Monthly Archives: November 2016

Reunion

The shelter’s Admissions department, where I was volunteering on this November afternoon, was busy. Swelling the usual stream of people bringing in strays and surrendering pets were owners needing to renew their city licenses which expired at year’s end. With Thanksgiving approaching, many were trying to beat the December rush.

Amid the crowd lined up to be served I noticed a man. He leaned against the counter, waiting his turn. At first glance, he looked somewhat menacing. He was huge – at least 6’3” – and very solidly built. Straggly long black hair was swept back from his forehead and fell to his shoulders. His eyebrows and beard were also dark black, contrasting with pale skin that was mottled with red around his nose and mouth. His eyes were anthracite-black, bright and penetrating.

His clothes were dirty and shabby: bib overalls with one shoulder button missing so that the bib hung down on that side, over a gray thermal undershirt. Worn boots stained dark. A denim overshirt, also worn and stained.

I took in all these details as he approached the desk. “How can we help you, sir?” Leslie, the lead admissions counselor, asked him.

“I lost my dog,” he said. His thick accent made it sound like “Ah lawst mah dawg.”

We asked him where and he said the dog had gone outside on his country property as she always did, and just never returned. She was a black Giant Schnauzer.

“I can’t recall seeing one like her,” Darla, the other admissions staffer said, “but you’re welcome to go through the shelter and see if we have her.” She asked me to escort him.

“I sure hope so,” he said. “She’s a great dog.” As he filled out a lost pet form I noticed that his hands were stained and fingernails dark with grease, the hands of a mechanic. He confirmed this as he explained, in answer to a question from Leslie about how his dog got lost, “I work at home in a garage on my property and my dogs keep me company all day. I have a lot of land so they can roam around free, but they usually stayed nearby and they always came back at night. But then one of them, my male, a coonhound mix, didn’t come back one night in October. I came here a few times looking for him but then I gave up. And now the female’s gone.”

I glanced at the two staff members, Leslie and Darla, to see if I could spot in their expressions any trace of condemnation for the seeming laxity of the man’s watchfulness over his dogs, resulting in the loss of both of them. But they only told him sincerely that they were sorry.

He handed the completed form to me and I announced on the P.A. system that we would be doing a lost dog walk-through, to alert the staff to secure any loose dogs.

The man’s name on the form was, I saw, Henry Beaulieu, and I asked him to come with me, pronouncing “Mr. Beaulieu” in the French way. But he corrected me with a smile. “Just plain Balloo – that’s the way we always said it.”

As we walked toward the starting point of our tour, he said, “I got some trash down the hill from me. Always moving in and out at night and doing other stuff they don’t want anybody to see. My male dog would bark when he heard that and I think maybe they killed him to shut him up.”

“That’s awful!”

He just shook his head.

We walked through all the adoption wards – no luck. Mr. Beaulieu peered into each kennel, looking more and more dejected. At last we came the last ward, and walked along the row of runs. At the second-to-last one on the left, I stopped. I recognized this dog. The kennel tag confirmed it – it was one of my favorites, a big floppy brown hound, adopted several weeks ago and now, the tag indicated, returned by his new owners.

“Harley!” I said.

“Brutus!” cried my companion who had come up behind me. “That’s my dog! That’s the coonhound, the male who got lost in October.” He crouched down; the dog pressed against the gate, whining and trying to get close to the man. “Hey, boy,” the man crooned. “Can I go in there with him?” he asked me.

“Go ahead.” I lifted the latch and Mr. Beaulieu entered the kennel.

There was no doubt that the man loved his dog, whatever I might think of his vigilance over his pets. And the dog was clearly ecstatic. Big man and big dog took up most of the 24-square-foot space as they hugged and danced. Brutus flopped down on his back for a belly rub, then bounced back up and spun in a happy circle. “How you been, boy?” his owner said. “They didn’t kill you after all,” he added, referring, I knew, to his “trashy” neighbors and not to us at the shelter.

Then he looked at me with shining eyes. “Can I take him?”

“Let’s go ask.”

