by Tim Gilmore, 3/30/2019
One night a traveling salesman parked his big-grilled heavy-framed 1970s car at the front office, stirred up dust to swirl back into the oaks, and told Mac he needed to board his dog for the night. When Mac came out to the car, he looked inside, and said, “That’s no dog! What is that thing?” Said the traveling salesman, “Well, it’s my hyena.” When the salesman tried to pull his briefcase from the car, the hyena grabbed it with his teeth, ready to engage in a match of tug-of-war.
“Mac told me that story a hundred times,” Dorie says. “Then about five years ago, I get a phone call. It’s a man saying his father’s passed away and he’s writing his memoirs. Says his father was a traveling salesman that drove around the South with a hyena in his car. He’s just calling the various kennels in Jacksonville, and I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting confirmation of this story.’”
Dorie Sparkman could listen to Chauncy Leon ‘Mac’ Macdowell talk for hours. Though he died in 1995, people still call Emerson Kennels to ask about adopting one of Mac’s German Shepherds.
Dorie has called Emerson Kennels home since 1997, though she began working here in 1979. She’s the fourth owner of the oldest operating kennel in the city and she never plans to leave, not even when she’s dead. “I want my ashes scattered over this land. This is sacred ground.”
You could drive Emerson Street a thousand times and not notice the narrow drive that descends behind highways and strip malls into this cove of oaks and magnolias and chickens and barns and dogs, all of which seems worlds away from the city that wraps around it. It’s hard to believe there’s as much land as the 10 acres Dorie owns here, tucked into a fold in the urban fabric.
Emerson Kennels began as Dr. Angus Gaskin’s veterinary clinic in 1966. C.L. MacDowell boarded dogs and raised his German Shepherds here for a quarter century until his death. His daughter Suzy ran the business for two years until Dorie and her husband bought it 22 years ago.
Dorie stopped by Emerson Kennels the day she graduated college in 1979. She wasn’t sure why, but she wanted to train dogs. Mac met her warmly, then asked her right away to train his most obstreperous young Shepherd to walk by her side and heel. She met the dog and walked him and Mac hired her on the spot.
In the early 1980s, Dorie taught school at Corinne Scott Elementary in Jacksonville’s historic Springfield, then came to work with dogs off Emerson in the afternoons and evenings. “Animals were always a part of her classroom,” wrote Tonyaa Weathersbee in a 2011 Florida Times-Union story. Dorie retired from Andrew Robinson Elementary, which replaced Corinne Scott and two other small schools.
“I made sure the children I worked with knew how to be kind to animals,” Dorie told Weathersbee. “They learned empathy for other creatures. A lot of them lived in apartments and places where they wouldn’t let them have animals.
“One of the kids that I had, he was a mischievous child. Well, I brought a puppy to school one day, and during our story time after lunch, he crawled up on a pillow with that puppy. It was the first time I had ever seen the gentle side of this child.”
Back when she was first teaching, an off-building now part of Emerson Kennels housed a well-digging company called Complete Wellpoint. Dick Reinfeld, the owner of the business, kept four Akitas in his own chain-link kennels there.
One day Dorie heard that Reinfeld planned to “put a dog down” and told her husband they had to take him. The dog’s name was Moses. In the three decades since, Dorie’s owned probably 30 Akitas herself and, through the Akita Rescue Society of Florida, incorporated in 1985, has saved thousands.
Wrongful death attorney Laura Starrett first met Mac in 1986 and has known Dorie as long. “My then-husband wanted a German Shepherd,” she says, “and I wanted a dachshund. Mac had bred his dog-showing champion Brix and we got one of the puppies. We then bred our dog with another champion of his named Killer.”
Lest anyone confuse the lineages, Brix and Killer bore no relation. No more reputable breeder ever breathed than Mac.
Despite the dog’s name, Laura says, Killer, an intimidating giant, was gentle and sweet. “Before I knew it, I started going to Emerson often and talking with Mac. He taught me a lot. Across the city, there are still a lot of Killer’s descendants around.”
