Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
“I haven’t slept in 10 weeks,” says Lindsay Condefer, looking far more energetic than most people in that situation would. She wears a necklace with a picture of Lentil, her French bulldog puppy, as a pendant — a fan sent a whole bag of them. The underside of one forearm is covered in a tattoo she got for Lentil’s four-week birthday — it’s photorealistic; Lentil’s severely cleft palate is unmistakable. Her friend Shane O’Neill does her tattoos for free, though “he’s harder to get an appointment with now because he won that stupid Ink Master show,” she jokes. “I have all my dogs on my back … six dogs and the Virgin Mary looking over them.” O’Neill has been working Condefer’s four current dogs into the scene, too. But in March, she asked for something else. “I was, like, ‘Shane, I have this puppy and he went viral on the Internet and I love him so much and I’m so scared I’m gonna lose him, and I want him on me forever!’”
She brought Lentil along to that tattoo appointment; she brings him with her nearly everywhere. At the time, he was smaller than the tattoo. Now, he’s grown to about the same size — Condefer’s been feeding him through a tube every three hours, day and night. When this story is published, she won’t have had more than a couple hours of sleep at a time in about three months.
Condefer knew she was signing up for sleeplessness when she packed up a bunch of heating padsand drove two hours to a fellow rescue volunteer’s house in New Jersey: “I’ve learned over the years that I’m really golden” when it comes to sleep deprivation, she says. “I can bottle-feed a litter of puppies and not sleep for weeks … ask any new mom how they do it.”
Lentil’s more complicated — his case is so severe that he can’t eat or drink on his own. His whole litter was a cleft-palate perfect storm, to the point that a medical institution is interested in getting a blood sample for a genetic study. “Apparently it’s really uncommon for an entire litter to be affected, and it’s even more uncommon for a case to have all four deformities — the nose, the lip, hard and soft palate,” says Condefer. Two puppies were stillborn, two were handed to Condefer in a cardboard box that February day. They looked so tiny, she said, “like little beans,” that she immediately named them Edamame and Lentil.
She also knew she was signing up for potential sorrow — hence the impulse to name them immediately. The cruel irony of rescue work is that people who care enough about animals to do it are self-selecting to sometimes have to watch them die. “I think the general public just doesn’t get that,” says Condefer. “Sometimes you can bottle-feed a perfectly healthy newborn and wake up an hour later and it’s gone. … That’s just life, and that’s the way that it works.”
That’s extra true for baby animals with severe health issues; cleft palates, for example, frequently lead to pneumonia or asphyxiation. That day in the car, Edamame already had pneumonia so severe that Condefer could feel fluid in the puppy’s lungs when she picked her up. “She made it 17 hours with me,” says Condefer. “What gets me through everyday life is that when she died, she was named, and she was loved.”
What Condefer didn’t realize was that she was signing up to type messages like this to tens of thousands of fans after Lentil, for reasons that still mystify her, became the Internet’s Puppy of the Moment:
You guys are all so sweet and generous! Lentil will never ‘go without’ — that’s for sure!! Please know, that it isn’t necessary to send anything … your love and support is all we need! … One puppy does not need hundreds of toys.
Why does Lentil have 64,000 Facebook fans — nearly six times as many as the Inquirer? “I have no clue whatsoever,” says Condefer. “We’re not doing anything differently than we have for the past 12 years.” She’d done similar stuff for other animals from Street Tails, her special-needs rescue. The blog where she writes as Lentil’s “Foster Mom” just … really took off.
“I don’t have an explanation for it, and I wish I did — I laugh, because people are, like, ‘Foster Mom’s a marketing genius!’ And I can’t pay my rent!” She laughs ruefully. The constant drop-ins from fans seeking the famous puppy are wreaking havoc on her small pet store, though she says if it wasn’t that, it’d be something else.
She wishes she had something to tell other rescue operations who have written asking for advice about getting Lentil-scale attention, but she’s never been keyed into the cute factor herself. “The whole puppy thing is this phenomenon that I never got. Everyone loves a puppy. I love senior, medically-messed-up dogs.”
