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Nearer My Dogs to Thee

WEB Beagle Dog 001

Kris Cardenas

John Zmirak - published on 05/13/14

What I learned about God and redemption from rescuing and caring for dogs.

The following is a meditation on the theology of dog ownership, which John Zmirak penned some years ago. He reprints it now in honor of Franzi Zmirak, who died this past weekend at the age of 16.

A loyal friend to man, and enemy to kitty-cats, Franz Josef Zmirak was for five years the adjunct co-mascot of Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, where he inaugurated each writing class and every public lecture, introducing such luminaries as Thomas Howard and Philip Lawler with 15 minutes of racing back and forth and trumpeting, before they were permitted to speak.  He leaves behind his father, John, his sister, Susan Zmirak, a large collection of damaged designer shoes owned by his mother, Faye, and an array of water-damaged wood floors throughout the Northeast.  He will be missed.  He will never be replicated.

“Don’t like the weather?” they say here in New Hampshire. “Wait five minutes.”

As summer comes, our polar clime becomes instead bi-polar. Four times this week, the day has turned almost instantly from brightness and balm to lightning and sheets of rain–then back again–several times. The sky is alternately black and blue, as if the weather had been punching it in the face. The lightning knocked out my circuits today, while the crackling of the thunderclouds sent the wimpier of my two beagles into a full-bore panic attack.

Little Franzi cowered against my leg, buzzing like those massagers they use at old-fashioned barber shops, until I scooped up all 40 lbs. of quivering hound and laid him next to me in the bed. I actually had to cradle him like a child–albeit a bow-legged, pigeon-toed, stinky, fur-covered child with an IQ of under 25 whom you have trained to defecate outdoors. (It’s best not to admit this when Social Services comes knocking, FYI.)

At first glance, Franzi seems like a cuddly, pokey, Dog Lebowski who yawns through most of the day as if sedated. Susie is my meth-head. During storms, she dashes back and forth across the house as if to chase the lightning, and barks back at the sky. In New York, she’d crouch at the window seat like Lee Harvey Oswald, daring little old ladies to walk past my ground-floor apartment. Then she’d unload a series of sharp, staccato barks which could cause a cardiac arrest.

Susie also fancied herself the neighborhood censor; whenever she’d spot some poor drunk stumbling home at 3 p.m. from one of the dingy bars near my old block, she’d lay into him like a scolding wife. Up here, she has taken to sounding off at passing cars. Thank God there aren’t very many. I think she’s running them off.

Susie is the lean and elegant huntress who grew from the whirring puppy someone brought me in a shoebox, and she has spent most of her waking moments since January 2000 chasing critters, chewing up bloody butcher’s bones (which she will only eat on the couch), and howling almost continuously. Of course, I love the sound, and have always encouraged it, so that now when I say, “Sing!” she lets out a long and poignant “A-r-r-r-r-r-r-o-o-o-o-o!” And then goes on doing it, sometimes for 30 minutes. Too bad it never occurred to me, back when she was a puppy, to invent a command for “Quit it!”

Likewise, I was just so charmed by the way she’d pounce like Tigger on every visitor’s chest and climb up to lick his face, that I missed the chance to instill the signal for “Down!” Her breath reminds me of that summer in New Orleans when a friend spilled Vietnamese fish sauce in the car. But the look of fanatical love—pure, absolute, and indiscriminate—in those sharp brown eyes makes it hard to push her down: Like the angels gazing on the face of God, in one of Giotto’s frescos. You learn to hold your breath.

Theology figures into this, because I adopted Susie on the advice of a spiritual director, a Catholic shrink I was seeing who hoped to banish my Jansenist image of God. “You wanna know pure and unconditional love, the kinda love God has for every human soul?” he asked between mouthfuls of pasta. (The doc looked and dressed alarmingly like Joe Pesci, and scarfed down Italian take-out during our sessions.) “Get a dog.” At least that’s what I think he said. His mouth was full. . . .

His counsel proved wise. I actually found it easier to pray while Susie was singing, and she’d help me to ruminate by thoughtfully chewing the cud on the legs of my dining room table. Between our expeditions to the park in search of prey, my writing productivity soared. And then I got cocky.

