There, on the grassy edge of a winding path, a 3 month old puppy is tied to a post on a rusty chain. Her owner is sitting beside her on a tree stump, pounding laundry in a plastic bath.
The woman, looks up, frowning. No answer.
“Can I ask why your puppy is on a chain?”
A scowl. “’Cause she runs away.”
“Well, you can stop that. You can teach her to come when you call.”
A sulky head shake. “She never comes.”
“What’s her name?”
The puppy is muddy brown, skinny with visible ribs and a short tail. She is a Pitbull with the squinty, narrowed eyes of a Bull Terrier. The pup looks up and opens her mouth in a wide grin. Her tongue lolls.
At that moment, she is heartbreakingly beautiful.
’It’s illegal, you know. Keeping a pup on a chain.”
Her owner shakes her head. “I dunno.”
“You can be fined. It’s cruel. That chain is too heavy. Too short. That pup should be free.”
“You not listening – she runs away.” She clicks her tongue in irritation. “Anyway,” she blurts, “none of your business.”
“I can help, if you like.”
“Show me where you live.”
The shack, close by, is roughly built. The yard is filthy, strewn with rubbish. Two young children, both girls, play quietly with an armless plastic doll.
I keep my voice light. “If you clean this yard, we’ll build a fence. Then you can keep your puppy safe. And your kids.”
Surprised, she lifts her face, eyebrows raised.
“You’ll build a fence? For us?”
“Yes. But only if you clean your yard first. One other thing, when Stoney is 6 months old, you must give us permission to sterilize her.”
She’s thinking. “Sterilize?”
“Close her – so she can’t have puppies.”
“Well, you can’t afford to keep more dogs, can you? Besides, once she’s closed, Stoney will live longer. She’ll be healthier. She won’t get sick from cancer.”
Her expression is scornful.
“Cancer of the ovaries. The uterus. Breast cancer.”
“Dogs get cancer?”
“They do. And she will be calmer too, once she’s been closed.”
She speaks slowly. “So, you build a fence and then we close Stoney?”
“When she’s six months old.”
She’s careful not to appear too eager.
“I’ll talk to my husband,” she says, dismissively.
It takes three weeks to build a fence with a secure padlocked gate around the shack.
They don’t say much, Zola and Henry, but you can tell they’re pleased. This fence bestows some status in the impoverished area of Malema.
Three months later, we add Stoney’s name to our list of sterilizations. An appointment is made for the procedure. Henry agrees to bring Stoney to the collection point at 7.30 am. He doesn’t arrive. Four appointments are made and missed.
Two of us meet the couple after work one evening. We huddle on the path, outside the fence.
“You promised you would let us close Stoney after we built your fence.”
“Not me,” Henry shakes his head. “You talk to Zola. You never said nothing to me. She’s my dog. You got no right. I want pups from Stoney.”
“But you agreed to bring her to be sterilized.”
“I change my mind, okay.”
“So, you want to sell the pups? Is that it?”
“Nah. I want them for my family. My friends.”
“We already have too many Pitbulls in Sea Vista.”
“Who says? Who are you to tell us how many dogs we can have? You got too much to say.”
Temper flares. “Here’s what I have to say. We built that fence on condition you allowed us to close Stoney. If you refuse your part of the bargain, we will remove your fence. We’ll take it down tomorrow. Your choice.”
His eyes are black with anger. He steps closer. His breath is laced with alcohol.
“You want to be careful,” he says, quietly.
“Oh, please! Don’t try and intimidate us.”
He pushes me backwards into the bush on the side of the path.
“Get off our property. Go now. We got nothing to say to you.”
I step closer. Stare into his eyes. He raises a hand, threatening.
A fellow volunteer is video-taping the exchange.
“Don’t touch her! This is gender-based violence!” she shouts. “How dare you!”
He lunges for her cell-phone.
She springs away. “I’m taping this! I have everything on video.”
Zola steps between us. “He’s been drinking,” she says, in a low voice. “You better go now.”
In the background, the two little girls are sobbing breathlessly.
The commotion is attracting curious neighbours. People are gathering.
