Up in Central Park

One winter morning I was walking with Jane, my Pug, crossing from east to west along the northernmost stretch of bridle path. There were only a few people about, but I noticed a man pulling an ancient dog in an old-fashioned wooden cart. The dog, a Golden Retriever mix with a white muzzle, sat regally with her face in the sun enjoying the day.

“That’s a lovely sight,” I said. “Old dogs are very special and deserve that kind of pampering.”

“Yes,” agreed the man. “They do. This is Rowvie.”

“Rowvie?” I asked, thinking it was one more dog name I’d never heard.

“Yes,” answered the man. “I found her years ago in a back alley in Brooklyn. I’m a social worker and was out there one day and I passed her as I was heading home. She’d been beaten badly and looked to be suffering. I couldn’t just leave her there so I rushed her to a vet to see if he could help. Looking at the state she was in, he was doubtful that he could do anything. But if she had any chance of survival, he would have to abort the puppies she was carrying. Well, he performed the surgery and she survived and she’s been with me ever since. Rowvie. As in Roe v. Wade.”

I let her smell my hand and petted her noble head while thinking what a typically New York tale I’d just heard.

And that tale is only one of the hundreds that I’ve listened to in the course of almost thirty years of walking my own dogs in Central Park.

Looking back, how fondly I remember Anna, an elegant and affectionate formerly abandoned white Spitz; Kika, a Shepherd/Collie mix who was rescued on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, when her owner was an undergraduate at Brown; Austin, a hyper Terrier who had been kept entirely on the balcony of a Miami high-rise for the first two years of his life; Coconut, the lovably cranky tan-colored Terrier mix who’d been found starving on a beach in the Caribbean; and at least two Greyhound former racing dogs who seemed to be more sensitive to noise and motion than any of the other species around.

Now there’s Malcolm.

Malcolm, a medium-size dog with a long-hair black and brown brindle coat, had been rescued by the North Shore Animal League facility in Port Washington, New York, from a pound in Georgia where the dogs were systematically euthanized. He was about five months old when George and Bettina Nelson found him and brought him back to live in Manhattan. Now more or less six years old, he has thrived. Popular with all the other dogs in the park and with most of the owners as well, Malcolm shares his home with a like-minded cat and delights in eating just about any human food—including grapefruit sections—on offer

Malcolm also, like many Eastsiders, does his volunteering. A trained therapy dog, he spends several hours each week at Mt. Sinai Hospital’s pediatric psychiatric ward. In 2010 he was named the hospital’s “Volunteer of the Year,” beating out some 780 others. His competitors were all human.

And there’s Gracie.

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” is on the shores of the Hudson Bay and has a sub-Arctic climate. That means that local winters are very, very cold.

Samantha Haas was there with her father, Robert Haas, the well-known nature photographer; they were staying at a small bed and breakfast. Next door to the guest house was somebody’s modest residence where a skinny, neglected puppy who was barking incessantly was tied up in the backyard.

Samantha, who just happens to be director of philanthropy for the Humane Society, inquired—first of the people at the bed and breakfast and then of the people who owned the neighboring house. It turned out that the little girl of that family had wanted a dog but had become disillusioned with it. Barking was the only way the puppy knew to attract attention and—possibly—get back in the warm house.

After some serious negotiations (including a financial agreement), and getting the requisite shots, the puppy was transported to America with the Haases.

That all seems a long time ago.

For Gracie, as she is lovingly called now, was eventually adopted by Phyllis LaRiccia, membership director of the Neue Galerie, and is currently one of two very privileged dogs who gets to go to work there every day. She is pampered beyond her wildest dreams.

A Tibetan/Wheaton Terrier mix, Gracie is about two years old, and except for a few awkward weeks in the very beginning of life in her adopted country, she has flourished. In Central Park she enjoys playing with several dog pals, trotting along beside Phyllis as they walk to work around the Great Lawn, and often, just stopping to stare at the creatures in the Turtle Pond. It’s all very pleasant.

And there’s also Ava.

Christine Dennison, the owner of Mad Dog Expeditions, an organization that arranges diving and other specialized high-end adventures in remote and unexpected parts of the world, had been in mourning for two years for her beloved Alice, an Alaskan Husky who shared her life. In November 2008, thinking that it was perhaps time to consider finding a successor, she went to Petfinder.com to investigate.

On the website she read about a Siberian Husky, currently at a shelter in New Jersey, listed as a male and “Cage 4.” Christine was intrigued; the dog seemed to have an unusual black head on a brown body and clearly had been abused, possibly burned.

After a frustrating and lengthy process, the Husky (who turned out to be a female and considerably younger than indicated) was adopted in January 2009.

I remember meeting this newly adopted creature in the park and cringing at the clear evidences of abuse and neglect. Christine was to be admired for her courage but I wondered how it would all turn out.

A few months later, after an extended time spent away from Manhattan, I again ran into Christine, but this time she was with a beautiful, happy, and healthy dog who was clearly enjoying the park and all it had to offer canines of distinction.

