An excerpt from the larger project titled Zelda Rides Shotgun
Zelda rode shotgun. For four days and 2000 miles, through desolate Texas, monotonous New Mexico, and jammed Los Angeles freeways, we drove. She battled to keep her eyes open every moment. Through her exhaustion and pain, Zelda stared at me nonstop with her soulful eyes. One eye brown, one eye blue. I had never felt so adored, so appreciated, so proud. My heart, my life would never be the same.
After Hurricane Katrina obliterated New Orleans, I joined the efforts to save the abandoned animals. I had never been an activist, or even been on a rescue mission, but the images of dogs clinging to rooftops and swimming toward rescue boats haunted me when they first appeared in the news. When I left for Louisiana, it was the first time I had ever spent a night without Jessie, my one year old coonhound mix. Jessie and I had been constant companions, but I think she understood being left behind when I explained the importance of my journey. She had been abandoned herself, a six-week old puppy thrown away in a dumpster in a Nebraska truck stop.
I spent several weeks in New Orleans filming volunteers as they saved dogs and cats for a documentary I was planning. The rescuers were fantastic, selfless people – teachers, architects, businesswomen – who risked their safety for the animals. I captured and experienced it all, albeit from arms length. I was not wriggling through rat- infested crawlspaces or wading through hip deep piles of toxic sludge. I was convinced there were heroic people in this world, and the rest of us who thank them.
Tragically, tens of thousands of animals likely perished in the aftermath of the hurricane, but thousands of others had been saved. It was six weeks after Katrina had hit and rescue operations were winding down. I was planning to fly home the following day. Throughout the rescue operation, the local Parish police had always mysteriously guarded the neighborhood known as the Lower 9th Ward and had kept it closed to “outsiders”. Even rescue groups were barred from helping the animals left behind. For some unknown reason, there was no police sentry posted on one of the entrances on October 13th and I was able to sneak in to survey and film the devastation. I brought along dog food and water bowls just in case, though the chance of finding any animals still alive after all that time was practically nonexistent.
Entire blocks of homes had been blasted off their foundations by the levee breach. There were no standing buildings. No street signs. No streets. Just square miles of debris and dirt. There was nothing moving, nothing living. The utter silence and stagnation were eerie. The heat and humidity were suffocating. I navigated my SUV down a narrow strip of nameless pavement that had been cleared of rubble until I reached a dead end near the base of the levee. Then, off to my right, I noticed a slight movement. At first, I assumed it was a reflection, the sun bouncing off a shard of broken glass or metal. I looked back, and saw it again. It was a flash of white moving atop a mountain of gray rubble. It was a dog. A living skeleton of a dog. With one piercing blue eye staring down at me from atop a fifteen foot-high pile of broken furniture, building materials, trees, and, ironically, a giant gnarled heap of hurricane fencing.
I grabbed food and water and started toward the dog refugee. She just eyed me, with a vacant stare then disappeared down the back of the heap of destruction. A few minutes later, she had made it down to ground level, dragging her hind legs through the muck. So emaciated she could barely support herself, she struggled through the minefield of refuse toward me. She was now recognizable as a Cathoula hound. A bag of bones, but a Catahoula none the less. She stopped fifteen feet away, on the far side of a pool of mysterious toxic goo that appeared capable of digesting both of us alive. She collapsed, totally exhausted. I could see her lungs heaving in the hollows between her protruding ribs. I could count every vertebrae of her spine. I could see every detail of her hipbones which seemed ready to pierce the skin on her hindquarters. She lay in the mud, using all her strength just to keep her eyes open, staring me.
I found a piece of shattered garage door and made a bridge across the pool of sludge that separated us. Armed with a bowl of water and a can of dog food, I crossed and placed them on the ground in front of her. She ignored the food and water and continued her relentless stare. I wasn’t sure if she wanted affection or just thought I looked tastier than outdated Purina beef chunks.
I knew the rules of rescue – never work alone, never pick up injured animals, never put your face near the mouth of strange dog. I knew to call for help. But cell service was spotty and no one could hear me. Somehow this poor dog had survived 6 weeks without food or water. Somehow I had found her. It was up to me alone to save her. It was time to ignore the rules. It was time to take a chance.
I slid my arms beneath her, guessing where to place them where they wouldn’t hurt her. I felt her breath on my neck as I lifted her. A rumble started deep within her chest. Was it a growl or a moan? I pictured her lunging in one last desperate move and ripping out my jugular vein. I could see the news story weeks later – unidentified human skeleton found at the feet of content homeless dog.
Her weight softened as she relaxed into my arms. I carried her like a bride over the threshold across the garage door bridge. She looked up at me, sending me thanks with her eyes. “You’re going to be okay,” I told her. Her little nub of a docked tail gave a feeble wag.
