Personal Essays

Credit: Carlos Varela

The Problem of the Flying Puppies

Catfishing is usually part of an online romance scam—not the world of expensive French bulldogs.

I am currently in the market for a French Bulldog. When I say “in the market,” what I actually mean is that after exhaustive emails and phone calls to breeders from all over the region, most of whom rejected me upon the basis of my living situation (a two-bedroom apartment is, apparently, akin to poverty) I am now number 25 on the waiting list for a purebred, French Bulldog puppy from a Virginia breeder.

The breeder examined me via an extensive application, which included a description of the floorplan of my apartment. I had to provide character references. I had to invent detailed, thoughtful responses to a series of hypothetical puppy disasters. We talked on the phone and via email, and I was ultimately approved.

Now that I am on the list of those who will be contacted as new litters are born, I have begun the process of waiting—perhaps for quite a while, since French Bulldogs are notoriously hard to breed. The short, stocky stature of the males makes it difficult for them to successfully mount the females, and the females’ pelvic bones are often too small to allow for natural birth, so most Frenchies have to be delivered by C-section. Each phase of the process must be carefully handled, orchestrated, and monitored. Not to mention all the hours spent hand-rearing them until they are old enough to go home with their new families. Of course, all of this to-do comes with a hefty price tag.

I contacted six breeders over the course of my search, and the price of a puppy ranged from $3,000 to $6,000. The breeder I chose sells their puppies for $3,000, and, in addition, offers a military discount. This certainly factored into my choice; my father is an Army veteran, and with my military dependent ID Card I qualify for the discount. However, even with that lucky break, $2,750 seems an incomprehensible amount of money for a full-time graduate student (even with two jobs) to ever come up with. I have chosen to temporarily delude myself into believing that I will someday cobble these funds together, because I am too proud to admit that, in fact, I am too poor to own a French Bulldog. Surprisingly, the breeder didn’t require my two most recent pay stubs as part of the application.

My search for a Frenchie began much more simply: I wanted to find a companion. I moved to Virginia from St. Louis in August of 2014 for grad school, and I have not adjusted well to living solo. Throughout college I always had roommates; then I lived at home for a few years while I worked and applied to graduate programs. Since I’ve moved into my apartment, I give myself heart palpitations every time a floorboard creaks or a pipe moans. My anxiety has gone through the roof. Coping strategies I’ve recycled from previous stints in therapy are failing. My boyfriend often stays on the phone with me on nights that I am particularly lonely, but he is 11 hours away in St. Louis, and when the call ends, I am back to being alone in my too-quiet apartment. If only I had a dog, I think. I’d have him nestled in my lap, warm, alive, relying on me to protect him.

I simply have my heart set on a Frenchie. From the moment I gave myself permission to imagine one in my life, I’ve become hellbent on seeing it through.

I have always been a bit obsessed with French Bulldogs. Their clownish smiles, stocky little frames, and “ready to rumble” personalities. Not to mention their button noses. Those adorable bat-ears. That little booty-shaking dance they do when they’re overcome with joy. I’d never really entertained the idea of getting one because I assumed (correctly) that they’d be out of my price range—but the more research I did on apartment-friendly dog breeds, the more convinced I was that maybe now was the time to pursue a Frenchie after all. They are a highly adaptable breed, they shed minimally, they don’t require extensive daily exercise (there is no way I’d be able to take my pet on a five-mile run every day), and their principal concern is hanging out with their human on the couch. The more I looked into them, Frenchies seemed practically made for my lifestyle. I decided to see, realistically, how much money I could put away each month if I really put my mind to it. Thus, I’ve gotten very crafty with my limited finances, and am slowly filling the “puppy jar” on top of my fridge.

