May 29, 2011

Wooti: Part 1 (more coming)

For those who don’t know, thanks to the work of some astonishingly giving friends, both old and new, I brought a dog, Wooti, back to the US from Ethiopia.  I’ve been aching to tell his story, but it was one of the most intense experiences of my life emotionally, so in the months since my return, I’ve made a habit of putting it off.  But I think it’s finally time.  So here goes...Part 1 of a still-to-be-determined number of parts.

It is easy to see how light distorts the world around us and toys with our impressions of it: the darkness of night contrasted with the flickering of sunlight through trees is the very difference between an eerie, predator-filled forest, and a wonderful place for a picnic (or in my case, as a true Pacific Northwesterner, real comfort lies somewhere in between, beneath a comforting blanket of clouds and fog…but that’s neither here nor there). 

Just as light alters our perception of the world, emotions have the capacity to warp our experiences and memories, burying them beneath darkness and shadows, or painting them in bright hues, keeping them at the forefront of our minds.  Despite the enormous amount of support and help I received with Wooti’s, and despite the fact that our effort to get him safely to the United States was successful, for me, the memory of the weeks leading up to his rescue, is one tinged in darkness, which is why it has taken me so long to tell his story.  Even though I know that Wooti and I had so many people sending thoughts and prayers (and money, and logistical help), there were many long nights spent holding him and crying, terrified of defeat, and overcome by a sense of lonliness and helplessness like nothing I’ve ever felt before.  Now that, of course, is probably really just evidence of just how lucky I’ve been, that this is among the most troubling experiences I’ve had, but, nonetheless, it is the reason that I have waited months to tell Wooti’s story—because the memory has been sucked into an emotional black hole, and every prior attempt to resurrect it has resulted in my own downward spiral into that dark place.  (And, as I said in my last entry about Wooti, not only is it about him—incredible, incredible him—but it’s about all the pain and suffering that I’ve seen and feel helpless to fix.)

Nonetheless, Wooti’s story is a remarkable one, and I want to share it, though I hardly think I’m capable of doing it justice, and I’m quite sure it’ll take more than a single entry.  It’s a story in which every single thing that can possibly go wrong, fall apart, or fail does, and every single thing that can possibly miraculously come together at the eleventh hour somehow manages to.  It’s a story of people from all over the world coming together, and committing extraordinary acts of generosity in order to save a life.  And it’s a story of a really, really lucky dog (and his human companion—me).

My memory of the street where I found Wooti was not always so dimly lit.  Prior to our the emotional jolt of our first encounter and the tremors that followed, it was actually glittering and glowing, inhabited by the smiling, laughing faces of my students and the echoes of the first time we really bonded: the memory of our walk home after my first day of teaching, kicking up dust as we sang the iconic World Cup song, Shakira’s “This Time for Africa,” (and the slightly awkward fact that most of us only knew the chorus, which wasn’t quite lengthy enough to carry us through the entire walk home, a fact that didn’t keep the kids from throwing their voices together as they repeated the chorus over and over again with undwindling zeal).  Or the memory of my favorite student who struggled a great deal with her English, but had one of the most beautiful hearts of anyone I’ve ever met.  She waited on this road to meet me every single day, with a new bit of conversational English, which she had clearly composed and rehearsed, and was nearly ready to burst until she had the chance to proudly recite it for me.   Honestly, the majority of my memories from this particular pathway are unequivocally positive—yet the darkness creeps in, and I feel a knot in my throat when I think of it.

It all started one day when I was walking home from class, surrounded by my swarm of students, buzzing around me singing songs, practicing their English, and asking questions about the day’s lesson, as always.  It was the same road I had treaded daily for weeks, entirely familiar.   But that day was a little different.  While engrossed in the emotional flutter of my joyful students, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a dog with a nauseatingly horrendous injury, lying on the opposite side of the road.  And to be perfectly honest, he was a welcoming sight. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I had actually seen Wooti once before I committed to helping him.  It was a brief, fleeting sighing, as he limped in and out of view weaving his way through the maze of shanty homes at a far distance.  But though I only caught a glimpse of him, he was burned in my mind.  I couldn’t have told you his coloring or size, or any other identifying characteristic; all I remember was his leg.  Despite the years I’ve spent in animal rescue, handling cases of extreme abuse and neglect and disaster response, I had never seen anything like it: a nearly foot-long gash of exposed flesh, which split his front left leg vertically, entirely through to the bone, and left it hanging from his body like a weighted-down rag.  It was absolutely horrifying. 

