We had a sad little get-together for Finley the other day, over at the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA, where he used to work. He is worn out these days and the goop runs from the inside corners of his eyes down onto his hood, leaving tear-shaped stains that are darker and more pronounced than they used to be. As always, he was chewing on his pecker, but his breath smelled pretty good.
All right, “bad” news first: Finley is mixed-breed pit bull, he chews his pecker, and he is missing a leg—left hind, directly behind the driver’s seat. When the first calls came into the police, it was people swearing they’d seen a dog with two tails roaming the neighborhood. The law caught up with Finley a few days later and he was taken in, one more face in the shelter’s lineup, a dog with bleak prospects.
The second tail of course was the leg, and it hung off the animal’s body at an odd angle, lifeless. Under weight it would crumble. All the nerves were dead, all the muscle. It didn’t move except in the sense that a grocery bag moves when you carry it to the car.
The mystery of Finley’s leg. What happened to Finley’s leg is a mystery that nobody ever figured out, not even the surgeon who took it off, except to say that it was some kind of violence and probably happened when he was still a puppy. All that can be said for sure is that what looks like an ordinary, low-income neighborhood to you and me can be steeped in treats and carnage when you are too small and raw to protect yourself. It’s not a new thought, but nature has very little pity.
In any case, first the dead leg came off, then the family connections, if you get what I mean. And then a woman named Kristin McDonald laid eyes on Finley at a local adoption event the shelters put together with the hope that some of them will be adopted into real homes. Kristin already had two dogs at home and didn’t think either one of them were going to warm up to Finley.
She decided to leave well enough alone.
And then she went back.
And decided she couldn’t do it.
And went back again.
There was something about the dog she couldn’t forget. Part of it was physical, I suppose, for a three-legged mixed breed, Finley was very good looking. Probably 40 pounds—35 after the surgeon had finished trimming, which is small for a pit bull, and his head was more or less proportional to the size of his body. Ordinarily, it would seem, a 60-pound pit bull is a 30-pound dog with a 30-pound head. Not so with Finley.
He also had a beautiful coat, the color of a coconut, and under it in some areas, black skin. Which was at least part of the reason that you could drown in the dark pools of his eyes, as they say in romance fiction, or like wanting to kiss a raccoon, as they don’t say in romance fiction, maybe because raccoons will tear off your lips and Finley—how to put this?—if you ignored Finley’s one artless habit, you would kiss him in an instant. An animal you instinctively trusted and who, in spite of the apparent violence of his youth, in spite of whatever cruelty he suffered—trusted you. Which in this case included me.
Kristin McDonald, as it happened, worked in those days for the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA, running their Outreach Program, bringing a rabbit, or a pair of guinea pigs, or a bearded dragon to community clubs, or churches, or any other group interested in their lessons. Animals cheer people up, but they also make it so people listen, which is good for outreach purposes.
Mostly though, the Outreach Program was for schools, and very soon after his arrival, Finley was the star.
Dozens and dozens of schools.
He occupied the cover of the Humane Society’s magazine, TV spots, newspapers, radio… No, wait. I get carried away. There probably wasn’t much radio. In every other way, though, he was a symbol of the Society.
A couple of years went by and Kristin got pregnant. She took a few months off to have the baby and the Humane Society hired me to keep the Outreach Program going until she got back. Until then, I had only been around fifth-graders mostly, not so much with the smaller children, and I was afraid of getting bitten. But there I was in schools of all kinds, with kids of any given age three or four times a week, an hour each with two or three classes, 30 or 35 kids at a time. What do they say in Texas? One riot, one Ranger. It would be reasonable, I think, for anyone who has been around large numbers of children at a time to expect a madhouse. The truth, though, was the opposite, and in all my subsequent years teaching, I never saw kids do more of what you told them to do than when Finley came to visit.
Some of the little kids—second- or third-graders—were afraid to touch him at first, and had never been shown how. Older kids, you might let them pet Finley after teaching them about dog fighting, or spaying and neutering, or a science lesson on adaptations, the subject of which lent itself particularly well to Finley’s status as a tripod.
And that’s really about it. Kristin came back, and would later take a job with a school district as an art teacher. The Humane Society still borrowed Finley once in awhile for its Outreach Program, and the dog, like most dogs if you give them the chance, loved going to work.
And last year he got sick and this year it ended. Eleven years old, and his immune system quit. At first he responded to blood transfusions, and then he didn’t.
Eleven years old, thousands of hands, lives.
So my friend Kristin had a small get-together, and the people who knew him best came by and ruffled his ears, and as sick as he was he kept looking up, saying hello to all the familiar faces. All afternoon he kept it up, accepting congratulations on being Finley, then resting, munching a little on his pecker, and then it was over and it was time to go.