Most people who were adopted have no memory of the process. I can't imagine what those conversations were like between the children and parents the first time each child discovered what adoption was. As I was almost six years old when I came to the US, it was crystal clear what was happening and my life was changing forever. The lists of positives and negatives from the international adoption experience are too numerous to list here. I would like to focus on a positive resulting from this experience and how it has shaped who I am today. I would like to think it makes me a better person, but it also means I am vulnerable to being taken advantage of. There is no such thing as purely positive, or purely negative in my book.
One of the areas where I know I have been profoundly changed is in pet ownership. I grew up in an Old English Sheepdog household. They are great dogs. My mother has had two of them and would still have them if they weren't such large dogs. My parents are getting older and having large dogs is just becoming more of a risk than the joy of having that breed is worth. They now have two Tibetan terriers that are basically miniature sheepdogs with tails. I think my mother is like many pet owners. They have an idea of the kind of dog they want, and they go select a breeder, or go to the pet store and get one. I have had three dogs in my lifetime as an adult. The first one was a purebred Irish Setter that I rescued from a shelter. His name was Riley and he was an absolute joy to be with. I couldn't believe a family would move and just leave this gorgeous dog behind. He was found a month later and you could see almost every bone in his body. For the first several months when people would see him I would blurt out, "I just rescued him. I'm trying to fatten him up. I did not do this to this dog." Come to think of it, I can now understand the nods of understanding. "A Korean man trying to fatten up a dog, sounds about right". Riley had that typical Irish Setter goofy temperament, but because of his circumstance he had some abandonment issues, which suited me just fine because I wasn't going anywhere. He’d found his forever home. When I got divorced, the ex took everything but Riley. I was adamant I was going to win that battle. My flat screen tv wasn't going to run while pulling me on rollerblades down Sheffield Avenue. It really is all just stuff. Little did I know how irreplaceable Riley really was.
After losing Riley, it was 12 years until I was ready to have another dog again. After an amazing Labor Day road trip to Canada with my girlfriend (who would eventually become my wife), I made the decision that this on again/off again mentality I had about this relationship had to stop. I committed to having this be the woman I would build a complete life around. And, if we were going to be the picket fenced house couple, then we’d better have a dog. My wife assumed I would want an Irish Setter and 99% of me screamed in agreement. But there was something I couldn't shake, I couldn't stomach the idea if we were to go buy a puppy from a breeder, a puppy at a shelter would not be given a home. There are still many shelters that have to put animals down because of overcrowding. I knew getting a purebred Irish Setter rescue like what happened with Riley was very slim. I didn't realize it was almost impossible. I signed up for all the Setter rescue groups and looked at shelter websites, but no luck. I also knew from being abandoned and in a shelter myself, how could I possibly turn my back on a dog that was in a similar situation?
We went to PAWS - Pets Are Worth Saving shelter in Lincoln Park, Chicago and started the process of puppy selection. My wife had never had a dog, so I wanted her to experience the joy in raising a puppy. But, it broke my heart seeing the older dogs there knowing the odds of them getting rescued were so much lower. I felt guilty because my parents selected an older kid instead of a baby, or toddler. I felt I needed to do the same thing. I felt if I were a decent human being I would take the oldest, sickest, ugliest dog there was. So, I started to look for a three-legged dog or something similar. I shouldn't have worried about this, but I wanted to make sure that my wife being a cat person, the first dog experience for her should be the best possible, and puppies are about the greatest creation ever existed. As we passed a room of puppies, there was this little black puppy with a cone over his head. There was a cuter dog, but that little girl hated my guts and wouldn't even come near me. She absolutely loved my wife. She clearly had an amazing judgement of character. My wife said since this was my idea, we probably should get a dog who could actually tolerate me. So, the black cone wearing puppy trots over and he of course liked my wife, but more importantly half-heartedly wagged his tail when he saw me! The shelter named that puppy Beethoven and it made me like him a little more, as I love Beethoven's music and the fact that he was deaf. Beethoven was okay, but I wasn't fully convinced he was the right one for us, so I said we would go think about it. My wife informed me if we spent a day to think about it, Beethoven would be someone else's puppy. For some reason, that didn't sit well with me, so Beethoven became Conrad Smith and he came home with us. We didn't get a special needs dog, or an older dog, but I did learn that black puppies don't get adopted as much as other colored dogs. He had a cone on his head from his neutering, so he did look a little pathetic. So, at least we were picking a slightly less popular dog option. We discovered that calling out "Come here, Conrad Smith!" is a mouthful at the dog park. So, we needed to give him a nickname. After thinking about it, the only sensible name for him was the Maori word for Black. If you know me at all, you would know why it had to be a Maori word. If you don't, I'd suggest getting to know me better! So, Pango, the non-Irish Setter black shepherd mix came into our lives. Exactly the last kind of dog I was looking for.
Down in Texas, we got a notification of an emergency foster situation on New Year's Eve. My wife is the Executive Director of an animal assisted therapy organization. Naturally, if it has to do with dogs, she has a strong pulse on what is going on. A tiny little puppy was found in the Whataburger dumpster in Jacksonville, FL. This tugged at my heartstrings. An innocent life rudely dumped into the trash. I knew we were going to be foster failures and keep this dog even before we picked him up. This little guy was so young (6 weeks?) that he hadn't even be inoculated, let alone named. We as fosters got to pick the name he would be known by when he would be old enough to be put up for adoption. The Maori word for rescue is whakaoranga. That also is a mouthful, so we decided to give him the nickname "Ranga". Apparently, Ranga in Maori means "Sandbank", which doesn't have as cool of a meaning, but oh well. We were convinced he was a Rottweiler, a breed I have zero percent interest in having, but after the DNA test it was determined he had 0% Rottweiler in him. He's just such a mashup of breeds where the combination ends up looking a lot like a Rottie. Even if he was a 100% Rottweiler, we still would have failed as fosters and kept him because he's about the silliest and happiest dog I've ever encountered.
I would still love one day to have another Irish Setter, but I will never go to a breeder to buy a dog. Rescuing an animal is just a continuation of the kindness my parents showed by taking me out of a difficult and potentially miserable life and bringing me over here to the US where I could have a difficult and miserable life, but with cable television! And that makes all the difference. As it is looking increasingly like my wife and I will not be able to have biological children, our family will be created by one of adoption. And I can promise you when we make the selection, we will be looking for the child who has less of a chance of being selected. Many adoptees need to have biological children of their own to break the cycle of abandonment and have something they can feel connected to. I never really felt that way because I was that older kid who didn't end up spending his entire childhood in an orphanage due to an incredible choice by a family thousands of miles away. I know by rescuing a child, or a dog who already exists in this world has its value as well and it's one I am fiercely committed to continuing.
The third picture is of the two of them doing what they absolutely love to do most, which is destroying our stuff. It always healthily reminds me of that lesson I learned from Riley so many years ago. It's just stuff. I just believe I got the lesson after the 10th pair of shoes that got chewed, the additional 15 more pairs were kind of overkill.