Hal was the answer to a long list of questions I asked myself about what I didn’t want. I didn’t want ruined furniture. I didn’t want ruined plans. I didn’t want to have to clean drool stains and dog hair every day, or to worry about hip dysplasia or encephalitis. At one point, I asked my husband, who grew up with two dogs and approximately a thousand other pets, if there was a dog breed that existed that didn’t poop as often — maybe once a day? “To make it easier!” I proffered, as he responded in the kindest way possible, which was to ignore me completely, and walk out of the room.
We got Hal after eight years of discussion, one year of research, one month after we submitted our application to a local greyhound rescue, and two weeks after I returned from China, where a family visit had suddenly turned into nation-wide lockdown. When Hal arrived, he was as confused as I was about what we were all supposed to do now. He had spent the past three-odd years at a racetrack in Tijuana, living side-by-side dozens of other greyhounds in a kennel; I had spent the past thirty-odd years living with only other humans, and not a single animal. Up until that point, it did not feel natural to either one of us to include each other in our lives, let alone recognise each other as family.
Now, as my extended family in China is finally emerging from their apartments, we’re shutting ourselves in here. My immediate family, having undergone one quarantine abroad, hunkered down to see what an American version would be like. This time, instead of having three generations under one roof, we did things separately. Like many of my peers, I had worked so hard for my independence, for a room of my own; but under threat of solitude, all I wanted was all of us together.
Meanwhile, Hal and I were fast-tracked to becoming a family. Although we started off as aliens to one another, taking turns being awkward, misunderstanding each other's whines, it took two days for me to feel real love toward him, crying actual tears over how much I’d miss him when he died. (This time, my husband stayed in the room to pat my back as I patted Hal's).
In the house, Hal’s extra heartbeat was like medicine.
I’m not the only one feeling this way. As more people isolate themselves, the number of dog adoptions have skyrocketed, with anecdotal reports from around the country pointing to a surge in demand to foster and adopt pets. “It’s exploded,” said Tiffany Lacey from Animal Haven in NYC who typically receives one or two inquiries about fostering or adoption a day. “As of late, we’re getting 50-100.” The New York Times noted that under stay-at-home rules, there’s an unprecedented desire for companionship that doesn’t compromise the public safety or an individual’s health.
In fact, there are health benefits. “I couldn’t stop refreshing Twitter, and telling myself it was my job to stay that informed. At a certain point it becomes so deleterious to my mental health,” journalist Mary Childs told me. She recently adopted Demi, a little black-and-white-cookie of a puppy one week ago, when her office began asking people to work from home. “You just can’t do that with a puppy. If you're on your phone, she comes and eats it. My excess time has been sopped up by making sure she's not eating rocks or a petrified frog she's found in her backyard. My brain has something to do other than perseverating over the virus.”
Because of their jobs, Mary and her husband live in different states and travel constantly. “It wouldn’t have been moral to a puppy,” she explained, even though they both wanted a dog. But as states across the country enter lockdown and rescues are reducing staff, animals at shelters are at risk of being put down since there is fewer trained staff to look after them. Adopting a dog has become the moral choice. “It’s nothing but a virtuous circle. It improves everything for everyone. It’s rare you get something that’s good on all sides. It just makes so much sense,” said Mary.
This weekend, my social media feed transformed into a dog show-and-tell. At least half a dozen friends, including Mary, brought home new puppies, providing spots of sunshine in an otherwise bleakly monotonous scroll of doom, gloom, and ruin. All of them were rescues, and most of them were puppies who needed the kind of temporary extra attention to house-train and bond that most working owners my age can't commit to — or couldn’t, until now.
Lindsay Schrupp fell in love with Frank, a beagle mix, on Instagram, who had been dropped off at a kill shelter in Tennessee along with his littermates. The adoption agency told her he was already spoken for. So when she and her boyfriend began social distancing at home, Frank — or rather, his absence — was all they could talk about. “We were sitting here doing work during coronavirus, thinking about how nice it’d be if Frank were with us, and randomly got an email from the shelter again. They said that Frank’s adoption fell through because someone in the family had gotten sick with the coronavirus, and couldn’t take on a new puppy right now. We could actually adopt him if we wanted to.”
Frank has given Lindsay and her partner a place to focus their energies, newly warped by inactivity and inertia where the most productive action they could take was to do nothing.
“It's hard to feel like there's nothing you can do. You feel helpless in the face of that. So, getting really into trying to solve the challenge of our little idiot peeing on our rug — that in and of itself has been so helpful for my own wellbeing and general anxiety and feeling about the world right now.” Even when Lindsay fell ill with a fever, and lost her sense of smell, Frank kept her from indulging in her worst, most unhelpful tendencies. “I would have been Googling my symptoms and reading every article, and getting really scared. Instead, I didn’t. ”
And in a time of mandated non-socialising, Frank has helped Lindsay feel closer to others (albeit from at least six feet away): “I have met more of my neighbours in the last five days than I have in the last five years of living on this block. We have a lot of Hasidic neighbours, and there’s one family down the streets with kids who had never touched a dog. They wanted to meet Frank, so the kids went to put on latex gloves to pet him and feed him treats.”
“I’m now so used to having this immediate dopamine release by looking at this soft little boy’s face,” Lindsay confesses. “I'm already trying to figure out how I can take him into work.”
For dogs, too, this constant companionship has quickly become normal. But for all of us, it’s important to recognise that this is not how it’ll always be. “The way that we're all living our lives right now is temporary. Or, at least let's hope it is,” warns Tiffany of Animal Haven. “We’re living in this bubble where we’re constantly around our pets right now. You need to be upfront and honest to yourself and your rescue counsellors about what your work lifestyle will likely be three or four months down the road.” Animal Haven is preparing for a future influx of returned and surrendered animals when some owners’ post-quarantine lives aren’t as conducive to having a dog, including those affected by the economic downturn. “When people are in dire financial straits, they have to make tough decisions. A lot of the time, the animals in the home are part of those decisions. Families can't get food on the table and feed the dog.”
As puppies, Frank and Demi are naturally a lot of work. And though Hal is an adult, he is too — he’s as big as a fawn, and as nervous as one, too. He cannot pick up groceries much less his own poop (of which there are multiple a day, after which I give him big, deranged whoops of approval that’d confound my pre-pet self). But in not helping at all, Hal has been helping me in the way I need most, by giving me a willing and enthusiastic vessel for all the excess love I have for family.
I had feared that having a dog would make my world smaller. It turns out that the exact opposite has been true. These days, my world has technically shrunk down to the few rooms I live in with my husband, sister, and dog. But Hal has helped it feel like a new universe. Though we go on the same half-mile loop twice a day, Hal never ceases to find something fascinating to admire, and I’ve also begun to sniff out new things to appreciate in my daily routines.
More than that, I’ve learned how to be sensitive to what he wants, which has made me more connected, sane, and attuned to others’ needs, feelings, and fears. In a time when everything feels excessively meaningful and dire — or stupid and feckless — Hal is grounding. He’s goofy and needy, and gives me a reason to cope with all that’s going on right now.
For Mary, adopting Demi was an act that helped her contend with the seriousness of our situation while also being a proactive way to stay happy. “We’re in this shitty situation, we're in this scary time, and we're trying to find this bright spot of puppy love and kisses and hope. I may be an overly proud parent, but, somehow, at least for me, she bridges these sentiments gracefully.”