Tales of Tails: Tino Chapter 1
Chapter One – Fortitude
Life is like an ice-cream cone. You have to lick it one day at a time.
Charles M. Schultz (Charlie Brown)
I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.
The ticks are as big as grapes and as they fall off the dogs they burst and splatter blood on the floor. There seems to be hundreds of them. The flea eggs are so matted it looks like their skin is black. Bernie’s paw is swollen twice it size and Tino’s right hind leg is shriveled, painful looking and totally unusable. The dogs are surprisingly lethargic and seem terrified of everyone and everything.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning and my friend Liz and I are sitting in the emergency veterinary clinic with the two stray dogs we rescued the night before. They are an absolute mess – injured, filthy dirty, foul-smelling and literally crawling with fleas and ticks. They are just plain pathetic. The vet comes in, takes one look at these two poor creatures and proclaims “these dogs have distemper; they are probably not going to survive”. Liz and I turned and just stared at each other in disbelief.
The rescue of Tino and Bernie actually began the previous weekend. My husband Steve, our chocolate lab, Sally and I went on a picnic to Hansen Dam in the northern part of Los Angeles County. We found a good spot and settled in for a quiet afternoon reading and having some lunch and maybe a few beers. After an hour or so, I got a little restless and took Sally for a walk. Hansen Dam Park is a large open area and at the time was undergoing some construction – I believe they were reinforcing the dam. There were very few people there and lots of overgrown open land. As Sally and I walked down into a ravine, I noticed two scraggly animals on the other side coming up over a ridge. Even though it was early afternoon and you rarely see coyotes at that time of day, that’s what I thought they were.
Our Lab Sally, while normally playful & submissive to other dogs, is ferocious when it comes to coyotes and will chase them with the apparent intent to tear them apart. I say apparent because I’m sure she wouldn’t know what to do if she even got close to one of them. But still, I grabbed her collar and headed back to Steve before she could catch sight or a whiff of them and take off. We settled back in with Steve and I told him of the coyotes and that we’d better keep an eye out for them.
Sure enough, a few minutes later I see them headed towards the open area where we sat. As they came closer, we realized they were not coyotes, but two stray dogs. They were obviously related as they looked exactly alike, probably shepherd mixes but very skinny and malnourished. The smaller of the two had a noticeable limp and when he came closer you could see his right hind leg was badly damaged and he was not using it. What they were doing in this park in this condition was a mystery.
They completely ignored us. It seemed that this was their afternoon napping spot and they weren’t going to let us interrupt it. They lay down and fell fast asleep about 50 yards away from where we sat. My heart went out to them. They must be starving and here we sit with our big picnic lunch. We put Sally into the car and took over some of our cold cuts to feed them. They were very skittish and leery of us at first. The healthier of the two was more daring and coming closer than the one with the bad leg – probably because he was more mobile and could scoot away if need be. Finally, they realized we meant them no harm and they willingly gobbled up the remainder of our lunch. They ate like there was no tomorrow and we went through a pound of pepper crusted turkey in a flash.
We packed our stuff and headed home, feeling concerned for these two dogs, but not really knowing what to do. They had no collars, so there was no ‘owner’ to call. They’d been abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the wilderness and from the looks of it; they had been there for several weeks, maybe even months. Who knows how much longer they would survive?
The next morning, Sally and I drove up to Griffith Park for our usually morning run with Liz and her dog, Rudy – a big strong white and tan Borzoi. I met Liz at Griffith Park the previous summer, and our two dogs fell in love. They were an odd couple, but a true love match.
We had bought Sally about two years previously from a breeder in Riverside, CA. Although we had both had Labs before, it was Steve’s first puppy and she was his pride and joy. We have no children and Sally filled that role for us as so many people do with their pets nowadays.
We first met Liz and Rudy at Griffith Park on a regular dog trail. Liz actually had two Borzois, Rudy and Monte. They stood about 3.5 feet tall, weighed in around 120 lbs. and were pretty intimidating. Our first encounters were not too pleasant with the sometimes cranky Rudy snapping at feisty little Sally. Luckily, she was a dodger and could scoot away from him pretty quickly. As a Borzoi, trained to hunt wolves, Rudy was a long distance runner. Sally was a sprinter.
Over time, Liz and I became friends and started running together with the dogs on a regular basis. Sally and Rudy’s teasing turned to playfulness and then to love. You may think that I am ‘anthropomorphisizing’ their relationship, but if you ever saw them together you would be a believer. One of their favorite things to do, besides playing chase with each other was to lie on the floor next to each other, on their sides, and slowly and lovingly caress each other with their paws and their mouths. It was like two teenagers making out. There were times when we were so embarrassed by their overt affection for each other that Liz and I felt we should leave the room and let them be alone.