Now, I am sure many people reading this are shocked that I could simply walk away from a situation like this—he could have died, and it would have been my fault for being apathetic.  And you’re not wrong—I’m extremely ashamed that I didn’t respond immediately.  But everything is different in foreign countries—human healthcare is rare, let alone veterinary care.  Because cats and dogs are not treated as kindly as they are in the US (broadly speaking), many are not safe to approach—and even an extremely tame animal can be dangerous to handle when badly injured.  And, as I have mentioned before, in order to do an sort of work in developing countries, you must develop a certain tolerance for the intolerable.  Frankly, the sight of him caught me entirely off-guard, and left me entirely overwhelmed.  So I kept walking.  But his image haunted me, and I made a promise to myself that if our paths should cross again, I would do everything in my power to help him.

Nearly two weeks went by, and, though my eyes combed the area where I had seen him each time I passed it, my efforts were of no use, and I began to give up hope—with such a terrible wound, there was no way he could survive, I rationalized—and buried his memory away in the dark recesses of my mind, where I hid away all of the things I knew I would eventually have to deal with when I returned to the uncomfortably comfortable US.

So, when I saw him, nearly two weeks later, only yards away from me, lying in a small patch of precious shade, my very first reaction was a small amount of selfish relief—from the guilt I had been carrying over my own inaction.  I was being given a second chance at helping him, and, far more importantly, he was being given a second chance.  My eyes met his warm brown eyes from across the path, and it was as though they penetrated into my thoughts.   He immediately stood and limped toward me—directly toward me, ignoring the students taunting him and throwing rocks (I had been working with them, trying to teach them about humane treatment of animals since arriving), as though he had been waiting there, just for me.   As he approached me, my stomach turned to stone, as I saw het full extend of his injury—indeed, his bone was exposed, and his flesh was covered in flies and maggots, and it appeared to have been that way for some time, as his muscles had atrophied.   

I’d like to say that I handled this with bravery and selfless heroism, but I have to be honest—my relief faded fast, as I felt the blood drain from my body, and my first thought was an explicative.  I knew there was no way I could leave him like this, but had absolutely no idea what I could do, and also knew that if I didn’t do it, absolutely no one else would, and this dog would die a horrible, horrible death.

My students immediately sensed how upset I was, and I began peppering them with questions—did any of them know who the dog belonged to, did any of them know where I could get veterinary care or how?  They all said he was a stray, and did not know how I could help him (well, actually they all kept saying “yes,” but further questioning revealed that they didn’t understand what I was trying to ask—it’s actually a common frustration when working with students: because of cultural differences, as well as corporal punishment if a student answers incorrectly in class, rather than saying “no,” “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t know,” students answer nearly every question with “yes.”).  

As I tried to elicit answers, and my mind raced to find a solution, the dog stood about three feet from me, and the students all told me to stay away (there is a large misconception in Ethiopia that all dogs are violent and diseased—while many are, I have enough experience with animal behavior and access to healthcare that I am confident in my ability to gauge a situation—this dog was not going to hurt me).  Instead, I called to him.  Our eyes still were locked, and the tension was palpable—it was clear that each of us was equally fearful of the other.  But we were willing to take the risk.  He, very cautiously, limped closer, and I, very cautiously stuck my hand out, and after a moment of recognizing each other’s voluntary vulnerability, he sniffed my hand and licked it, and I gently stroked his forehead.

His deep brown eyes could not conceal his pain, and as we continued to look at one another, I made a promise to him, aloud that I would do everything in my power to help.  The intensity of the moment was broken by the students, unable to understand it, due to cultural differences and ideas about animals.  He began to limp back, to his spot in the shade, as the flies harassed him incessantly, but I did the only thing I could think to do—I quickly reached for my digital camera, and took a photograph of him and his injury.

At that moment, all else faded away, including my students, and I lurched into action, and began running toward the main, paved road, where I could catch a bus.  Time was short, both in the immediate sense—it was nearing evening, when everything shuts down—and with regard to this dog’s life.  The only possible resource I knew of was the veterinary school.  It was on the opposite side of town.  I had no idea whether they provided services to the public, or whether they would be capable of handling something like this.  But it was the only resource I knew, and, if this was to be like anything else I had tried to accomplish in a foreign, developing world, I knew I had to start somewhere, and they were the only people I knew of who might be sympathetic to the cause. 

Because it was the evening, rush hour had set in (yes, there is rush hour, even in Debre Zeyit), and the bus moved so slowly I was nearly overcome by agitation—the fading sunlight of dusk was creeping through the hills, almost faster than the car inching along, and I found myself nearly in tears as I attempted to maintain the obligatory small-talk with my fellow passengers, so as not to come off as a racist Farenji.  No one would have understood the panic and sense of urgency that I felt, had I tried to convey it to them, and of course that made it all the worse, until I felt the emotions erupt in an unnecessarily forceful “WIRRAGE ALLAH!” (“STOP HERE!”) when we finally reached my destination (which was, of course, nearly the last stop).