We went straight to the emergency makeshift clinic in the Winn-Dixie parking lot where she received desperately needed veterinary attention. I held her as the vet examined her, put in an IV, drew her blood. She never reacted, never complained. She just constantly watched me, her head or her paw on my hand. I couldn’t explain how she survived without food or water. I couldn’t explain how I found her amidst miles of random strewn destruction. And I couldn’t tell her my flight home was scheduled for the next day.
I made time the next morning to stop by the clinic. Zelda was laying in the back of her cage. Her breakfast bowl was barely touched. She struggled to her feet when saw me and tried to bark, but she was still so weak she could only muster a raspy whisper. As I got closer, she wagged her tailnub so hard she actually knocked herself over. She battled to get back to her feet, but didn’t have the strength. I opened her cage and crawled in. She stopped struggling and rested her big, bony head on my lap. I picked up my cell phone and made three calls. The first was to cancel my flight home. The second to rent a car. The third to Los Angeles to say I’d found a dog and I’d be a few days late coming home.
After two days of recuperation, and joined by my friend Stephanie, Zelda and I began our trek back to Los Angeles. Not knowing how Zelda would behave in the car, I thought it best to have her ride in a large crate in the back of the SUV. For the first hour, all we heard was her nonstop raspy bark -“Rurr-Rurr”. Pause. “Rurr-Rurr”. In the rear view mirror I could see Zelda staring back at me, indignant that she was riding in a cage.
Zelda’s persistence won out. We moved her to the back seat, thinking that would appease her. Moments later, I felt a nudge on my right arm. It was Zelda trying to climb into the front seat. Too unstable to make it, she had slipped down into the floor space behind the driver’s seat and was fighting to stand up. “Maybe she’ll be happier if I sit back there with her,” offered Stephanie. We pulled off again. Stephanie joined her. Back on the highway, Zelda resumed her quest for the front seat.
“She’s not going to be happy until she’s next to you, ” said Stephanie.
After another half-hour of wrestling with Zelda, we surrendered. Stephanie stayed in the back and Zelda moved to the front, her little nub wagging triumphantly. She settled next to me, rested her head in my lap, and stared up at me. And that’s how we traveled. Zelda stayed that way for the entire four days, staring at me, constantly touching me with her head or paw or leg.
When we arrived home in Los Angeles, I was concerned about Jessie being upset about Zelda coming into her house. But Zelda was a mellow and majestic old soul and Jessie easily accepted her. I soon adopted another Katrina survivor, Bijou, a 9-month-old shepherd retriever mix, and we became a three dog family. The two young dogs became rambunctious best friends, whose nonstop antics and wrestling matches filled my house with commotion, laughter and dirt. But it was the quiet moments I shared with Zelda that made me feel at home.
Zelda was about five years old when we met. Her body had suffered the consequences of unfortunate genetics, unknown trauma during the flood, and a generally tough life. She slowly gained back the 40 pounds she lost while she was marooned in New Orleans and survived treatment for a severe case of heartworm, though it left her with a dilated heart and a persistent gagging cough. Her atrophied muscles began to regenerate and with each week she would push herself to make our daily walks longer and longer. Within a few months she was a healthy, proud and stunning lady. Except for her residual shortened gait, you’d never guess how incredibly sick, and lucky, she had been.
When we went to the dog park, Jessie and Bijou maniacally chased after one other and dug holes. While Zelda just methodically picked up all the tennis balls, made a pile between her front paws and dared any dog in the park to take one. At the beach, the two hooligans invented tug-of war games, fought over sticks and insisted on endless hours of fetch in the waves. Zelda preferred to amble by herself along the shoreline quietly poking at seaweed or to sit in the shade of the umbrella like an old Cajun lady in a rocking chair on her front porch. When Veronica the dog walker arrived, the others happily left with her, knowing it meant a car ride, hike, or possibly an illicit trip to Baskin-Robbins. Zelda loved Veronica dearly too, and joyfully greeted her at the door. She would play hide-and seek and chase and bark with her for hours in my home. But Zelda refused to leave me to walk with Veronica when I was home. Zelda preferred to trade squirrel hunting and extra treats for my humble companionship.
Over the years, Zelda’s physical condition began to decline but her stubbornness, determination and spirit kept her going. Her elbows and hips were progressively ravaged by degenerative arthritis and her back was riddled with multiple bone spurs. I tried multiple modalities to keep her healthy and moving better – acupuncture, hydrotherapy, massage, raw diets, vitamins and herbs – and she was a trooper through all of them. Despite her limitations, Zelda’s secret playful side always remained strong. She loved her afternoon naps, but was always ready to wrestle with me. Her favorite game was daring me to steal the stuffed animals she collected around the house and hoarded on her dog bed.
