic.
A dog isn't as expensive as a child, or as long-lived, but the commitment is
lifelong. Maybe longer. The ashes from all my dogs are sealed in cedar boxes,
and when it's my turn, we'll all get mixed in together. You got a problem with
that? There's an English aristocrat who wants his carcass fed to his dogs when
I don't know much about the Corinthians, apart from the fact that they invented
very ornate architectural columns, but I can imagine that when St. Paul
admonished them to love, he could have used the dog as his example. A dog "is
patient, [it] is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It
is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no
record of wrongs... [It] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always
And always sheds. But then, dog hair is my favorite fabric.