*While pondering which of the many pet tales with which I could regale you, I decided to roam through my files of essays and happened upon something I wrote two and a half years ago as we were about to hand off the litter of puppies our dog Sassy had borne to their new owners. It’s a bit long but I hope you enjoy it.
Today is the day. In a few short hours, the litter of puppies our cherished Labrador retriever, Sassy, gave birth to just ten weeks ago, will be picked up by their new owners, hastened off to homes far away. Today these puppies will embark on a new phase in their lives, leaving behind a sad though perhaps relieved mother; an exhausted yet nonetheless enriched human family; another family dog who has spent the past few months utterly perplexed about the aliens who invaded her peaceful home; an aloof cat who once eyed the young pups as a possible meal and who now contemptuously evades their menacing presence; and a gregarious parrot who has learned to mimic that particularly sharp and alarming cry of puppy-in-distress, a sound she’s heard all too often in the past month or so as the puppies’ play became aggressive enough to draw blood. Yes, today is the day the kids and I have been dreading: the day we give away our babies.
Soon the tears will flow unwillingly; this I know. But for now, I’m enjoying the last I’ll see of their roughhousing, as they gallop softly back and forth, tumbling en masse, their fur the swirled ecru of molten marshmallow, the sleek black sheen of a newborn seal. To us, they’ve become a little furry family, yet I know they’re really a pack of miniature dogs, and we are merely their captors. I can tell it when we get caught up in their midst and their teeth connect with our flesh instead of each other’s. I can tell it when they’re heaped together, black on white on black on white, or nestled close to their mother, nursing with a frenzy of desperation reserved solely for animals teeming with hunger.
But in an odd way, these puppies have become our own babies, and now we must abandon a piece of ourselves as we give away these four little lives that we’ve helped nurture over the past two and a half months. As I blow my nose against my suppressed tears, the thundering noise of pups at play nearby comes to an abrupt halt. I turn to see four curious faces pointed at me, silhouetted innocently against the morning sun pouring through the mudroom door, the pups wondering what it was they just heard for the first time—me, sobbing. Four faces filled with the boundless optimism that only a Labrador retriever can know. A happiness that, if bottled, would put pharmaceutical firms out of business, for who would need anti-depressants?
Ah, but I know for a fact, that even a cheerful Labrador can become overwhelmed with sadness. For weeks, Sassy mournfully wandered the house and yard, in search of one puppy, which had died unexpectedly two days after his birth. We watched with heavy hearts as she retrieved small black or white Beanie Babies from our kids’ bedrooms and brought them back into the whelping box with the living pups, licking and tending to the inanimate toy just as she would her own baby. Clearly the emotion of pain is not reserved merely for humans.
The decision to breed our dog was one made with great deliberation. I had fond recollections of the two litters of Labradors that my family reared when I was young. Of course my child’s mind must have tucked away the intense emotion of loss and the grim reality of hard labor that inevitably accompany such a venture. Our youngest daughter, an Animal Planet devotee, enthusiastically embraced the idea. After all, she’d spent hours addictively glued to that network’s That’s My Baby series, watching all sorts of animals be ushered into the world. With her bedroom door riddled with catalogue photos and downloaded images of puppies and kitties, she was more than ready to take an active role in the process. Our middle daughter, while relishing the idea of puppies, was nonetheless reluctant to subject Sassy to the potential health risks involved. Our son, like most teenaged boys, was completely uninterested in the work such a project would entail.
And so the decision was left to my husband and me. We ultimately determined that the benefits of the experience would outweigh the downsides to it. The next step was garnering the approval of our breeder, who would only relinquish full AKC registration to us if Sassy’s physical design met the scrupulous standards of the breed. Thus our pet had her hips and elbows x-rayed, her heart examined by a veterinary cardiologist, her eyes vetted by a veterinary ophthalmologist. These standards were important to us, as well, as we once had a Lab with severe allergies, and knew that passing on bad genes would be irresponsible and burdensome to any pet owner. We only wanted to breed Sassy if her health merited it.
