Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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In 2008 I moved to Hong Kong with my partner, Giulia. She and I had our differences — she was vivacious, Italian, and thirty; I was melancholic, Australian, and forty-four — but we shared a fondness for animals. We already had two cats, and we wanted to adopt a shelter dog. There was no shortage of dogs needing homes in Hong Kong.
I didn’t like my job — I worked in human resources for a large corporation — but I loved Hong Kong. The bustling and crowded urban area where we lived was surrounded by pristine mountain ranges and country parks. My office looked onto Victoria Harbour, and I spent hours gazing at the Star Ferry crossing the water.
Walking home from work one day, I saw a sign in the window of a vet’s office. It read, home needed urgently, above a picture of a medium-sized black-and-white dog. I snapped a photo of the sign and showed it to Giulia as soon as I got to our apartment.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Let’s call her Sofia,” she said.
I rang the number on the sign, and a woman named Suk Yee told me that she had found the dog with seven puppies near a cargo pier. The puppies had found homes quickly, but no one wanted their mother. Our landlord gave us permission to keep a dog as long as we paid our rent on time.
Somehow, within the next couple of years, we introduced two more rescue dogs into our home. With five animals and two humans, our apartment was full. Billy was the second dog we adopted: we were told he had been dumped in a garbage bin near Victoria Harbour. He had rotten teeth and stage-IV congestive heart failure. And then we adopted Yuki, a blind and arthritic old Pekingese who’d been tossed into a pond and left to drown. It’s not just in Hong Kong that pets are disposed of with ease, but unwanted dogs are abundant there, and the shelter facilities are inadequate.
I don’t know where my love for animals came from. My father, the parent I was closer to, had no interest in animals. My mother liked animals but never went out of her way for them.
I discovered early on that dogs and cats were a lot easier to be around than humans — or, at least, the humans in my family. As a child I went chasing after any dog I saw in the street. When I was nine, our neighbors’ station wagon was stolen from their driveway with Sunny, their aging Labrador, asleep in the back seat. I couldn’t stop worrying about Sunny, who — through some miracle that perhaps only a dog could perform — actually found her way back home from the other side of Sydney, a trip that took forty minutes by car. Her paws were blistered and bloodied, but she seemed to recover from her ordeal a lot faster than I did.
A year later I lured a golden retriever to our house. She belonged to a family who lived about a block away, but I was convinced she would have a better life with me, so I hid her collar under my bed. My mother erupted when she saw the dog: “That’s Goldie, the Sandersons’ dog. Take her home immediately!” I reluctantly walked Goldie home, explaining to her that my mother had forbidden me from keeping her. Then I told her owners that I had stolen her and hugged her goodbye.
Three years after we moved to Hong Kong, Giulia broke up with me. Somehow the differences between us were magnified there. She’d been hired by the company I worked for, and everything I disliked about it, she seemed to love. She enjoyed spending time with her colleagues; I had no interest in socializing with mine and couldn’t leave the office fast enough at the end of each day. She liked to stay out late dancing; I preferred to stay home with our pets and a good book. Giulia got promoted; I left.
Rents on Hong Kong Island, where we lived, had skyrocketed, so we leased separate apartments next door to one another in a different part of Hong Kong. I hoped our proximity would make it easy for her to change her mind and take me back, but it didn’t. She spent more and more time with her work friends, and I spent more and more time at home with our animals.
Our new neighborhood was different from our old one: we seemed to be the only white people there, and hardly anyone spoke English, which made even basic things, like telling a taxi driver where to go, challenging. One night a pack of monkeys chased me down my street, and I never again ventured there after dark. Wild boars sometimes wandered into the local market, and the police would be called to remove them. Heartbroken by the loss of Giulia, I found myself sinking into hopelessness.
Depression was familiar to me: it had come and gone since I’d been thrown from a horse and suffered a traumatic brain injury at thirty-one. But this time the depression was suffocating.
The day I moved into my new neighborhood, I walked Sofia down the hill to the Shing Mun Country Park. We had just passed the reservoir when we came upon a pack of wild dogs: two straggly females with distended teats, five puppies, and two adult males. The dogs were wary of me and showed no interest in Sofia.
Sofia and I returned the next day with two large saucepans full of brown rice, vegetables, and tuna. The dogs devoured the food, wagged their tails, and retreated into the bushes. The deeper into the park Sofia and I walked, the more wild dogs we encountered.
Within a month I was feeding forty dogs five times a week.
“You’re just making it worse,” a Chinese man said to me. I worried about that, too, but I could not turn my back on those hungry animals. Not to mention that ignoring the dogs didn’t seem to be the answer. The hungrier they became, the more likely they were to encroach upon residential areas and create problems.