Though I am very confident in my breeder’s humane treatment of her dogs (when I met them, it was readily apparent that they were cared for as well as most human children), I know that puppy mills are numerous. Many people who seek purebred dogs get them from pet stores and other places that are supplied by unethical breeders. I also wrestle with the knowledge that there are thousands of dogs in my city’s shelters who need loving homes, and yet I’m choosing a Frenchie. Frenchies are nearly impossible to find in shelters. The ones you do find—those surrendered to Frenchie rescue organizations—often have extensive medical and behavioral problems due to irresponsible breeding. My family’s two current dogs are shelter dogs, and we love them dearly, but they’ve had all of the stereotypical ailments of rescue dogs: chronic ear infections, rashes, allergies. So I thought that getting a purebred dog might ensure a healthier pet—and fewer vet bills.

Money aside, I simply have my heart set on a Frenchie. From the moment I gave myself permission to imagine one in my life, I’ve become hellbent on seeing it through.

In order to avoid having to sell a kidney to fund my puppy dreams, I have been searching elsewhere for Frenchies while I await further developments from the breeder. This has led me to a variety of unsavory internet alleyways—completely lacking legitimacy, but all the more alluring, since one does occasionally hear of tales of “scoring” something great. I have a friend that purchased an incredibly valuable antique desk on Craigslist; the seller didn’t know what he had, and sold it for $50. Another friend got her puppy via Craigslist. Her husband found a listing for black labs, and surprised her with one for Christmas.

Then I came across Hoobly Classifieds. It seemed normal enough, an internet marketplace for all manner of things. The first Frenchie-related ad I found was simple and straightforward, stating that a woman named Maria Supper had three French Bulldog puppies in Roanoke, Va., who needed homes. After seeing countless ads for puppies on websites of ill repute—“breeders” who ask for money upfront and then say that they’ll “ship” the puppy to you, or ads that ask for a deposit on puppies that don’t even exist—I recognized all the typical buzzwords used to hook a prospective pet owner’s interest: “AKC Registered,” “up-to-date on vaccines,” “mother and father on site,” and, most importantly, “Loveable, cute, and friendly!” The list price was $800, a bargain compared to what I’d be forking over to my reputable breeder. Skeptical, but tempted nonetheless, I sent an email to the mysterious Ms. Supper to see if the puppies were still available.


Always Be Attentive to Details

Sorry for the bit late Response, You are a bit late, I just sold the baby you saw on the ads.

I received a reply from Ms. Supper almost immediately. Having watched many a catfishing special on television, I knew that poor grammar and a mechanical tone were indicative that English might not be her first language. The reference to a “baby”—not a puppy—seemed to confirm that the listing was bogus. But if there was any chance that I might get my Frenchie for less than the price of a used car, I needed to be sure.

I went back to the Hoobly ad to do some detective work. Attached to the listing were some photos of Frenchie puppies: a brindle, a cream, and a rare, solid “blue” puppy. One breeder I contacted that bred blues was asking $5,000 per puppy, so this $800 one sent up a giant red flag. Of course, my heartstrings were stereotypically tugged by the puppies’ wrinkled snouts, adorably bugged-out eyes, and dandelion-sized feet. After allowing myself a few gratuitous moments of ogling, I reverse-image searched them and found that the images had been lifted from a breeder’s website—they were part of a litter of puppies born in 2011. I’ve got your number, puppy-scammer, I thought.

I deleted Ms. Supper’s email and went about my evening, doing laundry, reading papers, doing dishes, all while daydreaming about the patter of little doggy feet on my wood floors.

The next morning, I had another email.


When in Doubt, Relocate to Somewhere in Africa

Rev. Holloway David he just contacted me that he is now in south Africa for a missionary work and he went there with the two puppies he recently bought from me.

Ms. Supper’s new email was revelatory. As sad as I was to hear that the “babies” after which I had inquired were no longer available, I was even more surprised to learn that they had been transported 8,105 miles away in two days. I was now certain that the Frenchies in the ad never actually existed, but I couldn’t help imagining them crammed in a dog crate on a 20-hour flight, with the elusive Rev. Holloway David ignoring their piteous squeaks.

