The Strays of Tangier

A stray near the beach in Tangier

It all started on our third day in Tangier when we went on a scavenger hunt into the Medina. To escape the stress of the hunt, I spotted a pet store, and me being me—sometimes I prefer the company of animals to humans—I had to go in. And there I saw a little white puffball in a tiny, dirty cage. One look in the puppy’s eyes and I knew I could not move on with my life until I rescued him from that awful place. I bought him right then and there.

But where was I going to keep him, since he would not be allowed on campus? This seemingly impossible hurdle didn’t deter me.  I was NOT giving up. I would do whatever it took to help my wretched little puffball.

Three days later I picked up the puppy, now named Morocco, or ”Rocco” for short. Luckily, my Moroccan friend Badr was willing to keep him at his house with his other dog, Sami, so that Rocco would have a big brother. Sadly, when I picked Rocco up, he was not the energetic, happy little pup nibbling on my nose I had met three days earlier.

Things took a dark turn when Badr and I brought Rocco to the vet, and from the jumbled Arabic, I tried desperately to understand, I caught the word “parvo.” My mind traveled to a scene my mother described to me of her as a child when she was in love with a tiny puppy she had rescued from a dirty cramped cage, just like I had done in Tangier. Mother’s rescued puppy met an awful end due to parvovirus, a tragedy that gets my mother welling up with tears to this very day.

“Parvo!” I felt a wrenching pain in my stomach. The rest of that day was spent racing with Badr all over Tangier with my sick little puffball, seeking help from every pharmacy and veterinarian we could find, all in vain. Because of the holiday of Eid, everything was closed. Realizing we weren’t going to get anywhere, and little Rocco was only getting sicker, we decided to take him home and bathe him and try to de-flea him, as he was covered from nose to tail with them.  He enjoyed the warm bath and the hairdryer, and Badr and I,  exhausted from the terrible day, fell asleep together on the couch. When the time came for me to get back to campus before curfew, I said goodbye and gave this little creature that filled me with so much love, a kiss, and an encouraging message, telling him he would get better. That was the last time I saw that little love above the ground.

When I awoke the next morning to a devastated message from Badr, I cried and cried until I had no more tears left. I tried to keep reminding myself that at least Rocco was loved and warm in the end, that he died in the arms of a selfless human being, feeling the sincerity in the beat of his heart. At least he got to know love, and so did we, if even for a short time.

Badr and I buried Rocco in the pet cemetery of Tangier. We made him a dignified grave, and we followed my Jewish tradition by leaving rocks on his grave. I was like a mourner at a funeral of a dead prince. Comfort came to me as Badr tried to comfort me by pointing out the other gravestones:  “Look over there! ’Fido, 1781’, and ’Fefe, 1892.’ “  Looking around the little graveyard, I felt at peace knowing he was not alone. I was finally able to leave Rocco behind after Badr’s kind words: “You know, I think that there is a world we cannot see. I think that Fido, Fefe, Rocco, and all the other dogs in here are running around together having a wonderful time, but it looks different to them. There are flowers everywhere. We just can’t see it.” And with that, my tears temporarily dried. I returned to campus thinking that was the end of my little dream.

I again was wrong, this time in a good way. A few days later, I had my first class with a man named Tony David who struck me as very eccentric, as he rode his bike down the winding streets of the medina,  blending into the chaos. We went to meet aspiring local filmmaker named Anas, who while very interesting, smoked so many cigarettes I had to leave.  Tony walked me back to campus, and as my asthmatic lungs recovered I told him about Rocco, and the impact he had on my life. Tony suggested a new perspective that hadn’t yet crossed my mind. “Your mind and your heart were in the right place,” he said. “You lost that life, and that’s tough, by why is that stopping you from saving another puppy?” At once, his words sank deeper and deeper into my mind, until they made more and more sense. I knew what I had to do.

My first idea was to march back to the same sleazy pet store and demand another dog. But Badr told me about this extraordinary woman he knew named Salima Kadaoui who ran a sanctuary for the abandoned, damaged, yet so loving strays of Tangier.

Over the phone, Salima told me something shattering.  “I’m very sorry for your terrible loss,” she began. “ But don’t go back to that pet store!I know it’s hard to leave the animals in there, but we cannot keep contributing to this epidemic.” She went on to tell me what I wish I had known before poor Rocco. “Those places are EVIL.  They take the puppies away from their mothers when they are way too young; their immune systems don’t even get to finish developing yet, and then the store owners have parvovirus in their shops. They are aware that the virus stays in that environment for a year, and they continue to put more animals into it, to unavoidably end up dying a slow and painful death due to parvo.”

Tears welled in my eyes. “What can I do to do my part in helping these animals? There must be something I can do!” I pleaded with her desperately.

“We are doing everything we can here to help this problem,” she told me. “Please come down to my sanctuary; I’ve got 264 dogs—all amazing animals, all in need of loving homes, all vaccinated and spayed, so they are healthy. All I ask is that you will love my animals forever.”

It was a quest I had no doubt I could pull off. I decided I would make the trip to Salima’s sanctuary to find my soulmate among 264. We made plans to leave at 8 am the next morning. And that is when my life took a turn I hadn’t thought possible just the day before.

Erynn Mills is a Marine Science major at the University of New England.

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