Wednesday, May 7, 2014

a stray dog and a moral dilemma

{I was going to post about something completely different today, but this is what's been happening at our house the last couple days... A disclaimer: It's been brought to my attention that some of the content in this post may be disturbing to those of you living in more developed countries than the one we're in... YES I am still grappling with this, and YES I hate that this happened, and NO I do not want to see it happen again.  There is no humane way to deal with stray or unwanted animals in this culture, nor are there any organizations in our town to deal with this kind of problem - if I suggested that, or told people what we have in America, I'd be laughed at incredulously.  So keep that in mind as you read... and yes, I do want your honest opinions.}

(Will's dog he used to sleep with at night, hung up to dry...)

Two nights ago, a stray dog snuck into our yard.  It spent the night curled snugly in the mesh seat of Ruby’s umbrella stroller, where James found it in the morning when he went outside to check on his cherry seedlings.  

It’s a scrawny scrap of a thing, gray and mangy, hardly more than a puppy, and it had a pointed little face and two of the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen.  

I tried not to look at those eyes while we resolutely shooed it out of the yard three times that first day.  Then it snuck back in overnight.  

James didn't have time to deal with the dog in the yard before work, and sitting at the breakfast table this morning, after James had left and the kids had been excused, I had a fight with my conscience thinking about that mangy dog.  I was afraid of worms and fleas and a mysterious dog diseases… I didn’t see any signs of rabies, but then, you never know - can rabies be dormant?  

Despite all that, my conscience is still niggling, because after watching yesterday’s drama with getting the dog out of the yard, Ruby said this morning at breakfast, very clearly, “Do-k.  B-ed (bread) -kiss, kiss- “ because that was the noise we were making to call it out from under its hiding place.  Was she wanting to cuddle the dog?  Get rid of it?  Was she scared of it?  Maybe all of the above, but she sure wasn’t missing any of what was happening.

And then, this morning, as we stood on the steps and watched James trying in vain to lure the dog out from under the petrol tank before leaving for work, Will said, “Mom, it’s just like Giovanni, right?”  

(Giovanni being a pathetic orphan character in a Five In A Row book we read this year who begs his bread and sleeps in doorways.)  

Great.  My six-year-old is comparing this mangy mutt to a human orphan, implying we should give it bread and a bed to sleep in - and isn’t that what the Bible says to do, too?  Good grief!

My conscience was more conflicted about this than I felt it ought to be.  I begrudged the mental energy spent worrying about what I should do, and resented the “mangy mutt" for taking up valuable brain time.  And then, at other, more grace-filled moments, I contemplated feeding it, de-worming it, giving it a bath for fleas, and saw grand visions of gospel grace being enacted in front of my kids - a story they’d remember for the rest of their lives.  

“Remember how mom didn’t just throw that awful puppy out on the street, but spent hours looking after it, and it became our favorite pet??”

I have a friend who wouldn’t have thought twice about adopting this dog.  She sees it as part of her mission in life to redeem stray animals.  They’d only been living in this country a few months and had already added two dogs and two cats to their household, at least one of which had been picked up off the street, spur of the moment.  

For her, there would have been no agony of indecision, just, “This is what God wants me to do, show compassion,” and the dog would’ve been in her arms.  Aaahh!  Compared to her, I feel like a grace-less, compassion-less person.  (She would disagree - she would probably say we just show grace in different ways.)

