One Scary Day
by Wayne Hsiung
I don't think I really understood the horrors of a leg hold trap -- one of the evil devices used by the fur industry -- until the day it happened to Lisa.
Lisa is my youngest, the last of five furry kids (2 dogs, 3 cats) I've been blessed to have as part of my family. As a puppy, she was seized with a few dozen other dogs from a pit bull breeder -- and probable dog fighter -- who was charged with animal cruelty. The runt of her litter, Lisa probably would have been killed, or used as a "bait dog" to hone the stronger dogs' aggressive instincts, if she hadn't been taken away. Even at just three months old, her lack of value to her former "owner" was apparent: her body was covered with the scars of rough treatment; her tail broken in two places, into the curious shape of a lightning bolt; her belly bizarrely round and distended from parasites and malnutrition.
You might say that Lisa was lucky to have found our home, given these sad beginnings. But I think the converse is just as true: we were lucky to have found her. Before Lisa came into the picture, my house and life were feeling… empty. I had abandoned my cushy job for the great unknown of life as an aspiring novelist. We had just lost one canine roommate (my sister's blind toy poodle Pepin) because my sister had reclaimed him after coming back to the States from a stay abroad. And I had recently moved into a large and luxurious two bedroom condominium. The concept of furniture has never really made sense to me (who needs chairs when you have a nice comfy floor to sit on?), so the new space was left completely vacant, save a table for my computer, three cat towers, and a tattered old mattress. The place didn't look like a recently purchased condo; it looked like it was being squatted by a crazy cat lady.
Cat squalor notwithstanding, I thought I would enjoy the new place. Open space has always appealed to me; so, too, has minimalism. But after Pepin left, both I and my first little girl Natalie (a black mutt with lovable human eyes) would wander around the rooms like explorers in a barren wasteland. Alternatively, we would just sit on the hardwood floor and stare at the bare white walls. Nattie is not the type to play indoors, without a canine companion. I tried to teach her to be mischievous, but the most activity I could get out of her was to stumble over to Pepin's former pillow, give a sniff or two, then look up at me in bewilderment. I took this to mean, "I miss my little blind buddy. Why don't you bring him back?" Maybe I was anthropomorphizing. But it still made me feel lonely and sad. (The cats, at this point, were spending their time hiding in and exploring a labyrinth of pipes under my new master bathroom. This metallic maze was far too interesting for them to pay any attention to me or Natalie.)
Lisa, whom I took in 3 months after moving in, was the missing piece in our new home. She invigorated the scene, instantly, with her frantic, irrepressible energy. At first, this was the result of pure terror. She had never been outside of a cage. And her attempts to cling to the one familiar smell and face in my home, her fellow canine Nattie, were met with grumpy annoyance.
On the night of Lisa's introduction, I wrote:
[Lisa] was… slumped down on the ground, incredibly scared. She kept crawling in whatever direction nattie was going. When she got underneath nattie, and bumped into one of her legs, nattie would give out a growl or bark, and [Lisa] would run off in fear. But, finding no solace in this new strange place (she was still terrified of me), she would crawl back underneath nattie. And the sad cycle of follow-bark-run would repeat itself. :(
Eventually, I got [Lisa] to come toward me by offering her some food… She would quickly grab a piece, then run off. If I tried to get any closer, she would run around me in circles. Or actually, it was more like a fast crawl. Finally, after many tries, she decided she trusted me enough to eat from my hand. After eating some more, she came on my lap, and seemed to remember the warmth it provided her [in] the car. She sat there eating… and letting me stroke her head. And when she was done eating, she set her head down on my lap. After about 3 hours, she was finally learning to trust me!
The trust Lisa showed me, at the end of her first night in her new home, was an omen of good times to come.
From a few days later:
It's now 2 days of frantic walking, playing, and cleaning with our new family member. And as she learns to trust us, her playfulness, personaliy, and joy are blooming like a flower. When I sit on this computer, she periodically scampers out of the room, realizes that no one has follwed her out, and immediately comes scampering back to give us a quizzical look -- "Why won't you come with me?" Among her many other endearing traits/experiences, that I've observed up to this point:
- when she eats, Lisa runs back and forth between all the various food bowls in the house. She takes a bit from nattie's food, knocks the cats aside and eats from theirs (while they hiss and scratch at her), then darts back to her own bowl. Naturally, she scatters food all over the place in the process.
