AJ Mistretta photos by Cami Johnson, www.oldyellersrevenge.com
|Writer Ken Foster and the Dogs Who Found Him
Ken Foster never really had much love for dogs. When he was a toddler growing up in Pennsylvania, his family had a Samoyed named Sam. But when you’re three years old, a dog is more like a furry sibling than a pet. Sam was followed by cats, fish, hermit crabs and even a pet chipmunk, but nothing else that barked. It wasn’t until he was an adult, a writer and a teacher that Foster discovered a connection with dogs that would alter his path in unforeseen ways.
By 2000, Foster had published two books, an anthology of works by writers who frequented the New York literati haunt KGB Bar and a volume of his own short stories. That fall he flew to Costa Rica for a three-month stint he hoped would inspire another book. There he finished out the year writing in a small apartment on a country farm. That’s where the first dog found him. Duque, a dog who belonged to no one and everyone, would follow Foster everywhere and, in turn, lead him to some of the most interesting spots on the farm. At midday the dog would find his way to Foster’s room for a short nap beneath the desk, leaving to check on other friends during the afternoon before returning at nightfall to slumber on a chair at the foot of the writer’s bed. “He was always there and I was just amazed by this dog,” Foster says.
When the time came to return to the states, he wanted to take his new friend back with him, but an unaccommodating airline foiled that plan. After returning to New York, Foster found he was unable to concentrate on his work without Duque there to keep him on schedule and provide companionship. He needed a dog, and soon he found Brando, a puppy who needed him just as much.
In his new book, The Dogs Who Found Me, Foster discusses several situations where he saw a dog in need of help but didn’t act immediately. Soon he realizes that the grim unknown future of those animals is too much for him to bear and he resolves to always do what he can for the abandoned dogs he encounters.
Over the first few pages of the book, Foster describes what happened several months later when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed New York. With the city streets shut down, little communication from the outside world and the constant wail of sirens in the distance, “it seemed as if Brando and I were all alone,” he writes.
In the days and weeks that followed, the duo would make their way now and then to a neighborhood firehouse that had lost 10 men in the disaster. Inevitably they would get invited in, and in time became friends with the firefighters there (Brando for his part got dog biscuits). Foster writes of his epiphany: “I watched other people come by, with flowers and contributions, and I realized how funny it was that we all thought we were coming to check in on them, when the truth was, even then, that the men of the firehouse were inviting us in because they knew it would make us feel better, not them.”
And perhaps that’s the best analogy for the mentality of those who save dogs. “It was sometime after that that I began finding dogs and wanting to rescue them,” Foster writes. “But each time I do, I find myself…wondering if I’m doing it for them or whether in rescuing them, I’m actually doing something for myself.”
The concept for The Dogs Who Found Me came about rather by accident. As Foster worked on his third book, a collective anthology of dog essays titled Dog Culture, he had some trouble concentrating. “Every time I corresponded with my editor on the book, I was saying things like ‘I’m really busy because I have this dog here that I just found when I went to the post office.’ Finally she asked me, “Do you want to do a book on rescuing dogs?’”
Foster didn’t take the idea seriously at first. Unlike others who go in search of down-and-out pooches, he didn’t consider himself a professional dog rescuer. They somehow always seemed to find him. Then he started to look more closely at the story he had to tell. “It seemed as though a lot of these dogs showed up during larger events in my life and in the world around me,” he says. “I thought maybe my experience is a little more interesting than I realized. … I wanted to explore why I feel compelled to save a dog when I see it.”
“People think that to take an extra animal into your life, especially a troubled animal, is this huge burden, a big inconvenience,” he says. “It’s really not. What’s it going to cause you to miss? Think about that, and then weigh that against what you learn from the experience.”
In the process of writing The Dogs Who Found Me, Foster says he discovered that the relationship between people and their dogs is far more complex than commonly thought. “Dogs know so much more than we do. They have this amazing intuition that we tend to turn off. If a dog is apprehensive about a person they go in the opposite direction, but we tend to investigate. We don’t trust our own instincts.”
He has trouble referring to the dogs he’s rescued as animals. “They’re characters really, both in my book and in my life,” he says. “I write them as characters rather than pets. I try to capture their language, not in a corny way, but very direct.”
Writing about Sula, a sweet, skittish pit bull he found near death, Foster at first goes to great lengths to avoid sentimentality. He talks about the dog’s slow recovery, his logistical inability to take her in as his own, trying to find her a home but seemingly never able to come across something suitable. Pages go by until he writes about a good friend offering to take Sula, then the confession spills out like so much unbridled truth. “All my efforts to avoid bonding with her had failed completely and I loved her,” he writes of the dog that would join his family. “I loved her in the end.”