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.”
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.