Ok, so then why is this way of showing grace so hard for me?  Is it because of the cost?  The personal cost to myself?  I would have to give up hours of precious time, and money, trekking all around town in a taxi looking for the right medicine, and then administering it in ways I can’t begin to imagine.  (I grew up in a family with no pets larger than a hamster, so you can see why I'm squeamish…)

Maybe it’s just selfishness.  Maybe it’s that showing grace to this mutt would require too much breaking of my routine, too much upheaval, too much time and sacrifice, and I'm just selfish and I don’t want to give up control of my life, especially for a measly dog.  Now, if it were a real baby left on my doorstep, that would be different… 

I call James in an agony of indecision, but he doesn’t have the brain-space at the moment to even contemplate the problem.  His response is pragmatic: “Well, keep it if you want to, but I grew up on a farm having to dispose of litters of puppies which we couldn’t feed and couldn’t sell… I’m afraid I can be pretty matter-of-fact about these sorts of things…”  

Reason intrudes, and I realize the dog could possibly bite one of the kids, or worse, and I truly don’t know what kinds of diseases it has.  I’m pretty sure they don’t sell worm medicine or flea powder in our puny town, and I don’t have the means or the time or enough Russian to go hunting around the bigger town 15 minutes down the road for medicine for a stray… 

So now I flop to the other extreme and decide it’s the most disgusting creature I’ve ever laid eyes on, and we have to get rid of it as soon as humanly possible.  

The dog is somehow getting into our yard, so when my helper arrives I enlist her in hunting for the hole, and we find it outside our fence and stop it up with huge rocks.  She dons a pair of old gardening gloves and a scrap of bread, and I grab a big stick, and we shoo the dog out from under the huge petrol tank in our yard which the boys use as a pirate ship.  It had quickly become his favorite hiding place since the tank’s belly hangs very low to the ground; he must’ve felt safe underneath.  

He yips and whines pathetically (Ruby and the boys watching the whole time - can’t get them to go inside!) as my helper and a neighbor boy carry him several hundred yards down the canal and turn him loose (notice how I wriggled out of actually getting my hands dirty).  

My heart cringes at his whines, but I harden it successfully and we all high-tail it back to our yard and shut the gate.  

He comes back, of course, and skulks around outside our fence for a few hours, but I figure as long as he can’t get through the hole he’ll eventually look elsewhere for food.

Then, a few hours later, after a bike ride, the boys accidentally leave the gate open.  Like a flash, the dog takes his chance and darts back into the yard and under his favorite hiding place.  

Now I was just plain mad.  

I had to leave him there, reluctantly, while I made lunch and fed the kids, but after lunch I immediately enlisted a gang of neighbor boys who appeared at our gate wanting to play.  

We re-enacted this morning’s scene: me pushing the dog out from under the tank with a stick, and a bigger boy donning the gloves and grabbing him, yelping, on the other side.  You would have thought we were tearing his legs off, the noise he made.  

Ruby, watching, was very distressed, and kept whimpering, “Do-k!  Do-k! B-ed!”  

As in, “That’s a real live animal making that sound and all it wants is some food!”  

I swing her up to my hip and tell the neighbor kids to take it far, far away.  Well, they’re back in two seconds, and when I asked them where they threw it, they point at an empty manhole 20 yards away which - I thought - leads to the main water pipe for our town!  

I freak out, envisioning a rotting dog contaminating the whole town’s water supply, and race towards the manhole with Ruby bouncing on my hip.  The cover is off and a long tree branch has been stuck in it; the bottom is full of rubbish already.  

I see all this while the boys eagerly inform me this manhole was for the old system of water pipes which had recently been turned off.  I find this information dizzying, since I’d seen a crew with my own eyes installing that manhole just last summer (so how could it be old?) and I was pretty sure I’d heard water flowing under through it on one of my recent morning runs...

But there's the tree branch and rubbish to prove their story, and I’m in such a rush to get rid of that awful dog, I nod and say, “All right then,” and we all troop back to our gate.

And now it’s the afternoon, and I’m sitting here writing this, thinking about horrible empty cisterns and a helpless puppy who’s never really done anything to me, except whine and look pathetic… and the fact that even throughout this whole post I’ve picked words like “mangy mutt” and “skulk” to describe him.  I’m trying to imagine if I’d feel any different about him if I’d used words like “poor little thing” and “thin, starving, helpless”.  

I’m thinking about grace, and how hard it is to give and receive.  

