There are a lot of things you can do to understand yourself better: from getting your head shrunk by a quack, to writing dumb, rambling blog entries. I have done both in my life – sometimes to a nauseating degree. A more unconventional method, however, is the act of fostering dogs. Rarely have I had a more though-provoking experience, specifically regarding the personal contradictions fostering has provoked, and the contradictory ways that dogs are embraced by the larger human culture.
I have been helping my girlfriend Adrienne foster dogs for over a year now. It was with her desire to take on this project that my first internal contradiction arose. I never thought that I would be a foster at this point in my life. In all honesty, it was something that I didn’t really want to do. When we first started fostering I was only six months into my first year of graduate school. We had just moved to Denver from St. Paul, and being a foster was the furthest thing from my mind.
But when you are in a romantic relationship it’s amazing how things that are “far from your mind” can suddenly become closer. In the first few months after moving to Denver, Adrienne began rumbling about pursuing fostering opportunities. With her being a massive animal lover, I knew these weren’t empty expressions. It wasn’t the type of talk you could brush off with a simple, “Uh huh, uh huh, ok. Quit it.” No, with her it was serious business, a prelude to action. It officially began during our first winter in Denver. I had gone home to Minnesota for the Christmas holidays, but she had stayed due to obligations for work. By the time I returned a dog had joined us, occupying the slivers of free space in our Harry Potter, cupboard-under-the-stairs-size apartment.
A year has passed since then, and six more dogs have cycled through our apartment. Five of them found homes. Each dog provoked a second set of personal contradictions. I have often felt sullen over how each dog has complicated my life but also enamored with the joy each one has brought to our pitifully small quarters. This schizoid quality was particularly true in the case of Hank, Dodger and Sadie. These three dogs were easily some of our most maddening fosters, but for me, they were also the most impactful.
Hank, for instance, was a brutally difficult dog to foster. A big, lumbering oaf, he was clumsy and obsessed with his ball, wanting it tossed again and again. In our tiny, sad excuse for a one bedroom apartment, he would crash wildly into the twists and turns of the floor plan, his bulk bumping ungainly into our few pieces of furniture. Despite the difficulties this size and energy introduced into our lives, Hank was also wonderful in many ways. He was incredibly loving and desperate to please. When coming home, one could always count on him loping over, his eyes wide, tongue flailing. He would sit right in front of you and immediately place one paw upon your leg, as if trying to root you to that spot.
He didn’t stick around long, and that wasn’t a huge surprise. Seeing how he was of the popular Golden Retriever breed, I wasn’t shocked that he was adopted after only being with us for a few weeks. I was surprised that he was soon returned to our fostering organization. The fickle nature of these potential adopters left a deep impression on me, suggesting that my contradictory feelings about dogs possessed a universality. It highlighted that a warring dichotomy exists in humans – between desiring love and not wanting to do the work that creates it.
Of course, in retrospect I find it strange that I was shocked by this adoption failure. It wasn’t the first time I realized that many people don’t want to adapt their lives to the needs of a dog; they want a dog to adapt to theirs. Years ago, when I was working in dog kennels in Chicago, this was a daily preoccupation. These were experiences that certainly rank as some of the worst of my “professional life”; and I still remember them clearly. I would spend my time drifting around the play pen like a twenty-something zombie. All day, every day my only thought was when it would all be over. My salvation at these jobs were the friends I made. There was a great rapport, a comradery, something essential when standing amidst dozens of wriggling dogs and dodging geysers of shit.
No friendship on Earth though could make me ignore how people interpreted the kennels where I worked. For many patrons, these were not places to use sporadically. These were places where their dogs were going to live most of their lives. This illustrated how human beings are contradictory towards their pets. It underlined their laziness, and it illuminated how people ideally want the benefits of dog ownership but none of its downsides. To be clear, I don’t consider myself outside this characterization of humanity. I’m a lazy, silly and unimpressive little man, who on most days can barely imagine doing work outside of the obligations that bring me a paycheck. But I’ve never looked at dog ownership as something that wouldn’t necessitate a shift in this thinking. In my opinion, unless you’re willing to make this change you have no business broaching the topic.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to look with despair at what we’ve done to this species. Although there are many, many people who treat dogs with love and respect, far too often it seems to be a hostile, unfriendly world. I found myself preoccupied with this idea when Dodger was put to sleep. A beautiful, powerful and energetic dog, his premature demise was excruciating to go through. It was a brutal ending for the pup, but more than likely a necessary one. You see, Dodger was insane, possessing a proclivity for violence that was as scary as it was unpredictable. And although we had no definite sense for what made him that way, it was hard to not suspect that human involvement had played a role. In the days that followed his death, I took this supposition to wild levels. I deliriously wondered if humanity’s 30,000 year old decision to domesticate the dog had been a wise one, or if it had damned dogs like Dodger, putting them on a path to obliteration.
In retrospect, I can, of course, see that this thinking might have been a tad on the melodramatic side. But I still contend that there may have been a kernel of truth to all of it. To me, a dog is a walking contradiction, created entirely by humanity. They are animals – once wild – that now labor to conform to very narrow set of expectations. When a dog cannot conform to these then they can no longer exist.
They have been also rendered entirely dependent on us by the process of domestication, a dependency that we don’t want to bear. Sadie, our most recently departed foster, wore signs of this contradiction right on her body. When we initially got her, she was partially crippled, profoundly underweight and arthritic as hell: a clear product of neglect. Over the months with us she did dramatically improve. She became a fixture in our home, and we bonded quickly. Despite her advanced age (estimated at anywhere between eight to ten years old) and various ailments, Sadie had a layered and often dynamic personality. When excited, she would gallop about with as much vigor as her mangled back haunches would allow, her mouth open and playfully snapping. She also loved to play with toys and balls and engage in games of hide and seek with the intensity of a dog half her age.