I contacted Hong Kong Dog Rescue to see if they could help, but their shelters were full. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals couldn’t help either. It seemed no one was interested in the wild dogs except the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which tried to capture and kill them. People have no love for wild dogs in Hong Kong: They attack hikers, or so it is believed. They forage for food and make a nuisance of themselves in public places. And they reproduce rapidly.
I soon found out that the reservoir was where some locals dumped their unwanted dogs. I was there one afternoon with Sofia when a well-dressed woman stepped from a Mercedes and opened the back door. Out jumped two elderly black dogs. She removed their collars and got back in her car. The dogs stared at the car as she drove away. I tried to approach the dogs, but they ran off. A week later I saw them standing right where the woman had abandoned them.
After Giulia left me, Suk Yee, the woman who’d helped us adopt Sofia, began to visit more regularly. Short, with a bowl haircut and crimson metal-rimmed glasses, Suk Yee was known among the animal-rescue community in Hong Kong for her love of dogs. She was unable to keep a dog of her own because she lived in government housing, but she spent most of her money on vet bills and food for strays. Every night after work she set out for different parts of Hong Kong Island, where she left food and water for the dogs who roamed there.
Like many who rescue animals, she was prickly around people, but every time she visited, she brought dog treats for Sofia or something for me — a slice of green-tea cake, a bag of longans, some goji berries.
One Sunday afternoon, as Suk Yee sat on my living-room floor feeding strips of dried chicken to Sofia, she started to cry. She was worried about Ah Boh (“treasure” in Cantonese), a dog she’d found in the mountains three years before.
She’d taken Ah Boh to a shelter, and he’d been adopted fairly quickly. The man who’d adopted him had returned him, however, and Ah Boh had lived in a small cage in the shelter ever since. Prospective adopters would glance at him and quickly move on: he was a large dog with a thick coat and dark eyes, and most people thought he looked like a wolf.
“Please take him,” she sobbed. “No one is ever going to give him a home.”
“OK,” I said without even thinking.
The following Saturday I drove to the shelter to collect Ah Boh. Suk Yee was waiting outside. “Don’t come in,” she whispered as she went to get him. The shelter was run by a gweipo (white woman) who was not affiliated with any of the known dog charities, and Suk Yee was paying to keep Ah Boh there. Something dodgy was going on, although I wasn’t sure what. Moments later Suk Yee reappeared, tugging at the leash of a frightened dog. “We need to be quick,” she said. We lifted him into the back seat of my car. “Go,” she said, and I drove away as fast as I could. Ah Boh stared out the window, terrified.
The first thing Ah Boh did when I opened the door to my apartment was race inside and leap onto my sofa, where he lay down and didn’t budge for three hours. I offered him food, but he wouldn’t eat. Occasionally he glanced at Sofia and the two cats I had adopted since breaking up with Giulia. One cat hopped onto the sofa, curled up on Ah Boh’s tail, and fell asleep. Ah Boh seemed happy enough to have a cat snuggle up beside him. I was the creature he was worried about. If I approached too quickly, he would lose control of his bladder or bowels and try to make himself invisible. The only way to get close to Ah Boh was to inch across the floor with my back to him. When I held out my hand to allow him to sniff me, he flinched. Ah Boh’s fear of humans did not surprise me: I had seen people screaming at wild dogs in the park, striking them with sticks, and hurling bottles and stones at them. I was sure someone had beaten him.
On his first night inside my apartment, I woke to a howl. I jumped out of bed and ran to the sofa. Ah Boh looked at me, bewildered. Perhaps he’d had a nightmare. Assuming he was disoriented, I helped him onto my bed next to Sofia. Seconds after I fell asleep, I woke again. This time Ah Boh was peeing on my brand-new mattress. I took him outside, but his bladder was empty. At home I returned him to the sofa, stripped my bed, and covered the sodden section with towels. When I woke the next morning, I discovered the remote control for my DVD player lying next to him in three pieces, covered in slobber.
Teaching Ah Boh to relieve himself outside took longer than I would have liked. He had a habit of defecating against my living-room wall — a legacy, I guessed, from his years locked inside a cage. Though a clever way of keeping his own cage clean, it didn’t work so well inside an apartment. During the day he refused to get off the sofa. He often wouldn’t eat the dog food I offered him, but once, when I left my dinner next to him to answer the phone, I returned to find him licking the empty bowl. Apparently he liked tuna, cucumber, cannellini beans, and tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Ah Boh assumed his place in our pack: the cats were at the top; Sofia was in charge of the other three dogs; and Ah Boh was at the bottom. On our walks he looked to Sofia for cues and copied her, sniffing the same trees, stopping at the same time, staying a respectful distance behind her. Sofia growled at Ah Boh when she thought I couldn’t hear. If she went to the sofa to eat his food, he moved aside and watched her. He knew that he came last.
