ONE YEAR ago I walked Opie, a yellow Labrador mix, along the drive of Friends of Homeless Animals in Northern Virginia. Our stroll was a test. Opie and I had just met, and the walk was supposed to help determine whether I would adopt him.
I had my doubts. Opie was a "surrendered" pet -- one of those dogs left at shelters after their owners give up on them. But that was not all. He had been with Friends, a group that does not destroy homeless pets, for an extraordinary length of time -- for five of his six or seven years.
Opie's difficulty getting placed with a family spoke to a sad fact: Finding new homes for unwanted animals is hard. The Humane Society of the United States says 11 milllion to 13 million dogs and cats -- surrendered, abandoned, stray and others -- are housed in shelters across the country. Desperate to place Opie, Friends of Homeless Animals finally dubbed him "Pet of the Week" and featured his picture in a newspaper ad that I happened to notice.
Opie looked okay in the ad, but in real life he was not exactly perfect. An old scar marred the top of his head. Part of his left ear was gone. His coat needed a washing, and he had a kennel smell. Hesitant about taking him, I made up my mind only after I was coaxed by Friends to "give the ol' boy a chance."
I am glad I listened to them. Today, Opie is very wanted -- by me, by my family, by neighborhood kids who utter his name like a prayer. As reports about vicious canine attacks proliferate, Opie, a dog with reason to bare his teeth at the world, stands as a model of gentleness, kindness and obedience. Despite his years among the forgotten, on the hard floor of unwantedness, his good nature survives, even grows.
Where did Opie come from? How did he get his name? Why didn't anyone want him? These questions arose in me as I completed his adoption papers at the shelter. His name could be explained: I like to think it's short for "open" and reflects Opie's knack for using his muzzle to lift gate latches. But a lot of information lay buried like bones. The dog's history had dissolved during his long years alone. The people at Friends of Homeless Animals aren't even sure how they got Opie, except that an owner probably dropped him off.
Surrendering a pet can be understandable and unavoidable, but that is usually not the case. "The problem would be nonexistent if people thought more about what they are doing when they get an animal," says Jean Johnson, executive director of the Washington Humane Society. "Typically, they decide later they don't have time for a pet."
But there are other reasons. "One of the more famous surrenders involved a woman who turned in her cat because it didn't match her furniture," says Geoff Handy of Shelter Sense Magazine.
Such thoughtlessness is not easy to reverse. Pet advocates encourage neutering and ask people to think about the responsibilities of ownership, to assess beforehand "how a pet will fit into your lifestyle," as Anne Lewis of Friends says.
Yet surrendered dogs like Opie keep showing up. If they're lucky, they'll be adopted, though that's a distinct longshot given the huge number of "surplus pets," according to the Humane Society. Or they'll stay sheltered for awhile, but without the attention a loving owner would give. Ultimately, most are euthanized.
Opie had it tougher than many. Big, older, male dogs like him are less likely to be adopted, Lewis says. Some are victimized by their quiet personalities when they meet prospective owners. "Dogs are like people," she says. "Some are shy and get lost in a group. I always thought Opie was smashing," but because he was quiet, he did not move people to adopt him. There are a couple of ways to consider the year I have had with Opie. I can pull my file marked "Dog," a manila folder of vet bills and related expenses. Or I can look at what he has built in my heart.
The folder thickened quickly as the responsibilities of having a dependent, vulnerable creature took hold. Although the shelter did the best it could to care for Opie, unwantedness had extracted a toll. Bad teeth needed to be removed; a nasty urinary problem demanded constant care; two sudden attacks of bronchitis required emergency attention. On the preventative side, Opie received a complete physical with x-rays and blood work. He was neutered, vaccinated and pilled.
I used to take the vet bills from the folder and calculate the mounting costs. But I don't do that any longer. I dropped my thick, human blinders and began to appreciate the simple nose-to-tail goodness in Opie.
Whoever surrendered him gave up a lot. Opie is not Hollywood material -- he has not rescued anyone from a burning building. Yet he has made people feel better in quiet, wonderful ways since I have had him.
He restored the spirits of Alzheimer's patients during a "pet visit" at a Northern Virginia care facility, for instance. "You're a good dog," a patient told him lovingly as he calmly lay at her feet. He never flinched when the woman, confused by her illness, turned on him and took away his biscuit.
Last December, Opie proved a perfect "reindeer" at a Christmas party. Ever so cooperative in paper antlers, he led Santa into a noisy crowded room where children quickly delighted in him, a dog nobody had wanted just a few months before.
Opie's basic behavior is remarkable. Ask him to heel, he heels; ask him to stay, he stays; ask him to sit, he sits. Begging, jumping up, chewing and messing are minimal and even his growling can be revealing. When Opie and my father's dog tangled, it suddenly became clear why the Pet of the Week ad described Opie as "noble." At 91 pounds, he towered over the terrier, an aged, confused animal prone to misadventure. But instead of biting, Opie held back. "You can go," his brown eyes seemed to say as he released his small agitator, "but be more careful."
If an ad about Opie appeared tomorrow, it would have to run on for pages to do him justice. It would tell how he summoned his courage this past year and learned to stop peeing uncontrollably in thunderstorms, his worst fear. It would talk about how Opie gets excited when people raise their voices to each other -- he stops whatever he's doing and boldly steps into the middle of things, wearing the anxious look of a canine referee. And it would describe how Opie lies in my house, hour after hour, listening to complaints about a range of topics -- the S&L crisis, the threat of war in the Mideast, negative political campaigns -- and the long time it takes for humans to see clearly. Five years, huh boy? Why so? Why do we trade gentleness like yours for pit bulls? Iremember my first call to Friends of Homeless Animals after I saw their ad. I didn't want a noisy animal, so I asked whether Opie barked.
"Bark?" one of the volunteers said. She was shocked by the question.
"Ummm, I haven't heard him bark," she replied. "But just a minute. I'll ask my husband."
She returned in seconds. "No," she reported. "He hasn't heard Opie bark either. Nobody has."
"How could he not bark for five years!"
I used to laugh whenever I told this anecdote. But that was before I learned to appreciate Opie's goodness. Now I think I understand. I can imagine Opie getting quiet simply because somebody he loved left him off one day and never returned. "Dogs get lonely and depressed," says Marieka Yoder of the Alexandria animal shelter.
Happily, Opie shows no offense at my past ignorance as he and I head into our second year together. Instead, he is rolling around on his blue towel, animated because I have walked in.
"Talk to me, Opster!" I urge as I squat to pet him. "Say something, buddy. Speak!" Again and again, Opie barks. And when I rise, I feel good and forgiven.
Joseph Cerquone is a free-lance wrtier in Alexandria.