How My Dog Lazarus Earned His Epic Name

A little pit bull from Texas moves to New York City and earns himself a Biblical handle.


Canine monikers have been top of mind for me lately, what with Dogster’s recent feature on dog names followed by Gallery Books sending me a review copy of its 492-page doorstopper of a reference tome, The Giant Book of Dog Names. All this prompted me to take a walk down memory lane.

First stop: The moment, in 2008, when I learned about the short, tan-and-white male pit bull facing untimely extermination in a rural Texas gas chamber.

It started when I received an email notification about a short, tan-and-white female pit bull at the same shelter. I’ve coordinated some complicated cross-country K9 rescue missions over the years, and the more I undertook, the more my inbox got flooded with new appeals. Just the week before, I’d arranged for a six-month female puppy who could’ve been this little gal’s body double to be flown from a high-kill shelter in Arkansas to New York, then transferred to a shelter in Connecticut, where she promptly got adopted. (She traveled on Midwest Airlines, which doesn’t discriminate against bully breeds, so I’ll always sing their praises to the skies.)

Anyway, after figuring out how to get this little Texan pitty from the rural area she was in to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, then loaded onto a Midwest aircraft, I called the Texas shelter about the little female dog and was told she’d been adopted. I was still letting out the tail end of my big sigh of relief when I heard the “But …”

There’s always a “But …” with pit bull rescue; what with pits comprising as much as 90 percent of the animal shelter population in some parts of this country, the reality is that each one you save is a small drop in a bottomless bucket. Sadly, thousands more will be senselessly killed. But — there’s that word again — like the doctor in the Camus novel The Plague, I’ve resolved to keep adding small drops to that bucket as long as I’m able.

“But …” the animal control officer in charge of the shelter added before I could hang up the phone. There was the cutest little male pit now occupying the adopted female’s cage.

“Okay,” I said on autopilot. “I’ll take him.” I mean, I was all set to fly a dog out of Dallas/Fort Worth, and the whole point was to empty a cage at a high-kill shelter, right? So why not?

“Oh, you’ll love him — his name is Shorty and he’s the sweetest thing,” she added. I promised to make the air arrangements; the ACO gamely promised to email me a photo, drive him to a local animal hospital for air-travel vetting, then drive him to meet a lovely fellow rescuer who would keep Shorty overnight and chauffeur him to the airport at dawn.

The photos arrived, and Shorty was even more adorable than the ACO had promised. Within days, everything went according to plan. NASA has a word for missions that go perfectly according to plan: Nominal. And nominal aptly describes Operation Shorty.

I met him at the cargo area of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Like all the other dogs I’d had flown to me on Midwest, he arrived calm, cool, and collected, as if he’d enjoyed a long, relaxing nap in the belly of the plane. Shorty’s complete lack of stress upon exiting his Sky Kennel crate was the best endorsement for the airline. I took this cool K9 customer for a quick relief walk before the drive home. He promptly showed his appreciation by taking a leak on the Midwest sign.

There was a lot I was yet to discover about this squat little butter-bull, but I wanted him to have a handle somewhat more dignified than “Shorty,” pronto. Before that unfortunate name could have a chance to stick, and he wouldn’t respond to any other, I thought hard about what to rename him.

I was reminded of the very first pit bull I’d ever met, a brawny brindle male who belonged to a neighbor at the apartment building where I resided in 1993. I’ll never forget the day that dog sweetly stood up in the elevator to give me a hug. I’d heard only horror stories in the media about dogs who looked like this — and was very pleasantly shocked to see that the reality was infinitely more cuddly. This dog was downright adorable, doing the two things I would come to love most about his kind: wiggling (i.e. wagging his tail aerobically) and piggling (snorting and snuffling with porcine pleasure).

From that moment forward, I resolved to do whatever I could to help out this maligned breed’s reputation, and to use my work as a journalist to right the wrongs the media was relentlessly feeding the public about pits. And now, coming up on 20 years later, I’m still proudly committed to pit bull awareness.

I wound up walking Elevator Dog many times as a favor to his owner, a busy freelance photographer. That dog was enchanting company, and made me want to go out and adopt a pit of my own. Did I mention the dog’s name was Lazarus? An ancient Greek word meaning “God has helped,” and the name of the man raised from the dead by Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel of John.

The handle was perfect for my little Texan. After all, dog-spelled-backwards had seen to it that he would rise not once but twice: The first time, escaping the gas chamber, and the second, when the Midwest plane lifted off.

Naming my new dog after a Biblical figure seemed especially symbolic and timely then; this was shortly after the late Sen. Robert Byrd — a devoted dog lover — denounced Michael Vick on the Senate floor, referring to the quarterback’s victims as “creatures of God.” It wasn’t often that pit bulls, the dog the media loves to demonize, were described thusly by august senators. Damn if my pit wasn’t going to have a name straight out of Scripture!

In Sen. Byrd’s honor, my new rescue got himself a new middle name: He’s Lazarus Robert.

Of course, in subsequent years, Lazarus has acquired his share of nicknames, although nowhere near as many as some dogs: Laz, Lazar Wolf, Lazzmtazz, ‘Rus, Rusty, Emma Lazarus, Lazmanian Devil, Taz, Tazzmlazz, Tazzy Lazzy, Lazaro Roberto, Lazzie. But Lazarus is the one that always gives people pause. Many have stopped to remark on the name and pat Laz on his impressive blockhead. (Some folks mispronounced it “Lazareth” often enough to occasion yet another nickname, Lazareth of Nazareth.)

“That’s a big name for a little dog!” they’ll say, as Lazarus wiggles and piggles. In my humble opinion, the pit formerly called Shorty wears it well.

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