- Lisa gets the hiccups CONSTANTLY. They are barely audible, but you know she's got them when you see her head jerking every few seconds for no apparent reason.
- Lisa HATES the water. I gave her her first bath, since she was covered in poopie from the pound, and she splashed EVERYWHERE. I was as wet as she was, by the time we were done.
- Lisa has not yet figured out how to eat wet food. She gulps way too much of it down, gags, then shakes her head to get the stuff out of her mouth. The result is food flying in all different directions. We'll have to wait til she gets a bit older before we try that experiment again. :)
- Lisa is still very scared to be alone. She snuggles up against me or Nattie, whenever she sleeps. And she refuses to sleep unless someone else is there for her to lie next to.
- Lisa and Nattie are already fast friends! After the (wet) food fiasco, I temporarily placed Lisa in the bathroom. When she started to squeal from her isolation, nattie immediately ran and pawed at the bathroom door, whined, and gave me a concerned look. What a great and caring sister. :)
So, as you can see, everything is going GREAT! There are still some concerns. Lisa's scars are unpleasant to see and feel, and she has a strange lump near one of the biggest ones, that needs to be checked. She has not interacted much with the cats, and as she grows older there may be problems if she develops any aggressive tedencies. Finally, it pains me to think that such a beautiful and innocent little girl was threatened with death, simply because no one loved her and wanted to care for her... and that SO MANY billions of other poor girls, as deserving of life and love as Lisa, are dying all around us, and all the time. This is a terrible world for those who are weak. :(
BUt that's all in the past now, for Lisa. At this moment, she is sleeping happily on my bed, with nattie, surrounded by toys and blankets. She will never face the terror and violence of the outside world again. And that is reason enough for my family to be filled with joy. :)
Thinking about those early days with Lisa still fills my heart with warmth. She is simultaneously the most vibrant, the most comedic, and the most loving person that I know. And when I look back at pictures of my little Lisa, when she was just a pup, I can't help but rush over to give her a hug… gratefully, for everything she has brought to my family's life.
But this beautiful life nearly came crashing down on one cold winter night last year, when I had an experience of what it might feel like, to have a loved one caught in a steel jawed trap.
It was one of those bitter, windy Chicago nights that hit you like a semi truck the moment you step outside. I and the two girls were heading out to the dog run behind our building. As usual, the two little ones seemed oblivious to the cold. When I unhooked them from their leashes, they ran around and pranced as if it were a beautiful spring day.
I, on the other hand, was under no such delusions. Being the doofus that I am, I was totally underdressed for the cold -- no coat, no layers, not even shoes or socks. (It never occurs to me how cold one's feet can get until I actually step outside in sandals.) Naturally, I wanted back inside. So after a short period of play, I called the girls back to me, and walked back to the door of our building. They looked unhappy about this, especially Lisa, but being the dutiful children that they've always been, they eventually walked back to me, as I waited, shivering, at the entrance.
I hooked the kids' leashes to their collars, and proceeded to try to open the door. The door to the dog run is one of these heavy steel doors that's painfully hard to open even under normal conditions. With the wind blowing, the difficulty is cartoonish. You can lean back with your full weight, and the door will not budge. You have to pull with all your might. And when you finally get it open, it will slam shut with an explosive boom the moment you let the doorknob slip from your hand.
Lisa and Natalie were both terrified of this thunderous sound, and would come running to me if it slammed too close to them. And as horrible as this is to admit, I would sometimes use the sound strategically to scare the girls into keeping up with me. They would often pull or lag at the doorway in an attempt to convince me to stay or go back outside. The message I hoped to convey, by letting the door slam behind us, was something like: "See what happens when you lag? But if you keep up, then we can get away from the scary boom together!"
On this bitter, windy night, I was particularly enthused about getting back into the building. So after some grumbling and stumbling, I got the god-forsaken door open and ran through. Natalie, always less independent-minded than Lisa , came rushing in with me. Lisa, however, stalled for a moment, sniffing something outside, before scampering through the doorway at the last moment.
And when the expected boom came, this time it came with an even more terrifying sound, a sound that will remain imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. It was the sound of my little Lisa -- the brightest light of my life, and my favorite person in the world -- shrieking in a way that I did not think was possible for any living creature to shriek.
For a moment, I was frighteningly confused. When I turned back, I simply saw her standing there struggling and squirming.
