101: Bella

101: Bella

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back


The world would be a nicer place if everyone had the ability to love as unconditionally as a dog.

~M.K. Clinton

The pit bull lay near a weather-beaten doghouse in a fenced-in front yard. I shortened my dogs’ retractable leashes as we came closer, just in case, but the thick-boned, red-nosed old girl was friendly and watched us with wide golden-brown eyes. Rising, she approached the fence, pressing the dusty tip of her nose between the fence posts in an attempt to greet us.

Conan, my Dachshund mix, ignored the friendly overtures, but Lisa, a pint-sized Aussie mix, stopped to exchange sniffs and the two touched noses. I looked around. The yard was devoid of creature comforts, except for a faded blanket on the doghouse floor and a grimy, half-filled water bowl near the side gate. Piles of poop dotted the bare ground.

“You poor dog,” I said. The dog understood my feelings, if not my words, and when I reached down to her nose level, she licked my hand.

The next time I saw her, school was out and kids were playing nearby. She watched them expectantly, but no one acknowledged her. Another day, en route to the post office, I saw people exiting her owner’s house, and although she barked and whined for attention, she was ignored.

Maybe her person works late, I thought. Surely she’s not out here 24/7? Troubled, I slipped her treats through the fence before returning my dogs to the warmth of our home and the bed they shared with my husband and me.

One stormy night I felt compelled to check on her. She gazed at me, sleepily, in the beam from my flashlight. I understood then—she was out there all the time.

*  *  *

It was 1988: the year I became conscious of animal mistreatment, stopped eating or wearing them, and pledged to defend their rights. I couldn’t just pretend I didn’t see this neglected dog right in my own neighborhood. But what could I do about it?

In response to my complaint, the local humane society sent an officer to check on her. “She’s fed and sheltered,” I was told. “The owner promised to clean up the yard. Sorry, that’s all we can do.” Frustrated, I continued to visit the dog, offering treats, a few minutes of attention and a deep desire to do more.

One afternoon, a white-haired woman stood beside the enclosure, caressing the dog through the fence posts. “You’re the lady who gives treats to my Bella,” she said, smiling. “I watch you from my window.”

Joan was eighty-five and lived alone in her son’s house. She used to live with her husband on a huge fenced-in property with a whole pack of dogs. Joan’s face crinkled with pleasure remembering. “Bella was a house dog, then. They all were. We spoiled them. They sat on our furniture; slept on our bed.”

When her husband died, the big place overwhelmed her. Her son sold it and moved her here. Twelve-year-old Bella, the last of the dogs, was moved to the doghouse. Her son believed dogs belonged outside. I sighed, imagining Bella’s pain—a pack animal, cast from her pack.

Joan was arthritic and couldn’t get around easily. Her kids and grandkids didn’t come by that often. She jumped at my offer to walk Bella three afternoons a week and to clean her pen. “You must be Bella’s guardian angel,” she said, hugging me.

*  *  *

Bella cried out when I visited—so overjoyed that her squat, bricklike body leaped up and down. Old as she was she was strong as an ox. Walking her and my dogs required a friend or family member to hold Conan and Lisa while I entered the enclosure and gave Bella treats. While she gobbled them, I scooped her poop into a garbage can and poured her fresh water.

By then Bella was whining with excitement, wanting to go. I snapped a leash onto her collar, opened the gate and, dragging me behind her, she rushed from that yard. She and Lisa touched noses, Conan tolerated her, and we all walked side by side. For the next two hours, Bella sniffed and explored her surroundings. She was happy. She had a pack.

Her whole body seemed to shrink when our walk concluded and, reluctantly, she reentered the yard. “Sorry girl, I need to go now,” I said, while she entreated me with her eyes. Sadly, I locked her in again and walked away with her pack.

I followed this routine for nearly two years. I brought Bella food, a clean water bowl and soft bedding for her house. On days when no one came with me, I walked my dogs first and then walked her alone. I offered to adopt her, but Joan cried and wouldn’t part with her.

My friends thought I was crazy to spend my time that way. “You can’t help every needy animal in the world,” they said.

“I know I can’t help them all,” I said, “but I can help this one.”

*  *  *

One night I dreamed of running with Bella through a cool, shady forest. She was unleashed and raced ahead of me through the trees and then circled back. She licked my hand like she did when we first met. Joy emanated from her. I’d swear she was smiling.

I knew she’d died when I woke the next morning. Joan was crying when she told me that afternoon. But I didn’t cry—instead, I was thankful I’d taken the time to make a small difference in her life. For me, the dream confirmed the path I had chosen. One by one, I thought, we change the world for the better, whenever we can, because we can.

Bella knew that too. That’s why she came to say goodbye.

~Lynn Sunday

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