Sadie also naturally had a number of negative qualities, from nervousness to a highly sensitive stomach. This juxtaposition can be best encapsulated in a single afternoon. I had just come home from a fairly long day at work. The windows were shut and Sadie had been left alone for nearly six hours. Opening the door, an almost indescribable array of odors assaulted me, a sharp mixture of decay and ammonia. Pausing at the entryway of the apartment, I spent a moment trying to collect myself by bending over and rocking back and forth, my hands on each side of the door frame.
Then I stepped inside the apartment and found Sadie having her typical reaction near my feet. Amidst her screams of happiness and excited nibbles, I tried and failed to get a fresh breath of air. The apartment smelled as if the building’s septic tank and exploded, and it didn’t look much better. A large, wet and mucousy pile of dark brown diarrhea sat in the doorway of the bathroom. Directly adjacent was an array of poop-encrusted footprint streaks, evidence that Sadie had engaged in a heroic struggle to get back up after squatting down. These prints were visible throughout the apartment, zigzagging across the floor like a psychotic dance routine. They could even be seen on the living room’s futon, suggesting that Sadie had decided a nap was in order after all her hard work. In addition to defecating, she had also left a massive, pond-size puddle of urine on our apartment’s wooden floors. It felt like after voiding her bowels she had decided that she might as well go all the way.
During the cleanup process – which involved me gagging and swearing constantly – I marveled at the diversity in my thoughts and feelings. Although I hated Sadie at that moment, I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for her. She looked so glum and pathetic watching me scream the f-word through tears while scrubbing feces out of our rugs. Sadie constantly had “accidents” inside our place. I personally lost track of how many times I came home to a big steaming dump or an oceanic amount of urine. She also seemingly had a need to relieve herself the second we stepped outside of our apartment. This wasn’t a huge deal until our building issued a punitive revision to their pet policy, bluntly proclaimed their intent to fine residents a crisp $50 USD if even a drop of pee splashed down upon their property. To avoid these debilitating fines, we resorted to carrying her off the apartment’s grounds each time she needed to go to the bathroom. And seeing how she weighed about 50 pounds or more, this was no easy task.
It has been about two weeks now since Sadie got adopted by a wonderful woman who lives in suburban Denver: truly a “best case” scenario. Sadie will now, hopefully, spend her remaining days enjoying the ample open spaces of Westminster while soaking up the attention of a woman who seems to live for her animal companions. Since she left, the contradictory feelings that Sadie produced have not faded, which is consistent with almost all of our other fosters. These feelings have always followed me, clashing internally even after each dog has been gone for weeks or months. For instance, I can’t help but feel sad about Sadie, although I recognize that her staying with Adrienne and I was not a sustainable situation. She needed what she now has: a larger house to roam about in and call her own, and a woman with far more free time than Adrienne and I have to spare.
Considering all this, particularly how bruising a process fostering can be, it makes you wonder about why you’d even do it in the first place. As I’ve discussed this with other people and sought out reflections on the Internet, I’ve noticed how many platitudes are used regarding the act of fostering. People will always tell you that what you’re doing is good; you’re saving lives and this matters. Yet if I’m to be truly transparent, then I have to admit that I profoundly struggle with this idea. In regards to fostering, and really in regards to most things that I do, I secretly don’t think that it matters. In fact, I don’t think anything actually matters.
This is the final contradiction that I’ve become aware of over the past year, and is one that has prompted me to ask certain questions. Why do something that further complicates your life and guarantees you to experience loss at a much higher rate? The answer cannot simply be this preposterous belief in altruism or in some sort of abstract moral order. Instead, the motivations must be rooted in something deeper, something incredibly blunt and self-serving. How else could you possibly explain the second thing people always say after they throw out moral platitudes: “I don’t think I could ever be a foster.” Clearly, when these people say this they are indicating their fear in having to give up the dogs they’ve bonded with on a frequent basis. However, if they actually were slavish devotees to this idea of altruism, wouldn’t this potential inhibitor be less of an issue?
Personally, it is guilt that has allowed me to overcome my contradictory feelings. Guilt has been behind my behavior throughout each part of this past year of fostering. If I would have balked at Adrienne’s initial drive to foster, I would have felt incredibly guilty. Additionally, I generally feel a tremendous amount of guilt regarding the plight of dogs out in the world, particularly regarding the cruelty they have been subjected to by mankind. There are times where I wonder to myself if guilt is really all I have, and if it has been solely behind any action I’ve ever taken that could be potentially labeled as altruistic.
But maybe there is nothing wrong with this; maybe this is exactly what makes human beings special. Through our desire to avoid feeling guilty, great and positive things seem to happen. I can’t imagine that there are many other species whose emotional spectrums include guilt, and who actively invite elements into their lives that will end up compromising them. No, this seems to be uniquely human, a trait that has provided me with insight into my contradictory feelings. Although many would like to attribute this motivation to a sublime or heavenly origin, perhaps it is better to look at it more soberly and maturely. This motivator is indeed rooted in selfishness, but it is still worthy of respect because it is what pushes people to do better. I personally love this idea, and it makes me more sympathetic towards humanity. Guilt helps us help others, even when it often (if not always) makes little to no sense. Our potential for guilt denies our rationality, and it may be where the value of the human being truly lies.