Still, Ah Boh seemed to enjoy his daily walks. His tail, which he carried between his legs for the first few weeks, was soon upright. Over time he got used to the sound of bagpipes played by a young man who practiced in the park. He got accustomed to the toy helicopters and drones that hovered above us as we walked, but his apprehension of the men who operated them did not abate. They would laugh and shout, “Wolf!” at him, and his tail would lodge between his legs, and I’d pull on the leash with all my strength to stop him from fleeing.
Besides people, Ah Boh was most afraid of the wild dogs, who sensed his vulnerability and ran right at him, growling and barking. He would drop to the ground, paralyzed with fear. Ah Boh had once been a wild dog, but he no longer belonged in the wild.
It bothered me that Ah Boh was the only dog I had taken in with whom I hadn’t managed to form a close bond. I prided myself on my patience — after years spent working in human resources, it was a quality I now reserved exclusively for nonhuman animals.
The other dogs I’d rescued back home in Australia had suffered, too: Jessica had spent eleven years on a chain as a guard dog in a factory, and then some kids had poured petrol all over her and set her on fire. Jeremy had been locked inside a tennis court for ten years with virtually no human contact.
I longed for the day Ah Boh would relax and give some indication he had settled into his new home. I did not expect him to be affectionate or to run around gleefully like my other dogs did, but I hoped for some hint that, in adopting him, I had improved his life. I began to wonder whether it had been the right thing to do. Perhaps it would have been kindest to have him euthanized. And then I got to wondering whether the problem was me.
My depression was getting worse. I missed Giulia and felt as if I had failed at the only relationship I’d ever really wanted. I stopped leaving my apartment for any purpose other than to go to work (I’d found a part-time job) or walk my dogs. My track record with humans was unremarkable, but my record with dogs had been stellar — until I’d met Ah Boh. Perhaps my depression had compounded his anxiety. Perhaps it was making him worse.
One day, when Ah Boh and I were on a walk in the park, I unclipped his leash, as I had been doing for nearly a month. He usually walked right beside me, looking up every now and then as if to make sure he was doing OK. Every time he looked up, I leaned down and patted him. He finally seemed to be starting to trust me.
We walked side by side for nearly a mile until the path took a sharp turn, and an elderly hiker suddenly appeared in front of us wielding a stick. Surprised by the sight of Ah Boh, the man shrieked and waved his stick in the air. Ah Boh bolted. I chased after him, but he had vanished.
It would be hard to imagine a worse place to lose a dog than Shing Mun Country Park. The trail we were on stretched for sixty-two miles, and the park itself was vast and blended into adjacent parks.
I spent two hours looking for Ah Boh. I knew that, after three years inside a cage, he was weak and tired easily. I suspected he hadn’t gone far. When I didn’t find him, I ran home to get Sofia: I needed her help. We headed back together and walked along the trail, entering the dense vegetation wherever possible. Sofia began to limp, and I worried about her leg and took her home. Then I returned to the trail alone.
I walked until seven that evening, when it started to get dark. The trail wound along cliffs with a drop of nearly 150 feet, and it was a dangerous path to negotiate in daylight. At night it was impossible to see anything. When I got home, I made flyers with photos of Ah Boh while I worked up the courage to call Suk Yee. “How could you be so stupid as to let him off the leash?” she shouted. “He’ll die!”
“I know,” I said feebly. It was entirely my fault.
She said she would meet me at the reservoir at five the next morning, and we would find him.
Unable to sleep, I rang Giulia, who was in London for work. She was angry with me and called me an idiot. Later, when I closed my eyes, I thought of Ah Boh outside on his own. I got up every hour and went down to the security gates in front of my building, thinking he might have found his way home. The grim possibilities began to set in: He’d been gored by a wild boar. Bitten by a king cobra. Mauled by a pack of wild dogs. His leg was stuck in a monkey trap. He’d lost his footing and slipped off a cliff. Or, most frightening of all to me, he’d been hunted down and killed for food by one of the homeless men who lived in the park. I felt sick. Ah Boh, a dog who seemed incapable of harming anything or anyone, would die an excruciating death alone. And I was to blame.
Suk Yee and I searched for Ah Boh from five in the morning until seven at night. I took Sofia with me until she got tired; then I walked her home and went back to the trail. I was sure he was hidden somewhere in the scrub, too scared to move.
