Saturday, January 22, 2011


“We can do no great things—only small things with great love.” --Mother Teresa

Ok, ok, and no, the looks are not deceiving you… Yes, that is a dog… Yes, that is a dog sleeping on my furniture. Yes, I am the person that has spouted “NO DOG” for more than a decade. Yes, I’m the person who claimed, “I can barely take care of myself! I can’t possibly care for another living thing!” So what happened?

This is Ounaai, the little dog that adopted me in November. Actually, I’ve learned she has two names: one provided by her Afrikaner daddy, Ounaai (OOO nay), and a second name given by her Indian daddy as well: Chakkra (Shah—KA-rah—and role the “r”). I guess I’ll continue to call her Ounaai, because that what I’ve been calling her all along, but will use Chakkra as her surname… Her surname? You mean, to name a dog like a human being? Like a CHILD??

I grew up in suburbia in the 70s and I must have lived through the first big push for leash laws and having pets spayed or neutered. I can remember we had dogs that ran wild outside and I remember these same dogs would sometimes have puppies. My parents were smart enough to know that if we had a family dog, spaying or neutering was a must, and well, having a pet is an investment in more ways than one. I remember my parents less than happy to hear our cries of, “Oh PLEASE, CAN WE KEEP THIS DOG?” when one followed us home, or sometimes, but very rarely, a cat. However, being tender-hearted as they are, we always had a family pet, and the family pet was always spayed or neutered and came and went in and out of the house at will (before the leash laws). In my family, a dog was loved and appreciated, but it was clear that the dog was a dog (and not a human being), ate regular dog food and sometimes table scraps, and well, we just didn’t pamper our pets.

In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve noticed and have become increasingly irritated with the American trend of pampering pets: prescription dog food, dog super stores, dog beds, dog sweaters, dog Halloween costumes, dog snugglies, dog treats, dog portraits, vet house calls, and dogs so pampered they are carried, rather than walked. This trend grated my nerves and irritated me highly and I would think to myself, “There is so much suffering in the world, yet many of our dogs in the USA live better than I do.” I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t understand, I just couldn’t get my mind around it.

So, for most of my adult life, I haven’t owned a dog nor even desired to.

When I came to Africa, I noticed a lot of suffering: I noticed a lot of people suffering and I noticed a lot of animals suffering. I live with some of the most impoverished people in the world and I live with children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. However, much to my dismay, it was the dying pigeon or the cruelly tethered cow that I would come home and cry about; It was the donkeys braying in desperation as they were brutally beaten by the young children trying to drive them that shredded my heart; It was the starving dog, wobbling on unsteady legs and too weak to stand that went right through me. I felt more sympathetic to the suffering of animals and couldn’t figure out why (and of course, felt extraordinarily guilty for it).

Ok, back to the dog: Ounaai. So, Ounaai shows up when I’m feeling especially down and she seems very happy to see me, the “wiggly-all-over-happy” and of course, endeared herself to me immediately; although, of course, I didn’t want a dog. I noticed right away that she was a very gentle dog and she seemed timid and afraid around people. I also noticed that she had recently had puppies and wondered if she had a puppy cache somewhere. She hung around for a few days and did that wiggly, very happy-to-see you thing, and then I did the thing I knew I shouldn’t: I fed her. At that point, she began to sleep in the pine needles under my trailer and would bark through the night at anything that she found threatening. I began to appreciate her protection and affection more and more. I went from feeding her crushed crackers and milk to buying dry dog food. (Notice the increased investment.) I learned that she isn’t all that crazy about dry dog food, because she has at least two other daddies that love to braii (the South African word for grilling meat) and feed her generously from their table. I put the dog food away but felt happy to know that she has an extended family large enough to rotate through: she had a mommy and two daddies and establishes a pattern of nights with me, breakfast with Daddy #1 and dinner with Daddy #2. I very much like having a part-time dog.

But I worried about the potential puppies that were certain to come: yes, the three of us were taking care of the one dog between us, but what if she had a litter of puppies? With the poverty in the village, there is no way it could absorb litter after litter of puppies. And then it was time to go to Cape Town for the Christmas holiday. I knew I’d be gone for nearly a month, but it seemed between the three of us, arrangements were made for her care and feeding. (But I would learn on my return that she hadn’t been fed or cared for.) In my leaving, I decided if she were still be around on my return, getting her cleaned up and see about spaying.

I cried at leaving the dog when I left (already so attached) but hoped she would find a magical, happy family to care for her in my absence. (Like THIS would happen in rural South Africa!)