I jumped off the bus and ran to the security guard (nearly all buildings in Ethiopia are complete with a gated checkpoint staffed with security guards—good for employment, perhaps, but remarkably obnoxious in situations like this).  In my best attempt at feigning calmness (the appearance of being anxious or overly excited is almost a sure-fire way of not being permitted to enter, or granted a request, as my fruitless attempts at salvaging my 2 year visa had taught me), I showed the guard my photos, and used as much Amharic as I could to state my case to be allowed to speak to a vet (the guard spoke English, of course, but as in most cultures, a demonstrated effort at learning local language and customs goes a long way, and in a situation like this, every possible precaution must be taken).  To my great relief and amazement, after a few moments of deliberation, the guard not only allowed me to proced, but actually gave me the name of the lead veterinarian at the college, and directed me to his office. (The directions were useless, of course, as I am notorious for becoming lost and disoriented combined with the fact that I was a giant ball of nerves). 

Dripping with sweat, partially anxiety-induced, and partially from the heat, I power walked around the neatly-landscaped campus, stopping everyone to ask if they knew where the doctor was, until the person I was asking was, in fact, the doctor himself, on his way home.  I frantically told him the dog’s story (I would love to say I was the image of grace and composure, but even by then, I had worked myself into a tizzy), showed him the pictures, and asked if he knew what to do.  I told him I was quite sure the leg would need to be amputated if this dog was going to live, and that I would pay for whatever he needed.   The doctor was very taken by the photos and story (it is uncommon for people to show interest in stray animals in Ethiopia), and invited me into his office.

We entered the large, multi-story, pale cement building (adorned with the familiar “x”’ed windows to protect wild birds), and entered his large office, sparsely decorated by US standards, but otherwise, not entirely unlike an office in the US, with a desk, several chairs, and some framed photos of family—it was one of the nicest offices I had seen there (this was before most of my more intense drama with Immigration).

He offered me coffee, which I (somewhat reluctantly) accepted (I didn’t want to keep him, and honestly I was fairly emotionally fried, and knew a lot more stress was imminent).  We discussed the case further, as well as our past experiences working with animals.  He instructed me to bring the dog to the office the next morning, and, somewhat bashfully informed me that I would have to pay for the dog’s care, and that it could be quite expensive.  Knowing that in the US, amputation is in the thousands, but also knowing that the US dollar is worth more in Ethiopia, but also also knowing that veterinary care in Ethiopia is rare (and therefore perhaps more expensive), I attempted to coax a number out of the doctor, because the last thing I wanted to do was short the school, and I assumed I’d need to Western Union some money to myself.  After throwing out a few numbers, I finally got him to give me a figure—it would be between $3-5 USD, plus the cost of all medication, which I would have to purchase myself (which might be an additional $5 USD or so).  Yes, you read that correctly—I did not forget any zero’s or omit any digits.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised, considering that when I was in my bus accident, the total cost for my hospitalization and stitches was about $1 USD.  But still…that was one huge relief, to say the least (and, in an unrelated note, shows just how much of an impact we can have in other areas of the world, even if we feel poor here in the US).

At my request, he also composed a note in Amharic, asking if anyone knew who owned the dog, and explaining that I was trying to help him—at this time, I had been dealing with the Ethiopian immigration office for weeks, and was, frankly, kind of terrified of the government, and didn’t want to find myself accused of theft on top of everything else (really, I wish I had been more selfless in all of this, but I must tell this story honestly).

I asked him if he knew how I might transport the dog, and he (again somewhat apologetically) informed me that they did not have an ambulance service, but that if I could get the dog there, they would do what they could to help.  I felt bad that he was so self-conscious about their facilities—to this day, I have nothing but awe and respect for what he, his staff, and his students are doing, and the progress they are making in their community—so in addition to doing my best to display immense gratitude (it can be difficult with cross-cultural barriers, to try to determine what resources exist, without sounding presumptuous), I made a point of saying that I’ve never, ever seen an animal ambulance in the US, either.

I left his office still ridden with anxiety (and, now, caffeinated anxiety—three cups worth), eager for the next day, but also terrified. Needless to say I did not sleep that night.  I had absolutely no idea whether the dog would still be there in the morning, since he had disappeared after the first time I saw him there; I had no idea how to physically get him to the vet, which was easily 10 miles from the part of town where I found him; I had absolutely no idea how he would respond to being held or restrained; I had no idea whether the clinic would be able to safely treat him, and I had no idea what I was going to do with him after the procedure.  I just knew I needed to do something to help him, and I knew in my heart that he wanted to live. 


  1. Chelsea, please don't keep me waiting too long for Part II of your blog.

  2. Thanks for reading! I posted Part 2, but I still have a lot more story to tell--sorry it's so long!


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