Commentary

John Wurzelmann: Dogs are the best medicine

April 8, 2014 

Take two dogs and call me in the morning.

If I were a doctor and I am, that's what I’d prescribe. Dogs are good for you. They make lonely people less lonely. They help the elderly exercise. They give cancer patients hope. I've been thinking about dogs all my life.

When I was young, I found the silver collar of a dog my father owned when he lived in Berlin, after the war. The dog’s name was “Astra” which translates to Star. He went to a professional photographer and took portraits with the dog. I still have them in a suitcase in the attic. In the morning my father in his naivete, would let the dog go out to do his business. One day the dog didn’t come back.

My father was born of a wealthy family. They had an estate outside of Warsaw. They owned dogs, Polish Greyhounds and kept them in kennel, a shed, where they slept on bales of hay. When the war started in September of 1939, the Germans attacked from the West. My father was at a railway station with his father. They saw war planes approaching from above and they thought they were the Polish Air Force. It was the Luftwaffe and they started strafing. My father saw something hit a cow. The guts of the animal dropped out, and she stood there dazed for a few seconds, before falling over. As the attack continued my father laid against an embankment. His father, my grandfather, covered him with the body of a man.

As the Germans attacked from the west, people fled toward the east. They put their most valuable possessions in wagons and on trucks on bicycles and occasional cars, and marched in a long forlorn parade. This migration is captured well, in the opening sequences of the movie “Katyn” by Andrzej Wajda.

They slept by the side of the road, or in barns of friendly farmers or in the forest. My father's family brought one dog, a bitch that had just whelped a litter. She had a long name, that suffered for a lack of vowels, that meant “Little Bear.” They had taken the puppies and thrown them away in the woods, because they could not support them on the march. The bitch followed them faithfully and slept with them, inside and outside. They walked for two weeks, when the Russians attacked from the east. Now there was nowhere to go, and they turned back to their homes. Marching for another two weeks.

When they returned to the estate, there was much damage. Windows were broken, structures collapsed, trees toppled. The grounds strewn with rubble. They set about repairing what was left. As they were working, trying to reassemble their lives, my father walked by the dog’s shed, which was locked with a latch. He heard pathetic whimpering coming from within, and didn’t understand.

He opened the door and found a few half dead puppies lying in a pile of hay, not the same ones that they had abandoned before the march. Just then, Little Bear jumped through a broken window, carrying yet another cold wet puppy in her jaws. They were the puppies of another bitch, which had been similarly discarded. A month after losing her own litter, the dog had found kin in the forest whom she sought to adopt.

This is just the story as my father told me. I could not have imagined it. After I graduated medical school, and finished my residency, and bought a house, I bought a dog and named him Star.

John Wurzelmann is a physician who has lived in Chapel Hill for 25 years.

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