There is a section of town in West Oakland, California, between the BART station and Emeryville, called Dogtown. During the Great Depression families in that area couldn’t afford to care for their dogs, so they let them loose. The dogs congregated into large packs and became so wild that they’d roam as they pleased. At dusk, the locals would take a seat outside their houses and watch as the pack thundered through the streets. (This was before television.) The dogs would tear through yards in a rumble of pounding paws, raiding chicken coups, destroying trash cans, and filling the streets with their slobbering anarchy.
It’s only appropriate that Max Schaaf live in Dogtown. Today it’s a rough part of Oakland filled with drug dealers, liquor stores, and creative types who are slowly changing the face of the neighborhood. Although the nightly canine running-of-the-streets was canceled decades ago, it’s still overflowing with dogs (a lot of pit bulls on leashes). Max and his mom contribute to the canine population with two of their own. There’s Buzzard, a wise fourteen-year-old golden-haired pit bull, and Bozo, a hyper three-year-old pit that Max nursed back to life from the grips of parvo (parvoviral infection: “It’s like AIDS for dogs,” Max says) in dramatic fashion that would please any ER devotee.
Max first saw Bozo at his friend’s house. “I was picking up my friend to go skate, and their cousin had some dogs chained up in the front yard,” Max remembers. “This one dog followed me and gave me the eyes. He tried to crawl into my truck and kept putting his paws on my door. He had a big cut on his nose and worms.” The cousins had been fighting the three-month-old pup, and Max was aware Bozo would probably die from fight injuries or parvo, which runs rampant in that area. “I’ve seen dogs with patches of fur missing, eyes missing, scars all over the muzzle. They fight them until they die or the SPCA takes them away.”
Max left him that day and flew to Europe for skating. The entire trip he was haunted by thoughts of the dog. When he returned, he went to the house, gave the grandma 100 dollars for the pup, and unloaded his conscience. “I still don’t think the kids who owned him know I took him,” he says. Grandma made off with some loot.
“When he first got Bozo, Max was like a parent, checking every finger and toe,” Max’s mom says. “He was so happy.” Then parvo hit. Bozo puked, and within an hour he was listless and fading fast. The vet said there was a 50-50 chance of survival and a 1,000-dollar price tag to attempt the treatment. Max didn’t have the extra money and plied the doctor for alternative measures (“If there were no other way, I probably would have paid the money,” Max admits). For 150 dollars Max returned home with a big needle and an armload of IV bags filled with antibiotics.
Twice a day for five days, Max pulled Bozo’s skin up at the base of the neck and stuck the needle in. The liquid filled up into a football shape and Max massaged it out. Max camped out for the five days on the bathroom floor beside the groggy Bozo.
“I would walk around the house and hear Max talking to him,” his mom remembers. “He’d say things like, 'Come on, little guy, I know you can pull through.'” Max wouldn’t leave the house and slept on the sofa outside the bathroom so he could hear the patient. By the third day Bozo showed signs of improvement, and by the fifth day Max was off skating.
“There’s definitely a really strong bond between those two,” his mom says. Max agrees, saying he can tell Bozo realized that he’d saved his life.
Bozo got his name because the original owners called him “Jallo,” which roughly translated means “cocaine” in Spanish slang; Max wanted a name that sounded rhythmically similar so Bozo would still recognize it. “People may be scared because he’s a pit, but with a name like Bozo they feel sorry for him,” Max reasons. And it’s not, by any means, as bad as the neighborhood dog named Eat ‘Em Up.
If annother depression rocked the country and everybody’s television sets somehow broke, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the citizens of Dogtown let the dogs loose again. And at night, when the entertainment began, Bozo-of free will-would undoubtedly be beside Max, bugging him for some attention, as the thunder of paws rumbled past