Breeding our admittedly pampered house pet meant farming her off to The Stud, leaving her to be violated for five days in the dead of February cold, as we remained guiltily ensconced at home by the fireplace. A skittish dog returned to us, desperately thirsty and with open wounds around her nose and mouth, apparently due to her Mission Impossible attempts to dig out from under the kennel fence. Guilt-ridden, I knew the deal was done. Nevertheless, soon Sassy’s happy demeanor returned.
Following an uneventful gestation, toward the end of which our dog more closely resembled a coffee table than a canine, labor began. It was then that we realized that breeding is normally left to the professionals for good reason, as Sassy labored for 24 hours before delivering the first pup, dead. Too large to fit through the birth canal, the puppy’s placenta had evidently broken early on in the labor, unbeknownst to us. As our fleeting elation turned to grief, the labor continued. For the next several hours, puppies came slowly, often in need of at least some resuscitation. We knew from a pre-birth x-ray that Sassy was carrying seven puppies. But by dawn’s light, only four had come out, and Sassy was exhausted. Thus we hastened to the vet’s office, where the vet labored as much as the dog to deliver the final three puppies. She tried for hours to allow the babies to come on their own. Eventually, Sassy had to have a C-section for the last puppy, which by then had died, again far too big to come on his own.
The first two weeks came relatively easily for our family, as Sassy did all of the important work of feeding and cleaning up after her babies. My husband and I took turns holding the nighttime vigil, sleeping aside the whelping box to ensure no puppies died from suffocation or hypothermia, with a space heater cranked up to an oppressive 80°. Sleep deprivation took its toll on us, however, as sleep was elusive with puppies emitting alarmingly loud Geiger counter-like sounds when in distress.
Eventually, the baton of puppy maintenance was passed on to us. Each morning we were accosted with the noxious aroma of puppy waste wafting to the 2nd floor of the house, and we were greeted with the cacophonous yelps of very soiled pups demanding service. The first hour and 45 minutes of each day were devoted to cleaning up the mess they’d created while we slept, starting with bathing the puppies. By my rough calculation, over the past ten weeks, we exhausted over a hundred rolls of paper towels, twenty double-packs of Swiffer refills (The Sam’s Club wretched- excess size), forty containers of Chlorox wet wipes, two hundred days worth of newspapers (advertising supplements included). And half of an industrial-size roll of newsprint, a gift from a friend who publishes a paper.
Amazingly, my Swiffer Wetjet—which I once resented for having ruined the high gloss finish on my hardwood floors, yet has become my salvation in my dismal daily undertaking—has only required two changes of batteries (along with about eight hundred refill pads). How’s that for staying power? I, on the other hand, have required battery power that is not yet available for human consumption, and instead have spent roughly, oh, three hundred hours (a conservative estimate) mopping, sopping, washing, and picking up teeny, tiny shreds of newspaper from every imaginable surface in the mudroom. As the puppies rapidly grew in size and ability, they transformed from fragile incubators of potentially deadly germs into hearty perpetrators of unwittingly ferocious acts.
“They’re barracudas!” We’d say.
“They’re terrorists with tails!” I’d lament.
“Mom! Don’t make me go in there with them! Look at all the cuts and punctures they’ve given me!” The kids would cry.
And yet, despite their propensity to be a little rough with the incisors, they were precious. Soft. Cuddly. Adorable. Until they turned around and bit your ear. Lovable. In a watch-your-back sort of way.
The phrase most often heard around my house has been “Oh, they are so cute!” Amazing how far looks can get one in life, really. Because with regularity we have alternated (sometimes every 15 seconds or so) between being beyond smitten by those beautiful pups, to wanting to immediately farm them off to finishing school, several states away. All the while carrying the burden of the knowledge of the compressed lifetime we’d share with them. A mother knows from the moment of conception that one day she’ll be forced to reluctantly allow her child to depart from her sphere of influence. But a mother usually has a good eighteen years to prepare for that separation. Yet with the pups, the countdown began at birth.
