Prior to adopting Benny, I had a number of animals in my life. I read up on how to care for them and did my best to do so, although I'm sorry to say that I don't remember considering much about their inner lives. What I mean to say is that I never stopped to recognize the similarities between the animal and myself when it came to feelings that went beyond those of need. They were just animals after all and, although nice to have around, they were incapable of actual love, real friendships, elevated emotional sensitivity and, you know, human stuff.
When my husband and I adopted Lucky, an abandoned Bichon frise, we were the parents of three young boys. Those years were always busy, often chaotic, and we were grateful that Lucky was a relatively low-maintenance pet. It wasn't until after she passed away at the age of 16, at home on Thanksgiving Day, that our family felt the profound loss of Lucky's companionship and realized the impact she had made on our lives. She had shown us love, acceptance, and absolute forgiveness. She taught my children what it was to care for another living creature and the value of kindness, patience, and understanding.
A couple of weeks later, at the insistence of my youngest son who had never known life without Lucky, I began what turned out to be a tireless, obsessive, laser-focused quest to find the perfect dog. With so many homeless dogs to choose from, I had a foolproof list, guaranteeing another low-maintenance canine companion. This list included, but was not limited to, the following: aged 2+ years old, small to medium sized, non-shedding but without too much of a grooming requirement, non-aggressive, house-trained, no separation anxiety, no submissive peeing, no major health issues, not mouthy, no drooling, not overly active, etc.
Finally, on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I followed up on a new website post at one of the many local animal shelters. When we checked in with the woman at the front desk, she wasn't familiar with the post or the dog. I was afraid that we were on another wild goose chase (unfortunately part of the homeless dog search) but when the woman inquired about a dog named Benny, she was informed that he had just been flown in the night before from a high-kill animal shelter in Mississippi. He had undergone a full exam with tests and shots and was cleared for adoption but was very dirty and matted since he had not had the chance to get cleaned up. Other than that, the shelter knew very little about him except that he appeared to be "a real southern gentleman".
The woman brought Benny in to meet us and, as the story says, "it was love at first sniff!"
The shelter report said that he was healthy and even-tempered, with all of the required shots. His lab tests were negative for disease and he was about 4 years old. Beyond this, his story was anybody’s guess. Why was he at the Mississippi shelter? Don't know (the nice, older couple is the fictional part of Benny's Story). Was he house-trained? Seemed to be. Could he be aggressive? Appeared even tempered but couldn't be sure. Separation anxiety? No idea.
He was a large dog and we had a fair amount of fur on our clothes after the meeting, so it was clear that the 'small to medium size’ and 'non-shedding' requirements were not applicable. Nevertheless, we decided to take him home. We filled out the appropriate paperwork and paid the fees then set off with Benny, a packet of information, and a phone number to call should we have any further questions or concerns.
Just like in the story, he jumped out of the car window when I left to go into the pet store. That, admittedly, kinda freaked us out. But when we arrived home the boys were thrilled to meet him. One of them even shed a tear or two (ya, I saw it) when he met him, so happy was he.
Benny did, and will, eat any food left in a reachable, unattended location (usually the living room coffee table) and is still ever fascinated with Hayley, our albino parakeet, but has never made a move to eat her. He does this funny howling talky thing when he wants to tell us something, but rarely barks. He's sometimes stubborn but knows when to give in. He's impulsive but only now and then. He's smart but not a show-off. He's loving and friendly but knows how to stand up for himself. He's active but not bonkers and is remarkably sensitive and attentive to his family and friends.
When he met his best friend, Teddy, there was an instant connection and their friendship is a wonder to behold. Teddy was a stray in Romania before he was taken to a shelter and eventually adopted by a family in Germany.
Now I'll get to why I had to write about Benny. Besides being so cute, fun, adventurous, sensitive, loving, smart and overall wonderful, I realized that I could relate to Benny, and Teddy too. I figured that if I could relate to them, maybe others could too. As a kid, I was bounced around between relatives and in and out of the foster care system, as were my brothers and many others like us. But you don't have to be homeless to feel like a stray, there are many who know what it's like to feel out of place and lack the support of a family. It takes animals like us a little while to trust others, but we know love and goodness when we see it. The more I observe Benny and other animals like him, the more certain I am that we share many of the same emotions and experiences.
Through the eyes of Benny and Teddy, I want to talk about how scary and disorienting it can be to spend the night in a strange place. I want to talk about the fear of being hurt by someone you want to trust, and about wanting to be perfect so that you won't be sent to a place you can't call home. I want to let children know that it's okay if you've been abandoned or feel out of place, you are love-able anyway. There are people who will love you and care for you, and they are people you can trust. When we can recognize feelings that we all share, it eases our fear and frustration, and better prepares us to navigate our world.