Excerpt from Pieces of My Heart: Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature
["How Could You?" is believed to be the most published animal-related essay in the world, now translated into 21 foreign languages. Everyone is encouraged to ask their local newspaper to publish it illustrated with photos from local animal shelters; a recent occurrence has been radio DJs reading it on the air and literally stopping traffic with their readings.]
"HOW COULD YOU?"
Copyright Jim Willis 2001
When I was a puppy I entertained you with my antics and made you laugh. You called me your child and despite a number of chewed shoes and a couple of murdered throw pillows, I became your best friend. Whenever I was "bad," you'd shake your finger at me and ask "How could you?" - but then you'd relent and roll me over for a bellyrub.
My housetraining took a little longer than expected, because you were terribly busy, but we worked on that together. I remember those nights of nuzzling you in bed, listening to your confidences and secret dreams, and I believed that life could not be any more perfect. We went for long walks and runs in the park, car rides, stops for ice cream (I only got the cone because "ice cream is bad for dogs," you said), and I took long naps in the sun waiting for you to come home at the end of the day.
Gradually, you began spending more time at work and on your career, and more time searching for a human mate. I waited for you patiently, comforted you through heartbreaks and disappointments, never chided you about bad decisions, and romped with glee at your homecomings, and when you fell in love.
She, now your wife, is not a "dog person" - still I welcomed her into our home, tried to show her affection, and obeyed her. I was happy because you were happy. Then the human babies came along and I shared your excitement. I was fascinated by their pinkness, how they smelled, and I wanted to mother them, too. Only she and you worried that I might hurt them, and I spent most of my time banished to another room, or to a dog crate. Oh, how I wanted to love them, but I became a "prisoner of love."
As they began to grow, I became their friend. They clung to my fur and pulled themselves up on wobbly legs, poked fingers in my eyes, investigated my ears and gave me kisses on my nose. I loved everything about them and their touch - because your touch was now so infrequent - and I would have defended them with my life if need be.
I would sneak into their beds and listen to their worries and secret dreams. Together we waited for the sound of your car in the driveway. There had been a time, when others asked you if you had a dog, that you produced a photo of me from your wallet and told them stories about me. These past few years, you just answered "yes" and changed the subject. I had gone from being "your dog" to "just a dog," and you resented every expenditure on my behalf.
Now you have a new career opportunity in another city, and you and they will be moving to an apartment that does not allow pets. You've made the right decision for your "family," but there was a time when I was your only family. I was excited about the car ride until we arrived at the animal shelter. It smelled of dogs and cats, of fear, of hopelessness. You filled out the paperwork and said "I know you will find a good home for her." They shrugged and gave you a pained look. They understand the realities facing a middle-aged dog or cat, even one with "papers." You had to pry your son's fingers loose from my collar as he screamed "No, Daddy! Please don't let them take my dog!" And I worried for him, and what lessons you had just taught him about friendship and loyalty, about love and responsibility, and about respect for all life. You gave me a goodbye pat on the head, avoided my eyes, and politely refused to take my collar and leash with you. You had a deadline to meet and now I have one, too.
After you left, the two nice ladies said you probably knew about your upcoming move months ago and made no attempt to find me another good home. They shook their heads and asked "How could you?"
They are as attentive to us here in the shelter as their busy schedules allow. They feed us, of course, but I lost my appetite days ago. At first, whenever anyone passed my pen, I rushed to the front, hoping it was you - that you had changed your mind - that this was all a bad dream...or I hoped it would at least be someone who cared, anyone who might save me. When I realized I could not compete with the frolicking for attention of happy puppies, oblivious to their own fate, I retreated to a far corner and waited.
I heard her footsteps as she came for me at the end of the day and I padded along the aisle after her to a separate room. A blissfully quiet room. She placed me on the table, rubbed my ears and told me not to worry. My heart pounded in anticipation of what was to come, but there was also a sense of relief. The prisoner of love had run out of days. As is my nature, I was more concerned about her. The burden which she bears weighs heavily on her and I know that, the same way I knew your every mood.
