Grant Hayter-Menzies is the author of From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division (Potomac Books, November 2015) and is donating a portion of each book’s sale to Nowzad Dogs, a nonprofit that reunites soldiers who served in Afghanistan with the dog or cat they adopted while deployed.
The very word has a mournful look, like a raindrop slipping down a windowpane. It conjures the unwanted, the rejected, the lost. But “stray” is also one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Because what is lost can be found.
The list of famous formerly stray dogs is especially long and golden.
Laika, a clever mongrel picked up off a Moscow street, her life sacrificed in 1957 for Russian space research. Hachiko, who waited faithfully for twenty years at a Tokyo train station for his dead master’s return. Owney, who went from the streets of Albany, New York to become mascot of the United States Postal Service, his fuzzy face placed on a Forever stamp in 2011. Benji, immortal star of Hollywood films, played by a stray retrieved from the Burbank Animal Shelter.
There are also the strays who went to war.
It is tragic that animals, from pigeons to horses, elephants to camels, have never had a choice about conscription into human conflict. Yet had it not been for some courageous stray dogs, human soldiers might not have survived, physically or emotionally, to fight the battles and win the wars that altered the course of history.
Consider Sergeant Stubby, bull terrier mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th (Yankee) Division, who went from wandering the grounds of Yale University to serving in the trenches of France in World War I, saving lives and hearts of countless American men while risking his own. And Smoky, the diminutive Yorkshire terrier found in a New Guinea jungle, who helped build an airbase in the Philippines during World War II and lived to became the world’s first therapy dog. Or Nowzad, the scarred street-fighter of the Afghan town of that name, who trespassed into the barracks and the heart of Royal Marine Pen Farthing and inspired the founding of a charity that helps soldiers rescue the companion animals who rescued them during dangerous tours of duty in the Middle East. And there was Rags, mascot of the First Division, whose life was all about how a stray became a star.
From scrounging in the alleyways of Montmartre, nightclub district of Paris, avoiding the boots of policemen and the tipsy stumbling of tavern patrons, on Bastille Day 1918 Rags followed two American soldiers into the history books and into the memories of the Great War’s survivors. During the crucial battles of Soissons, Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne, Rags learned to run messages through gunfire, locate broken communications wire for the signal corps to repair, alert troops to incoming shells, find dead and wounded soldiers, and bring constant inspiration to men with little to hope for in the bitter last days of the war.
When I first visited Judy and Jay Butkus, members of the military family which cared for Rags after he was smuggled to the United States on a hospital ship in late 1918, Judy put two objects into my hands.
One was a photograph of Rags, set in a silver frame, long a treasure in the family’s collection of Rags memorabilia. The other was a copy of a typed poem, “A Dog’s Prayer to His Master,” by Capt. Will Judy (1891-1973), which Capt. Judy had given to Rags’s human family.
In 1928, when Rags was riding the fame of rediscovery as the mascot of the First Division and living at Governors Island, New York, Capt. Judy helped establish National Dog Week. A great lover of dogs of all kinds, Capt. Judy was publisher of the The Dog Encyclopedia and of Dog World Magazine. National Dog Week, typically celebrated in the last full week of September, was part of a concerted effort by dog people across the nation to make the best possible world for man’s best friend through the promotion of seven objectives. One of these, #2, addressed the problem of stray dogs and is the only one to do so, though it stands out all the more for this reason.
Capt. Judy, who had met Rags and knew that he had begun as a street stray, surely had him in thought when he founded National Dog Week and, too, when he wrote “A Dog’s Prayer to His Master.” Capt. Judy’s “Prayer” is a plea from a faithful dog that his human guardian be at least as faithful and responsible as his dog always was to him—a prayer that to a stray might have all the more meaning, since its unwavering devotion had not kept it from abandonment in the streets. Yet like every dog, it still had hope, another of the peculiarly distinctive virtues every dog manifests, a virtue from which humans would do well to learn.
Rags’s life speaks to the wider story of the courage and compassion humans and animals are capable of showing each other, from battle to battle and heart to heart, across oceans and across time, and it speaks to the lives of strays today. In every animal shelter there is a Rags, a Nowzad and a Smoky, veterans of the battle for survival, soldiers whose courage and search for love have never failed. My own dog Freddie, saved from abuse in a puppy mill in 2010 and dedicatee of my book, is one of these inspiring veterans. His example led me to write about Rags; his joy in living and his forgiveness of all that humans did to him are a daily dose for me of what it means to be fully alive, and of how much better I can be as a compassionate human being, if I only live up to what he expects of me. As Capt. Judy’s dog asks of his human:
May he be open faced and undeceptive as I am;
may he be true to trust reposed in him as I am to his.
Give him a face cheerful like unto my wagging tail.
Give him a spirit of gratitude like unto my flicking tongue.
Fill him with patience like unto mine that awaits
his footsteps uncomplainingly for hours…
O Lord of Humans,
make my master faithful to his fellowmen as I am to him. . . .
Make him as good a man as I am a dog;
make him worthy of me, his dog.
Make us worthy, indeed.