Just as with motherhood, the behavior of the offspring lent a sort of ease to the inevitable departure. We weren’t just giving up our beautiful puppies; we were gladly relinquishing this pack of scoundrels that had wrought destruction upon our house and our tender flesh. Yes, the puppies chewed. And chewed. And chewed. They pulled the newly-applied caulking out of the mudroom shower (I had just proudly reapplied it shortly before their birth). They gnawed on wood trim, cabinets and benches. They scratched and chewed holes into the drywall, repeatedly. They pulled the wood out of the drywall that had been placed there as a chewing deterrent. Because the other deterring products failed miserably. We learned that Bitter Apple, designed to discourage puppy chewing, had a particularly offensive flavor that our puppies especially enjoyed. Same with Bitter Lime. I next moved on to Fooey, the atomizing effect of which rendered the humans feeling slightly ill with a very bitter taste in their mouths, but somehow had no effect on the puppies whatsoever. Chewing away to the tune of five holes in the drywall, ten areas of chewed baseboards, and a variety of other wood trimmed items that have been shredded beyond repair.With each newly-minted hole, each sliced thumb, and scratched ankle, the umbilical cord linking the puppies to us frayed just a little bit more.
The intended eight-week puppy project was not done, however, as those who’d claimed the puppies needed us to hold on to them for just a few more weeks, while they enjoyed summer vacations at the seashore. By week eight I was weary of the whole thing. On my hands and knees cleaning after the puppies, I felt like Cinderella, only I had no grand Ball to look forward to, no debonair prince to sweep me off my feet. And I began to wonder why I couldn’t be lounging on some tropical beach. Thus I found myself almost looking forward to D-day. Delivery day: the day I’d dreaded all along.
People often asked me: would we do it again? Well, maybe if you paid us a million dollars we might consider it. But truth is, we’d probably have an easier time of it winning a million dollars being stranded on a desert island in a reality TV show than in another puppy breeding venture. Those same people inevitably then ask: are you glad you did it? And to this I can answer a resounding yes. When all four puppies were piled up atop one another, nestled in for a much-deserved rest after trashing the mudroom for yet another morning, my heart would just melt, and I simply could not resist their innate charms.
Though the realist in me recalls a trip to Africa, in which we saw all sorts of babies from the animal kingdom. Even the ugly ones were cute: the warthogs, the jackals, the wildebeests. The truth is, babies of any sort are adorable for a good reason: it’s the only way that the grown-ups in charge of them put up with them so obligingly, even when they are at their four-legged, terrorist-tailed worst.
And now as the clock ticks down, I find myself dancing on a sensory tightrope, my emotions as raw as the ground beef that’s defrosting on my kitchen counter (something I’ve had to fry up each day for Sassy’s nutritional benefit). Staving off the assault on my tear ducts that is imminent, I’m riddled with sadness and guilt, anticipating the loss, knowing that because of us, our dog’s babies will disappear from her world today, perhaps leaving her to wander the house in search of them, as with her previous loss.
Our inexhaustible supply of newspapers to be recycled is now exhausted, and the time has come for the puppies to leave. And I reluctantly acknowledge there will be not just a little bit of relief as well, as my burden will have been lifted. I can only hope that after the tears subside, and our heartache for our dog has faded into a mild sense of guilt for having subjected her to the vagaries of loss that we all must face in life, that we will all have been better for having lived the experience, despite our love lost. And while the puppies may be gone, I suppose we’ll occasionally hear a gentle reminder of their once omnipresent existence in our lives, when our parrot emits the shrill cry of pain that once sent me running, but will now evoke only a wistful smile, and perhaps a tear or two.