Denise Day Spencer

January 2, 2009

Sometimes it’s OK to pretend

Filed under: Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 2:05 pm

I called her “Tillie.” She was some kind of hound dog mix who turned up in our neighborhood back in the summer. Actually our son, Clay, dubbed her something which I refused to call her (and I now refuse to print!) so I adapted his moniker to “Tillie.”

It’s all too common for animals to get dumped in our neck of the woods. And of course, unclaimed, they stay, mate and reproduce, thus worsening the animal control situation. I’ve tried to find homes for many a stray kitten, but when they’re born in the wild I can’t catch them to give them away.

But back to Tillie. She came to us nearly starved and otherwise in poor health. Her ribs stuck out under skin that appeared to cover nothing but bones. Her haunches were covered in sores. She didn’t have much energy, yet her sweet disposition was still obvious to the casual onlooker.

Now I know that if you don’t want a stray animal to hang around your house you can’t feed it. And I behaved–at first. But when the puddles dried up and it didn’t rain, I couldn’t stand the thought of Tillie parched and panting in the August heat. So I gave her water and she drank nearly the whole bowl. A co-worker said he knew someone who he thought would adopt Tillie, so I started feeding her. If she were leaving anyhow, the least I could do was to fatten her up a bit before she moved to her new home, right?

You guessed it; the new home never materialized. By the time I realized the promised guy wasn’t going to show, Tillie had adopted us as her family of choice. And as her nutritional status improved she put on weight and her sores began to heal. She followed Maisie and me on all of our walks. She now had the energy to run and frolic. She came whenever I whistled for her, and responded to any small sign of affection with doggy gratitude.

Because Tillie was so often in my company, people began to think she was ours: “Oh, have you got two dogs now?” “Where’d you get the new dog?” I would try to let them know that she wasn’t ours, usually saying something like, “Well, she THINKS she’s ours! ” The situation began to get more uncomfortable, though. I’ve heard people make the definition very simple: “If you feed it, then it’s yours.”

I could get by without thinking too much about it in those last weeks of summer. Then the dorm students returned and the situation began to change. One Saturday I went down to the track to do my exercise walk and was followed, of course, by Tillie. Scott, our soccer coach, strolled past us and delivered the familiar “Is that your new dog?” line. When I replied, “She seems to think so,” he grinned. “Sometimes it’s OK to pretend,” he said.

The soccer team was there, and as I reached the far end of the track on one of my laps I heard a student call out to me. “Uh, Ma’am? Your dog just crapped on the field and we have a game today.” It was no use to claim, “It’s NOT my dog!” so I said, “OK. Sorry. I’ll clean it up.”

When I resumed my walk I thought, “MY dog doesn’t crap on the soccer field because I keep MY dog on a leash and I don’t LET her crap on the soccer field! But now this guy thinks I’m the sort of person who looks the other way while her dog poops right in the middle of the field–on a game day!”

And game day meant there would be all sorts of people at the field. What if Tillie made a nuisance of herself by running out onto the field in the middle of the game? Worse, what if a visiting child fan for the opposing team taunted Tillie and she bit him? Yeah. MY dog. I got Tillie to follow me home, where I put her in Maisie’s pen until I was sure the game was over. Not too much harm done, but I knew we couldn’t go on this way.

So the next week I bundled Tillie into Maisie’s crate and drove her to the  animal shelter in a neighboring town. She didn’t want to get into the crate. She looked up at me with sad, brown eyes that seemed to say, “I know what’s going on.” My knowledge that I was doing the right thing did little to assuage the guilt I felt at betraying my furry friend.

I had never been to the shelter before. I followed the directions I’d been given over the phone and found myself in front of a tiny brick building adjacent to a gravel operation. No animals in sight. No pens, cages or runs of any sort. My imagination began to run wild. Good heavens! What went on here? Would they take Tillie out behind the little office and shoot her even before I was out of the parking lot?

A passing man in a gravel truck hollered at me, directing me to drive past the trucks to the other end of the lot. When I did, I discovered a somewhat larger brick building with a dozen or so cages in front of it. Each was occupied by a dog, or in some cases two small dogs. Where had all of these animals come from? A gorgeous, half-grown German Shepherd sat quietly, as if to say, “See? I’m the best behaved of the lot.” A small white fluffy terrier pup jumped and barked, begging, “Take me! Take me!” Great. Now it was not only going to be hard to leave Tillie, but all of these  guys, too.

Tillie. She didn’t want to get out of the car. She didn’t want the man to take her away. Oh, he was nice enough. He assured me that she would be fed and watered twice a day. I didn’t ask how long this care would last until her time was up; I didn’t want to know. But I don’t mind telling you that I cried as I drove away.