I'm thinking about the fact that Ruby woke up from her nap sobbing her eyes out, and when I went into her room she was sitting in a corner of her crib, crying, “Do-k!  Do-k!” over and over.  I was sure she’d had a nightmare about that ridiculous dog, and I don't know if it was because she was afraid of the dog, or just sad and traumatized by the awful yelps it made as it was dragged out? 

Have I scarred my child for life?  I think miserably, as I lay down on our bed with her and make soothing noises while I stroke her arms.  She’s soon fast asleep again, limbs splayed out, flushed cheeks, sweaty hair plastered to her forehead.  I look at her sweetness, and… 

I still don’t know if I did the right thing.  Ok, I probably didn't.  Feeling worse about it all the time...

Now, at 9:30pm, after hearing her say “Do-k?  Do-k?” twice at dinner (to Daddy), twice more during her bath, again during teeth-brushing, again during story reading (every story we picked seemed to have a dog in it somewhere!) - each time accompanied with a squinched-up face and arms clutched to her chest, whether in sympathetic pain or a mother-cuddle-instinct, I couldn’t tell - 

I finally decide she is definitely getting a complex, and pray accordingly:

“Dear Jesus, please give Ruby peace about the dog.  Please help her know You’re looking after it (in the cruel cistern!).  Please don’t let her have any bad dreams tonight (about her mother’s abuse of stray animals!), and please help her not to think about the dog anymore!”  

She quieted down and laid calmly in her bed, but I'm wondering how many more days of “Do-k?  Do-k?” I will have to endure before she forgets about it?  

Maybe never?  

If you were me, how would you teach your children that God values all life in a context where life is so undervalued?

P.S. Tomorrow I plan to have a heart-to-heart with my boys, and discuss the fact that it's a terrible thing to be mean to anything God has made, and that God of course doesn't like it... and that maybe we can keep some supplies on hand at our house in case this kind of situation happens again.... any other suggestions?

P.P.S. I've found myself wishing whole-heartedly that we lived near a really good vet, so I could have just scooped that dog into the car and gotten it de-wormed and vaccinated, and we probably would've kept it.  There's just no such thing in these parts, which is what makes this whole thing so difficult.

P.P.P.S.  In case you're wondering, I did NOT sanction those boys to throw that dog down into that cistern, and after they did it, I felt even sicker - but I just had no idea what to do.  I still don't.


  1. I'm so sorry. I must be misreading this. Does this post say that you had the neighborhood kids throw an animal down a public water pipe to its clear demise and you're not sure if this was the right thing? But you had time to write a 3,000 word blog post about it? I'm utterly confused. Is this a confessional?

    1. Hi Elizabeth, after our long conversation on FB, yes, this is a confessional, and I continued discussing it because I'm still so conflicted and feel so sick about the whole thing. As I mentioned in my P.S.s (added after our talk!), the culture we live in makes this whole humane-to-animals issue extremely difficult and sticky. There simply is no good way for dealing with unwanted animals (and no moral understanding of the fact that NO animals should be "unwanted"!) Your point about the ongoing conversation with my boys being the most important thing was so helpful - that I need to make sure my kids understand this is NOT OK, and help them think through how God wants us to treat His creation. Absolutely right. Thank you.

    2. In case you didn't see my follow-up FB comment tonight, I just went back outside (at 11pm at night) and threw a whole bag of food down the cistern to that poor animal to tide it over until morning... I also noticed there is actually a ladder going down in, so rescue is possible. Pray for wisdom and that in the morning I can figure out what to do!

  2. Wow. That's tough. Thanks for sharing. As the one who still wears the scars from the aforementioned pup that we grabbed out of a sewer, I think you know where the Dowdys land regarding the matter. :)

    Faith liked to talk about "redeeming the stray animals", but I think I looked at it as one of our ways of being salt & light in that part of the world. We always talked about how it always seemed our flights landed in the middle of the night over there, so when we stepped off the plane we were always stepping into literal darkness. But spiritually, we always felt the darkness around us. It was evident everywhere.

