The South is another place entirely. It only seems to adhere to this continent; actually, it is a hologram, and exists in some other space-time continuum than the rest of the country. It has its own customs, codes, language. It is the place where you see trucks wearing bumper stickers that say Lee Surrendered--I Didn't. And I say this, I want you to know, as someone whose youth was given over to romantic mooning about the Civil War. My allegience then, corrupted by six too many readings of Gone With the Wind, was on the side of the embattled boys in gray. (I never wanted to be awash in crinolines, either; I was always a soldier in my fantasies, which were stoked by monthly infusions of Civil War Times Illustrated.)
The South has another attitude toward animals, too. It is the old, rural, impoverished attitude toward animals: let them fend for themselves, I ain't spending no money I don't have on them. So they go unspayed, and they go roaming. The rest is as you imagine.
I visited Barbour County, West Virginia, last spring to see whence Nelly sprang. I mean that literally, too. She bears the blood of the South in her veins, for she is a little Rebel.
Barbour is the second poorest county in one of our poorest states; maybe this is like saying a restaurant is the second best in the mall's food court. Or do I mean second worst?
An omen appeared as I was driving for the motel where I would spend the night after meeting with Dot Hayhurst, a founder of Animal Friends of Barbour County, the rescue operation that took over the local pound and in whose basement Nelly spent her first days of life. Up in the distance I saw a black spot by the side of the road. As I drew closer--and did so fairly quickly, as I was booking 70 mph on a four-lane highway--the spot turned into a dog. It wore no collar. I knew what was going to happen next. Not having anywhere to go, it went where it was facing. Cars went by before and after, because the angel of dogs had improbably chosen that moment to fly over.
The angel has too much work to do in West Virginia. The dogs who don't make it all the way across, or who break their chains, or who limp away, or who are pushed out of moving cars, sometimes make it to the doors of the too few people who are willing to help them. But sometimes the rescuers, with forty dogs already in their porches, pens in the yard, doghouses that speckle their property, and more dogs coming in every day, start looking like the people from whom other people feel compelled to rescue dogs.
More come all the time because often, people in the South either don't have the money to fix their dogs or think it's a good idea to let dogs have their "fun." The puppies that result can then be shot by the animal control officer, who is misnamed because he is really the animal execution officer, the bulk of his job being to operate the gas chamber or go out on calls with his gun and plenty of bullets.
Nelly's mother was living, if it can be called that, on a property with dozens of other dogs; how many, the "caretaker" surely never knew. The dogs were living in junk cars, under porch stairs, in an abandoned house. Nelly's mother was a sad, frightened border collie mix. Who Nelly's father was, no one was sure until one day, the mystery was revealed to me.
The day after the place was busted, Nelly's mother gave birth inside one of the cages that had to be piled in the yard of the pound, which had only a handful of runs inside, even though the county routinely produced scores of strays every week. That was what the gas chamber just outside was for. But when Animal Friends took it over, they became a no-kill facility, and on this day they suddenly had so many dogs they had nowhere to put them but in the yard. Another bitch gave birth that first night, too, and so Dot was called upon to take two litters into her home. Nelly's mother and her new pups went downstairs, where a plastic kiddie pool would be their den.
Nelly's mother came to a bad end. I don't like to think about it, because then I have to get all angry at ignorant people who don't understand about undersocialized animals, and the bondedness of strays with new people, and how the precariousness of their emotions means that you can't pass them around as if they were a serving platter at dinner. Then they are apt to run away in fear and, yes, heartbreak, and spend their last remaining nights hiding behind headstones in a graveyard before finally meeting their end under the wheels of a car.
Nelly prompts people to remark that while she certainly has border collie blood, she also must have Papillon parentage, an assertion I too quickly reject. Out of pure bias; I am pleased to make the acquaintance of many a Papillon. But they are not what I had in mind for my new dog.
It was well after I returned from West Virginia that Dot sent me an e-mail. She said she suddenly had an idea, and wondered, just wondered, if Nelly's father could in fact be a dog taken in by one of her friends. She would send a picture.
The one thing you probably least want to hear about your crazy little pup is that her father is named Houdini. But I must remember that that is how she got to be Nelly in the first place: the deliverer of her genes was able to scale a significant fence whenever he heard the call of the wild, and climb back in when he heard the call of the food dish.
To me, and perhaps to you as you look at the picture above, Houdini looks like he just laid down his crack pipe. So Nelly comes by her personality quite naturally. She is not a cross of anything: she is pure Houdini, and he is sui generis.