I think back to what Scott said. Yes, sometimes it’s OK to pretend. But sometimes it’s  not. It’s not all right to pretend that you can let your pet run the neighborhood un-neutered and it won’t be a problem. It’s not OK to pretend that you can drop an animal anywhere and it will find a good home. It’s not acceptable to pretend that you’re not responsible for the offspring of your pet.

Please–support your local animal shelter. And if you’re looking for a fuzzy little companion,  shop and adopt from there. You can tell them Tillie sent you.



  1. […] If you are a lover of animals, then get a kleenex and read her latest narrative. […]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Denise Day Spencer: It’s OK to Pretend — January 2, 2009 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

  2. A great but saddening story. Reminds me of one of the saddest moments of my life, was when I was 8 and our family’s old Lab died. I wish I could have a dog these days; living in an apartment bites 😦

    Comment by Mack Ramer — January 2, 2009 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

  3. Thank you for sharing this story. I can relate in that the saddest looking bag-of-bones momma cat walked into our backyard (the only one in the neighborhood without dogs) with her six 4-week old kittens following in a straight line behind her! My husband decided these were our anniversary present…seven cats!

    The momma had been abandoned when the neighbor moved (we think she might have run away from them, as they did not care for them and this was her third litter in three years of life!). She fattened up very nicely and did a wonderful job training her kittens to trust me by always laying down next to me to nurse. Very clever cat….

    When they got old enough, my friend (who is a vet) was generous enough to fix them all: momma, two females and five males. We had all done our share to keep the wild cat population down!

    Over the last four years, we have slowly lost five of them. Two (Simba and Jaguar) are buried in our yard. Two (Nala and Gimli) wandered off never to be seen again. And (two years ago when I was gone for a week) the mother was wise enough (I called her Sophia) to take her now gorgeous self off to a home where she could be the inside Queen Cat with no competition. (I think Sophia, who was formerly a house cat, knew that her kittens were safe and she could move on. None of the kittens would stay inside the house.) One of the neighbors swears she has seen Sophia preening in a lovely picture window not three blocks away.

    Four and a half years later, we still have Cocoa and Bobcat. They still won’t come inside, but they have warmed up well to our family and are fine friends who follow us around wherever we go and come when we call.

    …sorry for the long story, but I’ve never told it out like that and wanted to encourage you.


    Comment by Peggy — January 2, 2009 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  4. Denise, you are very strong for being able to take Tillie to the animal shelter. I’m sure it was the right thing to do, and your intentions were much better than whoever abandoned her for you to find. I recently found a stray puppy in my yard, and was thankfully able to find a good home for her within a few days. But if no one had wanted her, I like to think I would have found the strength to give her up, like you did. But I don’t really know. I’m sure I could have found plenty of reasons to keep her, even though we already have 2 big dogs we love and didn’t need a third. I hope Tillie found a great home, and I’ll say a little prayer for the unfortunate ones who don’t.

    Comment by Katie — January 2, 2009 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  5. Did I miss something in the post? Why didn’t you keep her?

    Comment by Charity — January 2, 2009 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  6. About 8 months ago, a friend of mine who works in Animal control rescued a litter of kittens from a dumpster where they had been left to die. She desperately needed someone to keep a few until they were old enough to go to the shelter (our shelter here often won’t accept young ones who are too young to get shots) and so, begrudgingly, my husband and I took home two. The two cats we already had were not too happy at first, but then again, neither were we. We were doing it because we couldn’t bear the thought of them just being put down.

    We tried not to name them. We tried not to love them. But when they started body surfing through their food, desperately trying to learn how to be “grown up”.. we fell in love. We named them Scrap (cause he was a little scrapper) and Pinky (like pinky & the brain..not the brightest kitty). We triumphed in their victories – staying clean for a whole day, climbing up onto the bed – and laughed at their antics. By the time 2 months were up, I wanted 4 cats. But we knew – 500 square feet, two grown adults… it just wasn’t feasable.

    The day I brought them to the shelter to get their shots and try to get adopted before their time was up… I sobbed. I’m crying now thinking about it. Animals are precious, precious creatures.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Comment by Jennet — January 3, 2009 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  7. Charity: We live in school provided housing. We can’t have an unlimited number of pets. People dump hundreds of animals on our campus every year. If we kept them all, we’d have a major crisis.

    Comment by iMonk — January 3, 2009 @ 7:18 am | Reply

  8. Wow, Denise, I’m not even a pet person (for reasons which are a long story) but this really moved me. But even more, I’m convicted by your deep sense of responsibility to question what areas of my own life have become games of “pretend”.
    your stories always have so much power — because of their deep truthfulness.

    Comment by Lynne — January 3, 2009 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

  9. Good post. It was good stopping by. Stop by my BLOG sometime.

    Comment by spadinofamily — January 6, 2009 @ 12:21 pm | Reply


    Since you were on the subjects of dogs. Here is a pic of mine.

    Comment by spadinofamily — January 6, 2009 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

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