She would decide how far she wanted to walk and I just chaperoned her through the neighborhood, stopping when she did, and helping her cross the street. We began to spend more time lazing in the grass watching traffic or squirrels teasing her in the branches above her head. She learned to use a ramp to get into the car, stairs to get onto the couch, and a bike trailer to get to the beach to watch the waves. Even as she grew more feeble, Zelda was always willing to get her hackles up when another dog got too close, barking to notify the world she was still willing and able to protect the two of us.
When I wrote at night, Zelda always slept near me. I found the rumbling rhythm of her breathing reassuring. I don’t know how many times I glanced over at her, amazed how I could get lost watching her sleep, enjoying how peaceful she looked, knowing how safe she was. Sometimes, her breathing would get so slow and shallow it was imperceptible. I’d wait and wait for her next breath, and start to scan the outline of her chest to look for movement against the background of the room. There were times I’d even wake her up to make sure she was really still alive. She’d slowly open her eyes and ask me “What did you do that for?” I just hugged her, already missing her before she was gone.
I tried to be a pack leader with my family of dogs and maintain a set of rules to keep harmony in the house, but Zelda had a magical way of getting what she wanted from me. I was powerless under her spell. My other dogs have learned long lists of tricks and commands and always walk behind me on leashes. I never even taught Zelda to “Come” or “Sit”. I didn’t have to. She could walk off-leash anywhere and never stray more than 10 feet away from me. The other dogs were taught not to beg for treats and are never fed from the table. But I would slide Zelda’s bed next to me at dinner and food scraps magically fell off the table next to her. Her favorite treats were tortilla chips and garbanzo beans. She would always finish my popsicles (the green ones were her favorite) and didn’t have to sit before I put down her food bowl down.
Spending the night on my bed was the last frontier for Zelda. I’m a light sleeper and have trouble getting back to sleep when disturbed. Zelda could sleep through anything and when she dreamed she’d snort and twitch so violently the entire bed would quiver, which is rather disturbing in the middle of the night when you have earthquake paranoia like I do. At times she was so bad I’d wake her because I was convinced she was having a seizure. From our first night together at home, Zelda would follow me to my bedroom at night and sit by my bed. Too weak to make the jump, she’d try to will her way up onto it. But I’d just kiss Zelda’s forehead, apologize, and then get in bed. She’d sigh a complaint then stretch out on her dog bed on the floor next to me.
At 7AM exactly every morning, Zelda would prop her head on the edge of my bed and sigh and whine until she woke me up. I’d rub her head and scratch her chest for a minute and then she’d lay back down and go back to sleep. She’d stay in bed until noon if I didn’t make her go out. It was Zelda’s way of saying “Good Morning”. As tired as I may have been, seeing the speed at which her little nub would wiggle when she saw my eyes open, ended any thought I had of curbing her early wake-up call ritual.
Zelda was a modest dog. She could be playful and lively in the privacy of our home, but barely wagged her tail in public. No one knew how full of life and mischief she could be. I never knew if she was being shy, or just wanted her real self to be our private secret. She did have one weakness that she couldn’t control. Horses. I discovered her fascination with horses on a trip to the Sierras. Our cabin was next to a pasture and Zelda’s favorite activity was barking at the horses. She would charge across the lawn at full speed, which for her was really just an awkward staggering ramble. While Zelda had never grown back into an agile dog, she did regain her rich, booming voice. The horses didn’t much mind her carrying on, and Zelda would bellow forth a never-ending volley of barks that would fill the valley. Content that she had accomplished her goal, which was never clear to me, Zelda looked out over the pasture, her head held proud, acting like the queen she deserved to be.
Several years ago, during a walk, Zelda stumbled and fell down. She struggled to get up but her back leg was twisted beneath her and the more she fought, the more she got trapped. Zelda started to panic and I knelt down beside her to steady her. I reached underneath to fix her leg, and then rolled her onto her hip. She was fine, but panting rapidly. She tried to make it look like she was laughing, but I’d seen the fear in her eyes when she couldn’t get up. We sat there on the ground together trying to compose ourselves. I fought back tears as I righted her back up onto her four legs. She steadied herself, gave it a good full-body shake, and was off to sniff the rose bushes and pee on the azaleas like nothing had happened. But I’d seen my proud Zelda’s embarrassment when she fell, and had a glimpse of the unbearable void of losing her one day. That night, when Zelda sat by my bed, I picked her up and placed her up and placed her next to me, just like I have every night there since that day. Zelda winked and nudged me with her nose. I wrapped my arms around her and buried my face into the thick white fur around her chest. She indulged me for a moment, then wiggled and wiggled to spin her way around until her butt was in my face, and she went to sleep.