    Alcoholism raged.
    Superstition and animism were everywhere.
    Fear and shame ruled relationships.
    Animals were sorely mistreated.
    Jesus wasn't worshiped.

    So--not being proficient with the language yet--we did what we could to love be salt & light.

    Whether it was shoveling our neighbor's gate whenever it snowed.
    Talking with my tutor about what I do to love and honor my wife.
    Taking in a stray dog or two.

    When there's a new heaven and a new earth, things will be gloriously different. In the meantime, we ask God for grace in ways to share a preview of what it'll be like to others. :)

    (So go get that dog.) :)

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Aaron. I was half-hoping half-dreading you would read this post (because I do know where you and Faith stand, and I love you and respect you both so much for it!) - and I'm finding myself agreeing with your conclusion (hence why I'm still awake at midnight responding to comments on this issue!)...

      Salt and light. Yes. That is what we want to be. And if this is a way to do it, so be it. I just wish we were in a town as big as the one you lived in, so I could actually FIND the stuff we need to look after it properly! God give me strength :)

  3. Oh Carolyn, I feel for you. I am not a dog person myself, and would be just as conflicted as you were about the critter. On the other hand, dogs do make good pets for children, if they can be trained, or if they are cared for and petted a lot. Also, soap and water goes a long way to fixing up a messy animal. My take on animals generally is that if I'm going to feed and care for them, they have to give some return: cats take care of the mice, chickens give eggs, etc. Dogs? I guess their best thing is playing with children, which is probably what Ruby is thinking about. As the youngest, she would see the dog as the next lower on the status rung, a big plus for her. I know the idea of pets is pretty much anathema in that part of the world (I saw ONE pet dog in my stay in India), but I like what Aaron said about being and bringing light to others, showing love to people AND animals (part of our original Edenic mandate, after all). Blessings to you, whatever you decide.
    P.S. Dog was sort of "sent" to you, verdad?

    1. Hi Tenney, thanks so much for your empathy! And yes, our part of the world is similar to what you saw in India - some people do have pets, but they are pretty neglected most of the time and dogs kept at houses are often purposely trained to be vicious guard dogs since there is such a high crime here. (People just don't have enough, so they get desperate.) I have seen the occasional family actually love a pet dog in the way people love pets in the West, but it's rare. I've decided to take the boys out with me this morning to see if we can rescue the dog from where it was thrown yesterday, if it's still there, and then we'll go from there... I have no idea what's next. I'm in over my head, but I'm trusting God to show me what to do! And I'm also trusting Him to show my kids compassion in action in whatever road we end up having to take in this situation. Thanks for your encouragement!

  4. There definitely isn't one right answer! I'm not not much of an animal activist myself, though I certainly wouldn't want to harm one. I remember seeing my first stray dogs in Mexico and just knowing from what I'd been told that they were probably pretty diseased. In the back of my head I sort of figured that there wasn't money in the budget for spaying/neutering/euthanizing/vaccinating, etc. Maybe that's sort of a privileged mindset, but letting it get out of control isn't exactly humane to anyone either.

    I often see old ladies buying sausages for stray dogs here, and in a way it's a picture of true compassion; spending their few kopecks on a poor animal. But it's foolish at the same time, encouraging a potential sick animal to hang around and depend on you and potentially reproduce.

    That's what the problem is, isn't it? God's wisdom just doesn't always make sense. Sometimes it means hurting another creature in order to make things better. And sometimes it means going against our instinct/wisdom/sense of caution, in order to show compassion.

    I would DEFINITELY join you in thinking about safety. But there are other lessons here, so many teachable moments, and lots of human beings involved with different thoughts and feelings. Lessons about why there are animals in the world who have been treated this way, lessons about decision-making, and lessons about how the right decision or answer to prayer might involve pain, but God always knows best.

  5. Hi Elizabeth2 :) - thanks so much for your comment. I love how you grasped the complexity of the dilemma so accurately, and portrayed so well how there just isn't always an obvious "right" answer!