Mac rarely gave his closest friends the puppies his champions sired. Dorie says he told her, in his last days, he regretted never giving her a dog. When one of his Shepherds, Amorous Ruby Begonia, turned out a terrible mother, he gave her to Laura. Laura’s had 11 German Shepherds, but she’s still never had a dachshund.
Laura speaks as highly of Dorie as she does of Mac. “She’s such a kind, generous person,” Laura says. “She literally stayed up all night with one of my dogs she thought was bloating.”
It was the late ’90s when Dorie convinced her husband they should take over the kennels. “We’ll just have one dog in the house instead of six,” she told him. Right now there are two, while outside, there’s capacity for 85.
Her stories of compassion for dogs are inextricably bound with her stories of compassion for people. Recently she helped a Kentucky woman and her dog escape an abusive white supremacist husband. She speaks of Amy, with those freckles on her nose, and Amy’s mom, how Amy climbed into the V of one of Dorie’s great live oaks with KC. KC came to Dorie from Daytona when his owner was arrested for robbing a bank. She speaks of Yolanda, the beautiful young black trans woman who adopted Kuro Ashi in the mid 1980s and loved to feed that jet black Akita roast beef.
In 1990, Dorie took in several Akitas from an infamous “puppy mill” in Centropolis, Kansas after Humane Society officials raided it, rescuing 129 adult Akitas and an unknown number of puppies found starving and dehydrated. In 2005, Dorie took in and reunited or “rehomed” 14 “Katrina Akitas” left suffering after the infamous New Orleans and Gulf Coast hurricane.
Now she’s pulled her humbly effulgent white hair back into a ponytail. Her t-shirt sports the Kittenface icon created by her sister, the artist and printmaker Margete Griffin. She looks to the robust and lushly blooming brunfelsia shrub, sometimes called Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow because its hundreds of blossoms change shades from violet to white in the course of three days before new blooms start the trilogy all over. “People ask me how I cultivate it,” she says. “Well, the dogs pee on it constantly.”
It’s obvious Dorie and Margete are sisters. Like an artist, the owner of a kennel must be both sensitive and tough. You must have love to give, much of it, and in deep reserves, but also a capacity to absorb heartache.
Behind the office stands the two and a half story barn, built in 1966, with its sloping metal roof, containing storage, an apartment, and heated kennels for the winter. Beneath it, the rows of chain-link kennels bark and bellow and whine and wail full of eager Akitas. Besides boarding, Dorie takes in most dogs for Akita Rescue of Florida.
A tall and handsome all-white Akita named Winter comes into a separate yard to play and instantly becomes my friend. Winter first came to Dorie and Emerson Kennels from Georgia, then adopted out, and now boards here when his owners travel. He’s one of those dogs who’s so tall and light on his feet that when he bounds he seems momentarily to hover.
Dorie has no kind words for irresponsible breeders. Most of the dozens of Akitas who live here, waiting for permanent loving homes, come from “backyard” and “pet store” breeders who refused to take their dogs back when new owners found them too much to handle. Akitas are big, powerful, intelligent dogs. The Japanese bred them to guard noble families in the centuries of feudalism when shoguns and samurai battled constantly for control of the islands. These dogs are loyal and loving and that means protective and territorial. Then again, Winter bounds across the sand with me, nuzzles into my belly, and fondly pushes his muzzle up in my hands as I pet him. We’ve never met, but we’re good friends.
As Dorie and I talk, people who find Emerson Kennels as much a haven as do rescued Akitas come around. An older black man named Thomas rides his bike onto the grounds, sets it down, grabs a rake and starts gathering leaves. Dorie describes him as “developmentally challenged,” says he does odd jobs for small businesses all down Emerson Street. He cleans and rakes here and Dorie gives him some cash and something to eat. “He’s the most trustworthy person I know,” she says. “I’d trust him with my bank account.”
Bill emerges from the far side of outbuildings across the property where he’s “camped” for about seven years. It’s time to spray down the kennels and he grabs a hose. We talk beneath a kumquat tree that bears small golden fruit beneath much taller older oaks. Bill lived down the street, worked at a pet store for more than 20 years, and then his wife became ill.
