Already a board member for Bow-Wows & Meows, a non-profit organization that hosts an annual pet fair in Santa Clarita where we adopt out L.A. County Shelter animals, I longed to do something more hands on with homeless dogs. Not at a shelter where they euthanized animals, though. That would be too sad for me. The Brittany Foundation was just what I had been looking for.
Within weeks, I was cleaning out kennels and helping out at the ranch, driving an hour and a half each way from my mountain home. I loved interacting with the big dogs, going for walks, and playing ball. For being cooped up in a kennel most of their lives, they were all surprisingly well-behaved and not surprisingly, extremely grateful for the attention.
Each was endearing in their own way. Kirby, the fuzzy black terrier who didn’t like most men but loved the ladies, would do a little twirl when he saw me coming. Doza could catch a Frisbee with the grace and speed of a champion, while Buffy could melt stone with her soulful black eyes and effective begging tricks.
Loren won me over with sheer affection and her cute pink nose, sprinkled with dusty rose freckles. I’d take her out of the kennel and into the large run area, a 2,100 square foot rectangle with rocks to climb and bushes to sniff, which we dubbed “Project Dogway” (so the dogs could strut their stuff for potential adopters). She’d immediately hug me, standing on her tip toes to smother my face with kisses, then collapse halfway onto my lap, a big, wide goofy grin spread across her face. She didn’t really care much about playing. I’d throw a ball or toss a Frisbee and Loren would stare at it blankly, barely moving her head to see where it landed, much less chase after it.
She wasn’t really into walking, either. Unlike her canine counterparts, who couldn’t wait to get out and sniff along the dirt trails for 15-20 minutes, Loren would excitedly pull on her leash to get out of the main kennel door, but once you started heading off the compound, would drag her feet on the pea gravel before she laid down completely in protest, crossing her front paws. After that, it was a stop and start routine, with Loren stalling and having to be coaxed to move another ten feet. Once we got past the driveway, which had eight foot-high stucco fencing, she was usually good to go, trotting along the trail happily in her gangly way, but getting Loren there was quite a battle.
Loren always wanted to cuddle, which we would do in her kennel, in Project Dogway, wherever we could. I’d bring her an extra piece of chicken from Subway, since she was a little on the skinny side, and feed it to her in private so the others wouldn‘t see. It felt a bit illicit. I loved them all, but Loren was my favorite.
The parking lot was alive with hip hop music, buff, tattooed men and even buffer dogs, like a concert, only instead of drinking beer and chatting up chicks, these guys were showing off their four-legged property. It was 10:45 a.m. and the American Bully Kennel Club show in San Antonio was just about to start up.
The American Bully is a dog recognized by the United Canine Association, an all-breed registry for purebred canines, as purebred; the breed is not recognized by the American Kennel Club. According to the UCA, the American bully was created by breeders in the 1980s, who crossed American Pit Bull Terrier with Staffordshire terriers. The result is what some people refer to as a “pit-o-patamus.”
I was waiting behind a truck filled with these massive bullies, their block heads and cropped ears peaking up from the crate in back of the bed. There were white ones and black ones, marked ones and brindle ones with spiked collars being dragged in the parking lot by their owners. They had the same markings of the pit bulls I am used to, but were way stockier, stouter, lower to the ground, their heads about 50 percent larger, their faces more impassive than curious, most slobbering in the budding Texas heat.
Cars boasted stickers with names of kennels – Bullet Proof, Kountry Boys – and in one case, an especially committed kennel had an elaborate mural painted on the back of their truck, immense bullies awash in swirls of color and intricate calligraphy.
I took a deep breath and grabbed my camera, not sure of how to play my role here. Should I be stealth, pretend I wanted to buy a dog, see where that led or just be honest and say I was writing a book about pit bulls? This I debated while in line, when a bully in front of me started throwing up clear bile. It’s owner failed to take notice. I was glad I had taken Loren to a groomer for a spa day instead of trying to navigate her through this madness.
