Lifers, Part 1

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There are some dogs that, deep down in your heart, you despair of ever being adopted. They’re too old, or too rambunctious, or they growl and bare their teeth when someone approaches their kennel. I call them the lifers, because some have been on the wards for months. I worry about their prospects and always try to point them out to visitors. Passed over repeatedly, subject to the stress of long kenneling, I wonder how long they will be allowed to occupy space as the tide of fortune washes up more and more homeless dogs onto the shore of the shelter every day.

Thankfully, Northside, unlike other shelters I have heard of, does not set a time limit after which animals are automatically euthanized, a literal deadline. Destinies are decided case by case.

We get some relief from overcrowding from rescue groups who peruse our lists and scoop up the new arrivals who are most adoptable to take to other shelters that have a shortage of animals. One day I helped load some of our dogs onto the Rescue Waggin’, which at that time was a PetSmart charity that transported dogs up north to shelters that didn’t have enough to meet the demands of prospective adopters. Our state has the dubious distinction of being one of the largest exporters of homeless dogs.

“Why is there a shortage of dogs up north?” I asked the driver as I handed her a trembling dachshund to put into one of the stacked crates that lined an entire wall inside the van.

“They have tough winters, so stray animals often don’t survive,” the woman said, holding the little dog and patting him before settling him in his travel compartment. “And they have strict spay and neuter laws. You get a heavy fine if your dog is not fixed. So there aren’t many homeless puppies and dogs.”

I wish we had those laws here in Tennessee. It would prevent a lot of stress and misery and wasted lives.

The rescue groups perform a great service by thinning our population – but they also take from us the animals that people would find most desirable: the purebred huskies, Labs and shepherds, the adorable little Yorkies and Shih-tzus and chihuahuas. They leave behind the pit bulls, the oldsters, and the plain old AGDs – American Good Dogs.

So those dogs wait. They are loved and cared for; as the seasons change they sport Valentine bandannas, then green St. Patrick’s Day tutus or vests. They go out to nose for treat-filled Easter Eggs around the shelter’s grounds, wear red white and blue ribbons on their collars on Independence Day, orange and black doggy t-shirts for Halloween, little Santa suits or red and green collars saying “HO HO HO” at Christmastime. Poignantly, I’ve seen a few of our animals in every seasonal costume.

Volunteers take our dogs to offsite events – festivals and concerts, parades and ball games. And when someone chooses one of them, and the adoption is successful, we all rejoice.

But the stress of long confinement in the shelter takes its toll on some lifers. They may become hostile toward other dogs, defensive of their kennels, or may develop bad habits like nipping their caregivers, smearing their runs with feces, or chewing sores into their own legs.

I was to learn that the shelter’s promise that “no adoptable animal is ever euthanized” was true as far as it went, but the unspoken qualification of that statement was that animals were re-evaluated every few months by the behavioral assessment team and sometimes were downgraded from “adoptable” to “unhealthy, untreatable” and hence put down.

Thank God there are miracles. I am learning not to underestimate the unpredictable working of love, that call from heart to heart that bypasses reason or expectation: the instant deep understanding that unites two individuals in the knowledge that they are meant to be together. It is a beautiful mystery when it happens between people. It is equally beautiful and mysterious when it happens between a human and an animal.

Just about the last dog I ever expected it to happen for, however, was the wild black pit/Lab mix we called Sweetpea.

Next: Lifers, Part 2: Sweetpea: Born to Be Wild

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