His life as a dog

Bruno came to us on three legs, with a body bred for violence. He was our best friend and our worst fear.

By Rebecca Traister

Published February 13, 2009 11:32AM (EST)

Bruno was born, with three good legs and one withered one that looked like a chicken leg, on the Lower East Side of New York, right around the millennium. Or at least that's where and when my brother Aaron found him, shivering on the street and not much bigger than the palm of his hand. In most respects -- save the bad front leg and the fact that the nipples on his soft belly were uneven -- this puppy was a heartbreakingly perfect, chestnut-brown, red-nosed pit bull.

Aaron and I theorized that he had been tossed out by some evil pit-bull breeder because his disfigurement would have made him a poor fighter. Perhaps he'd been left to die because he would never fetch a good price. Either way, he was ours now ...  sort of. Roommates in a small Brooklyn apartment that already housed two stray cats, my brother and I could not keep him ourselves. So we did what we always do: passed him off to my parents.

They would never have taken in a pit bull -- too many horror stories -- so my brother fudged it, telling them by phone that the puppy he'd snatched up from the cold might be some kind of chocolate lab mixed mutt. He understood, correctly, that all he had to do was get the puppy to their house. Once they'd seen him, it would be all over. So it was that, several weeks later, my mother came home from our longtime family vet announcing that their beloved new puppy was a pit.

My mother was smitten. In Bruno she found a true companion, a smart dog to whom she would talk all day long. When, at the start of the day, she would tell Bruno about their plans, as in, "I am going to do the laundry, grade papers, finish the dishes, and then we'll go out for a walk," Bruno would cock his head understandingly and snuggle in on the couch; by the time she was finishing up the dishes he would appear with a ball, ready to take off as promised.

"Oh, the poor thing," people would exclaim as Bruno hopped around on his daily walks. "He's so brave!"

He certainly cut a stoic figure, especially in the days when he had not yet learned to position his good leg in the middle of his body, and so routinely fell over while charging after a ball or trying to lift a back leg against a tree to pee. But we knew that he was not suffering; he had been born this way, had never known an easier physical existence. And with his front flipper, he could kick a soccer ball, prop himself up on the couch, bite his nails.

The truth was, if he'd had four legs, he could never have been my parents' dog. My mother, especially, with arthritic joints and a bad knee, could not have managed a full-strength Bruno. And of course, had he four limbs, we would have had to reckon more directly with the fact of his breed. Bruno's deformity gave my family the loophole it needed to forget that it had taken in a small weapon.

Even with his bum leg, it was hard to entirely banish the thought. Once he was fully grown, his sheer physicality -- the part that wasn't shriveled and misshapen -- was arresting in its strength. Bruno's mouth, when open for one of his frequent yawns, resembled nothing more than Bruce, the mechanical great white shark from "Jaws." His was a gaping maw, full of sharp teeth. His body was all solid, rippling muscle. I used to wonder how he managed to support the weight of his front end on that one leg.

The kids in the neighborhood loved him. "Careful, don't touch his bad leg," my mother would warn. That leg hurt him, and he'd whimper if he ever got it accidentally bumped or pulled. So they'd be very gentle as they happily crowded around him. I developed ridiculous theories about how his presence in their lives might better help them understand other kids who looked different from them. But I was generally ridiculous about Bruno. I loved him, and was constantly surprised by him, especially by the winning combination of daunting force and unstinting tenderness.

Raised by two bossy felines, Bruno was submissive to them. Every night while my parents read, he gently washed the ears of their elderly cat, by that point in his late teens and thin, frail and deaf. Watching the big brown pit's giant tongue delicately wash the pointy ears of a crotchety old tomcat was a pleasure. All the media hype about pit bulls was hogwash, I reasonably concluded.

