Justine van der Leun on Pet Rescue & ‘Marcus of Umbria’

Justine van der Leun and Marcus of Umbria
Photo from Justine van der Leun
I always appreciate when I find a kindred spirit, especially the type who will turn their life upside down and adopt a dog.

Justine van der Leun is one such person, having opened her (home away from) home and heart to an abandoned dog in Italy, essentially engaging in international animal rescue.


Her book, Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love, is about the dog, who Justine names Marcus, and what they teach each other about trust, friendship, and ultimately, love.

Justine and Marcus eventually left Italy, but they are still having adventures. So recently I checked in to see how they are doing.

First are foremost, how is Marcus?

Marcus is great. At the moment, she finds herself elegantly reclining in a sunspot.

What was the process like bringing her into the US (was she quarantined, how did she handle the flight, etc.)?

It's against regulation to give your dog a relaxant during the flight, but you're allowed to take one yourself, which was a small mercy. (I had read so many horror stories online.)

The entire process was weirdly casual. In Italy, we were cleared by a local vet and given a doggie passport, which is just stamped with her vaccination records. A few weeks later, I loaded Marcus into a ridiculously small crate. Several times, during garbled phone calls, airline reps had told me that regulations required this tiny crate, which turned out to be untrue; your dog should be able to turn around in her crate. But I was scared she wouldn't be allowed to go with me, so I wasn't taking chances. I lugged Marcus, twisted up in her crate, into the Rome airport, where the check-in clerk cleared me without even looking twice. Then a porter carried my dog off into the bowels of Fiumicino, and I feared that I would never see her again. But while I was boarding the plane, I saw the airline employees loading her into the cargo hold. We then hurtled toward America on two different levels; it's impossible to determine which one of us was more freaked out.

Once I'd passed through customs, I ran to the baggage collection area and found Marcus. She had been set down as if she was a suitcase -- alone in her crate in the exact same position she'd been in when I last saw her 14 hours earlier. When I saw her, I was so relieved that I cried.

What were the first few days in America like for Marcus (and for you, as her caregiver)?

We were both shocked. One day, we were eating prosciutto on an Umbrian farm and the next we were couch-crashing across the Northeastern United States. I had no idea where we'd land because I couldn't take Marcus, who was scared of crowds and loud noises, to my home base of New York City. But beyond the uncertainty was a feeling of liberation and possibility. That time further bonded us because wherever we went, we went together. Eventually we ended up in Eastern Long Island by the sea, where I wrote Marcus of Umbria.

Have you taken Marcus on any travels since you've been in the US together? Where?

You know those dogs who like to feel the wind on their floppy tongues? Marcus is not among then. She burrows her head beneath the seat. But my lease expired last summer, and I decided that it was the perfect occasion to drive us across the United States. We went from New York to California and back, stopping in Montana to see the glacier waterfalls, hiking the Dakota badlands, camping in Arizona. Marcus was impressed with most of our destinations -- especially Wyoming, which is dog heaven -- but she hated Seattle and Chicago. We went to a dog beach on the Chicago lakefront. It was 30 yards long. Marcus, who had spent the last two years sprinting on never-ending stretch of sand by the Atlantic, shot me a pretty withering look, like, "You expect me to believe this is a beach?"

In hindsight, is there anything you might have done differently in your journey with Marcus?

I regret many choices I've made in my life. But I don't have any regrets that involve Marcus.

When Marcus and I moved to the States, she was terrified of everything new. A dog behaviorist named Nikki Woods took us on and helped me train Marcus and build up her confidence. Nikki taught me a great deal about how to communicate with Marcus.

I don't believe that having a dog is the equivalent of having a child, but I do think that in some circumstances, having a dog can give you a tiny taste of what it's like to be a mother. It gets you out of yourself. I've learned how and when to put her first, and how and when to do what's right for me. I'm proud of us both for coming so far.

What has surprised you the most about Marcus in all your time with her?

Marcus went from being terrified of everything to being a big-time charmer. She's still shy and nervous in certain situations, but I've seen her blossom more and more with every day. Her personality has emerged. I was amazed to find that she had some real sass to her, and I was secretly delighted to see that she had a stubborn side. When she wants something, she lets me know with a firm paw to the arm or a laser-like stare. She's learned how to play happily with other dogs and how to bat her eyelashes at strangers she wants to pet her. When I found her, dusty and alone in the Italian countryside, I had no idea she'd become such a funny Brooklyn character.

What's next for you and Marcus?

Marcus has a gentleman owner, too, now -- and we're all hoping that within the next year, we can manage to take a massive family road trip down to South America. It's a dream. But it may well happen. I mean, nearly every day, when Marcus begs me to go outside, I tell her, "Marcus, dreams do come true." Then I get the leash and off we go.

Justine has inspired me -- I love road trips, and I love Greta. Maybe I should combine the two!

Do you have any trips planned with your dog?

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