I admit I thought it was a questionable idea: our shelter planned a twelve hour adoption event, from noon to midnight on the Saturday a week before Christmas.
First of all, who would come in at midnight to adopt an animal? I could just imagine a group of drunk college kids after a couple of hours in the bar: ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea – let’s go over to the animal shelter and get us a dog!’”
And holding the event in the holiday season seemed crazy to me. That time of year is when most people’s lives are in frantic disarray, company coming and going, stressed schedules, kids and pets supercharged with excitement. It seemed the very worst time to add a new animal to the mix. The only argument in favor of a holiday adoption event was that more people were likely to have time off work to spend with the new family member.
But any newly-adopted pet is bound to be disoriented, agitated by new sights, sounds and people. A shelter pet is likely to have greater needs, having possibly come from a troubled background or a lost home. Shouldn’t the new environment be as calm and predictable as possible? Shouldn’t a routine of regular walks, playtime and quiet solitude be established early on, a refuge provided, clear rules given and enforced by the responsible adults? Shouldn’t the new owners be free of other concerns and distractions to focus on the pet’s needs and calmly correct the undesirable behavior that a nervous animal is likely to show, such as housetraining accidents, barking and chewing?
Instead we would be pushing as many of our pets as possible out the door with more than a few inexperienced owners whom time pressure would prevent our thoroughly screening, into homes totally disarrayed by holiday chaos.
Was I being a Grinch? Were my standards of animal care too strict? Was I projecting upon the animals my own aversion to disorder and noise and unpredictable events? Would some of these dogs and cats revel in the lights, smells, carols, laughter, crowds and liberal treats that are all part of Christmastime?
I had my doubts.
Still, as a loyal volunteer I would support the shelter’s efforts. Maybe some of the adoptions would “take.” Realistically, though, I expected to be seeing a lot of returned pets in my shifts in the shelter’s Admissions department over the next several weeks.
On the day of the event I arrived an hour before the doors opened to the public to get my assignment: attendant in Cedar Ward. At the pregame meeting there was a feeling of expectancy, a little apprehension at the crowds that would likely be descending upon us, and a contagious excitement that, despite my reservations, I couldn’t help catching.
The kennels had decorations on their gates and the dogs wore festive neckerchiefs. Volunteers and staff members sported Santa hats. The education room had been turned into a cafe where a Chinese chef was frying up egg rolls, potstickers and chicken wings for staff and visitor enjoyment throughout the day until midnight. A local farm supply store had provided temporary chain link enclosures that had been set up in the outside areas; several dogs were taken out of the wards and put there with their beds, toys and water bowls, to minimize barking in the kennels. Fortunately the weather cooperated; the temperatures were predicted to go no lower than the high 50s and there was no threat of rain.
My job was to hang out in Cedar Ward, keep the kennels clean, answer questions and arrange for people to meet dogs that interested them. I was given a walkie-talkie and shown how to use it to radio for another volunteer who would take the visitor and the dog to a meet-and-greet room, stay with them, and either return the dog to the ward, or escort the visitor through the adoption process. Thus prepared I set off for Cedar Ward.
I quickly saw that my shift, which went from 3 to 6 p.m., would be a busy one. My ward housed all the shelter’s puppies – some sixteen of them! Grouped by litter in three of the kennels, these eight-to-ten-week-old, deep-down-squeezably-soft babies instantly drew a crowd. For the next three hours I was kept busy writing the names of people asking to see dogs in order on a whiteboard, answering their questions and radioing for adoption assistants.
In calmer intervals, which began to occur later in the evening as the puppy supply dwindled, I walked around the ward to get acquainted with the adult dogs in the other runs, who were mostly being ignored. There was a pair of 15-year-old hound mixes; their kennel card said that they had been owned by a veterinarian who had died. They shared one of the large kennels used for nursing mothers and pups; their two raised beds were placed side by side and thickly cushioned with quilts, looking quite homey and inviting. When I approached their gate they came and nuzzled my hand, looking up at me with gentle gray faces and bemused eyes that wrenched my heart.
As I continued my rounds of each kennel I said a silent prayer that all these creatures – so affectionate, so eager for human attention — would find good homes.
My shift was drawing to a close at quarter to six when a heavy-set young woman in a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sweatshirt came in. She had short, curly black hair, and a ready smile that didn’t quite overcome something troubled in her blue eyes.
I asked her what kind of dog she was looking for and she said that she thought one that was young but full-grown; she didn’t know if she had it in her to raise a puppy – though she did linger at the kennel where two of the last four puppies, a dark-brindle female and a tan male, pit bull siblings about eight weeks old, were wrestling and making little play growls.
I showed her the two oldies. “Oh, they’re precious,” she said. “But I just lost my dad this past year. I really need somebody who’s going to be around for a while.” Ah, I thought, that accounted for the strain I saw in her eyes.
I left her alone to browse through the ward. She stopped at every kennel, spending time talking to each dog and patting them through the gates.
After fifteen minutes or so she came to me and said, “I know I said I didn’t want to, but could I meet little Mercy?” – the dark-brindle puppy.
I called for an adoption assistant who came to escort the woman, with Mercy cradled in her arms against the Ninja Turtles, to a meet-and-greet room.
When my replacement came on at six I briefed her, then went over to the main building. I ate some greasy Chinese snacks and took in the spectacle of people, dogs and cats crowding the lobby, more people coming in the front door, kids cuddling puppies, and volunteers and staff members rushing around looking harried but happy. The atmosphere, I had to acknowledge, was festive and upbeat.
As I was walking toward the front door on my way out, I saw the young woman in the Ninja Turtles sweatshirt sitting on a bench holding Mercy. “Oh, are you taking her?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, beaming. “It was shaping up to be a pretty sad Christmas, the first one with my dad gone. But this little girl’s going to make everything different. I can’t wait for my family to meet her.” She kissed the puppy’s head and Mercy gave a big yawn that made us both laugh.
“That’s wonderful. Good luck to you both.”
I stopped to look at the large sheet of paper taped to the wall beside the front door, which gave the tally of completed adoptions – 76 so far, 34 dogs and 42 cats, and there were still six hours to go. Cynicism tried to tell me that some of those animals would be returned. But hope rose up to argue that many of those dogs and cats would heal broken hearts, bring families together, assuage loneliness, turn gloom into laughter, and be loved for their lifetimes.
And thus I found my Grinch-like negativity washed away by the irrepressible optimism and joy that is the heart of Christmas.