Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fella is a sweetheart, but he is no Ounaai

This is Fella.  Isn't he gorgeous?

Many of you have followed along with my tale of Ounaai, the little African village dog that adopted me. Ounaai came to me last year when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and wiggled her way into my heart so deeply that I hadn’t realized how deep until recently, when she left, to go live happily-ever-after with a South African family who will take very good care of her. I missed her so much when she first left that I cried for days. And even now, with her gone for over a month, I still think about her and miss her very much. (And will cry if I think about her long enough…)

Prior to Ounaai, I strongly disliked friends and family sentimentalizing their pets in a way that made them the most important members of the family. And although I still try very hard not to sentimentalize my African canine friends, I’m finding myself quite a bit more empathetic to the practice. It simply adds another dimension to a person’s life: to care for a dependant creature who is consistently and overly appreciative of the fact.

Ounaai enriched my life in ways no other living person or animal has since arriving in Africa, nearly two years ago. She was consistently happy to see me, so much so that her whole body wiggled with delight on my returns from work days. She was devoted to me and became very protective of me in the very short time we spent together.

Many of you read of my ordeal at having Ounaai spayed. I invested quite a lot of money, time and care into this animal because, well, at that time I was considering extending my stay in Africa another year or two and wanted to avoid the trauma of dealing with several litters of puppies. And, well, as we’ve come to realize in the US, having pets spayed or neutered is simply the most practical way to deal with exploding pet populations that contribute to the suffering of animals. (Sadly, in rural South Africa, spaying or neutering pets is simply not an option, but my community has many, many starving, suffering, and homeless animals that eat garbage and are shunned by people.) It is heartbreaking.

Having Ounaai spayed became urgent for me in January of this year, because, well, she had gone into heat and I witnessed several attempts at her impregnation. While several strange dogs were hanging around, one in particular seemed a favorite: a quiet, passive dog I recognized from my neighbor’s house.

I have known of this dog all of my time in Africa. I have known of him because he is a fellow-colleague’s dog, or if not a family pet, at least a family-cared-for stray. On my walks around campus, I would pass my colleague’s house and another ferocious dog, chained near the house, would lunge at me, barking and acting like he would free himself and come to maul me. All the while this other dog, unchained and completely unrestrained, would lie passively nearby under the shade of a tree with his eyes turned carefully away in submission. While the aggressive dog barked constantly and loudly, I never heard this other dog make a sound.

So, after Ounaai went into heat, this other gentle dog, whom I’ve come to call Fella, was hanging around and I rushed Ounaai as quickly as I could to the vet to have her spayed. Fella hung around a bit longer after Ounaai’s spay, but he seemed very fearful and afraid of me. He acted like he wanted to follow Ounaai into the house and perhaps eat a bit of her supper, but he always seemed too terrified to come in.

Fella being playful

A month or two after Ounaai’s spay, Fella returned to my house and curled up in the tall grass beside the front steps of my house. He seemed terribly wounded: he had gashes of deep cuts in his legs and seemed listless in a way that I thought he had come to me to die: He wouldn’t even rouse himself to clean the flying insects away from his wounds. I would check on him throughout the day to simply see if he were still breathing.

He stayed for a few days and I began offering him a bit of dry dog food and water, outside the house but near him, and he began to feed. Because he seemed so weak and ill, I added a good dose of vegetable oil to his food for extra energy in what I hoped would help with his healing. Miraculously, he became stronger each and every day, but I still worried about his wounds.

As Fella became stronger, he became more and more interested in Ounaai’s being in the house and no doubt curious about what she was eating. He would timidly venture into the house, just a few steps at a time then fearfully retreat to the safety of outside. He did this for quite a long time, never ever seeming able to overcome his fear of being in the house when a miracle happened: one day it rained and he decided he’d rather be in the warm dry house than out in the cold wet day. He stayed in close proximity to Ounaai though, as if he felt safer beside her.

At last! I had Fella in the house and thought I might get some medicine on those wounds!

Fella has obviously been brutalized by people and will not let anyone near him—myself included. Our most stressful time ever has been when I tricked him to go into a small room in my house, closed the door, and basically lunged after him as he fled from me, racing furiously about the room as I tried to smear antibiotic ointment on his wounds. I got a glob of the ointment on the worst wound, and then gave up, but the experience traumatized us both. It was then that I learned Fella does indeed make a sound: he yelps in terror! Later, I would administer his flea/tick treatment and that experience would prove no better.

It wasn’t long after Ounaai’s spay that I found her a home and Ounaai left us. I was heartbroken, of course, but he would look for her too. I had made several “dog beds” and placed them about the house where she liked to lie as she followed me from room to room, and he would diligently check each bed in each room in hopes of finding her. I would gently whisper to Fella, “I know boy. I miss her too….”

I cried myself to sleep for several nights after Ounaai left. My crying must have distressed Fella, because after a few days, he brought me the “gift” of a dead bird in hopes of consoling me. (Or at least, this is how I’ve interpreted the gesture.)

