In addition to more than four miles of pristine beaches and one of the largest botanical gardens in the former Soviet Union, Batumi, Georgia—the “Las Vegas of the Black Sea”—is home to a diverse collection of pitiful-looking street dogs. I’m a Dog Lover, so when I first got here, the sight of these poor creatures lolling around looking for affection was pretty depressing.
But it’s amazing what a little sunshine and sea breeze can blind you to. After a while, I’d not only become used to seeing the dogs, I’d grown to love them. Or at least name them, which is the first step toward loving them. They were pets I didn’t have to take care of: Dirty Harry, always goofin’ off in our neighborhood; Shashlik, a little reddish waif who lives on a bean bag and guards the boardwalk with her life; Shoti, Skinny, Sally, Rustaveli and Khachapuri. Even if their names were made up, the bonds between us were real. Within weeks, I knew more dogs in Batumi than I did people, which is not all that surprising since, as I said, I’m a Dog Lover.
As I was growing up, my family always had dogs—rescues, specifically. And we loved them the way only real dog people love their rescues: as if they were damaged children we’d pulled from burning buildings or the clutches of unhinged derelicts. Our dogs would never suffer again for the rest of their happy little lives, so help us god. They would be spoiled and lazy and we would love and photograph them to death.
To be fair, they’d earned it. At least according to the dog psychic, a woman with fake abilities to whom my mom paid real money. But you didn’t need to pretend to whisper to our dogs to know they’d seen some shit; their neuroses were as plain as the noses on their precious faces.
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A pin-drop could send Beau the three-legged Collie high-tailin’ it to the next town over. (He did like to be vacuumed, though, so figure that one out.) Iggy, a dwarf-ish Wheaten (my best guess), struggled with (among other things) separation anxiety, an eating disorder and a loyalty to my mom that bordered on tragic. You’d often hear him weeping at the door if she stepped outside for more than eight seconds, which she did less and less frequently while he was alive, preferring instead to stay home with him because hadn’t the sweet baby already been through enough? (He had a pellet lodged in his leg, so the answer is yes).
Ollie the Old English is the most well-adjusted dog we’ve ever had, which is astonishing considering that his skin was infected and he was covered with ticks and fleas when we picked him up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in southern Missouri. A year later, when we took him to meet his new brother Bruce—a little beast who looks like the result of a lightning bolt hitting a dumpster and bringing the contents to life—Bruce growled at him and bared his three rotten teeth. “We love him!” we said, scooping the greasy thing into our Dog-Loving arms.
Bella, god love her, has about two brain cells and one’s always fizzling out. She has no idea who we are, but we’d lie down in traffic for her.
Still, it’s remarkable how quickly they adjust. At this point, neither Ollie, Bruce nor Bella will eat their food until my dad sprinkles it with green bean juice and essence of blueberry. I suppose it goes without saying: our dogs are the greatest dogs of all time. No one can explain how we got so lucky, not even the expensive medium, but we did—end of story.
So, I’m not unsympathetic to Batumi’s strays, and in the absence of human friends, I guess it’s nice having a handful of reliable canine buddies around. I was thinking about this the other day when a large, devastatingly ugly mongrel ran up to me, nuzzled my hand and broke my heart. Then she looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t worry, Jon. I’ll be your friend if you’ll be mine. Take me home. Love me.” At which point I saw what I had become—a monster—and hated myself for it. I knew I wouldn’t take her home. How could I? I’m living in an Airbnb. “I’m a stray, too!” I wanted to explain. “And a Dog Lover!” But there were people around.
So I did the next best thing: I scratched her head, apologized profusely for not being able to do more and begged for forgiveness forever and ever. Then I named her.