She gently placed a tourniquet around my foreleg as a tear ran down her cheek. I licked her hand in the same way I used to comfort you so many years ago. She expertly slid the hypodermic needle into my vein. As I felt the sting and the cool liquid coursing through my body, I lay down sleepily, looked into her kind eyes and murmured "How could you?"
Perhaps because she understood my dogspeak, she said "I'm so sorry." She hugged me and hurriedly explained it was her job to make sure I went to a better place, where I wouldn't be ignored or abused or abandoned, or have to fend for myself - a place of love and light so very different from this earthly place. With my last bit of energy, I tried to convey to her with a thump of my tail that my "How could you?" was not meant for her. It was you, My Beloved Master, I was thinking of. I will think of you and wait for you forever.
May everyone in your life continue to show you so much loyalty.
--From Pieces of My Heart: Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature, by Jim Willis. © January 2002 , Infinity Publishing used by permission.
By Jim Willis
The sign on the mailbox post was hand lettered on cardboard and read " FREE KITTUNS". It appeared there two or three times a year, sometimes spelled this way, sometimes that, but the message was always the same.
In a corner of the farmhouse back porch was a cardboard box with a dirty towel inside, on which huddled a bouquet of kittens of different colors, mewing and blinking and waiting for their mama to return from hunting in the fields. The mother cat managed to show them enough interest for the first several weeks, but after having two or three litters per year, she was worn ot and her milk barely lasted long enough for her babies to survive.
One by one, people showed up over the next several days and each took a kitten. Before they left, the woman who lived there always said the same thing. "You make sure you give that one a good home ‘cause I’ve become very attached to that one.
One by one, the kittens and their new people drove down the long driveway and past the sign on the mailbox post that read "Free Kittuns".
The ginger gir kitten was the first to be picked. Her four year old owner loved her very much, but the little girl accidentally injured the kitten’s shoulder by picking her up the wrong way. She couldn’t be blamed really – no adult had shown her the proper way to handle a kitten. She had named the kitten GINGER and was very sad a few weeks later when her older brother and his friends were playing in the living room and someone sat on the kitten.
The solid white boy kitty with blue eyes was the next to leave with a couple who announced even before they went down the porch steps that his name would be SNOWY. Unfortunately, he never learned his name and everyone had paid so little attention to him that nobody realized e was deaf. On his first excursion outside he was run over in the driveway by a mail truck.
The pretty gray and white girl kitten went to live on a nearby farm as a ‘mouser’ Her people called her ‘the cat’ and like her mother and grandmother before her, she had many many ‘free kittuns’ but they sapped her energy. She became ill and died before her current litter of kittens were weaned.
Another brother was a beautiful red tabby. His owner loved him so much that she took him around to meet everyone in the family and her friends, and their cats, and everyone agreed that ‘ERIK" was a handsome boy. Except his owner didn’t bother to have him vaccinated. IT took all the money in her bank account to pay a veterinarian to treat him when he became sick, but the doctor just shook his head one day and said, "I’m sorry".
The solid black boy kitten grew up to be a fine example of a tomcat. The man TOMMY where he was, roaming the neighborhood, defending his territory, and fathering many kittens until a bully of a dog cornered him.
The black and white girl kitten got a wonderful home. She was named "PEYEWACKET" She got the best of food and the best of care until she was nearly five years old. Then her owner met a man who didn’t like cats, but she married him anyway. Peywacket was taken to an animal shelter where there were already hundreds of cats. Then one day there were none.
A pretty woman driving a van took the last two kittens, a gray boy and a brown tiger-striped girl. She promised they would always stay together. She sold them for $50 each to a research laboratory. To this day, they are still together as promised …. In a jar of alcohol.. side by side on a shelf.
For whatever reason --- because Heaven is in a different time zone, or because not even cat souls can be trusted to travel in a straight line without meandering – all the young-again kittens arrived at Heaven’s gate simultaneously. They batted and licked each other in glee, romped for a while and then solemnly marched through the gate, right past a sign lettered in GOLD: "YOU ARE FINALLY FREE,... KITTENS."