It has been over a month now, and Fella no longer goes from room to room in search of Ounaai. I still think about her and miss her though, and smile at remembering her thumping tail when she was happy to see me. And, although Fella is a sweet dog, and I’m becoming fonder of him, he is no Ounaai.

We miss Ounaai

For one thing, in appearance, they are very different dogs. Ounaai wasn’t the loveliest of dogs: she was short and squat mongrel, had scars on her face, and her eyes could appear orange in color. Fella is a much larger dog, taller, with a narrow face and gentle, dark eyes. He is very attractive.

For another, Ounaai had a long, thick tail that seemed a fifth leg. When I would go looking for her, she would let me know of her presence by thumping her tail. So, if I was wondering if she were under my bed, I would say, “Are you in here?” and she would reply with a “thump, thump, thump.” I loved hearing the sound of her thumping tail.

Fella, on the other hand, has barely a tail at all. His tail seems bobbed or clipped, although I can’t imagine anyone in the village paying for a dog that is altered in such a way—these dogs are usually very expensive! Are any breeds of dogs ever born with stubs of tails that seem bobbed? It’s taken many weeks for Fella to feel safe enough with me that he will cautiously wag it, but his tail is so short, it makes no sound at all.

Ounaai was sharp as a tack. She was very, very clever. Ounaai would mind my voice commands and was easily trained. She would follow me into my village market and tuck herself under a shady tree to wait for me to finish my shopping so she could walk me home. She was confident and assured. Fella follows me into my village market and feels terrorized, becomes disoriented and flees for home. He’s getting better though, and will usually wait for me at the half way mark between my grocer and home. He is very nervous and afraid.

Ounaai would come running to me when she had a nasty South African thorn in her paw pad; she knew I would remove it.  Fella will suffer for weeks with a nasty thorn in his and I pray that a friendly mouse will come along and remove it.

Ounaai stayed out of my way. Although she would follow me from room to room, she would tuck herself up under a piece of furniture or otherwise be out of the way. Fella has decided he likes to lie at the head of my bed and I’m constantly tripping over him. And, as both dogs are outside dogs (read: aren’t bathed), they are unpleasantly fragrant. And Fella is sleeping at the head of my bed… Pee-ew! And he farts too… Eish! Ounaai was very lady-like and did not fart, or not that I noticed.

Ounaai turned her nose up to store-bought dry dog food and I had to work especially hard at “dressing” it to get her to eat it. I would have to sweeten her pot with liquid from the tuna can, olive oil, or pan scrapings to entice her to eat it. She would eat it if hungry enough, but it wasn’t her favorite. Fella, on the other hand, eats it right up. He loves the sound the bag makes and comes running each morning when I prepare to feed him. In fact, while Ounaai would gulp down her cans of nasty wet dog food, Fella won’t touch it. (I learned this fact, sadly, when I had to dig out the pieces of dewormer I had broken up in the wet food hoping he would gulp it down. Yuck!) In this way at least, of eating dry dog food, Fella is easier to care for than Ounaai.

Both dogs submit in a way that they never, ever walk in front of me—always behind, but close behind. I’ve always thought a dog must be trained to do this.

Fella is an unneutered male dog, which I’m learning is much more trouble to deal with than it’s worth! Ounaai, although she would roam, could let herself in and out independently (she was small enough to squeeze through the security bars on my door) and was no trouble at all. Fella, on the other hand, is too large to squeeze through and his roaming urges seem to happen at all hours of the night. I am letting him in and out when I hear him whining. Eish!

Ounaai loved me but was afraid of the camera; Fella is fine with the camera but very afraid of me.

Ounaai was very protective of me. She would gently growl when strangers approached and would bark at night when she was disturbed. Strangers seemed afraid of her. Fella, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified of everything and everyone. I’ve never heard him make a sound, other than his whining to come in or his terrorized yelps when I’m trying to provide some kind of medical care. When strangers approach, he disappears.

However, strangers don’t know this about Fella and just his size and appearance are enough to provide the illusion of protection, or at least I hope this is so. We’ve begun taking long walks together and both of us are enjoying these walks very much. He is beginning to prance and play like Ounaai had, when he realizes I am readying myself for a walk.

It’s amazing watching these creatures transform from quivering, terrified beasts into confident, playful, happy ones. Although I still miss Ounaai sorely, I’m becoming more grateful every day that Fella is around to keep me company.

On my walk to school each day, I pass a starving dog cruelly restrained with about two feet of metal chain. He is scraggly and his eyes are cloudy (a sign of malnutrition.) He is forced to defecate and urinate only inches from where he eats and sleeps and he tries mightily to keep it all neatly mounded and as far from him as possible, as it is rarely removed. My heart aches for this animal and I dread passing by. His spot is in the middle of a dirt yard and he is exposed to the brutally hot sun or the drenching African rain. However, I once passed when his owner was approaching with a plate of food. This dog became animated and playful, leaping excitedly for this attention. I smiled in thinking the animal might know some moments of joy.

The dog died several weeks ago. I would feel sad passing his yard each day, but feel relieved that his suffering had finally ended.

Today when I passed, I realized a new horror awaits: a puppy is chained to the same two feet of metal chain.


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