The man who loved his dog more than his wife

I’ll wager that I’m the only man in America who once declared that he loved his dog more than his wife and lived to tell about it, especially since that love letter appeared on the pages of the New York Times.

Don’t get me wrong, dear readers. I love my wife and have 49 years to prove it. But there was just something about that dog — who died at the age of 19, an age that Purina counts as 92 in human years.

Rex was an astonishing Jack Russell terrier, 14 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal, a master of disaster, a minister of the sinister, a little tower of power, the dog of the hour.

In his famous life in St. Petersburg, he became known as the scourge of possums, the slayer of snakes, the intimidator of much bigger mutts, but also the friend of felines, the chaser of tennis balls, the cuddler of laps. He grew up in a family of soccer champs and became so adept at dribbling a soccer ball that he was invited to give an exhibition during halftime of a Lakewood High School match.

Even his dark moments had a kind of charm. A boyfriend of a daughter (sitting on her bed!) stared Rex down in a bad way and took a nip on the nose. Though we acted as if this were a bad thing, when I got a chance, I slipped Rex a biscuit. For his crime, Rex was sentenced to a week of confinement at the vet. I had a dream that they took photos of him like a convict — front view and profile — and that I would visit him so that he could lick my face against a glass partition. In real life, I showed up every day to take him for a walk and tried my best to spring him — getting the vet to let him out a day early for being a model prisoner.

Rex, the late Clark family dog. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

How much did we love that dog?

To answer that question, I need to turn back the clock to the spring of 2006. It was another perfect day in paradise on the west coast of Florida. I entered my workplace and ran into my editor, Bill Mitchell, who greeted me with a crooked smile.

“Have you seen the New York Times this morning?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“How about Karen?” My wife. I stared at him, puzzled.

“Go read it before she does.”

About a month earlier, I had been interviewed by a young writer named Adam Newman from the New York Times. The call came months after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. He was interested in my take on stories about survivors of the storm being reunited with their pets, especially their dogs.

My son, the dog

Before I proceed with that drama, I might as well tell you how Rex got his name. Although I grew up in a family of men and boys (Mom was an alien), I produced three daughters. I consider this a blessing beyond imagination, but it carried a small price. There came a time when the mysterious power of pheromones conspired to synchronize the menstrual cycles of wife and three daughters. That’s enough periods to form an ellipsis….

Only during those perilous times did I crave the existence of another male, a comrade, a buddy, a son. I settled for my son, the dog.

My first name is Roy, which derives from “roi,” the French word for king. Rex, is, of course, a classic name for a dog and also the Latin word for king. By my wife’s account, Rex was named after me, the son I always wanted.

“It’s short for T-Rex,” I offered, when he could have fit in a teacup, but also a time when Jurassic Lizard Kings were stomping and chomping their way across movie screens. Our daughter Lauren liked the idea of such a big name for such a small dog. So it came to pass. Over the years he’d morph into Mr. Rex, Rex Clark, Rexie, and for the women at the vet’s office, Sexy Rexie.

Rextra! Rextra! Read all about it

The reporter from the Times was not out to get me in trouble with my bride. He was reporting a most interesting story about animals caught in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was fascinated with how many lost and found pet stories had come out of the storm and began his article with an image from the cover of Bark magazine in which a pit bull mix says, “My name is Sally. I’m from New Orleans.” The magazine had devoted itself, in the face of this historic catastrophe, to information about the pet rescue efforts along the devastated Mississippi and Louisiana coast.

I had a chance back then to visit journalists who were working the Katrina story along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As someone who lives near the Gulf of Mexico, it was a chilling experience, one that I will never forget.

There were not many pet stories to come out of the early days after the hurricane. With such brutal human devastation — all the suffering we saw on television from those stranded at the Superdome — editors were reluctant to focus on lost pets.

But that coverage changed over time, and reporters testified that after the human remains had been recovered, the saddest thing to see in New Orleans was a dog searching for its lost owner. It also became clear that people’s devotion to their dogs and cats, but especially their dogs, was such that they refused to take life-saving action because it required them to abandon their pets.

It was such deep bonding of pets and humans in family life that went under-covered in the news, I explained in response to the Times' reporter’s question. It took something such as Katrina to remind all of us what these animals mean to us, how kind they can be to us in moments of need, how they help us find our place in the world, how they reflect back to us everything we give to them: kindness, loyalty, care, concern. We are feeling that again in a pandemic.

The wife has her say

When I tell the New York Times story, some folks take my declaration of love for Rex as playful hyperbole, while others wonder if I was serious. “How can you say that you loved your dog more than you love your wife?”

Here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is my evidence:

Point 1: When I got home from a long day of work, who was it who greeted me at the front door, hindquarters in action, looking as if he was really, really glad to see me?

Point 2: When I got home from golf or working in the yard and smelled really, really bad, like a dead fish, who wanted to roll around with me on the rug hoping to get some of that stank on him?

Point 3: And when I stepped out of the shower, who was there waiting to lick the little rivulets of water off of my shin?

Case closed. Verdict in. Dog wins.

So now came the big moment. I picked up the telephone and dialed her number. My wife Karen was at work, running the front desk at St. Anthony’s Cancer Care Center.

“Do you have three minutes?” I asked. “I need to read something for you, but I want you to hear the whole thing, not just part of it.”

She agreed, quite curious.

And so I read her the story by Adam Newman about the lost dogs of Katrina, about Bark magazine, about how news organizations were finally starting to get it when it comes to pets, about how some governments were trying to devise “pet-inclusion evacuation plans,” about how the news media tended to miss what’s at the heart of people’s relationships with their pets. And, finally, this:

“Mr. Clark has an 11-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Rex ‘who my wife and I love more than we love each other, even though we’ve been together 35 years.’”

Silence on the line.

Then a “Hmmm.”

Then a bark of recognition: “Oh. Wow! Rex made the New York Times!”