As Steve and I watched Cooper and Jasmine Blue play on the beach at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, it was hard to believe I’d only had the big boy for three weeks. While making frequent visits to ACC on assignment for Northside San Francisco, I succumbed to “the power of Pali” and wound up with a foster dog through her grassroots group, Rocket Dog Rescue. As I feared, I had grown attached, but I knew I couldn’t keep him: my condo has a one-dog limit, but more important, he looked like a horse in my backyard – 100 pounds of amazingly graceful, sleek pit mix with gorgeous, deep auburn fur and the most soulful brown eyes I’ve ever seen. No one could figure out what he was mixed with to give him such size – perhaps Rhodesian ridgeback or Great Dane. Though he managed to tiptoe around my flowers and thrive in a city environment, there was no doubt that Cooper was a country boy – he needed room to roam.
It was a gloomy day at Mavericks, but Cooper and Jazzy didn’t mind. Jazzy still swam out to get her ball, and Cooper waited patiently on the shore, grabbing it from her mouth. He then entertained himself with a game of “catch me if you can,” running up and down the beach and in wide circles around us, a huge whip of drool over his nose and a devilish gleam in those soulful brown eyes.
Afterward, we all headed over to Barbara’s for some fish and chips. As we sat outside at a table overlooking the water, the sun began to peak out from the clouds. “I wish I could find someone in Half Moon Bay to adopt Cooper,” I told Steve. “This is where he belongs.”
On the way home, we stopped at the pet store to pick up some supplies. Jazzy, exhausted from the frustration of chasing Cooper to get her ball back, remained passed out and snoring in the backseat. Steve was pretty much the same up front. Cooper, always happy to go anywhere, came along inside.
As we waited in line, a man with a very small Chihuahua passed by. He nearly had a heart attack when he saw Cooper’s huge head coming toward his diminutive dog, but he began to laugh when he saw that his Chihuahua was in charge – Cooper gingerly sniffed her backside, and she promptly snapped at his nose. Though incredibly smart, Cooper was also sweet natured; he took several dainty steps backward and sat on my foot. The woman in line behind me laughed. “What a well-behaved dog,” she said. “He’s a gentle giant.”
I noticed that she was wearing an SF/SPCA staff shirt, so I asked her to guess where Cooper came from. She pondered for a few moments. “ACC,” I told her, “The SF/SPCA declined him – he failed the behavior test, including dog-to-dog. See how aggressive he is?” I pointed to the floor where Cooper was now lying down, nose-to-nose with another tiny Chihuahua that belonged to the store’s manager. “He was on death row until Rocket Dog pulled him out.”
She shook her head, obviously somewhat embarrassed. “I’ve worked at the SF/SPCA for 10 years, but in the last couple of years it’s been really tough,” she explained. “I stay for the animals, but I disagree with a lot of their policies, especially about pit bulls. They won’t even look at a pit bull – they take two at a time just to keep the advocates happy, but they’d take none if they could get away with it. San Francisco is not a pit-bull- friendly town, and unfortunately it starts with our very own SPCA.”
In Cooper’s case, she couldn’t have been more right: the SF/SPCA hadn’t even looked at him. When I got his paperwork, the results of the behavior assessment from ACC were shocking: “Large and strong. Tense and aroused in kennel. Dilated pupils. Jumping up. Once out of kennel he remained tense and somewhat frantic on leash.”
The results had no similarity to the dog I knew. Of course he was frantic on a leash – he’d spent two months in a jail cell without so much as a walk.
The assessment went on: “Did not associate with tester in yard. No interest in toys. Passed food test. Passed startle test. This dog did not settle. He was unpredictable. Failed dog/dog. This dog did not lunge and bite. Approached and retreated with smaller male dog.”
It was obvious the ACC tester herself was tense – Cooper isn’t an easy dog to handle if you’re not used to big, strong dogs.
The notes wrapped up with the most shocking words of all: “I was sitting on the floor. He came and licked my cheek twice and gave me a slight ‘warning nip’ with his teeth that left a red mark. This is an unpredictable dog not appropriate for adoption here and not appropriate for a rescue.”
Below the ACC assessment was a note to hold him for an SF/SPCA behavior check, but that never happened. The SF/SPCA notes read: “Declined based on ACC notes – ‘dog/dog, nip, unpredictable.’”