We went to the Admissions desk and told Leslie and Darla the happy news. “Awesome!” Darla exclaimed, beaming. “That’s great,” Leslie agreed in her more restrained fashion, but I could tell she was pleased.

“How long has he been here?” Mr. Beaulieu asked.

Leslie looked up the dog’s record. “He first came in on October 17th.”

“That’s right when I lost him.”

“It take us ten days to process a new animal,” Leslie added, “so he wouldn’t have been put up for adoption until around Halloween. He got adopted November third.” She scanned the computer screen. “They just returned him. You’re really lucky — a dog like this probably won’t be here past the weekend.”

“Why did they return him?” the man asked.

Leslie scrolled down her computer screen. “Too rowdy.”

“Yeah, that’s about right.” He laughed.

Leslie processed his paperwork, the happy owner paid the fee for the days we had boarded the dog, and I went to fetch Harley/Brutus. Mr. Beaulieu thanked us warmly and left with his dog tussling the flimsy nylon leash we sent him home with.

Admissions was the toughest place in the shelter to work; on a daily basis animal control officers brought in stray, neglected or abused animals, and owners discarded their pets for what seemed to us frivolous or callous reasons. It was easy to get judgmental, working here. I reflected that my standards of dog care — essentially being a sort of helicopter mom to my dogs — were not the only valid ones. Mr. Beaulieu treated his dogs the way country people always had, giving them freedom to roam and explore his large property, trusting that they’d stay near and come home every night. (I did hope that he had spayed and neutered them; that’s one hard-and-fast rule of responsible pet care.) He’d had some bad luck, but I couldn’t honestly accuse him of neglect. Or of loving his pets any less than I loved mine.

In any event, a happy reunion was a rare occurrence, and in this Thanksgiving season it was something to be grateful for.

harley-brutus

The Little Shelter That Could

The schedule for our recent weekend trip from Tennessee to visit our son Marcus in New York City was packed with all kinds of special activities: meals in good restaurants, expeditions to museums and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a night at the opera. But what I looked forward to most was visiting the animal shelter in a remote, tough part of Brooklyn where Marcus volunteers as a dog walker.

I’m also an active volunteer dog walker with three years’ service at our busy Tennessee municipal shelter, and was eager to see how this shelter was run, and to meet the dogs Marcus had been enthusiastically telling me about.

On Sunday afternoon we took an endless Uber ride from his apartment near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park southward into the center of the borough and then a long way eastward, into the neighborhood of East New York, reputedly one of the highest-crime areas in New York City.

The area where the shelter is located is a combination of industrial and residential. Marcus explained to me that when he takes the dogs out for a walk, he follows a prescribed route of a one-block circuit of the street around the facility. As we approached our destination I saw the signs of urban blight familiar to me from my former 34-year residency in New York City: chainlink fences with trash blown against them, debris from cars that had been either vandalized or smashed in wrecks, scrubby weeds fighting through crumbling concrete. I couldn’t help comparing this dog-walking environment with the large grassy exercise yards and shady woodland path that our shelter’s dogs are privileged to enjoy.

Unfortunately we had a letdown in store when we arrived at the shelter and met the volunteer coordinator. Marcus had cleared my visit with her but had misunderstood the basis on which I would be allowed access. This facility, the woman explained, had a a strict protocol that required all dog walkers – or even anyone who wanted to tag along with a walker — to go through the shelter’s training program. I tried to plead my fairly extensive experience, but I was regretfully but firmly denied. I understood, though it was a big disappointment.

My options were to hang out and browse through the adoption wards while Marcus walked his quota of dogs. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I didn’t want to stand in the way of the animals getting a break from their confinement. Neither did I want to deprive my son; he had had a stressful morning in his professional role as an IT specialist, dealing with a client’s gnarly server problem. Spending time with friendly dogs was sure to relax him and lift his mood, as it always did for me.

