The Blue Diaper
"Shouldn't we move it out of the road? One of these cars is going to run it over." My younger sister Jenny looks at me, pleading for my help. The little terrier breed lies on the side of the road, right at the corner of an intersection. At first glance it resembles a small, white garbage bag. "Look how close the cars are driving to it. It's going to get squished."
I have to admit, she's right. Cars blow past, like squalls, their tires missing the dog's head by mere inches, as if the dog is just another piece of roadway trash. A plastic cup or a cigarette butt, thrown carelessly out a window. "There's nothing we can do for it Jenny," I repeat, though I am not sure if I even believe that anymore.
My sister was driving us to Baker's Square, and had come down my street to pick me up. Right now we are at the corner of Greenbay and Keith with the car in park, as we discuss what to do. We are hesitant to pull out and leave the dog, yet at the same time afraid to leave the car, walk up to busy traffic and push the dog into the safety of the weeds.
The dog is white with a few brown spots, like a rag with oil stains, and could not have weighed more than twenty pounds. There is no visible blood, from our vantage point, except a bit around the mouth, where the tongue hangs out. It seems as if the dog has grown tired and decided to take a nap on the road. What really sticks with me though is the light blue, cotton diaper it was wearing. Someone's baby.
Just then, as Jenny and I contemplate what action to take, the dog's small mouth opens, and the head jerks back, in what looks to be a yawn or a silent scream for help. The rest of the body remains unmoved, as if paralyzed, and maybe it was.
"Oh my god!" I gasp, my heart jumps and I find it difficult to swallow.
"It moved its head!" Jenny shrieks.
We bolt out of the car. A decision has been reached.
Hundreds of wild and domesticated animals are hit on American roadways every year. We have probably all unintentionally hit an animal in our driving lifetime. I know I have. Yet, why do we hesitate about getting out of our vehicles and helping these animals? A squirrel may dart into the road at the last second, or a raccoon scamper across in the dark. Do we owe it to these animals to try to swerve out of the way, even if it means endangering ourselves? If we do hit them, what would help us decide what animals to help, or move from the roadway, and what animals to leave?
About five years ago, I hit a duck while going eighty miles an hour in the fast lane of the Illinois toll road. Did I have time to swerve? I wasn't even sure if there was anybody in the middle lane. Everything happened so fast. One moment the duck was on the shoulder, the next it was on the road. I couldn't brake because there was another car right behind me. I remember the clunk and the spray of feathers, like fireworks on the fourth of July. They lit up the rear view mirror. I felt terrible. "Murderer. You could have moved," my sister Becky, in the passenger seat, said to me. I assumed the duck was dead, and kept driving on. Even if it happened on a quiet residential street, and not on the busy toll way, I would not have stopped.
I think we find it better to live in denial, when it comes to animals we, or someone else, have hit. We tell ourselves that it is dead so that we do not feel obligated to stop our cars. It is not that we are callous; we are just afraid of seeing the damage inflicted. The pain in the animal's eyes as it struggles to move the upper half of its body. We can continue our drive, secure in our minds that the animal has passed away, if we do not stop to check.
My Aunt Cheryl told me about a man, from Wisconsin, that drove his truck along the same road every day. One day he saw a black puppy lying in the ditch. He most likely thought about how horrible it was that the little puppy had been killed. He did not stop though. On the third day the man pulled over, because he couldn't believe that someone would leave the dead puppy in the ditch this long. When he climbed over to the puppy he made a shocking discovery. The poor, dead, black puppy was actually alive! He just couldn't move due to injuries. Imagine how the puppy felt. Someone, out of the hundreds of noisy vehicles that drove past him every day, had finally pulled over. Someone cared. He would have licked the man's hands. For three days, cars drove past, their owners probably commenting about how sad it was that a puppy had been killed.
If the animal stirs, are we more motivated to help? The body tremors or the head jerks, and we say to ourselves, "someone should do something." But, are we that someone, or do we mean someone else? Would a red collar or a blue diaper get us out of our cars any easier? Do we ever think of them for more than that fleeting moment when our cars glide past them?
I remember when I was a child; I would make the Catholic sign of the cross across my body whenever I saw a dead animal in the road. Though I wasn't Catholic, I thought that my gesture would ease their soul and help them in heaven. I grew out of that, and now I just drive right by. Yet, this small dog was different. Because it was a dog, and I am a dog owner, and it wore a blue diaper, and it opened its mouth. All these factors combined were finally enough to get me out of the car.
Jenny and I run up to the little dog as cars whiz around us on the busy street.
"How are we going to move it?" Jenny asks me. She is younger than me by eight years, and still thinks I have all the answers. I have no idea.