Then, when he was 5 or 6, something in Bruno began to change. He was still warm and lazy, farting happily in front of a fire, a friend to cats and all guests in his home. He still got around all right. But it was clear that he was aging, rapidly. His muzzle started graying when he was only a couple of years old, and he began, early on, to have trouble jumping in and out of the car, sometimes even on and off his beloved couch. It was a lot of wear and tear, being a muscular dog on three legs. Bruno seemed to be stripping his gears faster than most of his kind.

Whatever it was -- age or creaking bones -- made him more skittish on walks. He seemed nervous and defensive, more apt to bark back at other dogs who barked at him, even sometimes to jump at a dog or a person who surprised him while he was on the leash. My mother began to warn kids to stay away from Bruno.

I understood that, on some level, he was just being a dog -- protective, defensive, never aggressive without provocation. But I was a worrywart, and there were nightmare scenarios flashing in my head, mostly involving snuggly Bruno eating a toddler.

Some of my parents' neighbors had similar thoughts. There was another pit who lived a few blocks away. Apparently one day he'd growled at a kid, whose father immediately began a whispering campaign about both dogs. He told neighbors stories about how Bruno had taken a bite out of a woman's stomach, how she'd been rushed to the hospital. We were coming to understand what went hand-in-hand with owning a pit bull, whose brave and adorable disability no longer obscured his breed. People were scared. They made up stuff.

He would never bite, we all agreed. Still, my parents began to walk him at off-hours, early in the morning and after dark.

The Christmas he turned 7, I was home for the holidays. My father and I were walking Bruno down the middle of our quiet suburban street at about 11 o'clock at night. We were chatting about something, and he was happily bouncing next to us on the leash. Very suddenly, a woman whom none of us had seen or heard walked out from between two cars, bumping directly into us. Bruno jumped, snapped. "No!" my father and I yelled simultaneously, pulling him back on his already tight leash.

The woman screamed and ran back toward the house she'd just exited. I ran after her, while my father stood dumbstruck on the street with Bruno, who was already hanging his head. The woman was terrified. She rolled up her pant leg, and there it was: one deep tooth mark in her leg. Thank god, I remember thinking even in that instant, that he had not done the thing -- the thing everyone talks about -- when a pit bull hangs on, when his jaw locks.

It is hard for me to convey how horrible, how deeply, deeply sad that night was for me and my family, and of course for the woman who'd been bit. This may sound ridiculous, but I think it was the unhappiest night of my life so far.

Bruno had snapped down on a person who had scared him, and then he'd let go. He had been a dog. But the woman had been hurt. I was sure, of course, that he would have to be put down immediately. I remember hoping fervently that the policeman who came to our house that night wouldn't take him right away, that we would be able to have our family vet come and do it peacefully.

As it turned out, the cop had no intention of taking Bruno away. He responded to a lot of dog bites, he said, and told us that it was good that the animal had been on a leash. The woman had walked into the dog, not vice versa. The bitten woman herself was, understandably, less warm. She sued my parents, who luckily were insured.

Insured until that incident, that is. After that, they had to take out special, expensive, dangerous dog insurance, which only covered their property. Bruno could no longer take walks. Instead, my mother would throw the ball for him in their large backyard for 20 minutes twice a day, and he would charge around, chugging up the hills and careering wildly back down again. It was better exercise than his languorous neighborhood strolls, more fun for him too.

But still, it was a marker of a new age with Bruno. The time after he bit someone. Back in New York after the holiday, I sometimes stayed up all night worrying about that dog. What if he got out of the backyard gates? I thought, dismissing the fact that the one time he had managed to escape, he'd simply trotted right back up to the front of our house and asked to come inside. What if, when my new nephew became a toddler, he pulled at Bruno's sore leg and Bruno ate him? I, who loved Bruno and who wept on remembering his sad eyes the night of the biting -- the ones that conveyed that he knew he'd done something wrong, but wasn't sure how to undo it -- was imagining him as the nightmare, baby-chomping monster.

I was terrified about the damage that Bruno might do to someone, by accident. I was terrified of what would happen to my parents. Did they understand that should something happen they could be ruined? Have everything taken from them?