So I set about exploring the place and seeing whether there were any policies and practices that I might want to try to bring back to Northside Animal Shelter.

bklyn-shelter5

The facility was old and cramped, but clean, with bright paint and cheerful dog and cat paintings on the walls. The main adoption floor for large dogs had maybe forty kennels, each about 2/3 the size of ours, big enough for a raised bed and water and food bowls, but not much else. A volunteer couldn’t go into the run with the dog, as we often did at our shelter. Each enclosure had a detachable opaque panel on the lower part of the gate to block the dogs’ views of the other animals in facing kennels, which can provoke aggressive reactions. We had tried similar barriers but dispensed with them, feeling that it made the kennels claustrophobic and kept prospective adopters from being able to see the dogs easily.

The majority of the Brooklyn dogs were, not surprisingly, pit bulls. Our shelter has a great many (much beloved) pitties as well, with hounds running a distant second among identifiable breeds.

As I passed the kennels, some dogs jumped up, barking frantically and trying to lick or nip my fingers through the mesh of their gates, and others just lay on their raised beds, shutting out all stimulus through sleep. As in our shelter, each kennel gate had a cup secured to it that held treats, and I gave biscuits to several eager takers.

Such an environment, with its noise and confinement and the proximity of other dogs, was bound to wind the animals up. This is true of any shelter. Marcus had told me the week before our visit that, as he was chatting with a staff member who was taking a large dog named Sadie out of her kennel, Sadie suddenly lunged at him and bit him, hard, in the lower abdomen. He showed me the yellow and purple bruise, about two inches long and an inch high. I shuddered to think what would have happened if Sadie had struck some eight or ten inches lower.

“What happened to Sadie?” I asked him. I thought to myself that similar behavior by one of our Northside dogs might well have resulted in a humane and prompt dispatch across the Rainbow Bridge. But Sadie had simply been demoted from a Level 1 dog – safe for all volunteers to handle – to a Level 2 dog, requiring staff or experienced volunteer handling.

I stood at a distance watching as Marcus skillfully leashed up Chaco, a blue pit bull, and took him out. I then inspected the written materials hanging on clipboards on each kennel. They included the animal’s official behavioral assessment form, and log sheets that volunteers filled out after walking each dog, giving the date and any behavior they had observed on the walk, such as pulling, or lack of, on the leash; reactivity to bikes, cars, motorcycles, squirrels; and any special ability such as knowing “sit” or offering a paw. Poignantly, some of the long-term residents had as many as ten of these forms with multiple entries on each. I thought that these log sheets were a great idea, potentially very helpful to new and uncertain volunteers, and useful as well to adopters. Chalk up one idea to bring back home.

Dog walkers' daily log. Great info in easy to absorb form.

Dog walkers’ daily log. Great info in easy to absorb form.

Curious, I went to the kennel of Sadie, the dog who had nailed Marcus, and looked at the dog walkers’ reports on her. “Super sweet once you get her out,” but “Tough walking her past the other kennels, lots of barking and lunging.” There was no mention of her attack. I was guardedly glad that she was being given another chance.

When I had been there about an hour, the volunteer coordinator came out to talk to me, maybe feeling badly that I had come all this way and not been able to accompany Marcus on his walks. She was about forty, stylish in jeans and high boots, with long dark hair and dramatic eye makeup. I made a note to consider upping my shelter fashion game from my usual beat-up sunhat, paw-stained jeans, faded volunteer t-shirt, mucky sneakers, and belt pack stuffed with poop bags, treats and squeaky toy.

She told me that she had volunteered at this shelter for fifteen years while she pursued a career in business, and then decided to make this her life’s work. We compared notes on how many animals her shelter and ours admitted; our adoption efforts and special events; how our respective organizations worked with rescue groups to relocate animals to areas where they were more likely to be adopted. We also alluded to the joys and heartaches that all animal care workers know so well: so many needy pets; so few ideal or even possible homes. I complimented her on what I had seen in her facility and cheerfully fessed up to my intention to steal some of their ideas. I felt, but didn’t say, that they were doing the very best they could under challenging conditions.

Marcus came out then, having finished his shift. He definitely looked more cheerful than when we had arrived. We bid good-bye to the woman, and walked out into the November twilight where a beautiful pink sky rose above the dingy cityscape.