As someone who has always believed that “More is more,” it struck me that Susie needed a playmate, another set of four skittering feet to scratch the hardwood floors. After meeting a series of winning breeds at the local dog run, I almost settled on a Boston Terrier–having seen one whose aerial jumps and coordination reminded me of Michael Jordan. But Bostons are less likely to sing than yap, and I thought that Susie would rather sing duets than solo. So I looked into getting a Basenji, one of those little African hounds that never bark: They yodel. I downloaded some Basenji sound files and played them back–until a nosy old bat who lived in my courtyard came pounding on my window, demanding to know, “Why are you torturing that poor dog?” The next time she walked past my window, Susie defibrillated her. Good girl!

The search went on, until I found the absolute perfect writer’s companion: an incontinent, stone deaf, and epileptic Dalmatian puppy. (Not all his distinctive qualities were immediately apparent.) My neighbor had owned the dog, and was verging on a breakdown trying to housebreak poor Koto, whom she’d bought in Armenia and flown across two continents. So I offered to housetrain the dog—but after a few weeks, she wouldn’t take him back. Koto was sweet and playful, with icy blue eyes, and crate training really works—if you can stand three days of almost continuous whimpering. Apart from teaching him to do his business outside, I applied to Koto the Zmirak Method, which had worked so well with Susie: No matter what the dog does, praise him. For eating, for scratching, for stretching. For barking at birds. Whatever. It makes the dog feel happy and secure, and as long as what he’s doing isn’t dangerous or illegal, it’s usually pretty cute. So why not act like the God imagined, vaguely, by liberal Christians, C.S. Lewis’ “senile grandfather in heaven”? It isn’t like you’ll be called to answer for his soul. (At least I hope not.)

The epilepsy thing, I learned, could be controlled by medication–and a good thing, too, because the first time I woke up with Koto lying on top of me, running and barking frantically in his sleep and shooting a two-foot stream of urine, I’ll admit I was disconcerted. Okay, my inner Slavic peasant came out: I thought the dog might be possessed. Shaking him didn’t wake him, and the St. Michael Prayer didn’t stop the whizz, so I turned in desperation to science, and discovered the dog’s condition. I was settling into the idea of owning a handicapped dog when the hand of God intervened. That’s when I came across Ratzinger.

That wasn’t his baptismal name, of course. I later learned that “Homer” was the birth name of the abandoned beagle I found at 3 a.m. in front of my building, tied to a parking meter. Some passing benefactor had wrapped the shivering dog in a blanket, and called Animal Control to take him to the pound. There, his lifespan would have been measured in days, since few folks are willing to adopt an overweight, aging dog with suppurating sores and ear infections who is missing half his fur. (I learned from people who recognized him on the street that he’d lived for years neglected in someone’s backyard.)

Of course, I brought him home, and named him for my favorite candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II–the genial German theologian (now pope) whom the old dog closely resembled. Now I had three hounds in a two-bedroom apartment, two of them with serious medical issues, a third with a singing career. This “problem” soon solved itself; when Koto’s original owner spotted the poor beast I’d brought in, she waxed indignant that “her” dog might get sick from contact with Ratzinger, and took Koto back. I spent about $1,500 at the vet nursing old Ratzi to health. I was back down to just two beagles, whom I hoped would cavort, and hunt, and howl as a happy team.

The marriage didn’t last. Susie tried to play, but Ratzinger mostly moped. And stole her food. And farted. And (whatever house-training methods I applied) peed in the same spot on the kitchen floor until my place stank like a subway tunnel, and the wood buckled and cracked the tiles. (Kiss that last month’s rent goodbye.) In despair, I found a no-kill shelter that was willing to take the incontinent cardinal, housetrain him, and place him. I offered to take one of their dogs instead. Which is how I ended up with Greystoke, a solemn but loving mix of ghetto pit bull and German Short-Haired Pointer. He made the pages of the New York Post (and later a charming book on mutts), because he was found roaming the platform of the F train in Brooklyn—no doubt trying to transfer to the V. There was nothing much wrong with this dog, apart from the raging, uncontrollable diarrhea.

Which, you know, the folks at the shelter forgot to mention. They were later closed down for animal neglect, but not before a miraculously housebroken Ratzinger had found a loving home. A friend of mine sighted him at a yuppie dog run in Park Slope, trying to hump some art consultant’s hapless Basenji.

