People who cherish dogs will know they’re in good company as soon as they start reading Elizabeth Abbott‘s book Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash. On the very first page, she mentions spending summers with Mike the terrier and “his people.” The word “owner” never enters into it.
Abbott is an accomplished writer (and a PETA Vanguard Society member) whose previous work has focused on history and sociology. But Dogs and Underdogs chronicles a more personal journey—that of becoming a dog rescuer.
The transformation begins in Haiti, with a dog named Tommy. After a book that she had written landed her in hot water with the Duvalier regime, Abbott was forced to flee the country and leave her beloved Tommy behind. She soon realized that if she ever wanted to see him again she was going to have to risk returning to Haiti. The story of their deliverance from the turmoil of Haiti to the relative calm of Toronto is as dramatic as it was life-changing.
“If there is such a thing as rebirth, then I was reborn after I returned to Haiti to rescue Tommy,” she says. “Before that, he’d been like all my other dogs, making my life simpler and better. But then, at the end of his life, my ailing old dog pulled me right into the heart of the mystery and magic of the shared world of dogs and humans. Tommy became an ambassador for other dogs and he led me to understand that I was meant to be a rescuer.”
Next, we meet the dogs of the Trinity College–Mount Sinai Hospital Pet Therapy Program—Abbott’s brainchild—which paired Trinity students and their canine companions with hospital patients. After reading about the political unrest in Haiti, a dog therapy program might seem anticlimactic, but when Abbott recalls Marilyn, an elderly, deaf golden retriever who helped a wheelchair-bound stroke victim, it’s hard not to feel moved:
At closer range I saw that the man was middle-aged and as still as a stone. Yet he was trying to reach out for Marilyn, willing his lifeless arm to move toward the soft white furry face now so close to him. … The man compelled his arm to move and, slowly and shakily, it crept down onto Marilyn’s head where it quivered as he tried to pet her. “Thank you!” his wife mouthed to me. “Thank you!”
We also meet Bonzi, a beagle who survived nearly impossible odds and even had an annual award named after him, and some of the street dogs of Serbia. Abbott worked with others to create a rescue program called Mission Airlift, which transported dogs out of Serbia and into adoptive homes in Canada.
There are many dogs who have come in and out of Abbott’s life, and she understandably wants to honor and tell us about all of them. But the most touching moments are when Abbott lingers on one particular dog and reminds us just how deep the human-animal bond can be.
Written by Donna Albergotti
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