The adoption center at Street Tails is full of damaged dogs from the city’s big animal-control shelter; Condefer jokes that she picks them “according to which eye they’re missing and which leg needs to be amputated.” On this day, there’s Maxine, a young shi tzu who “started having grand mal seizures two days into a trial adoption, so she cost us $3,000 last week” in hospital bills after the family brought her back; a white pit bull named Jaguar who’s figuring out how to walk as a tripod after having a car-shattered hind leg amputated; and Curry, a bald, shivering Chihuahua. Her mange isn’t detrimental to her health, says Condefer: “It just looks awful and smells real bad.” She scratches Curry’s head, switching to a puppy-talk voice. “Aw, it smells so bad.”
The dogs at Street Tails tend to have a harder time finding homes — the more steps a dog is away from being a perfectly formed, friendly puppy, the harder it is for that dog to get adopted. Unless you’re Lentil. Condefer’s had hundreds of requests (sometimes bordering on demands) to adopt him.
“Yeah, everyone loves Lentil,” she says. But this period of mass appeal might not last much longer. “Lentil’s top teeth are coming in, and when they come in, they’re coming straight out the front.” She points out the little dots on a close-up of his mouth where teeth are straining to emerge from gums — and indeed, it seems he’s going to look sort of like an inside-out Sarlacc pit. “So I always laugh: ‘Good thing he’s got his friends now.’”
And does Lentil ever have a lot of friends. They’ve already donated enough money that his very expensive upcoming surgery is completely covered, and have flooded him with gifts. “People are incredible with sending packages — they want him to have ‘X’ special toy that their dog loves, so they mail it to him. He’s got buttloads of toys. … Which is amazing!” (Note: Condefer bookends all statements that might be taken as complaints about Lentil’s legions of fans with effusive praise for how amazing, generous and wonderful they are. In the interest of space, we can’t include all of these, but please imagine them there.)
“I made that post because I don’t want people to feel like they have to [send toys]. Because he’ll see everything and he’ll play with everything, but you know what? He doesn’t need all of it.” She just wanted to be clear with the fans that most of the hundreds of toys she was getting were eventually being passed on to non-famous dogs at Street Tails. “I would hope that would make people feel even better — like, ‘Oh, I didn’t let one dog have an awesome day, I let 12 dogs have an awesome day.’”
She continues, “I love that he has so much support. But some people don’t get it.” Lentil’s too young to have had all his vaccinations, and his cleft palate leaves him prone to getting pneumonia, like Edamame. “Over my dead body will I sacrifice his health just because someone wants to meet him.”
She’s referring to another thing she didn’t realize she was signing up for: becoming a quasi-fugitive from her puppy’s many devoted fans. “Things changed when [Lentil] turned into this strange Internet thing,” she says. When she meets up with this writer, she’s actively dodging one persistent fan who’s been staking out Liberties Walk in hopes of catching Lentil at Street Tails or Chic Petique. Condefer usually brings Lentil with her everywhere, but she’s getting a weird vibe about this particular fan, so she’s left the dog home.
The first unannounced Lentil pilgrim appeared the day the Facebook page went up, she says, “and it just gets worse and worse.” She estimates her storefronts now get a dozen Lentil pilgrims a day, more on weekends. “It’s gotten really hard. I can’t work in my shop anymore,” she says; her payroll, which she already struggled to make, has gone through the roof. But she’s adamant about not using Lentil for financial purposes. Lentil is a hugely marketable quantity, and fans quickly chipped in enough money to cover his surgeries and more. However, the excess is all going to charities — the French Bulldog Rescue Network, who arranged Lentil’s rescue; a charity that benefits kids with cleft palates; the rent on the Street Tails adoption center.
“Street Tails and Chic Petique were my two full-time jobs, and then with the puppy I took on a third,” says Condefer. She gestures at her constantly pinging phone. “I wasn’t counting on this fourth one, which is Facebook.” Lentil’s fans seem nearly as high-maintenance as Lentil. Just as he needs milk through a tube eight times a day, they’re hungry for posts, photos and videos on Lentil’s Facebook page, blog and Twitter account, all of which Condefer is constantly updating. “I have to! People get angry! Well, not angry — people get nervous.” When she’s less than prompt putting up her daily post wishing everyone good morning, she’s peppered with questions from worried fans: Is everything OK? Is Lentil OK?
