If you were a stray in my childhood, I collected you and brought you home. I wrapped you in cloth, found out what food you ate, fed you—by eyedropper sometimes, made you a shoe box with tissue paper nest, put your box by my pillow, and stroked your fur or feathers until you calmed and slept. Baby mice, baby birds, baby rabbits. Anything lost or abandoned or too weak to survive on its own. I had a place for you in my house and in my heart.
I thought of myself as an animal Mother Theresa. And I imagined if I lived in Calcutta, I would do the same with people.
My husband jokes that he was the final stray I brought home.
When we moved to Mexico, I carried my love for animals with me. Many days out on the desert ranch, I helped village children learn compassion and gentleness towards the animals they came in contact with. This wasn’t always an easy task because the outlook on animals is different there. For the most part, they provide a means to an end—food, protection, transportation. Very rarely are they coddled or adopted as a pet, especially in the villages. The people often struggle with feeding their own family, let alone a dog or cat. And without funds for spaying and neutering, the homeless population grows exponentially.
Extremes exist on both ends. Both cultures—whether we neglect or pamper. This isn’t about that. This is about what happens to a heart turned cold.
Many nights on the ranch, we cooked our meals outside, in the open air. We built fires and sat around them enjoying food, rest, and good stories from the day. Smells travel far on desert wind, and we often had uninvited guests on these nights. Strays looking for their next meal, their next comfort.
A few of those homeless dogs who found their way to the ranch we adopted and took them into our pack. But we had trouble with them eventually as they never fully lost their street sense. On occasion, they would attack the farmer’s livestock and damage our relationships with our neighbors. So, we stopped taking them in.
Our own dogs, two German Shepherds, helped with border control. We never trained them, they just lived off our cues. When a stray dog came onto the property, our dogs would determine how to respond by our actions. If we welcomed the animal, they would too. If we yelled to scare them off, the chase would ensue. Most often, the strays high-tailed it off the property. Our dogs would stop at the fence line and then return to the fire, a job well done.
When the work day began next morning, we’d shore up our fences and tighten our barrier against further intrusion.
One day, however, things went all wrong. I can still see the dog without effort, even years later. His image embedded in my thoughts. Rooted there to remind me of something eternal. The dog was a tan and black terrier cross, with desperate eyes. He came onto the property slowly. Slinking from the fence line, closer and closer to the warmth and smells and laughter of the circled fire.
When he got too close, I stood. My dogs came to attention. And when I yelled, “Yaah, get out of here!”, our dogs took up the chase. But the visitor did not run like most. Instead, he cowered. Curled himself in a ball while the large shepherds barked and nipped at him. He growled and nipped back, but would not be moved.
I stepped closer and reached down for a stone. The people taught us that if you are afraid of a street dog, just pretend to pick up a stone and they will run off. They know stones.
When I faked the motion, the intruder ran a few paces toward the fence, then crumpled again in the dirt.
“Get out of here,” I yelled with little response, except to rile my own dogs more.
In one final effort to be free of the trespasser, I launched the rock in my hand. Never had I had such precision in my aim or even considered the consequence of my actions. The stone found its mark and the crouched dog let out a yelp. A bitter cry from a heart of despair.
I froze in place. Dropped my arms and cried for the choice I had made. Maybe you think it’s no big deal, or you empathize with my heartache. Either way, think about the questions I considered …
What am I doing? How—how in heaven’s name—did I get here? And when did throwing rocks become justified in my mind?
I called my dogs off and approached the intruder. He remained huddled on the ground, but barred his teeth expecting the hurt to continue. But he didn’t move. Because when you have nothing left, how do you give up on the only string of hope you have?
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”
Then I gave him something to eat, and he never came back. But I haven’t forgotten him.
The outcast. The exiled. The unclean. Pushed to the borders and left to starve—physically, emotionally, spiritually. And we wonder why they huddle in the streets and on the corners. Why they curse and snarl, and sometimes steal. We wonder how they got there, and how we came to the place of shutting them out. Or even throwing the stone in our hand. How?
I was not who I imagined myself to be.
Why do you enter my gate when I don’t want you here? Why do you refuse to leave when you make me so uncomfortable? I have nothing for you.
Ah, but I do.
I have a shoe-box and a cloth. I have tissue paper and an eye dropper. I have a gentle hand to heal your wounds and a smile to calm your fears. And I have the One to give you—one much better at loving you than I am.
The one who removes stones from hands and hearts.
And in Him, friend—when I come to the end of my meager offering—you’ll find your hope.