There were four small black pothound puppies found in a L’Anse Aux Epines storm drain by a middle-aged couple late last summer. They called the veterinary student in charge of “Pothounds Against Pregnancy.” The student was able to coax three of the puppies out of the drain, but one particularly terrified puppy ran to the other end of the pipe to escape. The veterinary student, not easily deterred from rescue efforts, crawled down the storm drain to save the smallest of the four puppies. I would later learn from the middle-aged couple that the smallest puppy was so weak from exposure that the veterinarian did not think she would survive the night in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and certainly would not have in the storm drain.
As she has done so many times before and since, the veterinary student in charge of PAP took care of the four rescued puppies. They had not yet been given names. The smallest and meekest puppy had run from the rescue efforts and been a few hours away from death that day. That pothound had a jet black coat, big floppy ears and weighed a little over eight pounds.
The four puppies were, once cleaned up and nursed to health, adorable even by puppy standards. At the earliest convenience, the pups were brought to campus to be fostered and, inevitably, adopted by other veterinary students.
I was on the bagel truck side of the Veterinary Surgical Laboratory when I saw the four puppies bouncing at the end of four leashes. Actually three were bouncing; the smallest was cowering at the sneaker of she who held the leashes. Being a conscientious and concerned veterinary student, I wanted to play with the puppies.
I reached for the smallest and cowering puppy who, upon seeing my hand gently reaching for her, tried so hard to get away that she flipped herself over backwards. Just call me the “dog whisperer.”
I picked up the littlest dog despite her efforts to get away. She struggled and squirmed until I flipped her on her back into the crook of my left arm, when she suddenly relaxed. I scratched her belly with my other hand and she wrapped her front legs around my forearm and went to sleep. It would not be until later that I realized I had been adopted.
The softening of my countenance was so swift and striking that an observant, if not subtle, friend of my mine asked, “What are you going to name her?”
“No,” I said, “I can’t take care of a dog right now.” My friend with the talent for tact looked at the student with the leashes and said, “We’ll work on it.”
Two days later, the three black pothound puppies still in need of homes were brought to the classroom in the Veterinary Surgical Laboratory. A practice that has since become verboten, the pups were to be dangled (not literally) in front of the veterinary students again. I was handed the smallest one once more.
She proceeded to take a lap of my lap, settle herself down, set her head on the desk, and go to sleep. This time I did realize that I had been adopted.
My ever-subtle friend was seated next to me at the time and laughed out loud when she asked, “So what are you going to name her?”
Always one to admit when I am defeated, I said, “No, I can’t take care of a dog right now.”
I adopted the puppy from a classmate who was fostering her. The classmate was unsure as to whether or not she would keep the pup permanently. Potential and possibility gave way to kinetics and certainty and I took charge of the care of the smallest black pothound.
I started to think of a name for her. Words and their meanings are of great and maudlin importance to me. She needed the right name. I started off with human names, but the names did not fit and got bad reviews from friends.
I researched St. George of Lydda, the namesake of our university. Lydda was a positively terrible name. I considered naming her Georgia but I am a devout Phillies fan and viscerally despise the Atlanta Braves. Saint George had saved Silene from a dragon, whether Silene was a town or a girl depends on which legend you read, and the little pup was very nearly named Silene. But I decided that the root was a little arcane for even my exceptionally nerdy tendencies.
Though it has lately come to connote some scandal, my alma mater is Pennsylvania State University. There is a legend about the mountain that stands next to Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Nit-A-Nee was a Native American princess whose lover, Lion’s Paw, was killed in battle protecting the tribe. The princess carried the warrior’s body to the center of the valley and built a burial mound high and sturdy. The mound grew to a mountain and the mountain would protect Happy Valley forever. The name “Nit-A-Nee” means “barrier against the wind.” The legend of the princess would be the namesake for Mount Nittany and for Penn State’s Nittany Lions.
The littlest black pothound is no longer the littlest; she outweighs two of her siblings by at least eight pounds. She no longer has floppy ears; they stand straight up to create a profile that could summon a costumed superhero. She no longer cowers when I reach for her; instead she leans heavily into my hand so I will scratch her ears a little bit harder. She is no longer nameless; she answers to the sound of my whistle, that of the refrigerator door, and any number of interjections. She answers to the name of a mythical princess, a mountain, and a football team. I named her “Nittany.”