I first met Flora before she was Flora.
I was walking along the narrow pathway that led to our home in the jungle, when I came across a scrawny, ribbed, little puppy walking along a creek and looking through leaves and twigs for a bite of food.
There are many street dogs where we live in Guatemala, and my heart bleeds for them all. But once in a while, you come across one, and there’s something about their eyes, the way they look at you, perhaps, through you, where you feel a deep, soulful connection.
I took a picture of her to show my wife, Jeannette. We already had three dogs living in our house, and I wasn’t sure if we could take on another.
We didn’t have the resources to take in yet another dog. And so, that moment with the puppy on the path, like many, was a passing moment, and I became immersed again into my normal life. While I still thought about her often over the next few days, something told me that she would be all right.
One night, our friend came by to visit, and she spoke about a dog she had seen on the streets, one that she intended to help. She pulled out her phone, and lo and behold! It was the same little, emaciated puppy I’d seen just a few days prior.
She intended to care for it but hadn’t been able to find it again. Perhaps, she’d already died? It’s a common occurrence to see dogs resting their final rest along the sides of streets or alone in empty fields. I worried that might be her fate, but something told me otherwise.
Our friend did not give up, either. She spoke with locals in the community. She asked people to watch out for this little puppy. She showed the photo around, looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack. And finally, her persistence paid off. The local tortilla-maker had found the dog, alerted our friend, and now she had a fighting chance.
The lives of street dogs are hard lives.
There are the other street dogs, who are tough and territorial, and looking for their own bite of food. Only the strongest survive. And so, the little scrawny pups don’t have much of a chance. Then there is disease. Worms. Fleas. Viruses. Bacteria. Parasites. Any number of various ailments, that, when contracted, are more often than not a death sentence. And finally, there are humans, who, incomprehensibly, scare off, hit, and sometimes even kill the dogs.
Flora was in bad shape.
While medicines, bandages, and ointments are of immense importance, I have always felt that it is love, true to the heart, “I’ll never f*cking give up on you” love, that often makes a difference when it comes to getting better or staying sick, holding on to life or succumbing to death.
And Flora’s new mother gave her that love. She was a college student, without much of a budget, visiting Guatemala for only a few short weeks, but she had that one cure—love—in immeasurable supply. In the days that followed, the wobbly, shaky-legged puppy became strong. She went from terribly diseased to increasingly healthy. She went from “anonymous street dog” to “Flora,” a proud member of a new pack.
Our friend had to return to school for a few short weeks, and since Flora was still sick, she couldn’t take her—no vet would clear her for international travel. We took Flora into our home, and looked forward to having another fun, loving puppy around.
However, things quickly turned for the worse. Shortly after arriving at our home, she started showing signs of distemper, a disease so heinous that it generally means certain death for these street dogs. They lose the function of their muscles and nervous system. They cannot lift their head. Convulsions are normal. And they lie and moan in pure, utter agony.
This was Flora’s fate.
Most of the day, she would lie on the floor, flat, unmoving, barely able to watch the other dogs play around her. She would just lie there in pain. We would slowly and gently and flatly press our hands under her, to lift her, and bring her outside. She’d scream a blood curdling scream, piercing your heart, leaving it to bleed and whither in fear and despair. We’d lay her in the dirt, where she’d poop and pee, mostly on herself. We’d then have to gently wash her, and sit there with her throughout the day, providing love and hope.
The nights were the worst, as the virus seemed to strike most horribly in the darkest hours. She would continually let out wailing, painful moans that reverberated throughout the house. And there was nothing we could do except whisper sweetly to her, pray for her, and hope for her. Even trying to cuddle her or hug her would cause immense agony.
After several days of this, and numerous visits with our veterinary friend, she appeared to be getting better.
Almost everyone had thought she was all but dead, and that death was only a matter of moments away. But we chose to believe otherwise, and now she was finally pulling through. I felt relieved. I felt alive. I felt grateful. I felt humbled. And I felt happy. All of which was short-lived, as within two days she fell even more deeply into the grim hands of disease, moaning even louder, barely capable of eating, and trembling with pure and absolutely hellish pain.
I felt despair. I didn’t give up hope, but I began to prepare myself for the inevitable. She was a strong, strong fighter. But sometimes, I thought, even medicines and, I dared think, even love may not be enough to overcome the fate that unfolds before us. The days and nights were long and treacherous, and honestly, nearly broke us on several occasions. To watch a sweet little animal suffer so much is impossibly difficult. And playing God, that is deciding whether we should put her down or continue down this path, is a damning position.
I do not ever wish to be God. Being human is difficult enough.
The vet and others thought it might be best to put her down. She, in her moans and wails, seemed to be begging for mercy. Perhaps, it was time. Perhaps, in the morning would be our day of mourning as we sent her off to better fields, in a better world.
Jeannette and I didn’t sleep well that night. The rain beat on the tin roof, running down the windows like tears down weeping faces, and we simply decided to give it up to God, to the Universe, and trust that whatever happened, we did our best.
But alas, and wholly miraculously, in the morning, she was moving, just a little, but enough to provide hope.
Throughout the day, she gained strength. And her moans became muted sobs. Her muscles unlocked, and she moved her little, skinny arms and paws about. She wanted to play with the other dogs but couldn’t.
But, still, she wanted to play. She wanted to live. With each hour then each day, she returned. Until one day, I sat out on the front porch, overlooking the volcanoes and jungle, and watched her running around at full speed, jumping, biting, wrestling, and yelping with joy, as she played with the other dogs who had been sitting there patiently waiting for her to come alive. And, to their delight and ours, she had.
I tell you this story because I believe in love.
I believe that the difference between a cold night and a cozy evening is the embrace of a lover, the closeness of a friend, or the unconditional cuddle of a pet. I believe science helps keep us alive. But love is why we live. And each and every one of us who has held a cat, or a dog, or any other pet, knows in their heart that they are truly angelic creatures who deserve our love, and who give it to us so plentifully. And we know that when we rescue a dog or a cat, it is really they who rescue us.
Flora is alive and well now, living in suburban Portland. She has a family. She is tall and thick and fast. She has a life. And, as my friend sends us pictures of Flora at the park or on hikes in the mountains of Oregon, I know that the deep love that her mother gave her, her unrelenting pursuit of this mangy little diseased dog on the street, and the countless hours she spent caring for her, cooking her special food, administering medicines, and using her own, small funds to finance it all, I know that this unrelenting love is what made the difference.
It was this discovery of our seemingly infinite well of love and the power of that love to heal that led us to start a dog rescue and sanctuary here in the heart of the Guatemalan Mayan jungle in Lago de Atitlan.
Through our newly founded sanctuary, we strive to bring in dogs from the streets, remedy their woes, and prepare them for forever homes. We know we will encounter difficulties, and losses, and heartbreak, along the way, but this is life. It is both beautiful and sad in all its glory.
But when faced with it all, we choose life and love and hope. For us, it’s as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously replied when asked what he would do today if the world were ending tomorrow. He said, “I’d plant a tree.”
Well, for us, we’d take in another dog.