Compassion and volunteerism go hand in hand. One doesn’t sign up for two years of living in a lesser developed country, far from the comforts of home, without a desire to help those in need.
But that sense of compassion is not limited to fellow human beings. Many is the PCV who has taken in stray animals during their service; a puppy being used as a football by young boys, kittens wet and alone in the rain, anything with big sad eyes and a plaintive cry.
I have lived in a lesser developed country before, seen the pitiful plight of animals, and was determined not to cave in to compassion. You can’t rescue every animal in need, I told myself before coming to Armenia. You’ve got a job to do, places to go, people to teach.
Fate steps in
I was minding my own business, walking to school one sunny morning when I saw a small white bundle of fur just inside an iron fence along the sidewalk. I stopped, saw that it was indeed a tiny puppy, and then continued on my way to school. You can’t save every puppy, you can’t save every puppy, I mumbled mantra-like as I walked on.
Several hours later, on my way home, I saw she had been moved and was now lying surrounded by trash. It was a hot day. She was very still, a small ball of white fur with flies already gathering. But I could see her tiny ribcage slowly moving. Still alive. I went home. And thought. And thought. And thought.
Dozens, maybe hundreds of Armenians had walked by her. She was there for at least a day. Surely some of them had seen her? Maybe someone had saved her by now, I thought. How could I take care of a tiny, tiny puppy? She was obviously not old enough to be away from her mother. Where was her mother? Only a week to summer vacation; I was going away for two weeks; how could I take care of a puppy?? A million reasons to not go back ran through my mind.
Then two thoughts occurred to me: I could go check on her, and if she was dead, at least give her a decent burial. I couldn’t walk past her decaying body every day, knowing I had done nothing. Or, if she was still alive, I could feed her using an earplug as a nipple, with a straw shoved through it. Brilliant. Doing nothing was no longer an option. With this plan in mind, Operation Puppy Rescue began.
The life force was strong
I waded through tall grass and berry vines to reach her. I was horrified to discover that she was not only abandoned, she had a plastic bag twisted around her neck and tied to a stick. She had been purposely dumped and left to die. But as I untied the bag she stirred and began to whimper, eyes still closed, sniffing for her mama. She looked to be just a week old. Her tiny body fit in my hand. I stuffed her in my cloth bag and headed home.
The earplug nipple contraption was awkward, but she latched on and knew just what to do. She was a survivor.
Which brings me to her name, Hazel. When I told my friend Paul that she was a survivor, he suggested naming her Hazel Glass, after Hugh Glass, the survivalist featured in the gruesome movie, “The Revenant.” So Hazel Glass it was.
Once home and fed, getting Hazel warmed up was the next step. I lined a small washtub with a wool blanket (don’t tell my landlady) and tucked a plastic bottle full of hot water under it. It wasn’t mama and siblings, but it was vastly better than her last nest.
Two hours later, as she lay sleeping, dry, warm and fed, a torrential thunderstorm swept in. There’s no doubt that would have finished her off. I knew then I’d made the right choice, but I won’t say it’s been easy. She demanded to be fed every two hours – or less – 24/7 for the first couple of weeks. Like having a newborn again, it was sleepless nights and sleepy days. And of course all that milk ran right through her.
It takes a global village
Since that rocky start she has thrived. And while pet rescue is not part of the PCV role, many compassionate fellow volunteers and friends have pitched in to care for her. Amy in Korea, a dog rescuer herself, directed me to a website on caring for orphaned puppies and offered advice and encouragement.
Ina donated a cardboard box and her precious hot water bottle so Hazel could have a hot water “bed,” Sarah bought her “babydog milk” formula on a trip to Yerevan and gave her a stuffed snowman toy (for the little “polar bear”). Paige brought pet supplies from when she had rescued a puppy. She also bought much needed worm medicine, puppy chow and an adorable harness and leash in Yerevan. And everyone has taken turns “socializing” her with lots of cuddling and attention.
In fact, in a way Hazel is representing the Second Goal of Peace Corps: to share American culture with the host country nationals. That includes showing how we treat animals.
A dog’s life is hard in Armenia
Hazel is – or was – a street dog. Her fate, had she survived in the wild, would be to roam the streets, dodging cars and cruel boys, dumpster diving for scraps and sleeping under bushes. It’s a short, hard life.
There are no animal rescue groups outside the capital, five hours away. Dogs such as Hazel are not seen as pets. If people do have dogs they keep them tied up in the yard, occasionally tossing them scraps. Cities routinely have sweeps where street dogs are rounded up and shot.
Stores don’t sell pet food, let alone devote an entire aisle to them. PetSmart would have a hard time in Armenia.
This is not meant to be a judgment on Armenians or Armenian culture. It’s just the way it is here. Part of the experience of living in another culture is to be able to accept their values while still being true to your own and somehow making them both work.
While the volunteers have doted on Hazel, many Armenians actually recoil from her. I have to take her wherever I go as she is too small to leave home alone for long. When I took her to the opening of Sarah’s playground in a nearby village, the children were fascinated. I’m pretty sure they had never seen a “tame” puppy, particularly one that was carried in a bag. Some wanted to touch her, with rough pats and rubbing her fur the wrong way, while others pulled back as if she were an alligator. Petting her seemed more a show of bravery than a natural act of kindness.
Now, at four weeks, Hazel is sleeping through the night, mostly, and eating puppy chow mixed with oatmeal and milk (although she still begs for her bottle). She is smart, frisky and playful, full of life and mischief. What’s not to love?
Where we go from here, I’m not sure. Sometimes you just have to follow your heart and not worry about what’s down the road. I want what’s best for her, and if the right people wanted to adopt her I would let her go. If not, perhaps she will become a roving PC ambassador, spreading puppy love across Armenia (sorry TEFL program).
Whatever happens, I’ll keep you posted!