Monday, June 29, 2009
Last summer my daughter Nikki and I traveled to Russia to visit her younger sister, whom we'll call Katerina to preserve her privacy. It seemed everywhere we went there were homeless dogs. Being dog lovers, our hearts went out to them, especially since they were friendly and gentle. In Moscow, near the Kremlin, we bought a sausage from a street vendor for a particularly hungry looking black lab. Nikki knelt down to feed the big guy and no sooner had he gobbled the food up when an off duty soldier jammed the butt of his rifle down on the ground right next to the dog's face, startling the two and sending the dog fleeing.
By the time we got to Desnogorsk, Katerina's home town, an eight hour bus trip from Moscow, we were aware of the public's general antipathy toward these dogs. This did not dissuade Nikki from reaching out to pet any and all of them who came within her range. Natasha, Katerina's aunt with whom she lives, reared back, mortified, to discover Nikki's hands on affection with the animals and tried everything, including dragging her away by the arm, to put an end to it. Nikki, a polite but fiercely independent seventeen year old was not happy with Natasha and disappointed in her sister who thought dogs were dirty.
After a day in Desnogorsk, Katerina and Natasha took us to their country house, a ten minute bus ride into what appeared to be very modest farm land. There, at the end of a dirt road, was an emaciated black dog with red eye brows. He was so skinny, his ribs poked through his fur, and he was so frightened he cowered when we came near. We would be there only two days but in those two days, we were determined to feed him enough food to last a lifetime. (Okay, nobody said we were thinking straight, but you try looking into the eyes of a starving animal and see how clearly you think.)
At lunch that afternoon, whenever Natasha and Kat weren't looking, we filled our pockets with food until by meals end, we had squirreled away an impressive supply of cheese, sausage and bread. Explaining we needed to walk off the generous portions, we excused ourselves from their table, made a quick exit out the front door and speed walked up the dirt road to the desperate dog. Too afraid to come near us, he watched from a couple yards away as we spread the rations on the road before him. No sooner had we put the last morsel down than a pack of four more homeless dogs converged on it, eating every last bit. Our timid friend held back letting the other dogs have it all.
We couldn't wait for the next meal so when we got back to the house we made a full confession. We needed food to feed a hungry dog! By now Natasha and Kat, were beginning to understand the principal behind "if you can't fight em, join em," and gave us a sausage and a thick slice of bread. This time we ran up the road to the dog and guarding the food with our lives made sure our hollow-eyed friend ate every drop.
When we turned to go, Nikki whistled and much to our surprise, the dog followed! As he followed, he came to life - his tail wagged and he started to prance. First by our side then behind us, in front of us looking back up at us and all around us... over and over again. He was happy!! I remember thinking this would probably be the only time in this dog's life he would feel like a dog should feel! We decided to give him a name and chose "Lucky" because we knew this dog who was going to need luck.
In our two days there we not only fed Lucky but another dog my daughter named Wolf. ("Wolf" because he looked like a Wolf.) Wolf was far more aggressive than Lucky and it seemed to us he had taken Lucky under his wing out there in the wild. The two were friends though Lucky was clearly subservient to Wolf who from time to time would show his authority in what looked like a one-sided dog fight - Lucky on the ground on his back, Wolf lording over him. Both dogs came to Natasha and Kat's little yard, grateful for our food and affection.
When it was time to leave, Wolf walked the several miles alongside Nikki, to the bus stop. When the bus arrived he tried to board it with her and when that wasn't possible, he sat back down in the road and cried. I couldn't bear to watch. Three days later, on another bus to Moscow we passed that bus stop and who do you think was still waiting where we left him... Wolf.
Back in the States Nikki and I couldn't help but think of our two friends. How would they survive with so little food. We called Natasha and Kat and asked if, at the end of their meals, they had any garbage, would they please feed it to Lucky and Wolf. They agreed and we felt relieved, but only briefly. Natasha closed up her country house by late fall and no one would be there with even scraps.
Weeks passed and by late September came the dreaded realization that winter would soon be here. Russian winters are ferociously cold and brutal and without shelter, it didn't seem likely Lucky and Wolf would survive. One night as Nikki was trying to fall asleep and thinking about the dogs again, I suggested in what quickly sounded overly optimistic, "Why don't we try to rescue them?!" Nikki loved the idea and while I told her I couldn't promise anything I would try my best.
The next day I considered all my prospects. Natasha and Kat would not have the money, where-with-all or willingness to manage such a considerable feat. I needed to start from scratch. I asked everybody I knew if they knew anyone planning a trip to Russia. No one did. In stores, if I heard someone with a Russian accent, I'd ask if they knew any way we might find help. No one did. I called my friend Ben who I used to baby sit when he was four and told him the story of Lucky and Wolf. "Gee," he said, "I'd really like to see those guys make it, but how can I help?" I said the same thing to him I said to everyone else, "I don't know, Ben, I just needed to ask." "Let me see what I can do," he offered sympathetically, as he hung up the phone.
Three days later in an E-mail Ben wrote, "Holy sh*t, I think we might have something!" Ben works in Washington, D.C. as counsel for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and had E-mailed all the employees of Radio Free Europe to ask for their help. One remarkable Russian journalist in Moscow responded. His name was Vladimir and he knew a woman in Desnogorsk named Eugenia and yes... they would help!
With Natasha's permission Eugenia showed up at her door soon after and asked her to identify Lucky and Wolf. She did. I don't yet know how Eugenia managed it, but she successfully gathered up both dogs and brought them to the home of Sergey who offered to host them through the winter and long rescue process. Lucky was grateful to be in a home but, sadly, Wolf was not. Too dominant, he wanted back to his pack and so they released him.
Seven months later, on May 15th 2009, Nikki and I waited breathlessly at Delta Airlines Cargo in our home town of Los Angeles, as crew members gathered around to watch what Delta employees from the CEO down had helped host and been anxiously anticipating. An airline van pulled up within yards of our intimate crowd and there secured safely in the vehicle was the most beautiful dog kennel you ever did see... Lucky had arrived!
................. To be continued