‘That’s not an option.’
You hear the phrase so often these days. A smug
colloquialism, it holds very different meanings depending on which side of the
utterance you happen to be on. Speak the words, and you are the victor, the one
holding all the cards. Hear them, and you are the vanquished, the clear loser
on the playing field.
Last summer, to our great dismay, my wife and I found
ourselves among the latter. Our story, quite literally, concerns a shaggy dog.
After a long search, we had succeeded in purchasing a
soft-coated wheaten terrier puppy. Possessed of long, gloriously silken,
champagne-colored hair and black button noses, these pooches resemble cuddly
teddy bears. They have the added advantage of being bright, energetic,
sweet-natured and, for the nasally impaired such as myself, hypo-allergenic.
Although my wife and I were not looking for a show dog-we
simply wanted a pet-the breeder, whom we met at last year’s Westminster Kennel
Club Show, insisted we sign a show contract. The contract obligated us to
maintain our dog in show condition, pay the expenses of placing her in dog
shows and, when the time was right, allow her to have a litter of her own pups
(all of which would belong to the breeder). Feeling we could live up to these
terms, and realizing she would not sell us a dog otherwise, I drove to the breeder’s
house on Long Island last March, paid her $1,500 cash, signed the show contract
and picked up an adorable, three-month-old female wheaten. Back home in
Manhattan again, my wife and I fell instantly in love with the little bugger.
We named her Frankie.
Periodically over the next five months, we kept asking the
breeder to countersign the contract we’d signed and return a copy to us, along
with Frankie’s American Kennel Club registration papers. For some strange
reason, she never got around to it. Nonetheless, as my wife and I bonded with
our dog, we strove diligently to meet all our contractual obligations. Regular
appointments with the vet, strict adherence to the breeder’s recommendations on
food, vitamins and dietary supplements, and frequent and laborious grooming
sessions became steady parts of our regimen. Eager to be the best dog parents
possible, we also enrolled Frankie in obedience classes and purchased hundreds
of dollars’ worth of crates, gates, bedding, toys, treats, leashes, collars,
shampoos, brushes, grooming scissors, combs, dematting tools, toothbrushes,
breath fresheners, ear cleaners, toenail clippers and other specialty items.
Our favorite product, I might add, was the chicken-flavored toothpaste.
Meanwhile, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood where we
live, Frankie became an instant smash. People would stop us to play with her
and inquire what kind of dog she was. Other dogwalkers would smother her with
baby talk and kisses. Japanese tourists would ask permission to pose with her for
photos in front of the Washington Square Arch. Even celebrities would pause to
offer admiring comments-Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garafolo and Edie
Falco (a.k.a. Carmela Soprano), to name but a few. Though no great fans of each
other, playwright and gay activist Larry Kramer and former Mayor Ed Koch were
both in agreement about Frankie’s virtues. Mr. Kramer is a longtime wheaten
owner himself, one of the very first in Greenwich Village ever to possess the
breed. Mr. Koch, spotting Frankie in front of our building one evening,
unabashedly cooed, “She’s a wheaten, right? She’s beautiful.”
Last summer, when my wife and I went away to Montana on
vacation, we returned Frankie to the breeder for boarding. What better person
to safeguard our beloved pup than the one who had nurtured her during infancy?
What’s more, while we were away, the breeder would be free to enter Frankie in
dog shows-and we would be further fulfilling our contractual obligations. But
all the time we were gone, we missed Frankie horribly (so much so that my wife
tacked a snapshot of her to the inside flap of our pup tent in Yellowstone
National Park so she would always be within sight). The minute we got back to
New York, we didn’t even bother to unpack our bags. We immediately called to
pick Frankie up.
And that’s when we got the news. The breeder said we could
not have her back.
She accused us of not maintaining Frankie in “proper show
condition,” ticking off a laundry list of complaints about her coat, her weight
and other aspects of her care. All the complaints seemed grossly and
suspiciously exaggerated. Then she offered us three alternatives:
1. We could agree to have Frankie placed with a professional
dog handler, during which time she would be gone for three to four months-and
we would be billed upwards of $3,000. Later on, we might be permitted to get her back.