“I lost everything,” he says. “My wife went into Hospice. I couldn’t afford the hospital bills. I lost my house, my job, then my wife.” He loves this strange cove of oaks and dogs beneath the highways. “It’s really its own world down here,” he says.
Recently, the husband of a regular customer came to pick up his wife’s dog and told Dorie he’d worked the grounds for Dr. Gaskin back when the veterinarian first opened his practice here. He told Dorie that when people had their dogs and cats “put to sleep,” it was his job to bury them on the property.
“Where did you bury them?” she asked.
“Everywhere,” he said.
Rather than being horrified by his statement, Dorie’s new knowledge made this land seem more sacred yet. There’s no haunting here, unless haunting is love and new burgeoning life. Indeed, the whole earth has filled all history with its dead, but every springtime the earth swallows whole the world.
So writes the poet Walt Whitman: “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.”
Dorie shows me the “memorial gardens” two dozen of her friends and patrons planted for her. “They tricked me, somebody took me out to dinner and I had no idea they were doing this back home.” They planted gingers, small cedars, and red-blooming, purple-leafed Loropetalum. Beneath bright leaves, round stones commemorate beloved dogs. Most stones contain the ashes of Dorie’s clients’ pets. For epitaphs, the stones carry dog tags like the one that marks Mitzi from Leesburg, Florida.
Dorie removes a small concrete statue of Saint Frances, who recently lost an arm in a storm after many years blessing the animals, and replaces him with a “tia tree,” a small iron tree skeleton meant to hold dog tags like a Christmas tree carries ornaments and tinsel.
When I wander the city and try to measure impressionistically how much soul and experience and story has marked any corner of the landscape—any motel, bungalow, crossroads, church, pub, shop or theater—I count lives mostly as human. How wrong am I to do so!
In the life of any city, all other lives greatly outnumber people. Of course they do! Hence the mysteries both profane and sacred that I love about cities, though they relegate us somewhere behind our own shadows, behind the sense we all have of what’s not us that we seek but cannot know.
In any city, people are greatly outnumbered by rodents and birds, by insects and fungi and vegetation. And how small a part of the city are we in comparison to other animals, specifically those we’ve domesticated, for surely housecats run this country! Always raccoons are more streetsmart (and often more humane). Crows and owls live much better in rugged urban environments than do most people. But why, of all urban denizens, don’t city demographics list dogs?
Dogs are the children of people and wolves. Unlike people, dogs have no recourse to ethics and morals, but unlike wolves, dogs retain no freedom to hunt and act on their wilder impulses. Dogs embody and enact in their briefer lives as full a range of comedy and tragedy as their human masters. And unlike people, dogs have no problem being dogs. They love us unconditionally. That’s the quality people congratulate when they say, “Good boy.”
And there’s that misogynistic joke about who loves you most: lock your wife and your dog in the trunk of your car and see which one’s happy to see you in an hour.
More than one mayor has written Dorie letters, thanking her for letting adolescents from schools, teen counseling programs, and “Juvie,” work here with rescue dogs. Kids suffering from depression, not just sadness but a personal nihilism and anhedonia, the inability to feel joy, have reconnected with living by meeting dogs who, as did Winter with me, accepted them immediately, with no superficial judgments, to get instantly about the important business of knowing one another. For what more significant matter can there be than connecting?
A small ceramic sign hanging outside the office says, “A dog’s tail never lies!” We can be both honest and kind. We can trust one another without being suckers. It’s true dogs don’t dissemble and people are liars. It’s also true we all need each other. City Hall should study Emerson Kennels. Politicians who sow discord and hatred and division should surrender their posts to Winter and KC and Kuro Ashi and Penguin and Moses.
Perhaps the center of the city resides not where elected officials meet, but here where oaks and magnolias shelter the truest of civilized beings, where thousands of loving and loyal quadrupeds have brought a beauty and dignity and decency to this city that human beings so often have failed. I’d bet almost everyone who’s ever known a dog would agree to that statement.
Perhaps Jax should elect as its next mayor a herding dog—an Aussie or Border Collie or Corgi—or, indeed, from Emerson Kennels, this center of the city, the dog that guarded Japanese nobility so nobly for centuries, a most loving and loyal Akita.