As comical as this obviously fake plot twist was, I felt a very real pang of defeat. I’d gotten my hopes up that maybe I’d found some Frenchies close by, for a price I could actually afford. With the breeder, there are so many external factors that have to fall perfectly into place: the timing, for one. I need to get the puppy over the summer so that I have more time to spend training him. If the breeder has one available but I don’t have the money, I’ll be skipped and may have to wait another year before my name comes up again. At this point, though I’d been saving religiously for months, I only had a third of the money saved up. I was (scarily) considering the option of putting the balance of the dog on my credit card, if need be. Had the Hoobly dogs been real, I could have paid for my puppy in cash. I’d become obsessed with saving money any way I could, and the constant mental budgeting was starting to get to me.

Later that afternoon, I stood in the pasta aisle at Kroger. In my left hand, I had a jar of Prego pasta sauce, and, in my right, a jar of some generic brand I’d never heard of. I often found myself in this position since I’d begun my campaign of “sacrifice it all for the Frenchie”—rooted to the spot with a potential purchase in my hand (a pack of socks, a picture frame, a new book), belaboring the pros and cons of the extra dollar I might be spending. “Just pick one, dammit,” I lectured myself, as a woman edged in next to me, impatient at my loitering. I tossed the generic brand into my basket, and felt a small comfort that I’d made a more financially responsible decision. That dollar I saved would go straight into the doggie jar.

When I got home, I plopped down at my kitchen table, grabbed a notebook, and neurotically began scratching out my monthly budget. After deducting my rent, utility bills, and gas from my most recent paycheck, I deducted the amount that I’d planned on setting aside for Frenchie savings. As I waited to see how much money I’d have left, I felt a familiar dizziness. I had two objectives rattling around inside of me: one, located near the heart, was a dream that I’d now fully committed myself to, the potential for love and companionship in form of the perfect, sweet little dog. The other objective, firmly wedged in the brain, was the reality that the money I’d been saving should be spent on something else: student loans, other bills, my credit card. When I finished subtracting, I saw that I barely had enough left over for my health insurance. A shelter puppy, in the dim light that hung over my kitchen table, seemed like the only real option. But what if it grew up to be 80 pounds? It would go nuts inside my small apartment. What if turned out to be part beagle and howled all day while I was at work (I have a friend currently dealing with this very real problem)? Inside, I was totally dislocated, much like the Rev. Holloway David in the faraway land of South Africa. As I pressed my palms over my eyes, I imagined him preaching to a group of indigenous people while the two (imaginary) Frenchie pups wrestled among the dry, savannah grasses.

Another email arrived that evening.


Blame It on God

According to him, his commitment with God`s work did not give him the needed time he needs to be with the puppies, also the weather there is so harsh for the puppies health and he needed a caring parent who can adopt the babies back to the state asap.

Well how could I possibly be angry at Reverend Doctor General Poo-Bah Holloway David, knowing that it’s his commitment to spreading the word of God that was causing him to neglect the babies? How could this scammer possibly have known that I too am a Christian, and that I could never be suspicious of an email if it contained the totally believable conundrum of a bona-fide missionary?

I’ll admit my heart swelled at the tantalizing mention that I might be that caring parent for the poor babies who were now trapped in South Africa. Yes, I could save them! This lady was good. She even deployed a new tactic: complicity.

Below is his email address, contact Rev.Holloway David him and request for the puppies he needs a parent for. He will be very happy if he knows you are from me.

I can imagine it now, emailing the Right Honorable Reverend Holloway, asking if I might provide the funds to have the puppies shipped back to the United States, therefore saving them from a life of neglect. Yes, he would answer, send $5,000 and I put babies in plane and send to you home. Of course, Reverend. How should I send the money to get my precious angels back to Virginia, and into my arms? Send credit card info. Send cash moneys in book, put dollars in book and send Air Mail to lawyer who will take money and give me when I send to you. I love you. I forgot to mention that I was referred to you by Ms. Maria Supper. She is the one you originally bought the puppies from, correct? Oh yes, she have puppy. Please send money tomorrow, God is bless. Yes, God is bless. I’m certain this is how the ensuing conversation would have gone, had I taken the bait.