After three days of trudging along the same path in search of my dog, I was stopped by a Chinese hiker.
“Do you live here?” he asked.
I looked at him, not quite sure what he meant. “Where?”
“In the park.”
“No,” I laughed. He had mistaken me for a homeless person. That night, when I looked at myself in the mirror — my torn clothes and filthy hair, my face covered with mosquito bites — his question seemed less surprising.
On the fourth day Suk Yee, who by now could barely bring herself to speak to me after taking three days off work to search for a wild dog she had entrusted to my care, went to the shelter where Ah Boh had lived and borrowed his former kennel mate, Sammy. Back in the country park, Suk Yee gave Sammy a piece of Ah Boh’s blanket and repeated Ah Boh’s name to him.
As dusk settled that day, Sammy led us to Ah Boh, who was curled up underneath a canopy of branches and leaves ten minutes from my apartment.
The claws on Ah Boh’s front left foot had been torn off, and he had difficulty walking. I picked him up and carried him until Suk Yee found a security guard on our street who called a taxi for us. We took him straight to the vet, who cleaned his foot, bandaged it, and sent us home with painkillers and antibiotics. “Never, ever let him off the leash again,” Suk Yee said to me through gritted teeth. I promised her I wouldn’t.
As soon as we reached home, Ah Boh limped over to the sofa and hopped up. I checked him for ticks and scratches. His belly was covered with hundreds of tiny red bites, but the rest of his body seemed fine.
For hours he lay on the sofa trembling, his breathing erratic. I had no way of knowing what had happened to him, how he’d lost his claws, how the nights had passed, but he was clearly traumatized. I made him a large bowl of cooked chicken and rice that he ate quickly. Aside from some strips of pork Suk Yee had given him when she’d found him, it must have been the only food he had eaten in four days. I was itchy all over. Inside my T-shirt were tiny caterpillars that had stung me in my armpits. In the morning I saw that my bed was covered in ticks. Lyme disease, I thought. Perfect.
It took forty-eight hours for Ah Boh to stop shaking. After dinner, while we were sitting together on the sofa, he approached me, sniffed my hair, rested his head on my shoulder, and closed his eyes. I hugged him, and he fell asleep in my lap.
Three years have passed since then. Billy and Yuki died. I changed Ah Boh’s name to Ambrose. I moved back home to Australia and fell in love with another human who also adores animals. Conveniently, given the mental-health issues in our household, she is a psychiatrist. We married last April at City Hall in New York City. With her two cats, our feline family has grown to four. They share our home with Ambrose, Sofia, and Scout, a wild puppy I found in Hong Kong before I left. My depression has not disappeared, but my mood has significantly improved, and I think it affects Ambrose.
I often remember the wild dogs in the Shing Mun Country Park. Before I moved back to Australia, I encountered an elderly woman lugging a cart inside the park. She watched me put out food for the dogs and began to laugh. Her cart was full of food for the dogs, too. She spoke no English and I no Cantonese, but she seemed as relieved as I was to know there was someone else who cared about the dogs.
I no longer worry about Ambrose. He now takes medication for his anxiety, which has helped him overcome his fear of leaving the house. At the park he walks confidently, his tail upright. When other dogs approach, he stands still and waits for them to sniff him. He and Scout tear around the park in wide loops until Ambrose tires and collapses in a heap. I call Suk Yee sometimes using FaceTime and let her see him playing with Scout. “Don’t let him off the leash!” she shouted at me the first time she saw him racing through the off-leash area.
“He’s not going to run away,” I said as he came back to me and sat at my feet. Now when he looks up at me, he wags his tail; when I bend down to pat him, he closes his eyes. We have both come a long way.
Last night I tucked my eleven-year-old son into bed and read him Sarah Vallance’s essay “The Wild Dogs of Hong Kong” [February 2019]. We enjoyed hearing about her dog Ah Boh. My son has asked several times today, “What do you think Ah Boh is doing right now?” We like to think he is playing with Vallance’s other dog, Scout, or walking with his tail up, or taking a long, peaceful nap.
I’ve worked in animal rescues and shelters for many years and found the depiction of the situation in “The Wild Dogs of Hong Kong” to be all too familiar. I’m left with one haunting thought: What happened to the dog Sammy, who found his friend Ah Boh after days of searching? Was he returned to the shelter to live out his life in a cage?
Ah Boh (now Ambrose) spends his days sleeping, eating, walking, and playing with Scout in Australia, and would be delighted to know he is being thought of at bedtime on the other side of the world.
Shortly after I adopted Ah Boh, Sammy was adopted by a Swiss family who took him home with them to Geneva. Photos show a happy and much-loved dog.