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Zippo: A Cambodian Love Story

Updated: May 15, 2019

The news was not good at all. Wen Johnson told this writer, with tears in his eyes, “Zippo is very, very sick. He has distemper. He will probably die.” “How,” he wondered, “could this dog matter so…

The news was not good at all. Wen Johnson told this writer, with tears in his eyes, “Zippo is very, very sick. He has distemper. He will probably die.”

“How,” he wondered, “could this dog matter so much after such a short time?”

Wen, an American originally from California, has a big heart, especially for the people in Cambodia. He had lived with his wife and family, in Japan, where he taught for many years. Now on his own, he decided to retire to Siem Reap. Wen works with the Cambodian Land Mine Museum, delivering supplies to the very rural schools the Museum has established on land they had cleared of landmines.

Poverty is extreme in Cambodia, both in the cities and in the countryside. Among the poorer people are those who drive tuk tuks (or remorks), small motorcycle taxis. These vehicles wait outside hotels and at other popular places, hoping for fares around the city or to the temples. The corner by Wen’s house is a gathering place for about 10-15 of them. He generously provides some luxury for these drivers. When he is home, Wen invites them to use the shower and the washer and dryer in his home. From time to time, he also cooks up large pots of soup or stew, and the drivers are invited to help themselves. Since many of these drivers actually live in their vehicles, sleeping in a hammock suspended from the roof, a hot shower, some clean clothes and good food are indeed a luxury.

Enter Zippo. Shortly after friends suggested that he consider getting a dog for company, Wen came upon a little dog that he named Zippo. After consulting his American friends for advice and encouragement, he purchased the dog from a friend of a local storeowner. Wen made Zippo a bed out of a cardboard box and a blanket and he began to figure out the needs of this new little friend. He took him to the preferred local vet for his first puppy shots. All was going well.

But then, Zippo got sick. He started vomiting some, eating less, coughing, and seemed to have something wrong with his eyes. He got worse over the course of a weekend, and on Monday, Wen took him to the vet. Very sad diagnosis. All that could be done was to treat the pneumonia-like symptoms and infected eyes and try to keep the little guy comfortable.

As luck would have it, Wen had to go out of town the next day. One of the drivers that Wen had befriended was there to fill the gap. Eager to repay at least some of the kindness Wen had shown him, Narith took on Zippo’s treatment. He kept track of the times the medications were due and would show up to take care of him.Narith became both puppy sitter and doctor!

Happily, Zippo began to respond to the treatments, began to eat again, and by the time Wen returned, the little guy seemed to be getting well. Then, and every time since then that Wen has been away, Zippo has been there to greet him with great enthusiasm and affection.

When I met up with Wen again, he reported that as soon as he gets home, Zippo “runs over to me and gives me lots of kisses.” Now totally well, Zippo has become a neighborhood star. He’s very popular with all the drivers and the children in the neighborhood who join Wen and Zippo on walks. One of the boys in the neighborhood is autistic, and Wen told PDM, “Zippo has really brought him out of himself.”

The community of drivers continues to support Wen and Zippo. Da, one of the drivers, takes Zippo out for morning walks. Narith is still his other dad, taking over when Wen must leave town. “At first, Narith would open the door and call Zippo and he’d go running to him. Now, he knows Narith by the sound of his motorcycle, and runs to the door before he even comes in,” Wen said.

Wen, Zippo, and Cambodia – a tale of love.

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