I was volunteering in the shelter’s admissions department on a late-autumn evening, and had just returned from walking one of the dogs from our holding area, when I came upon a scene in the reception room.
A young man, wearing a wool watch cap pulled down to his brow and the dirty overalls and jacket of a construction worker, was holding a small brown terrier mix, a stuffed black plastic bag, and a dog toy — a silly-looking blue fur lion nearly as big as the dog in his arms. He was explaining to the admissions staffers, Darla and Leslie, that he and his wife had to move and the place they were going to didn’t allow pets. “I heard that y’all take dogs that don’t have no other place to go.”
“We do,” Leslie said, “but…”
Just then Kerry McBride, the shelter director, rushed in. Leslie paused.
Kerry said to the young man, “Sir, I heard that you wanted to surrender this dog. But, see, there’s a problem. This shelter takes dogs from the city only. You’re not even a resident of this county, right?”
“No, ma’am, we’ve been living in…” he named a rural county northwest of ours.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I just can’t help you. We’re full up and you’re from outside our jurisdiction.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” the young man said. “We have to leave first thing in the mornin’. I done everything I could to find homes for our other three dogs but nobody wanted Petey here.”
Kerry reached out and grasped the little dog’s paw with its long, shiny black nails. “This is a small dog and small dogs are very adoptable,” she said. “Have you tried other shelters in the area?”
“No, ma’am. Where are they at? Would they be open this late?” It was now six o’clock.
“No, they close at five,” Leslie said. “I have some information sheets here that give their hours and directions.”
“I just don’t know.” This was all too much for the young man, it was clear.
“You’re not going to just drop the dog off somewhere, are you?” Kerry asked, looking at him directly.
“Oh, no, ma’am, I’d never do nothing like that.” He seemed horrified by the suggestion.
“Well, try those other shelters. Good luck.” She went through the door into the adjoining Animal Control officers’ dispatch room. Then, as the man went over to the desk to take the information sheets from Leslie, Kerry opened the door a crack and beckoned me in.
She stood with Dave, one of the Animal Control officers, and Diane, the dispatcher. “Mimi,” she said, “here’s what I want you to do if you’re willing. Get your coat and act like you’re leaving for the day. Follow that guy out to the parking lot and tell him that you’ll take the dog from him, make up some story. Then you can fill out a form saying you found the dog as a stray somewhere nearby. I just can’t let it get out that anybody can bring dogs to us from anywhere, but I don’t want him to be so desperate that he just leaves the dog somewhere.”
“I get it,” I said.
“Are you worried that he might be dangerous?” Dave asked. “Should I follow?”
“No, he seems like a nice guy,” I said. “Just really up against it.”
“He’s leaving,” Kerry said.
“I’m gone.” I followed him outside and caught up with him in the parking lot. “Sir,” I said, “wait.” He turned.
“I need to do this sort of under the radar,” I said, “but I have a friend who’s looking for a small dog. And this one seems really sweet. I’ll take him from you.”
His face relaxed. “Oh, thank you, ma’am, God bless you,” he said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do. He is a good dog. The only thing about him is he sometimes gets a little nervous, like when you come back home and he’s glad to see you, he might pee a little.”
“That doesn’t worry me,” I said.
“Well, I sure do thank you.”
I took the dog from him. Little Petey was trembling. I held him close, took the plastic bag – “those are all his toys,” the man said — and the blue furry lion. “Goodbye, Petey,” the man said, and patted his head. “Goodbye, ma’am. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll take good care of him.”
He was walking away but raised a hand and nodded, as if not wanting me to see the emotion on his face.
I watched him drive off in his battered white truck. I wondered what his whole story was.
Back inside I filled out the stray form in my name and then took Petey out for a walk. He pranced along, wearing a tiny black harness imprinted with silver bones; he was the daintiest little dog I had ever walked. We went into the puppy yard and I saw that Kerry’s office light was on and she was at her desk. I knocked on the glass door that led from the yard into her office and she came and opened it.
I gestured to Petey. “Mission accomplished.”
“I’m glad. Thank you. I was worried that he would just abandon the dog.”
“He didn’t seem like that kind of a guy. But it’s great of you to do this.”
“We do what we can.” She smiled at me. “I called Phil over at the SPCA. They’ll come pick him up tomorrow. He’ll get adopted quickly, I’m sure.”
After getting Petey settled in a kennel in the holding area, with a bowl of water and a fleece blanket to warm him against the chilly stainless steel floor, I took his bag of toys to the laundry room so that the re-usable ones could be washed and shared with the other shelter dogs. Opening it I saw a large number of nearly-new stuffed animals and squeaky toys. This had obviously been a loved dog, well cared for. It was sad to think of his owners having to part with him.
Sometimes I’ve heard animal care workers grouse about owners who move to pet-unfriendly places and surrender their animals:”How can they do that to a family member? I would never move anywhere that wouldn’t take my pets.” But some people truly have no choice. Here at the shelter I was seeing how unexpectedly the tides of human fortunes can shift, leaving helpless animals to wash up wherever they can find solid ground. Petey, it seemed, was going to be one of the luckier ones.