Once I finished my research and explained to the vet that my new dog had Giardia, a few pills cleared up his condition, and I was finally able to get that . . . elemental scent out of the house. The parties I threw to celebrate the feasts of the Catholic liturgical year went off much better now that the guests could smell their food.

His fur the color of a blueberry, Greystoke was like those grumpy New York cops in 1930s movies, who walked the beat shouting “Scram!” at the East Side Kids. At the dog run, he’d stand around looking officious, watching for other dogs who were playing a little too rough. Then he’d rush over to break up the “fight” with a hearty growl that scared all the dogs and owners alike. Affectionate and protective, he made me feel really safe walking at night, like having Mayor Giuliani on a leash. Apart from biting the occasional dinner guest, Greystoke was the perfect pet, and it broke my heart when he came down with a massive tumor. It also broke my bank, since I spent three months’ rent for the vet to remove his spleen. But the cancer had spread. I sat on the floor of the vet’s office to pet him as they put him to sleep, and with a friend took Greystoke (curled up in a ball, wrapped in a towel, frozen stiff) to a farm in Connecticut for burial.

Like a seasoned HR manager, Susie took most of this turnover in stride. Each time a new stray arrived, she’d sulk for a few days, then promptly start to fiddle and flirt with him, until at last they were cordial, if distant, friends. But when I lost Greystoke, she seemed confused. She’d walk around sniffing, then come back to me and stare. I could almost hear her wail, in the voice of Sally Field, “What have you done with my husband?” Then she went off to chew the scenery.

I made up my mind, screwed up my resolve, and purposed–after all these setbacks–to confound my critics. To accomplish the life-task I’d set myself. To keep a pack of hunting dogs in a small New York apartment.

It took weeks of checking shelters and beagle rescue groups before I found my Franzi. When my friend drove me up to the shelter in Westchester, Franz Josef broke from the pack of motley labs and terriers, and waddled straight up to me. “Rowf!” he averred, like an indignant elephant seal. “Rowf! Where’s your car?”

I’d only had Franzi a week before he made his first escape. In a past life, it seemed that the beagle I’d named for my favorite Kaiser had lived on an estate the size of Schonbrun, and he wished to inspect the rest of his new domain. Thinking him a slow and compliant middle-aged dog, I unhooked the leash just outside my apartment door. Franzi raced off like a greyhound down the street. Who knew that a pudgy, sleepy dog could run so long, so far, so fast . . . ? I tracked him on foot for more than two hours, got close as he stopped to smell the garbage, snuck up on him, and pounced. . . .

If you’ve never fallen face first, flat, on a New York sidewalk at 4 a.m., then you haven’t met Franzi. As I climbed to my feet, I watched him disappearing down 21st Avenue—sure he would meet a quick and ugly fate beneath the wheels of some guy’s Camaro.

It took two days of my roaming the streets and posting fliers before a kind soul turned the rascal in. Two hours into his newfound freedom, it seemed that Franzi had gotten bored and followed some woman home. He’d trotted along behind her, walked in as if he owned the place, and looked up expecting breakfast. Who could stand to lose such a dog? I happily forked over the reward.

Since his return, Franzi has worked hard and achieved a lot. He has, on various occasions:

– Clipped my girlfriend at the knees like a seasoned linebacker.

– Escaped through narrowly opened doors and under fences.

– Climbed rocks and forded streams as I ran behind in frenzied pursuit.

– Led me, clad only in a t-shirt, boxers and flip-flops, for two miles through the private property of 24 of my neighbors. (I’m surprised nobody shot me.)

– Chewed the heel of my girlfriend’s Manolo Blahnik.

– Eaten the silk headband she’d had hand-made from her favorite Pucci scarf.

– Ransacked her Fendi bag, then trotted up to her thoughtfully, holding the bag in his teeth.

– Shredded 24 double rolls of toilet paper to make a feathered mattress, then gone to sleep.

This reign of terribleness has led me to believe I might have misnamed this particular dog. He only appears as sleepy, peaceful, and benevolent as the long reign (1848-1917) of good Kaiser Franz Josef. Leave him alone for just a few minutes, and the dog is transformed into a creature we call “Osama Franz Laden.” And in our War on Terribleness, it’s always Yellow Alert.

Sometimes I envy those people who copped out and had a bunch of children, because they couldn’t face the responsibility of beagles.

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.

This piece has previously appeared at Takimag, Dappled Things, and inThe Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins.

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