“Let’s go. This is a waste of time. We’re getting nowhere.”
One last look. Henry is forcefully shoving Zola through the gate. Stoney has her face pressed against the fence. Her tail is curled tightly between her legs. The frightened wail of the children is the last we hear.
I don’t know how long ago that was. Three years, maybe longer?
The beginning of a never-ending fight for a better life for Stoney.
Zola and Henry were bitter and brooding with a deep-seated anger that came from struggling to make a life for themselves and their daughters in an unfair world. She worked as a domestic. He had a job cleaning windows. The money they made between them was never enough. The time they had, after work, at the end of the day, was never enough. The children were left to fend for themselves until they came came home – and by then it was late and Zola was too tired to tidy the shack, cook a half-decent meal, bath the girls before bed.
Stoney bore the brunt of their misery. She was left alone, unnoticed and often unfed for days at a time. As she grew older, the children became fearful of her size, her big paws, the size of her wet tongue and gleaming teeth. They shrieked in terror when Stoney came near. When they scampered away, Stoney saw this as a game and romped gleefully after them. That’s when Zola and Henry started kicking her away from the girls. Shouting her name like a curse.
Word reached us that Zola and Henry had another dog in their yard. A big, untrained, aggressive male Pitbull, bought or borrowed from a friend. The dog’s purpose was clear. He was there to impregnate Stoney.
Before we could visit, a toddler from the shack next door wandered through their open gate. The Pitbull bit the child on his face. The child screamed. Help arrived in time to prevent further damage. The parents hurried the little boy with his torn upper lip to the clinic.
We visited the parents’ home soon after the incident.
“You should open a case with the police.” we told them. ”That dog is dangerous. It must be removed before it kills a child.”
“We don’t want no trouble,” they said.
A week later, the big male and Stoney escaped from the gate carelessly left open by kids. The dogs ran together, a pack, barking and attacking other dogs. A group of men set upon the big dog and beat him until he collapsed, weak and bloody.
Stoney hid away until she was safely caught by a volunteer who called us. “You need to come, right away.”
The male Pitbull lay on the ground, seemingly dead. Blood dripped from his ears, mouth and nostrils. Open wounds on his body.
We asked for help from bystanders. Tried to lift him to the car. He weighed a ton. ”Please help us carry him!” People backed away. Astonishingly, the dog revived, stood on shaky legs, staggered to the car and allowed us to heave him onto the back seat. We gave him water. He drank thirstily and then lay panting. During the drive to the vet, he sat up and looked through the window. Gently we stroked him. He licked our hands. His tail wagged as we took him to be euthanized. We stayed with him to the end. Another Pitbull brutally let down by ignorant, uncaring humans.
We met Zola and Henry that evening. We told them Stoney was wounded, the other dog was dead. Stoney had hurt other dogs. People were looking for her. Many wanted her dead too.
“We will keep her safe in kennels until she’s better. Until people forget.”
“Okay,” they were grateful. “Thank you.”
“One condition though. You know what it is.”
They looked at one another. Henry sighed. “You can close her,” he said, heavily.
The rains came. Zola and Henry, like so many others, had built their shack on a wetland. The water rose and flooded the shack. Shabby furniture bobbed on a rushing stream. The couple took their children to Humansdorp to be with Zola’s family until the water subsided. They left Stoney, alone, without food, in the drowning shelter.
She grinned when she saw us sloshing through the mud. We wrapped her in towels and fed her in the back of the car. She ate ravenously and then stood between us, watching through the front window, as the rain pelted down. The kennels were familiar. She skipped, happily, to her comfortable dry space. Warm blankets, good food, a quiet, safe place to sleep.
Two months later, after Zola and Henry had cleaned their yard and washed Stoney’s blankets, we took her back home. She was overjoyed. Henry met us at the car and she flew down the path, dragging him behind her, barging through the gate, rolling in the long grass. We left ample food, new feeding bowls, another blanket.
“Take care of her, please.”
“She happy to be home.”
“Dogs are loyal. They forgive everything. You look after her!”