On our way through the parking lot we came upon a distressing sight – a young woman walking toward us, carrying a motionless animal on a flat piece of cardboard. She was sobbing, and as she drew near I saw that the creature was a cat, apparently dead, with blood trickling from its mouth.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and gestured toward the building we had just left, trusting that, like all good animal shelters, it was a place where the needy, the abandoned, the broken, and the sorrowing would find help and comfort.

A Very Special Dog

I saw them come in the front door of the shelter where I volunteer – a skinny older woman, maybe 50, with lank blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Her companion was a younger woman, dark hair, maybe early twenties, also in jeans, her sweatshirt bearing the logo of the local community college.

“We’re here to see Zeke,” the older woman said to the front door greeter.

I was instantly alert. Zeke was an 85 pound black Lab, a gorgeous dog, perfect in every way. Yes, he had heartworm, for which the shelter was treating him, and yes, when he had come in a few weeks ago, captured as a stray by one of our animal control officers, his right eye was so damaged it had to be removed. The fur around the missing eye had been shaved, the paler circle highlighting the wound which had been stitched shut with purple thread.

But he was a dream. When I had walked him he ambled along with the leash slack, pausing to pee and poop for so long that it was clear he’d been holding it, evidence that he was probably housebroken. The only difficulty was that, not yet used to his missing eye, he kept veering to the right, bumping into my legs.

The shelter’s executive director, Kerry McBride, loves Labs (she has a huge brown one, Buster), and was fostering Zeke while he recovered from his injury and illness. She said he was ideal: housetrained, as I had suspected; friendly with people and great with Buster.

And now, here were these two women, wanting to see him. I admit that I looked at them with keen appraisal. This dog had been through so much and was so exceptional that I felt only the perfect adopters would do. Like, maybe, the Queen, the Pope or the President – as an old friend used to playfully describe the caliber of guests worthy of a particularly fancy meal I had made.

I introduced myself to the women as a volunteer, and offered to get Zeke for them. He was spending the day in Kerry’s office. They seemed excited as I showed them into a meet and greet room.

Kerry looked up when I went to her door. Zeke was lying on the big red dog bed with Buster. I told her about the two prospective adopters.

“Are they okay?” She looked apprehensive.

“I don’t know anything. I just met them.” How to say it without sounding snobbish? “But they look – pretty ordinary.”

“I’ll want to talk to them,” she said. “This is a very special dog.”

I took Zeke and led him into the room where the two women were waiting.

When the older woman saw him, with his purple-stitched eye cavity, her face crumpled and she began to cry. “Oh, God love him,” she said. “The poor baby.”

I tried to reassure her. “He’ll be okay. He’s getting good care here.”

The young woman reached out for Zeke and he went to be patted. The older woman took a tissue from her purse (tacky purple vinyl with a frayed strap, I noticed) and dried her eyes. When she had composed herself, she asked, “Do you think they can lower his adoption fee?”

I bristled a little at that, but punted the question. “That’s something you can ask the adoption counselor,” I said. “I’ll leave you to get acquainted.”

Outside the room I ran into Fiona, the head of adoptions. “What do you think?” she asked in her lilting Scottish accent.

“I don’t know. They asked about discounting his adoption fee.”

She shook her head. “We’re not going to bargain for this dog. He deserves people who are willing and able to give him the best.”

It would be up to her to ask the hard questions and approve or deny the adoption. Glad not to have that responsibility myself, I went back to the office area. I was working on color posters that we put on every kennel gate to present each dog in his or her best light and attract adopters. Coincidentally the pet profile next on my list was Zeke’s; it had a big picture of him lying on the red bed in Kerry’s office.

A short time later, Kerry came over to the desk where I was working. “I just went to talk to the people looking at Zeke,” she said. “They’re a mother and daughter. I couldn’t get much from them.” She shook her head, her expression frustrated. “I asked them if they’d had big dogs before and they said yes. That was all, nothing more. I asked the daughter – because that’s who would have Zeke; she has her own place and is going to school – ‘Where would Zeke stay during the day while you’re in classes?’ She said, ‘In my apartment.’ When I asked her how long she was away on a typical day, she said, ‘All day, but I’d come home for lunch.’”

