Mongolia breeds dogs. It’s something that happens when stray dogs roam the dirt walkways — I’d call them streets, but that seems a bit of a misnomer here — with no one to ‘fix’ them. Hence, every other season or so, puppies start to join the veteran roamers, sniffing through trash piles to find scraps worth salvaging as food. Families occasionally snag one of these scrap-sniffers to tie up in their yard as their new guard dog, but many are left to the elements. This is how we found Mieko.
It was the middle of the day, but he wasn’t roaming. He was curled up next to an apartment building, protecting himself from the wind and from the cold, a fluffy ball of fur that barely moved when we approached it. We weren’t looking for a dog; in fact, we had just given up on a different puppy on the other side of town who consistently ignored us whenever we tried getting his attention. We called his name (Yoda, in case you were wondering– one of us is on a Star Wars kick); threw bits of cookie at him; would have tried picking him up if he hadn’t’ve run away every time we got close; and even chased away the bully dogs who picked on him. And still. Nothing. Not even a curious sniff. So we decided against taking this scrawny, dirty, white-furred runt of a dog because our attempt at saving him may actually do more harm than the methods of surviving he had found for himself. Maybe– by some strange irony– what we took for denseness may actually be resilience, a coping mechanism he needed to find food in that trash heap amongst the other foragers. Thus, with heaviness of heart, we bade farewell to this creature who never even knew we had said hello.
Then we found Mieko. I guess we were both still in puppy-mode because it didn’t take much discussing to decide to pick him up. [The little discussion we did have was about his name: I thought a French- or Italian-inspired name would suit him well, something along the lines of Francesco, or Alfonso, or Nico. I even suggested Kanye, after a recent hip hop kick we both went through. But because one of us was against my suggestions, and because Nico was misheard as a Japanese-inspired name, we settled on Mieko.] At least he noticed when we were around; this was a step up from the last one we abandoned. And he was just so cute, all fur and little ears and a tail that curled just so. We lured him back to the apartment with chicken bits, just arrived in a care package from the States. Like the good pet-owners we quickly became, we bathed him, set up a doggy bed area (really, we just put cardboard on the floor), and designated two bowls for food and water. And then we let him sleep. In fact, that’s all he did. He just slept. He did pee a few times, pooped once (no worms!), but then he went back to sleeping. But we couldn’t help but watch him, partly out of concern for potential health issues and partly out of infatuation. He was so small and adorable, another living being in our living space, and dormant feelings of being needed and maternalism and nurturing and all that crept up so that we couldn’t keep our eyes off him.
And yet. Morning came, and we thought it best to get him started on a routine early on: let him roam during the day (during school hours was our logic), and bring him in to the warmth of the apartment during the night. Out he goes, and immediately we feel bad. What if he freezes? What if he doesn’t eat? What if we ruined him by cleaning him and showing him good food and warmth so that now he can’t survive because he lost all instincts for survival, and it’s all our fault because we were greedy and selfish? We didn’t have to speak these thoughts. The mutual unease was enough to convey them.
Carrying our guilt, we searched for him that afternoon. We found him right where we picked him up the day before, only this time he was scurrying around, perky-tailed and alert. He even ran to us when we called! We just wanted to make sure he was doing ok… because we wouldn’t be taking him back. Perhaps it would be better if we left him, we thought. We can get him next week, when our own schedules are back to normal.
This was hard. I wanted to say one last goodbye, so the next day, I made sure we found him again. Bigger dogs were hanging around, along with the tiniest puppy and the weakest rat-faced dog. Mieko was bouncy and chipper, playing with the bigguns and the wee ones. He remembered us, and his spirit lifted mine. I could leave him now because he would be all right.
…but is it really all right? Was it right for us to want to ‘save’ or even to ‘help’ one of these animals in the first place? Isn’t that the very language I hate when people talk about my service in the Peace Corps or international aid in general, ‘saving’ and ‘helping’ the people of other countries? Is it really better to bring one of them (an animal, that is) into a warm apartment and to clean it up, to give it gourmet food, than to leave it outside, where it has what it needs to make it through the winter into spring? Which would be better? Is it out of selfishness that I long to take one in? Or is it out of selfishness that I leave them all outside, out of my space and therefore my realm of responsibility? Where does that realm even end, and why do these questions resemble the questions I find myself asking about my time here in this country? Is my experience with Mieko a metaphor for my experience in the Peace Corps? I came here with ideas and a different way of living and some cool things, but the only change is that now I’m recognized whenever I approach. Is that sustainability?
I don’t know what to do with these questions; I have no answers for them. After years of being known for anything but for a love of animals, I found myself almost crying over a puppy — a once-dirty mutt found in the streets (dirt walkways) of Mongolia, no less! — because I wouldn’t get to pet him anymore. I have no excuse, for these questions go much deeper than simple pet ownership. I am left confused. Confused, and longing, and sad.
All for leaving a little dog named Mieko.