My rescue dog is not only a reminder of my recovery from alcoholism, but also an extension of it. -Christopher Dale
In August 2013, a gaunt, 3-year-old mutt was among hundreds scavenging for food on Puerto Rico’s Dead Dog Beach, an especially harrowing locale for strays on an island notorious for its homeless dog epidemic. Puerto Rico is overrun with more than 250,000 stray dogs, and has only five shelters despite being the size of Connecticut. These inundated, often unsanitary havens have a kill rate of 99%.
For decades, Dead Dog Beach has been a dumping ground for strays captured on other parts of the island. Here, a quick death – often coming by the blade of a machete or the treads of an ATV – seems preferable to the slower, more painful alternatives of poisoning, starvation, or being mauled to death by equally desperate strays and – sickening yet unsurprising – cannibalized.
Against all odds, a good Samaritan – a selfless, compassionate soul truly doing God’s work – scooped the emaciated mutt up, placed him in a car, and drove him to a makeshift shelter near San Juan Airport. The shelter was run by The Sato Project (“sato” is Spanish for “stray mutt”), a Brooklyn-based organization that transports strays from Dead Dog Beach, provides them with initial veterinary care, and places them in foster homes throughout the NYC and Boston areas.
At the airport shelter, the volunteer staff nicknamed him Vector.
vec·tor [VEK-ter] verb. 1) To guide in flight by issuing appropriate headings. 2) to change direction of (the thrust of a jet or rocket engine) in order to steer the craft.
Vector should be dead, but instead he joined my family two years ago. Vector should be unable to sleep for fear of never waking up, but instead he is currently snoozing in his plush doggie bed. And when he wakes up, Vector doesn’t have to sift through trash for rotting scraps, because he has a bowl with healthy food and, next to it, another with clean, fresh water.
Vector’s recovery was nothing short of remarkable. He quickly blossomed from a skittish, shaking nervous wreck to a nub-wagging (he lost his tail, presumably on the beach), face-licking, meatloaf-begging companion.
His progress during the first few weeks with us – scattered yet staggering, imperfect yet inspiring – was especially endearing. We watched as Vector slowly came to realize that our home – a spacious, three-bedroom ranch house in suburban New Jersey with an ample front lawn and grass-covered backyard – would be his permanent home. At first, this realization was tenuous; periods of sheer, puppy-love joy mixed with a haunting anxiousness, as if Vector was expecting to suddenly find himself back on that God-forsaken beach where he struggled just to barely survive.
Vector had hit the doggy lottery, but his survival instincts simply wouldn’t allow him to believe that in the beginning. He was still on guard, still suspicious, still waiting for the other paw to drop. Not surprisingly, he was afraid to leave our house, for fear that he would never get to come back. For the first two weeks or so, he was too nervous to so much as relieve himself outdoors (even in the backyard), making pee pads – and several area rugs – necessary short-term substitutes for fire hydrants.
For my wife and I, this was a small, temporary price to pay for the humbling, gratifying and joyous act of welcoming Vector into our home and, in doing so, saving his life.
After all, we’d been through this before.
My first few months of sobriety were the most nerve-wracking of my life. Everything felt weird, especially anything that wasn’t an expected part of my strict schedule. For me, there had been no Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea miracle that immediately removed my obsession to drink. That said, early sobriety consisted of a rigid regimen that can be summed up in six words: Work. AA meeting. Gym. Home. Repeat. And though executing my daily plans was arduous, deviating from them would have been a far more draining and dangerous prospect.
A dog, of course, doesn’t know quite what to expect. So in late 2013 – in his own early stages of a life-saving recovery – Vector knew one thing and one thing only: he was safe in this house. The thought of leaving it overwhelmed him, as outside meant out of safety.
Admittedly amateurs (Vector is a first dog for us both), my wife and I did our best to gain Vector’s trust, both in us and in the safety of the area immediately surrounding our house. As we did so, we had the privilege of witnessing the steady progress of a family member we quickly came to love; and as we did so, we recalled the delicate first few months of my own fledgling recovery, and how this careful intensity bound us closer together as surely as addiction’s grasp had pulled us apart.
Vector is not only a reminder of my recovery, but also an extension of it. His safety – as well as everything else that is good and pure and true in my life – is part of a limitless ripple effect whose genesis is the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Vector lives because I was taught how to live, and he will recover because of my recovery. He is a 22-pound gift of this miraculous journey of progress, and I am grateful far beyond my ability to convey this with suitable eloquence. We could rescue Vector only because, four years ago, I was rescued by the Fellowship of AA.
Christopher Dale is a freelancer who writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues. He has been published in a variety of prominent outlets, including Salon.com, The Advocate and The New York Post. He is also a contributing blogger to TheFix.com, a sober lifestyle website. He can be reached at [email protected].