First Church of Canine

By Patt Morrison  -  Los Angeles Times

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 actual doggies.

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 injured creatures.
* 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 interview.

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 he goes.

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 preserves."

And always sheds. But then, dog hair is my favorite fabric.

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