A few weeks ago, before the email scam escapade began, I was talking with a close friend and decided to share the news that I was officially in line for a Frenchie. I was tentative in revealing this information because of the reactions I’d gotten from the few other people I’d told. People were understandably shocked when I told them the price. I got comments from “Well it must be nice to have that kind of money” to “Can’t you just go down to the shelter and get a dog?” My friend finally asked, “Well, I know it’s none of my business really, but how are you going to pay for that?”

People who don’t have a lot of money but work their asses off need things—comforts, love—as much as anyone. We are experts at saving, scrimping, and sacrificing. We should be able to have fancy dogs, too.

I launched into my well-practiced speech about having crippling anxiety, loving Frenchies, and that I’d sacrificed everything from coffee to contact lenses to save up the money.

“Well yeah,” she exhorted, “but why do you have to get one that’s so expensive? You can adopt a dog for like $100 at a shelter. Those dogs are the ones who need love, not the ones who are born into perfect lives.”

Before I could craft a more compelling response, I blurted out “Because I want one, and I am allowed to have one! I can save, I can earn the money for one, just like everyone else can!” That effectively silenced her. Later, I thought about the bluntness of my answer. Because I want one. Frustration aside, I have been struggling throughout this whole process with the feeling that Frenchies, or any purebred dogs, are way beyond the reaches of my budget. Which is true, and yet, I am wildly driven by the improbability of this venture, thinking this may not happen, but if it does—damn, will I be proud of that dog.

I’m sure that the people who have been less than supportive of my savings saga are just looking out for me. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to take their concerns personally; to my goal-oriented brain, it seems like they’re implying that I lack the qualities of a typical purebred dog owner: wealth, stability, responsibility. Why wouldn’t I be able to achieve this goal with the same hard work, planning, and perseverance with which I’ve achieved others? I know that I won’t be getting a Frenchie this week, or even this year, but I also know that I am not going to give up. In all the time I’ve spent blustering about my plan, researching breeds, and ending up disappointed, I’ve never allowed myself permission to get this dog just because I want it. I want it because it will comfort me when I feel nervous. Because it will be someone to talk to, and who will talk back to me in that uncanny, silent way that dogs do. Because it will force me to focus on caring for something else, and pull me out of my inescapable self-absorption—a student with two jobs trying to carve out an identity. Because people who don’t have a lot of money but work their asses off need things—comforts, love—as much as anyone. We are experts at saving, scrimping, and sacrificing. We should be able to have fancy dogs, too.


Always Include a Follow-Up

Also let Reverend Holloway know i directed you about his puppies for new home, keep me posted with he response.

“How kind of you, Ms. Supper, to ask me to keep you posted” I mused. I was amazed by the persistence of this dog-scamming person, whomever he/she was. Weirdly, it reminded me of myself in the earlier days of my search, sending email after email to breeders who tersely replied, or sometimes didn’t reply at all.

I trashed the final scam email. I was back to being number 25 on the fancy waitlist for my fancy Frenchie. I’d just have to hold my breath and let the breeder do her sophisticated biological tinkering. The whole dog search has become its own odd therapy. Though totally fraught with self-doubt and fear of making a huge financial mistake, the process has become an exercise in convincing myself that I am not excluded from certain stratospheres of life because of my fledgling adult status. Every time I slip a five-dollar bill into my doggie jar, I am acknowledging that I can accomplish financial goals. That I can work hard to have things that exceed the current balance of my checking account. I can do it. This is something that I desperately needed to know about myself.

When it is my turn to bring a Frenchie home, cuddle him, take a thousand Instagram pictures of him, and drown him in toys, he will represent much more than a pet. He will be my chubby, grunting, precious little reminder that my heart sets goals, not my paycheck. I will sit by his bed one night and tell him the magical tale of Hoobly and the elusive Rev. Holloway David, laughing as he drifts off into a doggie dream, a dream in which he is, inexplicably, flying.

Amanda Williams’s poetry has been published in Artemis: A Journal for Writers and Artists from the Blue Ridge Region and Beyond, and Mistake House Magazine. She has poems forthcoming in Jam Tarts Magazine, the Red Truck Review, and Poetry Fix. More by Amanda Williams