It was my second year in South Korea. The moulding gold 1998 Daewoo Matiz was sitting outside, a matter of days into its last life as the Freedom Machine of a heavy footed foreign girl. I had been up the dank steps to the Korean Animal Protection Society’s dog shelter hundreds of times, but this time I was on a mission.
The plan was to foster. Now I had my freedom machine my first act was to fill it with dogs…well two anyway. I had a long term plan: to foster and rehome as many dogs as possible. And the plan centred on picking the ugliest and oldest of the bunch that nobody else wanted. I got it half right.
The dog shelter was always loud. The large central room held 30 or so dog cages. To my left were two 9 ft square open rooms where the dogs ran around freely. There was a long corridor, open to the light on the right where I spent most of my time, volunteering to groom the dogs. Upstairs was another small dark room with a fan in the roof and large metal barred cages for the bigger dogs, with a small roof space outside.
There was nothing about this space that a westerner would recognise. Our carefully designed, glass fronted rooms were the Hilton compared to the best that a South Korean animal rescue could offer then.
In every cage there was a dog, the breeds were different to those we find at home, no Staffies or Jack Russells here. The small cages were filled with brown Poodles, yapping Yorkshire Terriers, white Maltese and Shih Tzu’s. Upstairs you might find the odd Golden Retriever or Border Collie, but more often Huskies, Great Pyrenees and Korean Jindos.
The second room on the left was home to the ‘best’ dogs. So defined by the shelter’s manager, Miss Yee. 25 Years with the animal shelter and 10 in charge of the dog shelter but Miss Yee was most definitely a cat person. 8 at home and another 5 in the office, but she loved dogs, and was patient with them. If she took a fancy to a new dog, it might go into this room. It was filled with the calmest, nicest, cutest dogs. Well that was the plan.
In reality the room was filled to overflowing with dogs that she just wasn’t ready to let go of, and certainly not to just anyone. If you fit her criteria, you might get a pick of the best, maybe. But to the average visitor all of this was unknown. Looking down through the glass window you just saw a mass of small bodies, jumping, barking and often fighting. A terrifying sight to most Koreans, perhaps that was part of the plan.
It was to this room I went to commence my search, and almost immediately I found a winner. Sitting away from the crowd by the door sat a small skinny hairless dog. Her skin was red and, to be honest, she looked downright bored to be there! She looked upon the other dogs, barking and jumping with excitement at the door, with disgust.
She looked like a winner but I wanted to meet her. Miss Yee agreed that she was a nice dog, but very ugly. Nobody would want her, so it was Ok for me to take her.
Miss Yee braved the excitable mass and with a swift dip and swirl the ugly little dog was swept up into her arms and on her way out.
I had a look in the cages to see if anyone else looked about right, and that’s where the plan got a bit messy. Inside a cage by the door sat a tiny white Maltese puppy. With two pointy ears sticking up that she hadn’t quite grown into and an adorable head tilt, she had me beat.
We took the pair out into the corridor and set them on the floor. The puppy was up and sniffing in no time, exploring and peeing all over the place. The other dog just took one look and sat down. She watched the puppy with a disdainful disinterested gaze, you could almost hear her, God! What’s the point! It all smells the same anyway!
‘What breed is she?’ I asked.
‘Shih Tzu’, said Miss Yee.
Shih Tzu: Lion dog, Chrysanthemum dog, foot warmer of Chinese Emperors. Legend has it that these small hairy (not furry) dogs were bred as companions for Chinese royalty. Small and cosy they were bred to be ever constant. But very few survived the Chinese revolution. They say that all of today’s Shih Tzus are bred from the only seven that survived. I’m not sure how much of that is true, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if you told me this little dog was a direct descendant.
That day was Wednesday. I wanted to make sure I had time to get them used to the apartment before I went back to work, so I wasn’t taking them home until Saturday. The little puppy went back into her cage and the ugly Shih Tzu was doused in iodine, in the hope that it would start mending her skin, and sent back into the room with her rowdy friends.