On Valentine's Day 2004, I met an 85-pound pit bull in a truck stop outside of Gulfport, Mississippi. I was on my way from Tallahassee to New Orleans, where I was planning to spend the weekend with friends visiting from New York. As usual, I was late, and now there was the pit bull distracting me as he sat patiently waiting for a man to return from the cashier. The dog walked alongside the man, sat patiently as the car door was opened, then watched as the car pulled away from him. The dog returned to sit outside the station door and followed another customer to his car. Each time I thought, This must be the owner. Yet, as each of them drove away, I began to suspect that the dog didn't have an owner at all. On the other hand, he was too well behaved to have been abandoned -- not that people who abandon dogs need good reason.
I continued to watch him as he followed customers back and forth from the pumps to the register. I saw him walk one man out to his truck and then accompany him as he maintained each part of the truck. "Is that your dog?" I asked. The man shook his head no. The dog went over to the weighing station, and seemed to be craning his head to look into the cab of the truck there, but that driver returned and left without him, too. I headed back into the station and asked, "Does anyone belong to that dog out there?"
"Someone dropped him off this morning," the cashier said.
"So I can take him then?"
"If you want him, sure."
When I came back out, he was gone again. "He went over there," someone said, pointing toward the embankment down to the highway. I looked over the guardrail and there he was, wandering alongside the traffic exiting I-10. I climbed over the rail and down the muddy embankment after him.
This is not what you should do when you spot a dog along the road. But the closer I got to him, the more frightened I was at what might happen if I didn't get him away from the road. Fortunately, he was thirsty and drinking from a mud puddle, so I managed to catch up to him and take him by the collar.
I sensed, against sense, that I had nothing to fear in this case, and led him back up the hill and into my van. I can't remember why I didn't put him into the back of the van, where I actually have a dog grid set up to keep the animals in the cargo area. He settled into the passenger's seat, and I pulled onto the highway, talking to him the entire time. After a few minutes he began leaning toward me. Then he put a paw on my lap. Next he was sitting on top of me, turning to face me, and settling down with his back to the road, his face staring directly into mine.
"What are you doing?" I asked, nervous, a little, to find out. I didn't think he would attack me, but we were in a closed-in space, on the road -- not a place to find out. Out came his tongue, and the kisses began. Now I was laughing, and still unable to see where I was going.
"You're going to have to go back to your seat," I said, not expecting him to listen. Yet he immediately went back to the passenger's side and stayed there for the rest of the drive to New Orleans. I called my friends from the car to tell them the news.
"I may be a little late," I said. "There was a pit bull at the gas station. He's here with me in the car."
"We aren't ever going to see you, are we? You're going to spend the weekend with that dog."
I tried calling other friends, who lived in New Orleans, and kept getting machines. "Hi," I said in their voice mail, "I just drove into town and I found a terrific pit bull. I'm trying to find a place he can stay, maybe just for a few days ... ." No one picked up. No one returned the call. And really, who can blame them?
The dog was excited as we drove through the city and whimpered at little at the sight of dogs being walked just outside his window. I had decided to name him Valentino, because of the holiday, and because I hoped that a pit bull with a romantic name might get better treatment when I dropped him off at the Louisiana SPCA. Better, certainly, than "Stray Pit Bull." The woman at the front desk patiently answered all my questions about what would happen to him after I left, and told me that he would be held in quarantine for five days before he was adoptable, that I wouldn't be able to visit him during that time, that pit bulls were hard to place, and that for a ten-dollar fee they would call and notify me if he was going to be put down. She told me all of this between answering the phone, tending to other walk-ins who were either looking for a dog or wanting to drop one off or, in one case, hoping to trade one in for a smaller model. Every time we were interrupted I tried calling people again to find him another temporary home. Meanwhile Valentino sat patiently at my feet, watching all the action around him.
Finally I signed him over, and the woman at the desk said, "We don't do this, but if you want you can come with me and check him in." So off we went, down the long hall to a room where a man and woman spent their entire day giving injections and wormer to the never-ending line of dogs checked in. I wasn't concerned about the people or the facilities. My concern was the dog himself. I had no idea what he had experienced in his life, or how he might respond to being shut into a kennel. I wanted to see for myself how he took it, so I could fight for him later, if it came to that.
Valentino behaved beautifully, following all of our cues down a narrow corridor, into a room where he quickly received shots and a worming treatment from a team of vet techs who clearly had the system down -- who holds the dog, who gives the shots, who squirts the worming liquid in his mouth and sends him on his way. Next, we walked through the kennel, and Valentino ignored the barking dogs along the way to settle into his own little space before yelping a little as I forced myself to walk away. I told the volunteer that I was worried about the other dogs, that if they weren't friendly Valentino might respond -- if they barked at him, he might bark back and then be labeled as trouble.
THE FOLLOWING DAY WAS THE BARKUS parade. I had been to one of the first ones, ten years earlier, with a handful of people parading their dogs through the Quarter. I wasn't prepared for how large it had grown: They now limited registration to a thousand. There are floats, canine grand marshals, lavish costumes. The theme that year was the Wild West, and the parade began with men dressed as horses pulling tiny stagecoaches driven by Chihuahuas in cowboy hats and plaid shirts. Although we hadn't made strict plans, my friends knew that if they stood in front of the Three Dog Bakery long enough they would run into me. When I picked up a cake decorated with the names of the dogs I had left in Tallahassee with a sitter, Ben asked, "Do you really think the dogs will know whether or not you had their names put on it?"
After Barkus, I went back to the SPCA, where they broke the rules again and let me visit with Valentino. He seemed happy to see me, and sat at attention as soon as I appeared. He had obviously been trained by someone, and yet here he was. Did his owner get tired of him? Had he done something wrong? Could someone not realize this wonderful dog was missing? On the way back to Florida, I began to drive off at each exit in Mississippi, looking for the truck stop where I had found this little man. When I finally found it, I went in to ask if anyone had come back looking for their dog. No, they hadn't. On the way out, I looked up to get the name of the station to add to the dog's file at the SPCA.
It was at Love's Truck Stop that I met Valentino.
(Reprinted with permission, courtesy The Lyons Press.)
Ken Foster will read from and sign copies of The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind (The Lyons Press) from 11 a.m. to 2 p. m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Faulkner House ( 624 Pirate's Alley, 586-1609). Bloody Marys, ham and biscuits will be served. Visit Foster's blog at http://kenfoster.blogspot.com.
The 14th annual Krewe of Barkus parade trots from Armstrong Park and into the French Quarter at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. There will be a pre-parade "Pawty"; the park opens at 10:30 a.m. For more info visit www.barkus.org.