2. We could swap Frankie for her sister, who was not a show
3. We could wait a couple of years until Frankie had a
litter, then settle for one of her pups.
The first alternative
felt like a blatant ploy to squeeze more money out of us. The latter two were
absurd. As any truly loving pet owner knows, you would no sooner swap your dog
than you would your child. So I told the breeder, “I don’t want any of these
things. I want my dog back.”
And that’s when the other shoe dropped. ” That’s not an option ,” she said.
After the conversation ended, my wife and I sat stunned. But
numbness quickly gave way to anger and terror. The proposition the breeder
offered made no sense whatsoever. If we had taken such miserable care of
Frankie, why in the world would she be willing to offer us her sister or one of
her pups instead?
But in the end, all our rantings and wonderings and vows of
vengeance seemed futile. She had us over a barrel. She had the dog. We didn’t.
It was as simple as that.
For more than a week, as we agonized over whether we might
ever see our beloved pup again, we could barely eat, sleep or work. In
self-defense, whenever people in our neighborhood would inquire about Frankie,
we would lie and tell them she was away for training, unable to bring ourselves
to speak the awful truth. And all the while, those four words, so arrogant,
kept echoing in our brains ….
” That’s not an option .”
And then finally, blessedly, we came to our senses. Those
words, which carried the ring of so much authority, were simply words. In our
desperation and fear, we had given them too much weight. Giving our dog back
might not be an option for the breeder. But it was our only option.
I reached for the phone.
My first calls, to the American Kennel Club, the
Westminister Kennel Club and the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America,
were a waste of time. All of these groups, pro-breeder in their sympathies,
pretty much ignored me. My next round of calls went to friends who were cops or
newspaper reporters. They offered to phone the breeder on my behalf, but I
still worried that their efforts might not guarantee Frankie’s return. Finally,
I called a lawyer.
James Sawyer, himself the owner of a nine-month-old puppy,
was just as outraged by the abduction of Frankie as we were. One of his
associates, Adam Demitri, immediately went to court and persuaded a state
Supreme Court justice to sign an order of seizure. And several days later, my
wife and I staged what I now call “our Elián González.” In the company of two
strapping sheriff’s deputies, we carried out a surprise mid-morning raid on the
breeder’s house. After the deputies slapped the breeder with the judge’s
seizure order, my wife entered the house to make the identification. Frankie’s
tags had been removed, her ears had been glued to her head to make her more
“showable,” and her hair was a nasty tangle of mats and ticks because she had
been crated steadily for three weeks. But, with the first joyful wag of her
tail, there could be no doubt. It was Frankie. My wife whisked her back outside
to our waiting car. And home we went to celebrate her rescue.
Two weeks later, we were back in court again. Now it was the
breeder’s turn to challenge the judge’s order. As all of us sat stiffly in his
chambers, the breeder-acting as her own attorney-argued that she was legally
entitled to reclaim Frankie because the show contract we had signed made her a
part owner of the dog.
To which the judge, with the wisdom of a latter-day Solomon,
replied, “Well, madam, just which part is it that you own? The head? The tail?
The paw? The left haunch?”
Glancing down at the
contract, he began to read: “The first sentence of this contract states that
this dog is sold for $1,500. Not this dog’s head, not this dog’s tail, not this
dog’s paw. This dog . Therefore, this
dog belongs to-“
Under the table, I squeezed my wife’s hand tightly.
Outside the courtroom, we wept and hugged in jubilation.
Not all the unpleasantness, I should add, ended with the
judge’s ruling. Both the breeder and I had sued each other for damages. To
finally settle the case and end the financial hemorrhaging it caused, I ended
up having to write the breeder a check.
But, in the overall scheme of things, the money seemed a
minor price to pay. The important thing was that, in the eyes of the law,
Frankie was ours. Forever. Letting the breeder or anyone else take Frankie away
from us, now or ever again-well, as the old saying goes …
… That’s not an option .