This job can make you cynical. We see so many people unprepared for the responsibility of caring for a dog; they’ll promise a daily walk, no unsupervised hours alone outside, a secure fenced yard, lots of quality time, and so on and so on. And then the dog gets picked up running stray, or returned to the shelter. Would a nineteen year old college student really come home every day at lunch to take Zeke out? Would she get up in the morning in time to give him a good walk? How about evenings – would she put him before her social life? Thinking about myself at her age, I had my doubts.

Kerry went on, “What I really wanted to hear was, ‘We had our wonderful dog for 15 years and when he died we endowed a major veterinary clinic in his name.’” We both laughed at that.

Then I said, “I guess we could tell the daughter, ‘It sounds like your life right now might not be set up to deal with the needs of a dog like Zeke, with his heartworm and his eye. And his size, and need for exercise.’”

She nodded. “Fiona’s talking to them right now.” She went back to her office.

About half an hour later, Kerry reappeared. “It’s going to work out,” she said, smiling broadly. “They’re great. The mother has a big Lab, too, and can take Zeke on days when the daughter is extra busy. They really seem to love him.”

“I’m so glad!” I said. I took the color poster of Zeke that I had just printed out. “I bet they’d like to have this.” I brought it out to the lobby where the women were sitting on a bench, Zeke leaning against their legs. When I gave the poster to the mother – since the daughter was holding Zeke’s leash with one hand and patting him with her other – she exclaimed with delight, “Oh, it’s precious! We’ll frame it.”

Fiona was at the front desk entering their information into the computer. I gave her the poster to put in their adoption packet.

“They’re going to be fine,” she whispered. “They love him. My first impression of them was wrong.”

“Mine, too,” I admitted, and we were both quiet for a moment. I thought that maybe, like me, she was feeling humbled by how close we had come to making a mistake that could have hurt this dog’s chances for happiness.

The women were beaming as they got their photo taken with Zeke. He was hugged and kissed by multiple staff members and volunteers. At last he left the building, walking between mother and daughter, every now and then veering slightly to the right to bump into the daughter’s legs. She smiled and reached down a hand to pat and guide him.

I had assumed – maybe we all had — that the ideal adopter for Zeke would be exemplary in every way, educated, successful, maybe exuding an aura of affluence that would assure us all that Zeke would want for nothing and, as Kerry joked, would have a vet clinic endowed in his memory on some day in the hopefully distant future.

But the best predictor of a good home, I reminded myself, is love. And on that count, it seemed that the Queen, the Pope or the President couldn’t have offered more than these two women.

It Takes a Village

Montana’s story began when an animal control officer at Northside Animal Shelter got a call about a stray “aggressive pit bull,” and went to the tough neighborhood that the caller described. There the officer found a medium-sized dog with big ears, a face that was terrierlike — long nose and a dark brown mask bisected by a white stripe — and a white, freckled, pudgy body.

The dog was nearly feral in her aversion to humans. I imagine it took fast work with the catchpole to capture her and get her into the truck, but the officer succeeded and brought her to Northside. She was admitted with the new name Montana.

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

She was given the systematic series of behavioral tests that all incoming dogs receive to assess their fitness to be adopted. Sadly, she failed body handling. She shook violently, and jerked her head around at every sound, touch and movement. She didn’t bite, but it seemed she might at any moment. That, plus her heartworm-positive status, almost sealed her doom.

But one of the assessment team asked her colleagues to wait, give the dog a few days to calm down and readminister the test. The next time, Montana squeaked by.

The life-saving efforts didn’t stop there. Montana was spayed, started on the costly regimen of treatment for her heartworm, and was finally released into one of the adoption wards.

That’s where I met her, when I arrived for my volunteer dog-walking shift on a hot July day. The ward caregiver, Marci, pointed the new arrival out to me as someone in need of TLC. I went over to her kennel and looked in. There, back in the shadows at the rear of the run, a dog lay curled on her bed. When our eyes met, she gave a long, low, rumbling growl.

