The following is an excerpt from Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us (2014) by Tai Moses, with illustrations by Dave Buchen. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, parallax.org. This material may not be repurposed without written permission from Parallax Press.
My friend Amy was walking home from work when she noticed a dog laying in the yard of a house in her neighborhood of West Oakland. The dog, a toffee-colored pit bull mix, was chained to a post in front of the house. Amy stopped and peered through the chain-link fence and the dog lifted her head and wagged her tail. The next day when Amy walked by, the dog was in the same place. She seemed lethargic, though she thumped her tail weakly against the ground when she saw Amy.
On the third day, the dog had not moved since the day before. She didn’t raise her head or wag her tail; she just lay still. Was the dog dead? Amy had to know. She unlatched the gate and walked into the yard to take a closer look. The dog was still alive, but up close Amy could see how sick and emaciated she was. She was so weak she could not stand. Whoever owned this dog was leaving her to die at the end of her chain. Amy did not have to think about it another second. She slipped the dog’s collar off, gathered her up in her arms, and took her straight to a veterinarian.
That was seven years ago. Today Peanut—for that is what Amy named her—is a beloved house dog who likes to sleep on Amy’s bed in a nest of soft pillows. She is playful and happy, though she is still fearful of many things: thunder, fireworks, the sound of a chain.
I hope I would have had the courage to take matters into my own hands the way Amy did when she rescued Peanut. Sometimes, compassion takes a lot of guts. Other people in the neighborhood must have seen Peanut in that yard, getting weaker and sicker day after day. Maybe they were too afraid to speak up, or maybe they believed it wasn’t any of their business. But being a good neighbor means looking out for both our human and our animal neighbors.
When I started volunteering at the animal shelter in Oakland, I was assigned a mentor, an experienced volunteer, to show me the ropes. My mentor was an extraordinary woman named Freba. In addition to volunteering at the shelter and running her own event-planning business, she had what she called her sideline: helping the dogs of East Oakland get free of their chains. It’s been illegal in California since 2007 to keep a dog on a chain for longer than three hours, but there are still hundreds, maybe thousands of dogs in this city alone—junkyard dogs, guard dogs, yard dogs—who live and die at the end of a chain.
Several weeks before I met her, Freba had passed a house where she’d seen a gaunt-looking boxer tied up in the front yard.
“He was skin and bones,” she said. “His whole world was a six-foot diameter.”
The boxer had barked at first, but when Freba spoke gently to him he wagged his stump of a tail and whined softly, straining at the end of his chain to try to get close enough to lick her face.
“And I thought, now here was an exceptional dog who deserved better than what he was getting,” Freba told me.
She asked around in the neighborhood and learned that Leo the boxer had lived at the end of a chain since he was big enough to wear a collar. He had spent his puppyhood on a chain, he had spent his adolescence on a chain, and now he was about to spend the rest of his life at the end of the same chain, in the same muddy yard. The only bath Leo had ever had came from the rain that fell on him. The only affection he knew came from an owner who, upon arriving home, might say “Hey Leo,” before disappearing into the house, the house from which light and warmth and the smell of food spilled out, the house into which Leo would never go. Each night Leo sighed, turned around three times, and curled up nose to tail in the same hollowed-out spot in the dirt where he had slept since he was a puppy. Leo’s ribs were prominent, and he was undersized, though he was still a growing young dog. Leo’s owner intentionally kept him hungry, feeding him only one small meal a day and sometimes not even that.
“In his mind, that’s how you made a guard dog,” Freba said. “That’s what his father did, and his father before him.”
My anger grew as Freba told me this story. Soon I was so outraged on Leo’s behalf that I wanted to go over there and punch his owner in the nose. Yet Freba hadn’t gotten angry. She had not yelled at Leo’s owner or called him an ignorant jerk. Instead, she had courteously explained to him that the city could fine him for chaining his dog, and she had persuaded him to fix the gaps in his fence instead. Freba and her partner Tammy and some of their friends even helped fix the fence. So the fence was mended, and for the first time, Leo the boxer was free to roam his yard without a chain around his neck.