But then I saw the blood, practically squirting up from the doorway behind her. It was coming from her foot, which was now smashed and trapped by the heavy metal door. I frantically ran to the door and tried the doorknob. I pushed it gently, and Lisa shrieked even louder and stared at me with desperate, suffering eyes. Moving the door was causing her pain. I knelt down to examine what was happening, and underneath the blood and fur, I could see that at least half of her foot was jammed into the door's crevice. I had no idea what to do. Pushing the door, I thought, might cause more damage to the foot. But there was no one in the building who could remove the door from its hinges --it was late and the maintenance staff was gone. The thought of leaving my little Lisa trapped there, screaming in agony, for even a moment was completely impossible. So I pushed again on the door, this time harder than the last.
But the door -- jammed by Lisa's foot -- would not budge. The only result was another high-pitched squeal from Lisa.
"I'm sorry, baby girl!" I screamed to her. By this point, tears were streaming down my face. "I'm so sorry. But I don't know what to do!"
Lisa looked up at me again with her desperate eyes. The continuous high pitched shriek was now replaced by shorter squeals, broken by brief pauses of heavy, pained moaning and breathing. I felt she was saying to me, "Daddy, why don't you help me? Everything you do just makes it hurt more." But I knew I could not leave her where she was.
So I tried again, this time leaning in heavily into the door. And again. And again. Each time, I caused another high-pitched shriek from my Lisa. Each time, I felt the unspeakable misery and shame of a father forced to hurt his little girl in an attempt to save her. The terrifying thought went through my head, as I stared in shock at the blood streaming from her foot: my little girl might bleed to death on this night. I could not get this door open.
I don't remember how many times I slammed into this door. It felt like a few hundred. But I do remember that I finally decided that I needed to step back from the door, and run at it full speed to smash it open. (If that didn't work, the next step would be to call 911 and hope the fire department would come to break the door down.)
And thank god, it worked. I went crashing through the doorway, as Lisa crumpled to the ground inside. I rushed back in, and collapsed as we embraced, both of us moaning and weeping in misery. I sat up, Indian-style, and Lisa crawled into my lap, whimpering in pain. I held her tightly, and stroked her pretty little head gently, and said over and over again, heaving and blustering through the tears, "I'm sorry baby girl. I’m so, so sorry, baby girl."
She dug her head into my chest so desperately that it was as if she were trying to drill a hole into my torso. And as she looked up at me between moans, with her big and loving puppy eyes, I thought to myself, "She still loves me. I don't deserve it, but thank god, she still loves me!"
I don't remember how long we sat there together, holding one another. It felt like 30 minutes, but it could not have been more than 30 seconds. Stress and adrenaline are well known to stretch the experience of time. But it was simultaneously one of the most desperate and yet uplifting experiences of my life. The guilt and sadness of what had happened were crushing. But all my feelings of pain and misery were overwhelmed by my even greater feelings of relief and love. My little Lisa was safe, and she still loved me. And that was all that mattered in the world.
We rushed off to the emergency vet. They informed me that her foot, though mangled, would make a full recovery. Three of her toes were nearly severed by the blunt force trauma; the bones were completely shattered. But after a few months with some stitches and a splint, she would be as good as new. The healing powers of a young girl's body are truly remarkable.
So too, with a young girl's mind. By the next day, Lisa had seemingly forgotten the trauma from the night before. She had a big green splint on her leg, so she was forced to walk on three legs. But she scampered around the house with a big smile on her face, periodically clanking the splint on a wall or the floor, as if nothing had happened. Emotionally, I was slower to recover. For the first few days, I would start to cry every time I remembered the incident. I could not bear it, especially, when I had to take off the splint and redress her wound. (This was necessary to prevent infection; it was also the reason we had to use a splint instead of a cast.) The sight of her bloody, stitched up toes would cause me to burst into guilty tears.
Strangely, my little Lisa would be motionless and silent through the redressing process. I cannot exaggerate how out of character this was, for a hyper, energetic young pit bull. And to this day, I think she was telling me, "I understand you have to do this, Dad. And even though it hurts me, I know it hurts you too. And I will hold still to make it easier for you." I realized in those days that Lisa is stronger and more resilient than I am. And despite her injuries, SHE was the one who carried ME through those difficult weeks of guilt and pain, who transformed my tears from tears of misery and shame to tears of joy and gratitude. For her strength and forgiveness and love, I will be grateful to Lisa until the day that I die.
