Animal Instincts by Aleksandra McHugh
There are two of them with the man. The straw-blonde, rendered delicate in a lace shawl, carries a plastic baggie in her teeth. I can’t see what’s in it from here. The black one hunches under an old-man’s fedora. It doesn’t fit right, and teeters. That could be why he’s so tense: doesn’t want his hat falling off. Tufts of brown matte poke up around a red-and-white checked bandana that’s been cinched around his neck. No leash, not on either one.
Being Exhibition Days, it’s not unusual to dress up. But they catch my eye anyway.
It’s the cuteness that gets me at first: dogs in costume, how adorable. But then it’s their staggered gait, like they would collapse if allowed, the shrunken posture, pronounced ribs that make me really look.
I cross Elphinstone Street. I was going that way, toward the ticket booth. A slight detour will give me a better look. I force our paths to cross and smile at the man. He doesn’t smile back. Instead, he barks something, and the black one flinches and lowers his head further, near to the ground. The blonde’s ears prick up, her jaw clenching tighter on the baggie. It’s full of shit. There is a wicked jag of half-opened scab on her right hind leg, some scarring. I look at the man again. Vicious.
I stop a ways before the gates to watch them continue up Elphinstone, the man banging his stick down on the pavement every so often to make the dogs lurch and pick up their pace, only to slow again, exhausted. The wrongness of it all is obvious: their get-up, the man barking, the dogs cowed. And because it’s so obvious, I want to shout after them. I even think to follow them home, stage a rescue.
But I don’t. I let them go. And many months later they turn up on the news. The man had taken a hammer to their wasted frames and tried to bury them in his back yard. Being spring, the ground was still hard. One of them, half-buried, still alive, was rescued when a neighbor called the Humane Society. Which dog, I don’t know. Which one is better off?
Neither. Rescue doesn’t really cut it somehow.
The man gets a fine and some probationary conditions. No animals. That must really hurt. Bet he’s a real priority for the cops, too – the botched dog killer. Yeah, right. That’s okay, because he’s my priority now. He and some others like him are having a run of bad luck lately: broken windows, graffiti, gas leaks. It’s karma, circling, trying to get a clear shot.
Nope, I didn’t go after them, and now they’re the reason for the rest. The proximate reason – there are always lots of reasons for everything. No more standing around with the so-called innocent bystanders, looking and knowing, doing nothing. After that, I swore never to deny my animal instincts again.
It turns out the Animal Liberation Front doesn’t dedicate a lot of resources to pet rescue. Mostly, they’re into industrial sabotage and have bigger potatoes to fry. Abused pets are a sideline. Still, their tactical manuals apply. The ALF primer has been useful in getting the basics down. Wear dark colors, for instance, but not black. Black stands out. Also, start small and choose appropriate targets. That’s a basic rule. So, since I’m one person, a young woman at that, low on cash, mostly unarmed, it follows that my targets are small. Cats mostly. Yep, I’ve pretty much got cats down. Which is saying something. Cats are tricky. It might be time to branch into dogs. I’ve been wanting to ever since I saw those first two.
There is one I’ve been watching for a while now, trailing him and his man as they shift through the crowds of the Village Arts Festival. The dog is mid-sized, grayish, with too-pale blue eyes that seem bred in from elsewhere, to up his fierceness factor. Otherwise, he’s got the markings I look for: gaunt under grimy coat, sullen, all cringe and start for no apparent reason.
The man could be in his 30s – lives rough, looks like. I wouldn’t want any run-ins. He might have been beaten into meanness himself. But I don’t care about his story. All I know is he has to stop sometime, and when he does, possession will be nine-tenths mine.
And so he does stall in front of the 13th Avenue Coffee House, scanning the patio before fixing on a bike rack, where he ties the dog, and goes in. I settle onto a bench nearby and unpack my lunch, watching as a crowd forms up the steps to block his sightline to the dog.
I study the knot – it seems simple enough – and toss out some bacon. He might look fierce, but he eats without pause and wags his tail.
“Still got your spirit. Good for you, buddy.”
He wiggles his rear, then catches himself and winces. He’s disciplined, but also grateful – friendly even. It’s all I need to decide. I’ll have to move quickly now.
“Hey, good puppy. Okay if I come see you?”
I go over, crouch low, and put my hand up under his chin, at which he jerks his head, getting spittle on my fingers. If he bites, that’ll be the end of it. But he just wags and wiggles, starts stepping in place and doesn’t check his excitement this time.
“That’s right, buddy. Such a good boy. I’m going to take you home now.”
I untie the knot, triple the rope around my hand, and steer him onto the side street, throwing pieces of bacon up ahead to coax him into a trot. Turning into the first alley, we zigzag to Sask Drive. A few more blocks and a train track later, we cross safely into the hood.
At my place, we head straight for the back yard where I tie his rope around a tree. I’ll have to buy him a real leash – add that to my list. I drop the rest of the bacon onto the ground in front of him.
“Pace yourself, boy. Eat too much at once, you’ll get sick.”
He gobbles it all up.
Maybe I should keep him out here for a bit before taking him up to the others. Or, I could bring them out, introduce them one at a time. All I have is a room and it’s full of cats. Eight on last count, although some of them come and go. Which is fine by me – no one owns anyone around here. Still, a dog could be a challenge. Might have to move. With my finances, the only other option is a basement. See how it goes.
“Well, this is your new life. You can be anything you want here, so let’s start thinking of a name that fits. While you’re thinking about that, I’ll be right back with some water.”
A few months in, it’s seeming like it will all work out. My landlady, absent as she is, couldn’t care less about a dog. The other tenants are preoccupied with their addictions, domestic squabbles, destitution. So we’re fine on those fronts, and are enjoying that rooming-house equilibrium: You put up with my shit, I’ll put up with yours. A bonus is no one else uses the back yard.
Besides, Fidel’s disciplinary upbringing means he isn’t one for indiscriminate barking. His favorite pastime is herding cats, trying to keep them from jumping the fence.
Which isn’t to say they’re complying, just humoring him at the moment. I didn’t want to romanticize his hard-line personality by calling him Che. Also, Che is the one who dies young. Fidel lives long enough to become imperfect, real.
The sheepdog impersonation is boosting everyone’s spirits a bit. Mr. Mistofflees, the three-legged cat, died last week, basically of old age. He had been a source of comic relief: getting stuck in trees, failing to land window ledges. Pratfalls were his specialty. We all miss him a lot.
Sometimes, I still see Mr. Mistofflees, a peripheral dash of black blur trying to get by me unnoticed. It used to be, he was too clumsy to pull it off. Now, no matter how fast I turn, he’s gone, and the sobbing starts. It happens every time one of them dies. I’m overcome by a certainty there is nothing good left in the world. But then the living ones knead or grunt themselves into awareness and I am saved again.
Aleksandra McHugh’s recent writing appears in Broken Pencil and Briarpatch Magazine. Her still-fresh novel, Further Out, is seeking a publisher. It, and most of her writing actually, is steeped in the urban prairie (an oxymoron she knows) milieu of her youth. Her rudimentary site can be found at utilitarian-donuts.blogspot.ca named after a magazine she co-edited with Ken Fox, with whom she also co-habitates in Saskatchewan.