Every night since that day Zelda slept with her back pressed against my leg. She snored and dreamed and twitched and several times every night woke me up. I always wondered if I should disturb her from her dreams. I’d hate to stop her if she was hunting rabbits – it’s the only chance she had to move her old bones that couldn’t answer the call to chase anymore. But what if she was reliving the swirling floodwaters? Or she was seeing me drive away that day in New Orleans instead of stopping?
When I couldn’t sleep I’d reach down and place my hand on her. I’d listen to her snoring and feel her breath rattle in her chest. I’d try to match my breathing to hers. It was slow and calm and steady. It was the sound of life. It was a sound that was supposed to last forever. It’s the promise we made together when I fell under her spell.
Just a few months ago, Zelda’s condition began to fade. Walking was more of a challenge for her and she was more dependent to ride in the cart I had built for her. She was eating less and losing weight. Her broad shoulders were growing thin and her temples had begun to show the signs of wasting. She no longer was interested in playing with toys and even lost her interest in garbanzo beans. Worst of all, Zelda was wagging her nub less. Horses were probably the only thing that would still spark her attention, but there are none to be found on the Los Angeles beaches. I could feel that Zelda was slipping away. I felt helpless, terrified and furious that I wasn’t going to be able to save her this time.
We drove up to UC Davis Veterinary Hospital, hoping the experts there would find the explanation for her illness. It was a long ordeal of testing and examinations, but Zelda was strong that day, proudly traveling the hospital halls in her cart, charming all who met her. We went outside to wait for biopsy results, and discovered our clinic shared the parking lot with the Large Animal Clinic. And right there, in the field next to us, were horses. I rolled Zelda in her cart over to the fence, hoping they would still stir the fire in her. There were a few horses in the distance, but none close enough to attract Zelda’s attention. Then an old white mare, with a stooped back and lumbering gait, started her way toward us. Zelda’s ears went up, her eyes grew large, a rumble started in her chest. The mare came right up to the fence. The rumble grew larger inside Zelda. The mare bent down on one knee and dropped her head down between the horizontal beams of the fence. The two old ladies looked each other in the eye. Zelda let forth a bark, then another. With her dwindling strength, Zelda’s booming voice had faded but she followed up with a chorus of raspy “Rurr-Rurr”. Pause. “Rurr-Rurr”.
The mare stayed and stared and Zelda barked as long and loud as she could. Finally, with no breath left, she was silent. Zelda looked at the mare and then at me, as if to say “Thank You”. She placed her head down on the bed in her cart, and with a heavy sigh, she was done.
That night at the hotel, Zelda was too weak to walk even a step. I carried her to the room and placed her on the bed beside me, her head down by my feet as she had taught me years before. Her breathing was shallow and her eyes were barely open. Zelda began to stretch her head and wiggle on the bed. She was restless like I had never seen her before. I tried to calm her but she continued to struggle, summoning the strength to get her legs beneath her, stretching her head and neck, then fighting to move some more. She battled until she managed to turn her body around enough to place her head on my chest. We spent the whole night sleeping together that way. I could feel her chest rising and falling against mine, and her breath drifting across my chin. It was the first time she had even done that. It was also to be the last.
Every day, I feel the overwhelming empty space Zelda left behind when she died. There’s part of me that’s missing too. It’s the piece of my heart Zelda stole the day we met and the one I gave her to take with her when she left me on her final journey. I’ve tried everything to surround myself with my sweet friend, but it’s a bitter losing battle. I desperately clutch to our memories so I can still feel her magical presence, but the closer I make Zelda feel only causes me to miss her that much more. A poster of Zelda watches over my living room and her collar hangs over my bedpost. On my desk sits my favorite picture of Zelda . She’s at a Northern California beach. The wind was wild that day. The sand was whipping our faces, the waves rising and crashing. Sometimes, the gusts would catch her ears just right and flip them straight up in the air and make her look like she was The Flying Nun. Zelda just sat there, looking ridiculous with her flapping ears, with a big smile on her face, squinting in the blowing sand, watching the waves, at peace with her world.
The morning Zelda died, I made a clay imprint of her paw print. It rests on a bedside table alongside the wooden box that holds Zelda’s ashes. Every night, even now that she’s gone, Zelda continues to sleep beside me. I will always be next to her as she runs in her dreams, and she will always be riding shotgun beside me in mine.
A non-profit animal rescue has been established in memory of Zelda – Please visit ZeldaFoundation.org for more information