(Aside: I think my friends sometimes shake their head, when I say to Lisa, "I'm proud of you, baby girl" for some trivial accomplishment -- e.g. finishing her meal, or finding a toy that I've hidden in plain sight. But what they fail to realize is that I am not so much proud of what she's DONE. I am proud of the joyful and loving person she IS, despite the trials and tribulations of a difficult life.)
The other realization that hit me in those days, though, was much darker. Being the winter, we were in the midst of the annual anti-fur campaign. At these events, we would hand out leaflets describing the atrocities of the fur industry -- the horrific conditions the victims are caged in, the brutal slaughter process, and the utter lack of meaningful regulations.
And though it is becoming less common, the leg hold traps. Horrific, steel-jawed monstrosities, these devices clamp shut with a boom and trap some poor creature's foot in their frighteningly sharp teeth. The target is usually some victim with prized fur -- a fox or a mink or a lynx -- but the state of New York had recently banned these disgusting devices on public lands because of the threat they pose to dogs and young children. I had handed out literature about the fur industry and trapping for many years; I had even held a real steel-jaw trap in my own hands. But it took one scary day in my own home, for me to fully internalize the terror and trauma that are the real story of the fur industry. The blood, the shrieks, and the pain… all that was being experienced by thousands of innocent creatures all over the world, from the wintry forests of New England to the icy tundra of Siberia.
Lisa had her tearful papa to rescue her, and to fall back on after she was freed. But these countless others, victims of the fur industry, have no such luck. The few that break free from the trap's horrible claws have no one to nurse them back to health, no warm shoulder to cry on until the pain eventually goes away. The many that don't free themselves are faced with an even more terrible fate. When the trapper arrives, their end will come. And whether by a brutal stomp to the neck, or repeated blows to the head, the denouement is always the same. These victims, who after all they have gone through -- the tortuous pain, the endless dark and scary nights -- deserve only love and peace and freedom, are rewarded instead with hatred and violence and death. It was as if, instead of desperately struggling to save my little Lisa, someone had left her there to languish and starve for a few weeks before brutally murdering her with a metal club.
As I considered this, the injustice, the indecency, the impossibility of such an act made my blood boil with sadness and rage. I felt the urge to rush out into the wilderness and smash every one of these devices into a million harmless pieces. But of course, the thousands caught in these traps suffer in secrecy and anonymity. I probably could not find even a single one of these traps, if I spent the next month searching for it. And I knew, moreover, that destroying even 10, 20, or 100 of these tools of oppression would only lead to 10, 20, or 100 more to be placed anew. Because we live in a world where these victims are seen as mere economic commodities, rather than the living, feeling sentient beings that they are.
I will not pretend to know with certainty the solution to this calamity. After seeing my own baby girl trapped for just a few minutes, however, I think I do fully understand the nature and urgency of the problem. In those moments, when my Lisa was trapped and shrieking in pain, I would have given anything to see her freed from her torment. Conversely, I know of no joy greater than the joy I felt upon her liberation, and no gratitude greater than the gratitude I feel from being a witness to Lisa's vibrant and flourishing life, as that horrible incident has faded into our past.
I know the countless thousands killed by steel jaw traps are in a position no different than Lisa. I may not know them personally. I may not even be able to know them, in the way that I know and understand my little Lisa. (Dogs, after all, have co-evolved to become our companions and friends.) But like my little girl, those thousands have fears and worries, and joys and pleasures. As I would do for my little one, I push myself to do for them -- to do everything that I can, to see them freed from their torture and pain. And I dream of the day when they are released from the terrible claws of oppression, and of the joy I will feel when all of our non-human brethren are free.
I know, more than anything else, that it will be the same joy I felt when Lisa crawled into my arms, and told me, with her beautiful eyes, that she still loved me, and forgave me for my deeds. And let me tell you this: it is a joy in life that cannot be beat.
This is why I do what I do. This why we do what we do. And why we need every one of you to join us. Not just because it's the right thing to do. (Though it is.) Not just because we owe our animal friends so much, for all they have given us, and all we have taken from them. (Though the debt is large indeed.) But because at the end of our time on this earth, we should say: "I lived, not just a successful life, not just a happy life, but a good one. Good, not just for myself but for the world."