But I was also terrified for Bruno. He remained the most loving dog I have ever known. When I came home, he would jump and greet me, his bad leg hanging ever lower, his muzzle ever whiter. He was so smart, but he didn't understand that by just being himself, he could wind up getting taken away, punished or killed. It wasn't what was inside of him, it was the muscle and teeth of which he was made.

I began to look up pit-bull life spans, wondering how many more years of anxiety we all had in store for us.

Several years passed without major incident. After two years of constant vigilance, my nephew fell hard for Bruno, and Bruno for my nephew, who had a high chair from which huge amounts of food would fall. After he learned to walk, Noah also learned to love being jostled by the dog, doing dramatic pratfalls. He could be seen parading through the living room, a cracker held aloft above his 3-foot frame, as Bruno bounded happily after him, begging for the food but not taking it, as he could have. "No, Bruno, no!" Noah would say joyfully, and Bruno's tail would wag.

In late November 2008, my parents went out of town and Bruno came back from the kennel throwing up. The vet diagnosed his condition as an enlarged esophagus, irritated by the excitement of having been kenneled. There was medicine, doggy Pepcid. The vomiting would abate, then begin again. The vet could not tell what was wrong, except for what they were calling megaesophagus, which meant that nothing in his stomach could stay in his stomach. Bruno was losing a lot of weight.

Everyone had a theory about what was causing it. Privately, I believed, it was finally the drag of his heavy front half -- now lower to the ground than his rear -- on his worn-down good front leg. No one's stomach should be higher than his mouth.

A few nights before the New Year, we urged Bruno off the couch to go to the backyard before bed. He often needed help getting off the couch, and so we lifted him. He plopped down and couldn't get up again. Versions of this had happened before, for brief periods. This time, it lasted. Late at night, my boyfriend carried our white-muzzled pit bull down the steps and to the vet, where, after six hours of paralysis, as he was lifted onto the emergency room scale, Bruno's three good legs shot out under him, and he began to happily greet people like nothing was wrong.

Indeed, for several more weeks, Bruno would improve and then fail again, vomiting constantly. And though he appeared to be in no pain, there was no way that it could continue. Eventually he would choke, he would aspirate, he would starve.

And so in the second week of 2009, my parents took Bruno to the vet and put him down. It's something my family has done for dozens of animals -- cats and dogs -- who were in pain. But this was much harder, for my mother more than anyone. She always hates having to say goodbye, and often has not come to the vet to dispatch our companions. This time, she was with her friend Bruno when he went to sleep, and maybe that's why she has been more inconsolable than I have seen her. She says it's because always before, there has been a diagnosis -- kidney failure, cancer, extreme old age. Here, it was a mysterious case of debilitating acid reflux. But everyone who had seen the ailing Bruno in recent months, including our longtime veterinarians, assured her that she did right by him. It hasn't helped. "Bruno was my friend," she told me a few days after he was gone. "I talked to him about a lot of things. I miss him."

I miss him too. Terribly. I cannot believe that I ever fantasized about his death, so great an absence has it created in our family, and yet, it's true, there is an alleviation of anxiety. When I stopped by my parents' house recently, I instinctively looked at the backyard gate to make sure it was closed before remembering that it didn't matter anymore.

Part of why he made such an impact on us, I think, was that we unconsciously surmised there was something poetic and complicated and sad about Bruno's daily existence, as happy as it was.

We spent a lifetime with someone who was born in the wrong body. And I don't mean his bad leg, a deformity that happened to gain him a home with a big backyard, a king-size bed and a family of people and cats who liked to sleep late.

I mean that Bruno -- and many animals like him -- was born into a body that had been bred for violence but had a soul made of treats and naps. His brutish shell housed a softhearted boy, a gentle guy. I agree with all those neighbors who used to call Bruno brave, though not because he lived his days on three legs. Bruno was remarkable because he spent his life wrestling not with the other dogs who were his biologically destined combatants, but with his biological destiny itself. Good boy.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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