I wrote this article for the Peace Corps Volunteers' Azerbaijan newsletter.
I sent a dog from Azerbaijan to America. She has a good home with my sister in Wisconsin, everyone who has met her loves her, she is happy and healthy running around in the country and swimming in Lake Michigan with her new golden retriever sister.
But I don’t recommend that you do this. It was a crazy idea from the start and it is a miracle that it worked out.
To tell you why, I will go back to last summer, when I moved in with a new host family. Living outside the door of our house was a small brown dog of about 20 pounds. She lived there because my family fed her scraps once a day. She greeted me daily for months and if I paused from my walking, she tried to put her front paws on my legs. I never fed her, touched her and tried not to look at her.
I am a dog lover, but I felt that this dog needed to adapt to being a dog in Azerbaijan. She needed to go hang with other dogs, avoid humans, find her own food in the garbage, scrap it out. I thought to myself that making friends with a dog is not sustainable in Azerbaijan and that spaying and neutering are.
This dog was persistent. All through the fall and into December she greeted me whenever I came and went, walked me to the marshrutka (mini-bus) every day and waited with me. She would walk down the street right behind me and bump her nose against my legs. I still didn’t touch or feed her.
But I became increasingly concerned when I saw that she would not budge from our doorway to find shelter at night. Rain fell on her, snow fell on her and she would spend days wet. As I slept in my room at night, I knew she was right outside my window in the open on nothing but frozen ground. She was afraid of the feral dogs in our neighborhood and knew that men did not live in our house or come to our door. She could avoid kicks of men and boys by staying outside our door.
I also noticed that she was eating rice, bread and little else. She would dig up dirt with her nose and eat it. I could find no one who wanted a dog or could offer it shelter through winter.
Around January 1, she gave birth to 5 puppies and dug under a fence across the street to make a nest for her puppies. Some of the neighbors felt sorry for her and provided a cardboard box and some straw. But it was January, windy and at night, bitter cold. The water in the street was constantly either frozen or very cold.
At this point, I decided I had to start helping her. I bought some dog food and began feeding her. I started talking with her and touching her when she took breaks from the pups. I pulled her pups out of the gutter when they started walking and fell in. Her fur was thin and so was she. When I bent down to get them out of the gutter, she would slip herself between my body and my outreached arm and press herself against me. She was a good mother, with fat puppies. I wanted to send a couple of the pups to America, but could not get through the red tape and eventually they grew up and disappeared.
When they left, I could see that she would go right back to living outside our door and become pregnant again soon. She did not seem to be in good health and continued to eat dirt. But she continued to greet me happily. I really admired her spirit of continuing to be optimistic in spite of the fact that this life did not suit her. I decided I had to make a commitment to help her as much as I could. But how much I could help her would depend on what she would be willing to do.
I knew a vet already who could do most procedures, except a spaying operation, and took her there for an exam. Beforehand, we practiced walking on a leash and I eventually coaxed her into a taxi to get her there. The neighbors stared.
I had no luck finding a vet who could spay dogs until a fellow volunteer found someone at the Agriculture University, which is located in my town. He agreed to do it, but I knew I couldn’t pluck her off the street, have her spayed and dump her back on the street again. So I had to find her a place to stay. I left my perfectly good host family and moved to another family, people I knew, who agreed to give the dog a chance to live in the garden of their home.
After I moved in, it turned out that living in the garden meant tied up in the garden, that they were afraid of her and sometimes she got off the chain. Not a good solution, but she stayed while she recovered from the operation. (The post-op instructions I received were to feed her tea and soup for two days. She refused both because she is a dog and after awhile I gave her water and eggs, which she wolfed down.) I had to find her another place to stay while I figured out how to get her out the country.
In the meantime, The Dog and I (I didn’t name her, thinking it was bad luck) took walks all over town, causing a stir wherever we went. And my sister visited Azerbaijan, met her and decided to either keep her for me or her, or find a home for her (she has a husband who was skeptical) in Wisconsin. But our plans were to travel through Georgia and Turkey, so she couldn’t take the dog back with her. Besides, the airlines have a lot of rules and paperwork, which we were not prepared for. I had a lot of travel plans for the summer, so having a dog was not in my future.
Just when I thought I’d have to put her back on the street in her old neighborhood while I figured out what to do, my vet friend found a relative she could stay with for a couple of months, if necessary. He convinced the wife easily, but the husband required quite a bit of vodka in order to agree.
So she moved into their garden (also tied up) and I went to their home every day to walk her and check on her, except for when I was in Baku, the capital city, (twice) for The Dog’s flight-related paperwork and my sitemates picked up the slack. No one felt like flying to America with the dog, so we found that Lufthansa Cargo ships show dogs, racehorses, all kinds of other animals and has a good record and a special animal building for layovers in Frankfurt.
The details and paperwork overwhelmed me. I met everyone involved in Baku from the cargo people to the passport people/vet office to Customs, the city veterinary office and the document translator. Then on the other end, I had a friend arrange to pick her up in Chicago and hold her until my sister came from Wisconsin.
Frankly, this took away from my Peace Corps duties. While I think that walking around town with her every day and making friends with little boys, who ended up liking her and petting her was good, it took away from my other projects. I was distracted.
The tension was thick as the day of the flight approached. I had all the documents I thought I needed, but who knows what I didn’t understand that I needed?--I was speaking to everyone in Azerbaijani. Azerbaijanis helped me quite a bit, but once I got in the taxi for Baku (171 miles away) with The Dog, we were on our own. Well, almost. Our PC country director had given permission for her to relax at the PC office before the flight. We hung out in the yard, she had a bath with the car-washing hose and she searched for fallen berries to eat.
I was supposed to be at the airport at 10:00 p.m. About 6 p.m. is when they called to say I should come back in nine days because Customs is not open on Sunday. This was Sunday. I headed to the airport. At the cargo dock, I was quickly surrounded by huge, curious guys who looked like bouncers—they lug cargo around for a living. I told my Lufthansa contact that I had nowhere to go with her, they were the ones who scheduled the flight for Sunday knowing Customs was closed and she had to go or I would need to stay at the cargo building with her for nine days.
They figured it out. After awhile, they produced the crate, I said goodbye, kissed her while the giant loading dock guys watched us and left the rest to Fate.
My kind friends, the Harles, in Naperville, Illinois, picked her up at the airport and gave her excellent care for several days, including an oatmeal bath at a groomer. Afterward, my sister came to pick her up and they made the six-hour trip to her home in Wisconsin. My brother-in-law is no longer skeptical; he loves her and wants to keep her. She hustles around her rural neighborhood and goes to the state park on the weekends. She has gone to doggy class and even day-care for socialization with American dogs.
The real miracle of this story is not all of the people who helped me, although the support I received from everyone, including many Azerbaijanis, was tremendous. The real miracle is that this little dog is so unusual. She was not able to adapt to life in Azerbaijan, but was able to do everything I asked her to do to adapt to America—walk on a leash, ride in a taxi, accept physical exams and shots without objecting, walk confidently into an operating room when she had never been inside a building in her life, know not to urinate inside, not object to having me walk up to her on the street and shove worm medicine down her throat, and go from a crate in an airport to charming people in Naperville, Illinois within an hour. For awhile, her life changed radically and frequently and she kept accepting the changes.
So when I see a dog in my neighborhood scrounging his own food or lying in the sun enjoying the good weather, I toss him part of my candy bar and hope that he is finding some enjoyment in life. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another dog like The Dog.