The following contribution comes from Grant Hayter-Menzies, author of Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save Cairo’s Lost War Horses (November 2017). Hayter-Menzies is the author of several books, including From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division (Potomac Books, 2015) and Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton.
Almost until the day she died, my grandmother carefully gathered up vegetable scraps in her kitchen for the neighbor’s neglected elderly donkey, which lived in a field adjoining my grandparents’ property in my hometown.
This was not unusual for my grandmother. All the time I knew her, from my babyhood until my early teens, she was looking after animals, with a special compassion for strays. Just as I do not know what led Dorothy Brooke, subject of my new book, to devote the last quarter century of her life to the care of elderly, abused working equines in a society where poverty robs age of its rightful rest and dignity, I cannot begin to guess what prompted these actions, smaller in scope than Mrs. Brooke’s but as comprehensively compassionate, in my grandmother. Like Dorothy, my grandmother was brought up with a series of small dogs, all beloved in memory decades after they had passed on. Like Dorothy, my grandmother had parents who loved and respected animals. Among all the white lace and taffeta photos of my youthful grandmother in the pre-WWI days when Los Angeles was scented not with pollution but the blossom of endless orange groves, there is one I love best. Her father had invested in farmland in the Imperial Valley, and
apparently there was livestock on the property because there is my grandmother, one slender arm wrapped lovingly around the neck of a steer, a pail full of feed at the end of the other. The two dogs I knew, Cindy the pug and Scooter the King Charles spaniel, ruled my grandparents’ house much the way my own dog Freddie rules mine. Grandma saw them as members of the family, not separate beings, just as she was to be found on the front porch of a freezing morning making sure the stray cats of the neighborhood had their warm milk and kibble, because you didn’t leave those you loved hungry in the cold.
My grandmother gave the donkey next door a name—Babe. Like Grandma, she was elderly, creaky, grey. My grandmother, who had been injured in a car accident years before, had developed severe arthritis and could barely walk. You could see she was in pain, not just physical pain but the pain of no longer being able to tend her roses or play her piano. Also limping, Babe crept doggedly across her little field to the fence at a time she learned she would find my grandmother there. Grandma had an even more arduous journey to reach her. My grandparents’ house was situated high above Babe’s field, so that Grandma had to make her way through the kitchen, pantry, a summer porch and then down a flight of steep slate-paved steps to the uneven ground adjoining the field. Had she fallen, and that could have happened at any time, she would not have survived. But every day, after dinner, even when it was getting dark, she descended that treacherous flight to ensure Babe had some happiness.
I will never forget one summer evening. We’d had dinner and were out playing. I came skidding around the corner of the house and saw Grandma in the distance. She was at the rusted barbed wire fence feeding Babe from a white enamel bowl, a beautiful smile on her face, the setting sun lighting up her gray hair and the calico apron she wore, just as it surrounded Babe’s silver hide with a similar nimbus. It was one of those images that defies description, that means everything and nothing—nothing, maybe, except whatever is at the heart of love that ventures past the safe to the dangerous arena where love fights with mortality, where each day could be the last, and where moments are thus both painful and precious. Both were present in another image from close to that time. My grandmother died. It was sudden—a stroke. We children were brought over to the house to be with our grieving grandfather. I went upstairs and sat in a dormer window that looked out over Babe’s field, and I heard the most mournful cries. It was Babe, standing on her old legs in the center of the field, braying to the sky. She never came to the fence again. I knew as clearly as I know anything that Babe had lost her best friend.
Dorothy Brooke faced on a weekly basis, for twenty-five years of her life, thousands of elderly, abused, friendless working horses, mules and donkeys, from the ex-war horses of the early 1930s to the native equines which her eighty-three-year-old charity, Brooke, Action for Working Horses and Donkeys, works to heal today. She tried to save even the most desperate cases—indeed, she was known among her vets and grooms to be the only one who persevered when everyone else gave up. When it was clear continued life was impossible without suffering, she gave the sufferers something to make them happy—all the water, bran mash, sugar lumps they could take—and spoke kind words in their battered ears, and after a few days of rest, had them painlessly put to sleep. It was a sleep, she would write, that she hoped they awakened from to “a lovely green field, with trees and a stream. I always hope they find one when they wake up after we have said goodbye to them. I pray they do.” Luckily for those strong enough to recover, Mrs. Brooke’s efforts gave renewed life and, in the method that for a long time was uniquely her own, provided education and renewed hope to the impoverished men whose neglect of their animals, intentional or unintentional, was symptomatic and reflective of the neglect of their own hardscrabble lives.
A long time Egyptian female veterinarian who worked with Mrs. Brooke’s hospital in Cairo once told me, “Compassion gave her the authority to interfere.” I will never know the impetus for Dorothy Brooke’s extraordinary devotion to the lost war horses of Cairo, any more than I understand the motivating experience that prompted my grandmother, despite arthritic agony, to wait daily on an elderly donkey, both with the sands of their long lives running close to empty, or to stand unsteadily in her robe and fluffy slippers on that frigid winter porch, making sure a herd of scrambling feral cats had the sustenance they needed to live. Compassion does not need a reason. As Dorothy Brooke proved, it only requires the compassionate to seize the authority necessary to intervene through comfort, healing and, above all, the love that knows when to let go.