I returned, a severe storm passed my village in my absence, Ounaai’s #1 dad’s trailer had flipped, and I worried that Ounaai were lying dead under it. On my second day home, she returned in all of her wiggly-all-over happiness. (Actually, she had returned that very same night I’d arrived, but I didn’t recognize it her scratching at the door.)

So, as I had promised, I set about treating the fleas and the worms and the ear mites. I gave her a bath and picked ticks off of her and made her greatly perturbed. And then of course, it would not go away—the biggest of all dreads: I would have to address the potential puppy problem. I phoned vet after vet, called the State Veterinarians in two towns, visited the public library for information, and even went to my shopping town’s city newspaper to plead: I need money to have this dog spayed. Can you help me? I was told “no” in every instance. (South Africa, it seems, at least in Vryburg, has no charity or organization dedicated to spaying and neutering dogs and cats, and you can just imagine the pet problem in the villages. To have Ounaai spayed is just a drop in the large sea of the problem.) I was crying on the phone and two of my family members, sensing my distress, mailed me the money to have her spayed.

So, Ounaai Chakkra was spayed yesterday. It was an ordeal for both of us. For her, it was a first time on a collar/leash, first time in a car, first time in a vet’s clinic, first time to have a surgical procedure. For me, it was a couple of weeks of begging for money, and begging even more for a ride to the veterinarian, feeling very anxious about the plans for the ride not working out (as I am still experiencing “indirect communication” in South Africa, which is people telling me things that are not true, like, “Yes, I’ll pick you up at 4:00,” but then not showing until well past 6:00, when the vet’s office has closed, and I can no longer wait in their office, and I’m carrying a very groggy, freshly spayed dog, wrapped in her bloody sheet, crying, because it’s after 6:00 pm, I’m an hour away from my village, will need to catch a public taxi that will probably not pick me up because most of the people on the taxis, including the driver, have a deep-seated fear of dogs, on a Friday night, when everyone is drinking, and it is nearly dark. So I’m crying, and walking, and the guy eventually comes, but it was a very long day.)

So, Ounaai is spayed, I’ve had laundered all of the blood and fear out of my clothes and her bedding, she is resting now, on my furniture, convalescing because I feel it is the least I can do after the trauma I caused. After all of this investment, she will officially become “my dog.”

So, why all this trouble now, for a dog, from the famously-proclaimed, “Not I”?

It has been a difficult 18 months for me: I’ve lost my home; I’ve lost family members; and my sons continue to struggle horribly with consequences of their life choices. I feel far away and powerless. I come to South Africa and live with people that live in tin shacks, with no heat or air, little to eat, and have rags for clothes. I see orphaned children in shoes that are so worn, they are barely recognized as shoes. I see children so malnourished, their hair is brittle and discolored. I see children that play by breaking glass bottles, because that is all for them to play with. I see domestic animals and pets starving, because their owners can’t even feed themselves. And I feel powerless.

And then the light bulb: I care about this one dog, because I can do something to help her. I have the power to help with this one small, living creature, to decrease her suffering. I can stop the suffering of one living creature in this great big world of pain and suffering. (Actually, in her spaying, I may be preventing future litters of dogs and puppies from suffering starvation, neglect, and abuse.) I can’t do anything for my sons; I can’t do anything for the suffering people in my community; I can’t do anything to alleviate suffering in Africa; I can’t do anything to alleviate the suffering of the world. But I can do something for this one, small, suffering animal. I’ve cleaned her up and had her spayed.

So, I have a dog. Maybe now I can better understand and appreciate the American need for doggy-day care. After all, while living in the wealthiest country of the world, isn’t there a lot of pain and suffering we cannot alleviate?




  1. felson helps me know how to care for myself, and how to love others. best not to be lavish in all things--i don't give him cups of food every time he asks, i DO give tough love when it's merited (against fleas and future infant creatures). but i remember that he loves me so much, and i need to take time to pet him, talk to him, play with him, and let him know that i love him too. and as i do this i learn to be gentler and more patient and the habit grows and blossoms out to more people in my life which in my case is greatly to be encouraged. felson is a seed of wonder and joy, of cheer and beauty in my life. maybe other people have similar experiences, i don't know. but i have to say, he's also just darn soft and cuddly!

  2. Karen this is so beautiful. Why not help out a dog? Do you mind if I share on my Facebook? I feel like you point out a funny side-effect of Peace Corps service when you ask why you should have a dog when others need help more. There is no better answer than, because you can. <3

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