Silent Barks, Fleeting Freedom

November 22, 2008

Think of Florida, and sprawling tourist venues like Walt Disney World spring to mind. But there was a time when Disney and its imitators didn’t exist, a time when quirky mom-and-pop tourist attractions dotted out-of-the-way places.

One of them rose today from the recesses of my long-ago life. Maybe I thought of Dog Land because of dogs parading past my home office window (Portland residents are dog crazy). Or the desk photo of Rogue, one of the two Labrador retrievers that shadowed me as a kid.

Dog Land was in Fanning Springs, where U.S. Highway 27 crosses the Suwannee River. My family often stopped in Fanning Springs on six-hour drives to Tallahassee from Maitland. We’d gas up the station wagon, gaze at the river, maybe get an ice cream cone, and then head on our way. In those days, Highway 27 was a major north-south route; Interstate 75 existed only in engineering drawings.

We had passed Dog Land many times. On one trip in the early 1960s, we stopped there. Why remains a mystery. But the visit produced my life’s sole heroic act. Or was it selfish cruelty?

Dog Land featured one hundred breeds in kennel cages strung together beneath Spanish moss-draped live oaks. Each breed had its own informative sign. The world had many dogs I’d never heard of, some with exotic lineages.

My two brothers and I wandered from pen to pen, glad to be free our of parents. Up ahead came the relentless racket of a dog leaping against its chain-link door. As we reached the pen, I realized the dog was barking. But the bark was half whisper, half laryngital croak. The sign said it was a basenji, an African barkless dog whose ancestors were favorites of pharaohs.

Every time the dog jumped, it stared at me, yearning in its eyes. I knew what I had to do. I lifted the clamp that kept the pen door closed and moved on. A few minutes later, I heard a commotion. Dog Land personnel were chasing the basenji, which abruptly changed directions every time they got close.

I had done a noble thing, hadn’t I? Beneath the canopy of trees I had rebelled at age twelve against the rules and busted out of jail a dog longing to be free but unable to bark out its desire. When I lifted the clamp I liked the way my brothers looked at me with unease and admiration. Even more I liked the raw power I had bestowed upon myself.

As we walked to the car, the basenji was led back to its cage. I began to worry that I wasn’t a hero at all. To make myself feel good, I’d given the dog a taste of freedom, sentencing it to a permanent state of longing.

Now, decades later, I conjure up a hazy image. Maybe in reassembling the chase scene, memory tricks me into seeing what I want to believe: the dog was smiling.

UPDATE: An Arizona writer and onetime gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, Will Shetterly, wrote the 1997 novel Dogland, based on his childhood experiences at Dog Land. His parents started and ran the attraction. In an email to me, Shetterly writes: “I have very fond memories of that basenji. Her name was Bambi.”