"I don't know. We have to find something to put underneath it maybe," I reply. I bend down in front of the dog's face and reach out my hand. But, I can't bring myself to touch the dog. I am caught between wanting to pet it and reassure it yet, at the same time fearful that it could bite me. As a result, my hand freezes in midair and retreats. Instead I try to look at the dog's eyes, which don't seem to focus on me. They are glazed over, like the morning mist that hovers over fields. The head, though, moves as the dog opens its mouth in another silent scream. "It's okay," I lamely utter, but it is far from okay.
Slowly I get up and that's when I see the big urine circle on the pavement beneath the blue diaper. The impact must have been hard, because the dog urinated on itself. "This dog has very little blood on the ground, so it must be bleeding badly internally or something," I tell Jenny, who just nods her head in agreement. A 'For Sale' sign sticks out from the tall grasses and I have Jenny pull it out of ground. Jenny holds the sign and tries to push it underneath the dog, like a shovel, in tentative strokes. Yet, what seems like ten minutes pass as we awkwardly try to put the flat part of the sign under the dog, without actually touching the dog. Why don't we touch the dog? We were afraid. Afraid of the feel of its short, flat coat, or the knowledge that this animal is growing cold. But, giving up was not an option either, for I know we both would never forgive ourselves if we left the dog to the crunch of tires.
Just then a van honks and the driver turns down the street and pulls over next to us.
Some people do pull over to help injured animals, but what if those animals are wild creatures? Wild animals don't hold as many memories for most of us, like pets do. We may think that since no one owns them, then no one will miss them. Many of us don't keep squirrels, raccoons, or opossums as pets and as a result we don't feel as much of a connection to them. If that little black puppy had been a raccoon, that man probably wouldn't have been worried about no one finding and claiming it. He would have continued to drive by and the raccoon would have starved to death. The reason is that we haven't formed a bond with these wild animals. Raccoons do not lay with us on the couch and push their heads up under our arms, so that we will scratch them. Opossums do not go on bike rides with us, lumbering after us on their leashes. Many of us own, or have owned pets, or we know someone that does. We have memories of sharing Popsicles together in the living room, or crying into their fur on a rough day. We give pets human qualities as well. They are labeled patient, loyal, loving and friendly. This is what sometimes makes the difference between pulling over and driving right by. Between hesitation and decision.
What responsibilities do we have to animals that are not our own? Do we owe them one last lick or soft touch? Maybe a call to their owners? I think so. When I was ten, I told my father, "I hate you! I'm never talking to you again!" The words spewed out of my mouth like volcanic ash. This declaration was in response to my father's admittance that he had accidentally hit and killed someone's dog while on the way to a weeknight church meeting. The road was dark, with no streetlights and the black dog was just running loose. He never saw the dog until it was too late. Yet, unlike many other people, my father actually stopped the car, got out and started knocking on doors to find the owners. He took responsibility. I can't imagine the sorrow he felt when he had to deliver the news. The screams and accusations that would have been flung at him. I couldn't appreciate the courage my dad possessed that enabled him to do the right thing. He knew the animal had a family and that he owed the dog and the family some closure. To my ten-year-old self, he hit the dog. End of story. Now though, I have realized that it is more complicated than that. Accidents do happen. It's how we handle ourselves after the fact that makes all the difference. A pet is someone's baby and thus deserves to be treated as such.
"I know the owners of this dog," the man tells us as he says the dog's name, "Did you see who did this?"
We both shake our heads. "We wanted to move the dog out of the road, because the cars were so close to it, and then it moved its mouth," I volunteer. The man opens the sliding door of his grayish blue minivan. Looking in the weeds he pulls out an empty charcoal bag and lays it on the carpet. Then in one swift movement he picks up the dog, like it was hogtied, and places it on the bag. He achieves in thirty seconds what we had tried to do for ten minutes. "The dog is probably dying," I say because I feel the need for his opinion. "I think it must have internal damage."
"There's no doubt about it. This dog is going to die," the man answers matter-o-factly, as he shakes his head sadly. "I'll bring it to its owners, though. Boy, are they gonna be upset. Poor, silly, dog."
Then the man closes the door, and gets into the driver's seat. As he drives off, I watch the van drive down the road. The urine puddle and a tiny bit of blood on the pavement are the only pieces of evidence that speak of the dog's tragic outcome. As I think back on that moment now, I believe Jenny and I hesitated to help that dog, because we were afraid. We knew that we would have to acknowledge our own impending death, and thus our own mortality. Every one of us likes to pretend that we are out of death's reach. To come in contact with a dying animal momentarily halts that conception. Sometimes permanently.
I'll never know if the dog got to see its family one last time before it died. I can see the family's faces, surprised at their neighbor pulling into their driveway. Then afraid, as they take in his slow movement, the droop of his shoulders and head. They crumple into each other as they notice the blue diaper.Everyday I drive past that corner I see that little dog lying there, and its mouth opens up to me in a silent scream for help, as the cars roar past like gusts of wind, leaving white garbage bags, cigarette butts, and plastic cups in their wake.