I was all for dispensing TLC, but not if it was going to get me bitten. I went on to the next kennel, thinking gloomy thoughts about the poor, defensive animal’s chances.

Over the next few weeks, however, Montana ventured out of her shell. This was no doubt thanks to Marci’s ministrations. The young caregiver was a true “dog whisperer.” Shelter caregivers’ jobs are hard, dirty and constantly demanding, but Marci always made time to sit in a kennel with a dog in her lap, patting and talking softly to the animal.

The first time I cautiously leashed Montana for a walk, she came along with what seemed like a sigh of resignation. We circled the big exercise yard a few times, then she pulled me determinedly to the exit gate and all the way back to the safety of her ward, having had all the TLC she could stand for one day.

After that, I walked her every time I went to the shelter. Gradually, trust grew between us. I began getting a tentative wag. Then she started barking when she saw me, front feet lifting off the floor with every vocalization as she demanded to be taken out. I began to spend extra time with her after my regular dog-walking shift was over. Something about her company was deeply calming.

One day in the exercise yard, with her lying at my feet, I decided to take a risk. I reached down and pulled her up into my lap, all 40 pounds of her. She went rigid at first, but I held her firmly, and gradually I felt the weight of her settle onto me as she relaxed.

We stayed like that for maybe 20 minutes, taking in the languid activity of the summer afternoon: insects whirling, a mockingbird perched on top of the shelter’s chainlink fence trilling through his varied repertoire, traffic passing. As I stroked Montana’s warm coat, I felt that the two of us were enveloped in a timeless peace.

I was losing my heart to her. But my affection for Montana couldn’t result in a permanent relationship. I had already persuaded my husband to adopt one shelter dog, our pit-boxer mix, Ruby. Doug loved her, but wanting the freedom to travel he drew the line at any more dogs. So I did all I could to try to get Montana adopted.

In this effort I was just one of many who were working hard on her behalf. A shelter photographer took pictures of her, and a fellow volunteer who designs colorful, creative Instagram posters for all the shelter’s adoptable dogs and cats made a charming one for Montana. Another volunteer who keeps our Facebook page current featured her in one of the weekly updates highlighting a dog who had made remarkable progress.

Volunteers walked her and played with her regularly, brought her to offsite adoption events, took her to “Dogs on the Diamond” at the local baseball stadium and on hikes in local parks where she sported an “Adopt Me” vest. Staff members cared for her with skill and, more than that, love. She completed her heartworm treatment and was pronounced cured. The adoption team promoted her to any likely adopter.

Montana was getting first-rate treatment, but as her time in the shelter lengthened I started to worry. She was still wary of strangers; she would lie on her bed in her kennel and fix passersby with what one staff member humorously, affectionately described as her “I hate you, world,” expression.

When, I wondered, would the right people come, who would recognize this dog’s sweetness and want to give her a kind and loving home – no doubt her first?

Montana's reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

Montana’s reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

I left in late August for a two week vacation and tearfully kissed Montana good bye, hoping that she would have been adopted by the time I returned, but also knowing that I would miss her terribly.

While I was away I got an email that brought tears again — happy ones. Montana had found her family. From the attached photo they appeared to be a sweet young couple, earnest and trustworthy-looking, smiling with Montana leaning against their legs.

There was also a photo of a crowd of shelter staffers who had gathered to give this much-loved dog a rousing sendoff. Looking at the faces in the picture, so genuinely happy, I was moved to think of the enormous amount of commitment, work and expense that had gone into rehabilitating this dog, who had come so close to being deemed a hopeless case. Montana’s transformation from fearful, mistrustful stray to loving family pet was nearly miraculous.

Even more miraculous, though, is the fact that Montana’s story is not unique. Far from it. Every day at our shelter, staff and volunteers are restoring broken bodies and spirits and hearts to wholeness, one by one. The result is thousands of animals saved each year. That’s the power of a village of caring.

Montana, home at last

Montana, home at last