Life returns to normal. Stoney grows bored, frustrated, desperate for attention. She digs holes in the yard. Tears a shirt from the washing line. Chews her paws. Incessantly races the length of the fence and back, barking at people and dogs walking past, wearing a track in the grass.
A farmer builds a piggery close to where Zola and Henry live. Without sufficient food, the pigs escape the sty to root in trash dumped in the open space opposite.
The sights, sounds and smells of the pigs drive Stoney mad.
She starts jumping the fence, getting out of the yard, roaming the neighbourhood, hunting for pigs.
We add a metre height to the fence but Stoney leaps it with ease. One day she bites a pig. The pig dies. The fuming farmer demands R3000 to buy a new one.
Stoney is beaten and tied up with a short chain so heavy she can barely move.
And so it begins again.
A neighbour sends a message.
“You better come. Stoney is on a chain.”
We borrow a pair of chain-cutters. She sits up, thumping her tail. Gives one of her heart-melting smiles. Waits patiently as we cut through the solid links binding her chain to a post. Stoney is lying in her own excrement. There’s a slab of old, dry porridge on a dirty plate. An empty water bowl. Litter buried deep in in tick infested grass.
This time, Stoney spends longer in kennels. Zola and Henry keep sending messages. “Bring Stoney back! Please, please.”
Conditions are set in place again. Clean your yard. Cut the grass. Fix Stoney’s broken kennel. Wash her blankets. Buy good quality dog pellets. Make a plan to walk her on a harness, once a day.
Stoney inhabits all bad dreams. She’s always there, grinning while all around her people wave sticks, water rises, children scream, chains snake around her body.
What to do? We weigh the pros and cons. Stoney is not adoptable. Never trained or socialized, she’s aggressive with other animals. She loves and forgives humans but, will she do this forever? Doesn’t every dog have a breaking point?
Euthanasia is an option. But, Zola and Henry swear they miss her, want her back, will treat her differently this time.
Henry, sends messages every week. His tone is different. Seems sincere.
“Everyone miss Stoney at home and the kids is nagging. I promise with my whole heart nothing will ever happen with our Stoney again and we all love that dog too much. You can come and check on her like you do and if anything is wrong you can take her and I’ll even sign a contract as proof I won’t let anything bad happen I swear.”
The yard is clean, grass mowed. The kennel stands upright and watertight. There’s a bag of pellets ,a clean bowl of water, a tennis ball.
Stoney runs into the yard. The kids shoo her away. Henry pats her awkwardly. Zola shows us the laundered blanket in her kennel.
“This is the last time. Do you understand that?” The unspoken threat hangs there. Yes, yes, they understand and they are sorry.
Photographs are taken of the reunion of Stoney with her owners. Conversation is difficult. We’ve said it all before.
We shake hands, a firm grip. “You promise?”
“Ja. We going to take care of our Stoney. You got my word.”
The next evening, Henry and the girls take Stoney for a walk to the beach. Granny’s Pond. She’s on her harness, safe from other dogs. The sun is setting. Henry takes her to the water’s edge.
He sends a blurred photograph of the two of them standing in the shallows with Stoney looking up at him, grinning.
A message arrives later.
“She was good on her walk and very calm and she loved it you could see and the kids were happy too. We going to do this more now I understand she needs this exercise like you been telling me. Thanks for all your efforts with Stoney and good night.”
This is not the end of Stoney’s story.
We are watching Stoney through friends, fellow volunteers and neighbours. We walk past the house regularly to pet and greet her through the fence. She is still there in our nightly dreams. Early days. So far, the yard is reasonably clean. Stoney is fed pellets and water. She runs free in the yard and hasn’t jumped the fence to escape again. With luck, she will be given a walk, now and then.
She asks so little, this small, squinty-eyed Pitbull with her short tail and lolling tongue. A gentle touch. A kind voice. Shelter indoors at night. Her own small safe space on a blanket near the door. A meal once a day. Acceptance as part of a family.
Not too much to ask, surely?
All we have left now is a slender sense of hope. Hope that hard lessons have been learned and life will change for Stoney.
And always, in the minds of all those who know her, is her smile as you approach the fence and she presses forward so you can place your hand upon her head and see her eyes shine brighter.