“Hey man, your dog is throwing up,” someone casually said to the owner, a huge African American guy with short braids in a low ponytail.
“Huh?” He looked down, barely moving, as solid as an oak tree and just about as unyielding to movement.
“Do you want me to get him some water?” I asked, grabbing my keys and preparing to rush to my truck.
The human oak tree finally moved his dog out of line and brought him outside, where the bully promptly collapsed. With his owner rubbing its sides, looking blank, I ran to get water and Loren’s bowl. When I got back, the dog had got back on its feet, but was still slobbering. I poured some water, but he refused to drink.
“Here you keep the bottle,” I said and handed it to the man. “For later, if you need it.”
“Thank you,” the man said, almost imperceptibly. For a big guy, he sure was quiet. Maybe he liked to let his dog do the talking for him.
“No problem,” I said.
After a minute, we both got back in line. Outside, families were unloading from their vehicles, mostly trucks, taking out kids alongside dogs bigger than their strollers. White, Hispanic, black, it was a genuine multicultural affair, with one look generally dominating for the men. Hip hop gangster. Low slung pants or shorts, graphic T-shirts, hats turned to the side or back, and tattoos up and down arms, on necks, and underneath eyes.
For women, the style was either soccer mom or hoochie mama, with lots of bling, low cut shirts, and in one case, laced up high-heeled boots paired with short shorts. For some families, it was matching outfit time, with babies to grandmas sporting colorful T-shirts emblazoned with their kennel name.
Inside the convention center, it was pandemonium. Tupac and Dr. Dre boomed and a swirl of attendees crowded vendor booths hawking everything from thick leather collars studded with five-inch spikes to puppies as young as eight-weeks old.
A huge thunderstorm ushered us out of Alabama and into Florida. This was a storm unlike anything I’ve seen in California, a THX-Surround Sound, cracking, splotching, lightning-filled stunner that kept me in fear behind the wheel for two hours, going 35 to 40 MPH at some points on the highway – many of which were over bridges built atop dark, swirling water, just like Louisiana.
The sun started poking out around 45 miles from Panama City Beach. We pulled up to our campground in fine spirits – I had given myself a pep talk that I could indeed put up a tent and that we were going to enjoy roughing it.
The kind campground officers, Pam and Donna, assured me that St. Andrews State Recreation Area was a safe, fun park. This after Loren had jumped into Pam’s cart and tried somewhat successfully to make out with her, which Pam was a good sport about.
“Are there alligators around here?” I asked.
They looked at each other, then at me. “Yeah,” Pam said, polite enough not to add “duh, you‘re in Florida” to her response.
“Like, in the campground?” I continued.
“Well, they usually don’t go into the campground, but they’re sometimes on the outskirts. Just look out for them around bodies of water,” Pam replied casually. She had her arm draped around Loren.
I sucked it up, determined not to let this info freak me out. We hopped in the truck and went to space 32, which was conveniently located near the beach, with a beautiful view. Problem: no shade. Except for a little patch in swampy grass near a body of water. This simply wouldn’t do for me or Loren. Both of us are fair and sunburn pretty easily, not to mention the possibility of being eaten alive by a huge reptile. Forget that night…what would we do for the 12 hours we were hit by direct sunlight the next day?
I went back to Donna and asked for a shady spot. Problem: campground was full. She suggested I go to Kmart and buy a tarp. I got in my truck, turned on the AC, fired up the laptop and frantically looked for hotels online instead, then decided to go for a drive to see them firsthand.
First, we stopped by the campground beach so Loren could see the water. That’s when I saw the “no pets allowed” sign. Brilliant. In my infinite wisdom, I had picked an oceanfront town that doesn’t let dogs on the beach.
“Great planning, Sathe,” I said out loud. I looked around and since no one else was near the beach, took Loren out on the fine-grained white sand for a photo opp, the green-blue water providing a nice contrast behind her. Illegal, maybe, but we came all the way from California, ya know?