We were quite a sight on the running trails in the park. Two very slow, middle aged women jogging along with two huge Borzois, a cute little chocolate lab and a neighbor’s shepherd-mix dog named Ralph who we used to bring along so he could get some exercise. In our little pack, Ralph was our leader and always out front scouting the trail. Sally and Rudy lagged behind Liz and me, going off on various excursions for avocados or hiker scraps along the way and Monte, the oldest brought up the rear. On occasion, we were joined by our friend Judy and her three dogs. Amazingly, the dogs all got along and stayed together in our running pack.
When I told Liz about our run-in with the stray dogs and my concern over what to do for them, she stated that we must rescue them and find a local shelter or suitable home that could house them. I was skeptical because I knew that we could not care for them – both Steve and I work and are gone all day – how could I take in two more dogs. Liz already had the two large dogs in an apartment and certainly couldn’t take them. But she was confident we could quickly find them a home and convinced me.
Later that day, she called me to say that she had found a co-worker who would foster the dogs while we found them a permanent home. We decided to go back to the park that evening and see if we could find them. Operation rescue was underway.
That evening, armed with more cold cuts and a bag of dog food, Liz and I arrived at the park just after dinner. We quickly spotted the two strays and they were more than happy to take our food. Given they were so noticeably weak, we were amazed at how quick they were and they managed to evade any attempts we made at putting a leash around their necks. They were not aggressive about it, no growling snapping or biting – just dogged evasion.
The first night we spent about 2 hours trying to capture them. We went through all of the food we brought with us but without success. When it got dark, we decided to quit and come back another day. We figured they had eaten enough to get them through another day or two, so we left them a big bowl of water and decided to come back Wednesday night.
We arrived around the same time Wednesday evening and sat there till dark with no sign whatsoever of the two dogs. We called to them, wandered around looking for them, but to no avail. They had disappeared. Had they been attacked by some coyotes? Rescued by someone else? Hit by a car? We were discouraged, but not quite ready to give up.
We decided to enlist my husband to help us figuring that three of us would be able to snag them. So that Friday night, again armed with cold cuts, dog food and our dog Sally as ‘bait’ we headed back to Hansen Dam. We discussed our strategy on the way and felt confident that with Steve’s help we would be able to capture them. Our plan was to take them back to our place for the night and then off to Liz’s friend on Saturday morning.
As we pulled into the parking lot, we immediately saw the two dogs off to the side. That was a relief; at least they were still alive and we didn’t have to hunt them down. But as we got out of the car, we noticed that the healthier of the two was not moving. He was watching us closely and his brother was circling us with a wary eye, but he didn’t rise and did not move.
As we got closer, we noticed his front paw was so swollen he could barely walk on it, he just lay there licking it. We had no idea what happened, but were somewhat relieved that he would be easy to catch. And sure enough, I was able to walk right up to him and slip a leash around his neck. He let me lead him to the car and load him in the back end without incident. We were amazed at how easy it was after the struggles of our previous attempts.
Now all we had to do was capture the other one. We thought that should be easy since he was the smaller of the two and the one with the bad leg. How hard could it be to get a leash on this disabled, three-legged dog with three of us working it? Well, two hours later we had exhausted our food supply once again but without success. By that time he was so full the food was no longer an enticement but he stuck around because we had his brother in our car and he wasn’t leaving him behind. We had tried luring him with the food, with Sally, cornering him, every trick we could think of and still were unable to get a leash secured around his neck. We could get the leash on him, but he would yelp and cry and thrash around like a bucking bronco and none of us had the nerve to hang on.
We didn’t know what to do. Should we leave with the one we were able to capture, take him to the vet and get him cared for and come back tomorrow for the other one? We were afraid if we left him that some harm may come to him given his bad leg. We were sitting around weighing our options when a woman who lives in the neighborhood came by with her dog on their evening walk. As we spoke with her, she told us that the park was a well-known dumping ground for strays. People from all over came and just dropped their unwanted dogs here. At any given time there might be between 15-20 strays living in the park. She had seen these two and said they had been around for quite some time. Most likely staying together as a team had helped them survive.
The woman said she would help us. So the four of us surrounded him and slowly moved in. The woman fearlessly looped the leash around his neck and held on for dear life as he bucked and twisted and turned and yelped and bucked some more. But finally, he gave up. We had caught him.