“Oh,” I said, “I guess it didn’t work out with that other dog.” I was saddened.

Christine looked at me with puzzlement. And then it dawned on her what I meant. “Tom,” she said, “this is the same dog. This is Ava.”

Talk about some fairy-tale endings!

Of course, being Manhattan, you also get to see superb examples of the best of the best of the American Kennel Club world.

Jane’s favorite childhood playmate was a magnificent Dachshund, Freyja, named for the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. The name suited her. She is a splendid specimen of dogdom.

Similarly there were many others deserving of blue ribbons spotted over the years: Ah So and Woo Ru, glamorous and often bejeweled Pugs who lived in a sprawling penthouse; a perky Havanese called Ricky Ricardo; Cody, a patrician Golden Retriever who jets between homes on Fifth Avenue and a ranch in Wyoming; Brock, a gorgeous white Standard Poodle; Rex, an energetic Boston Terrier who will play fetch for hours with his loving and patient dad; Muffin, a Shih Tzu, groomed to the nth degree and clearly a woman of substance; Murray, a noble and huge Mastiff, a cancer survivor, who now manages to deal with only three legs and his wonderful sense of humor; Red, a Shiba Inu who was attacked early on and now is painfully shy of other dogs but who seems happy and carefree when with her human family; perfect Border Terriers, the mildest mannered and least quick-tempered of all their type; an exquisite Collie, Lassie or Lad incarnate; and several noble, large-headed Labrador Retrievers, black, golden, and chocolate brown. 

There’s also Milly von Barksky who, understandably, has her own Facebook fan page. This four-year-old chocolate brown Miniature Schnauzer is one of the more sophisticated canines around. Born of impeccable stock at the Red Rock Kennels in Massachusetts, she was adopted early on by Renée Price, executive director of the Neue Galerie. Milly has traveled a great deal and knows many of the European capitals almost as well as she knows New York. When in town Milly, like Gracie, goes to work at the Galerie and is pampered and petted by everyone she meets. She enjoys Central Park so much that she has underwritten a bench in appreciation of the park’s gift of year-round beauty.

This 843-acre urban oasis is also the perfect place to check out all the new and trendy breeds as well.

What’s that? A Puggle is a Pug/Beagle cross. A Labradoodle? That’s a Labrador/Standard Poodle mix. And Cockapoos combine qualities of both Cocker Spaniels and Poodles. Candice Bergen walks Jerry, her Goldendoodle, a Golden Retriever/Poodle mix.

And speaking of celebrities, Ms. Bergen is only one of many famous people noticed over the years but largely ignored in favor of their canine companions. There was Lenny Kravitz with his Rottweiler; Brooke Astor with two dachshunds; Klaus von Bulow with his Golden Retriever; Tatum O’Neal with her Scottish Terrier.

This is Manhattan, after all, and it’s not good form to make a big deal of celebrity sightings. Look, but don’t be obvious about it. There’s a nice dog walking with Glenn Close or Eliot Spitzer or Caroline Kennedy or Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer or Michael Douglas or Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick or William Baldwin and Chynna Phillips or Dianne Wiest.

Country Life, the weekly that purports to chronicle the lifestyle of upper-class and aristocratic British life, once wrote an article bemoaning the fact that certain breeds of dog were disappearing from the British Isles. The article spoke of Yorkshire Terriers specifically and I remember thinking that if the author was worried that this breed might disappear altogether, he should spend a day in Central Park.

Yorkshire Terriers? They’re one of the most popular dogs around. My favorite of all time was April—impossibly tiny but full of personality. And for the record, just on today’s walks I also noticed an Afghan Hound, a Bernese Mountain Dog, several Cocker Spaniels, a Chihuahua, a Whippet, a Beagle, an English Bulldog, and, of course, several examples of the current dogs du jour—the increasingly popular French Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

People who live in the country or suburbs often shake their heads and wonder if it’s fair to keep a dog in the city. All that noise and pollution. How misinformed they are! Just ask Leo, the happy-go-lucky and good-natured eight-year-old Bichon Frise who drives in with John and Michele Kluger from New Jersey early almost every Sunday so that he can take advantage of the off-the-leash time (in Central Park, dogs are allowed to play off their leads before nine A. M.). It is reported that as soon as the car crosses the bridge his excitement grows. And why not? In the park he gets to explore the areas around the Bethesda Fountain, the Delacorte Theatre, and the statue of Alice in Wonderland. He has even made a new and special friend, a Coton de Tuléar named Jack. Recently, when Leo hadn’t made it into the city for several weeks and he unexpectedly saw Jack, they both rejoiced.

Leo is the Klugers’ second Bichon and his predecessor, Ivy, was also treated to these weekly outings to Central Park. Michele Kluger says, “We wouldn’t deprive our dogs of this wonderful experience. It’s a real happy confluence of animals. It’s the way all of civilization should be.”

The regulars, like Malcolm or Ava or Gracie or Milly and, of course, Rowvie, would all agree.

Issue Twenty Two