Freba wasn’t finished. She told Leo’s owner that feeding his dog so little would not make him a more aggressive guard dog, it would just ensure that his bones and his teeth didn’t grow strong and healthy. The proper nutrition would better enable Leo to perform his duties. When the man grumbled about the price of dog food, Freba sympathized and said she would help him out.
Freba then got Leo a doghouse, donated by a locally owned pet-supply chain, and now Leo had shelter from the rain and the sun. When the store owners heard about Leo’s plight, they threw in a big bag of dog food as well. Freba brought the food back to Leo’s house and put some soft blankets inside the doghouse. She was always polite to Leo’s owner. She knew his kids’ names and where he worked. She believed that showing respect and concern might create more respect and concern, and she hoped some of it would make its way down to Leo.
She finished her story: “Last night I drove by his house and Leo was running through the yard—no more chain around his neck—and then he ran back into his warm dog- house filled with blankets.”
She smiled at the image. Mission accomplished.
My anger and indignation would not have helped this dog at all. My anger had only blinded me from forming a more useful and creative response. Getting angry and judging people and trying to explain to them how wrong they were and how right I was had never helped to change a single person’s mind; all it did was harden people’s hearts against me. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said, “Anger may seem to offer an energetic way of getting things done, but such a perception of the world is misguided. The only certainty about anger and hatred is that they are destructive; no good ever comes of them."
I have never actually struck anyone, but I have felt the searing fire of hatred toward people who deliberately harm animals. One of the reasons Freba’s work with dogs and their owners is so effective is that she intuitively follows the principles of nonviolence. In one of his speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., explained that, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” I had a long way to go, but Freba had given me a road map for the journey.
Freba’s strength and power came from her compassion— the same kind of compassion fused with courage that my friend Amy demonstrated when she came upon a dying dog lying helpless in a yard. As the Dalai Lama has described, this is far more than a reflexive feeling of pity: “Some people seem to think that compassion is just a passive emotional response instead of rational stimulus to action. To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare.”
Lonely Life of a Yard Dog
During her visits to Leo’s house, Freba got to know some of the neighbors on the street, and she asked them to keep an eye on Leo to make sure he was getting enough to eat. People could see that Leo was more playful off his chain. He often ran up to the fence wanting to make friends when someone walked by. Some kids gave him a ball to play with and the next-door neighbor gave him scraps from the Sunday barbecue. While Leo’s life was still far from perfect, it was better than it had been before.
Most yard dogs will never be treasured family pets. They will never get to play at the beach or curl up on the couch and all asleep with their heads in their owners’ laps. But if the dog is lucky, a compassionate neighbor may walk by his yard one day, strike up a conversation with his owner, and try to make the dog’s lonely existence a little bit better. Sometimes even a small change—a rainproof shelter, some treats, or a bath—can vastly improve a dog’s life. For a yard dog, this may be as good as it gets.
Freba started to tell me about a Rottweiler she’d seen in another yard. At night the dog crept under an abandoned car that was up on blocks in the yard. Her black fur was matted with grease. Freba and Tammy were organizing a fence-building party on Saturday to help get this dog off her chain. They were planning to clean up the yard, which was full of junk, and give the Rottweiler the first bath she’d ever had.
“Everyone needs to care about what’s happening in their neighborhood,” Freba told me. “If we can all take care of our little corner of the world, we can make it a much better place for animals.”
From Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us (2014) by Tai Moses, with illustrations by Dave Buchen. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, parallax.org. This material may not be repurposed without written permission from Parallax Press.
The Coalition to Unchain Dogs organizes volunteers to build fences to improve the lives of outdoor dogs. To find a chapter in your area or to start your own chapter, visit unchaindogs.net.