Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the city with dogs: brief responses to a road accident

dog and the guy with him by It'sGreg/ Commons

© Shamoni Sarkar

The light had just changed to the white walking man, telling pedestrians they could now move. At some point a few seconds earlier, a puppy had run onto the street and was hit silently on its head by a passing car. When I turned around, a man was holding up the last rushes of traffic while he lifted the puppy’s stunned body with one hand and placed it gently on the sidewalk. He had a dog of his own– more robust than the one that had been hit. It came close and whimpered to its companion to hang in there. There was a large crowd by now, standing around with confused urgency. Where on earth was its owner? The puppy was breathing with effort. Slow spots of blood came from its temple. It couldn’t move its head, so its eyes pointed straight up at the crowd.

Then one of the owners appeared. “Is she okay?” He asked with little conviction. He bent down to look at her with real care and guilt, but this was clearly unfamiliar territory, and he didn’t know how to proceed.  
“It’s my ex-wife’s dog. She’s a few blocks away. She’s just coming.”
He had found himself the accidental owner.

For the first five minutes, the puppy was resilient. Then she went to the bathroom on the street. Her insides were slowly letting go. She had understood that this was a big deal. People fetched some cardboard and made her a bed.     

It was decided that the ex-husband would get into the first taxi we saw and take the dog to the nearest animal hospital (which people would look up for him on their phones), and we would send his ex-wife there when she arrived at the scene.

At first the cardboard didn’t fit through the taxi door, but finally the task was completed with elegance. The ex-wife was almost there, so the man chose to wait. He guarded her spot for her– in the backseat, next to her dog. The driver was patient. Seconds later, a woman came running down the block. She was petite and spontaneous– a distinct contrast from her ex-husband, whose large frame contained many hesitancies. They crossed each other when he moved to the front passenger seat and she threw herself into the back. She embraced her dog, protecting its life. We waved the taxi away and breathed out our best wishes after it.

My insides had trembled when I saw the puppy lying there at the edge of the sidewalk, scared stiff, staring up at us and imploring. I imagined the violence inside its nimble body– the internal bleeding, the slowing heart rate, the mess. I felt sad, inside and outside. My guess was that other people felt the same way, and that this is what drove them to think on their feet and help out. A small, dying dog was all that was needed for so much human concern. But at the end, the people that came forward to help didn’t do so because of some grand duty to humankind. There was an accident, and it needed prompt attention. From then on, small moments of carelessness and bigger ones of precision moved everything forward. The matter-of-factness of everything actually felt wrong to me for a short while. It was as if I had been cheated of feeling something bigger. But this was a lofty, unfair expectation, because there really was no better way things could have turned out.  

There was one thing that made people give so much of themselves while still keeping a distance– something about the fact that the victim was, after all, a dog. It was someone’s pet– a living object of that person’s affection. So it was at a strange halfway point between losing, for example, a toy, and losing an actual person. A dog is not just a toy, and so people acted out of care and respect for the life of the dog itself. But, more importantly, they acted out of care for another human being’s capacity to care for a life. Having found themselves in this emotional middle ground, they were genuinely involved, but also strangely detached. They were not rescuing a person, but an animal that holds the value of a person for another person.

The ex-husband had found himself in that same strange middle ground of having to take charge of something that was of crucial importance to someone else he was close to. (But this didn’t mean he didn’t care for the dog himself, and he meant every word when he apologized profusely to her every time she whimpered in pain.)  

But shouldn’t the situation have a completely different meaning for the ex-wife? Pet dogs bring out sides of us that often nobody else sees– we are playful, childish, and excessively affectionate and loving. Pet ownership gives us these privileges. But can this really be the same as loving one’s own child or a family member? Pets do bring out special things in people, but they are still pets and people still own them; they are living possessions that we have chosen to love selectively. So losing one’s pet must be fundamentally different from losing a person one loved.

But then, what if the ex-wife lived alone and only looked forward to her dog’s company at the end of the day? What if she had formed such a strong bond with it that it knew secrets about her that nobody else did? What if her dog was the strongest presence in her life, and she needed it more than she needed any other human being? Would it still be a relationship of ownership and loving faithfulness? Or would it be something quite different– something very human?      


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