According to my web search, there were a lot of rooms available on the shorefront – for $200 a night and up. Surprisingly, for the price, most of them looked abysmal, though they had merry seafaring names. We spent another hour and a half cruising for a bargain off from the beach. No such luck.
A more luxurious chain a mile and a half from the beach was available, so I plunked down twice as much as I wanted to spend. The room was plush, comfortable, and came with a big, wide desk for me to work on. As I updated the blog, the diva passed out on the comfortable, overstuffed couch.
I lied about Loren’s breed when checking in, writing down “boxer/pit bull mix.” Why? I was afraid they wouldn’t let us in a fancy place if I stated pit bull. I was kind of ashamed of myself, really. The next time, I vowed, I’d be 100% honest and proud to write pit bull, damn the consequences.
Frustrated, tired, and a little bummed that I was going over budget on this leg of the trip, I fed Loren, then took her for a walk, noticing a large, dark object off in the grass near the hotel. It was immobile and most likely a piece of wood rather than an alligator, but I stayed far from it and went towards the light in the parking lot.
Now it was time to feed me. I had spotted a little fresh fish market and restaurant up and across the street. Barnacle Bruce’s. There was a lady sitting out front when we pulled up. She was the manager and greeted us warmly, encouraging me to bring Loren on the patio. A lovely surprise awaited us – around the corner from the modest storefront was a bit of peaceful paradise with a colorful garden, soothing water fountain, and a fresh floral scent in the air.
A woman and her daughter spotted Loren as they came out of the building next door.
“Is he mean?” the lady asked.
“No, she’s really friendly. Come over and pet her,” I said. Loren wagged her tail frantically against the post – thwack, thwack, thwack – in anticipation.
The mom and daughter bent down. Loren sniffed them both gently and bestowed a kiss on their noses. The little girl sat on a makeshift couch and Loren jumped into her lap as if she were a Yorkie rather than a 60-pound pit bull.
They were followed by a shirtless, tattooed surfer who came over to pet Loren. We chatted for a minute – he had returned to Florida from California, but left his heart near San Francisco. When I mentioned Loren was from California, he said, “Well, that just makes her even cooler.”
I marveled at Loren’s ability to make us friends. No one ever just came up to me and started talking. What a blessing she was. How impossibly lonely I’d be without her.
My order came up – a half pound of steamed Cajun shrimp, a half dozen oysters baked with butter, garlic and parmesan and a Greek house salad with pepperoncinis, olives, and tomatoes. The seafood was fresh, succulent, sweet and spicy, the experience even more satisfying by the primitive action of ripping into the shrimp and removing the shells with my fingers, which I licked clean. No one but Loren was watching.
Sherry, our waitress, had several rescue dogs of her own, and mentioned a sister who volunteered at the local Humane Society.
“You should have seen the dogs here after Katrina hit,” she said, placing her hands on her chest. “It was heart wrenching.”
“I bet,” I replied, briefly imagining the catastrophe, then blocking it from my mind.
I expressed my desire for Loren to get adopted when we returned, that I didn’t want her to go back to a kennel after experiencing having her own person for seven weeks, that I was worried I might be doing her more harm than good, leading her on in a sense.
“I will pray for that tonight,” Sherry said.
“Thank you,” I said, touched, and promptly screamed. A huge black bug of some sort had landed on my arm and almost gave me a coronary. Sherry and a gentleman eating at a table across the patio laughed.
“I hate bugs,” I told them. “I hate alligators. I think I’m in the wrong place. Hey, are there alligators in that pond out there?”
“I can’t tell you no,” Sherry said.
CORRECTION: Please note, on page 58 of “Pit Stops” I mistakenly wrote that Mobile County Animal Shelter had worked with Bama Bully Rescue in rescuing dogs out of the shelter. This was an error and I sincerely apologize to Bama Bully Rescue for it.