It’s a valid concern. The “good morning” posts are essentially a cheerier way of saying “Lentil didn’t die last night.”
“I live in fear,” says Condefer. “Even right now, he’s not next to me, so I could go home and he vomited and — it’s done.” This is why she hasn’t let anyone babysit while she gets a full night of sleep: She imagines asking, “‘I just want to sleep, can you take him and feed him?’ And, God forbid, something happens … I would never forgive myself.”
Lentil’s fragile life has been in the public eye since the French Bulldog Rescue Network put up a page for him when he was about a week old. “I get why they did that!” says Condefer — he was clearly going to need serious surgery, and they wanted to start raising the money immediately. However, she generally doesn’t put young animals in the public eye until she feels fairly certain they’re going to live, and “wouldn’t have told the world about Lentil until he was older.” This amount of attention is slightly terrifying.
Most of Lentil’s 64,000 fans are incredibly protective of their “little bean.” A week or so ago, Condefer posted about Lentil Fest, the series of concerts and fundraisers going on around the city this weekend. “This one poor soul writes, ‘Why don’t you get surgery for this dog instead of exploiting him?’ … I’m, like, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s house is going to get firebombed.’” She calmed down the hundreds of people flaming the guy, despite still sounding a little irritated: “Seriously, you expect me to be, like, ‘Really? I should get this dog surgery? I hadn’t even thought about that!’”
Swallow, and pay attention to what the back of your throat is doing. That’s your soft palate, a sort of trapdoor that prevents air from getting into your stomach and food from getting into your lungs and nose. Lentil’s soft palate is so messed up that anything he puts in his mouth has about a 50/50 chance of being inhaled instead of swallowed.
Going by just the videos and photos, you might think that Lentil’s famous cleft palate is mostly just weird-looking. In person, it’s clear that this is profoundly disabling. Lentil is teething, and as he frolics around Condefer’s backyard, about once a minute, he will try to chew a blade of grass or a stick. Either Condefer or a friend, taking turns shadowing him, will then lean over and gently pluck it out of his mouth, lest it accidentally go into his lungs. (To see how often this happens, check out the videos Emily shot while she was chilling in Condefer's backyard — it's pretty crazy.)
But this past Monday morning, when he went in for a surgery consultation at Penn Vet, Lentil reaped the rewards of Condefer’s grueling feeding regimen: At 6.5 pounds, he was more than big enough to undergo the surgery to fix his cleft palate. (Before seeing him, the surgeon had been hoping that he would be at least 3.5 pounds.) Lentil’s surgery is scheduled for May 28. The surgeon was “totally confident about being able to help him,” says Condefer. If all goes well, he could be eating and drinking like a normal dog by the Fourth of July.
But Lentil’s still going to look sort of like a Sarlacc pit — the surgery is only to repair the plumbing, nothing cosmetic. “We discussed his cleft lip. He said, ‘We can fix it, but that’ll be an elective surgery.’ And I’m, like, ‘Nope! Not doing elective anything.’ We want him under anesthesia the least amount of time possible.”
Her worry? “Now the big question is if they’ll allow me to stay overnight — I was, like, ‘I can’t leave him!’” At the end of May, she won’t have had a full night’s sleep for over four months. He’ll be surrounded by some of the world’s best surgeons at this particular operation. Wouldn’t this be a chance to finally get some rest?
Not a chance, says Condefer. “I’ll be in a panic! ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know these people.’” Once he starts eating on his own, maybe — then she’ll sleep. But for now, she’s staying awake and sticking close. “Lentil and I now have this bond. … I go everywhere with him; he’s never lived a life without me. So we move forward on that together as a team.”
Lentil Fest runs through Sunday, May 5, at various venues; for details, see ph.ly/lentilfest. To see those videos of Lentil hanging out in the backyard trying to eat things, check us out on YouTube.
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