Just like that, an untrained dog tester at ACC and an SF/SPCA behavior staff that couldn’t be bothered had condemned Cooper to death.
The name of the ACC tester also rang a bell: Betsy. I went back through my research and realized that Betsy was the same person who failed “Butterscotch,” the border collie featured at the end of the scathing June 2008 SF Weekly article, “A Time to Kill.” At that time, Rocket Dog founder Pali Boucher trusted Betsy, assuming she knew what she was doing. Betsy’s notes on Butterscotch were similar to her notes on Cooper. Unfortunately, Butterscotch was not as lucky – she was euthanized.
After the Butterscotch incident, Pali began having dogs retested in front of her. When she participated in Cooper’s second test, she saw none of the behavior noted by Betsy. She placed a hold on him and, after three other foster homes fell through (“You said big, but I had no idea how big!”), Cooper came home with Jazzy and me.
I didn’t know who to be more angry with – ACC for getting it wrong, or the SF/SPCA for not following up. This is an animal’s life we’re talking about, not a sweater on eBay. Ultimately, I put more of the blame on the SF/SPCA – they have the financial resources and a team of trained behaviorists, both of which ACC, a typical underfunded, overwhelmed city shelter, does not.
That evening, after our trip to Half Moon Bay, Cooper, Jazzy and I fell into our normal routine. The first night I had him, Cooper stood at the foot of the bed, staring first at me and then down at the mattress. I quickly realized he wanted to be “invited.” Three weeks later, we had it down: Cooper came to the foot of the bed; without looking up from my magazine, I patted the mattress; he jumped aboard; I pulled up the covers; he crawled underneath; and I tucked the covers around him. Jazzy was quite a fan of her new brother, too – she would readjust herself once Cooper was settled so that she was snuggled between the two of us, then rest her head on the lump under the blankets, which was Cooper’s behind.
The next morning, I checked my e-mail – Cooper’s photo and my foster mom notes about him had been on the Rocket Dog Web site for just a few days. Sure enough, I had a note from a woman named Kris Murphy – and she lived in Half Moon Bay. The e-mail said the family – mom, dad, 14-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son – had two older rescue dogs, a hound and a lab mix. They lived on two fenced acres, not far from Mavericks beach. We arranged to bring Cooper for a visit.
As soon as Kris walked up, I knew she was perfect – she exuded warmth and confidence, two things she would need to deal with a big, young, smart dog who hadn’t been given any boundaries or much attention since his owner abandoned him at the shelter (she had moved from Colorado, a very unfriendly place for pit bulls, but found it too difficult to find a place to live with a big dog. She left him with a friend, who left him at a boarding facility, which turned him in to ACC).
We let Cooper into the huge fenced field next to the Murphy home, and he loped around, disappearing behind trees and reappearing what seemed like miles away; just a big, red flash. The other dogs joined in and the three chased each other while Kris and I chatted. She explained that she wanted to adopt a pit bull. “ I fell in love with Daddy on the Dog Whisperer,” she said with an infectious chuckle. “Cooper’s beautiful. Mellow and sweet and beautiful.”
When she asked me to leave him for the weekend, it caught me off-guard – I wasn’t expecting to go home without Cooper.
As I began to leave, Kris took Cooper inside. As the gate was closing, he continuously looked back; and I sat in the car for a while and cried.
Over the next few days, Jazzy and I missed Cooper terribly. At night, I kept expecting to see him at the foot of the bed; the house seemed quiet and empty without him. Then I got an e-mail from Kris: “Cooper is all tucked under pink polka-dot flannel sheets with my daughter, Maggie … we would love to keep him.”
I’ve kept in touch with Kris. We make play dates for Jazzy and Cooper at the beach – with two balls, of course. When the Murphys went on vacation, I puppy-sat for 10 days. I thought Cooper would be thrilled, but the first night he stood in the garage by the door for more than an hour as if to say, “Take me home.” By the end of the 10 days, he was comfortable again, but it was obvious his heart was somewhere else.
When I brought him back to Kris, he leapt out of the car to greet her, licking her cheek with wonderful puppy exuberance.
As I began to leave, Kris took Cooper inside – but this time as the gate was closing, he didn’t look back; and I sat in the car for a while and cried.