Once reconciled to being caught, they were both extremely docile and seemingly relieved. We were exhausted and I’m sure they were too. I just wanted to go home and take a hot shower, but we needed someone to look at that paw immediately. It was swollen to double its size and seemed very painful. Liz and I took the two dogs to the 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic over in Eagle Rock. We assumed that the dog had a foxtail or something stuck in his paw that needed to be removed. We also figured we could get a quick health check on the two of them.
The folks at the clinic were nice and accommodating, but could not find anything wrong with his paw and basically sent us on our way saying all is well. Liz and I decided to take them to a groomer in the morning, get them cleaned up and then take them to her friend’s house. Operation Rescue almost complete!
The next morning, I called around trying to find a place that would let us bring the two dogs in and get them cleaned up. They were so dirty. I’ve never seen ticks so engorged or so many fleas in one place. I didn’t even want to touch them and certainly did not want them in my house. Luckily, we had a fenced yard and could isolate them in the backyard while letting Sally out in the front. I didn’t really want to expose them to Sally until they had a clean bill of health and I was certain that they were trustworthy and dog friendly. We fixed them up with some water, food and blankets the night before and they slept soundly through the night, adjusting quite contentedly to their temporary home.
The next morning, Steve took it upon himself to name the two of them. Being a diehard Yankee fan he picked Bernie and Tino after Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez. Steve felt they were underappreciated but key Yankee ball-players and the names were appropriate for these two unloved and abandoned orphans. We named the one with the swollen paw Bernie and the one with the injured back leg became Tino.
Liz came over and we loaded them into her car and off to the Vet/groomers to get them cleaned up. Getting them out of the yard and into the car was somewhat of an ordeal. As I said, they were quite content lounging in the sunshine and were quite skeptical about being moved out. The ride over was uneventful, as we sat in the waiting room, we tried to stay clear of other customers. After all, we didn’t really know these dogs, they did seem docile, but they may take someone’s head off for all I knew. They were also so dirty and the baby ticks were literally falling off of them onto the floor and crawling away in search of a tastier meal.
Then the vet arrived and things changed. Her calm proclamation of distemper hit Liz and I like a ton of bricks. Distemper is often a death sentence for dogs as there is no cure, only proper vaccination works as prevention. We had rescued these dogs with visions of a happier life for them and they were probably just going to die anyways. Will Liz’s friend still want to house them while we find a home – probably not, who wants to take in two sick dogs? It frustrated and angered us. How could a dog owner treat these dogs this way? How could they toss them out into a park to fend for themselves? How could they not get their dogs vaccinated? These two dogs were obviously acclimated to humans, they were wary of us, sure, but also relieved to be in our care – you could see it on their faces and read it in their demeanor.
We didn’t want to believe what she told us – they seemed too healthy, just tired and exhausted from their ordeal. But the vet was adamant. She examined them over closely and located and removed the foxtail from Bernie’s paw. Tino would not let her examine his leg closely enough to determine the full extent of the problem. We thought maybe it was broken, that he had been kicked or hit by a car. The vet was able to determine it wasn’t broken, but had no other course of action for the time being. Fighting off the distemper would be a big enough battle for the two of them.
The vet loaded us up with supplies: eye drops and ear drops for the distemper, antibiotics and bandages for Bernie’s wound on his paw, flea collars and tick spray to rid them of the parasites feasting on them and off we went. The vet/groomer refused to wash them in their facility for fear of exposing them to other dogs, so we loaded their dirty bodies back in our car to go home. Now what? Operation rescue has taken a decided turn.
On the way home Liz and I discussed our next steps. These dogs were very sick and probably going to die. Do we put them down, or try to nurse them along? Even if we put in the effort to nurse them, the outlook was bleak and probability of survival low. Even though it had been less than 24 hours, I had become quite attached to these two strays and it would break my heart not to put in the effort and try to give them a warm safe place with plenty of food and water – a happier life, at least for whatever time they had left.
I knew my husband would not be thrilled with the idea. While Steve loves dogs, he was already skeptical that Liz’s friend would take them in or that we would be able to find a permanent home for them. I knew that we weren’t really in a position to take on this type of responsibility right now and the amount of time and effort it would take to nurse them back to health would be significant. What would his reaction be? As we pulled into the driveway, Steve came out to greet us. I walked over to him and as my emotions got the best of me and my eyes welled up with tears I held my breath and I told him what the vet had reported. He just laughed, hugged me and said “Well, just as I thought, I guess Tino and Bernie are here to stay”.