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

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