Monthly Archives: February 2017

A Book for Every Shelter Worker and Volunteer – and Dog Lover

When writer Amy Sutherland and her husband, Scott, adopted Bumble Bee, an extremely fearful young dog, from a Maine shelter, they thought that their love would heal her. They also thought that they knew a lot about dogs; each had had dogs individually, and together they had raised their genial Australian shepherd. In addition, Amy was a devoted and experienced volunteer dog walker at the shelter where Bumble Bee had been brought after being impounded from under a farmhouse porch where she had lived her whole short life.

But Bumble Bee turned out to be a greater challenge than Amy and Scott were prepared for. She was not just a stray; she was feral – never having lived in a home or interacted with people. She slunk in the shadows of their house, was terrified of stairs, doorways and, most of all, of them. As sleepless nights and disrupted days began to take their toll, they asked themselves, “Why did we ruin our nice life?”

Trying to warm to the dog Amy changed her name to Penny and gave her the middle name of her beloved grandmother, Jane. Still, tensions mounted, each spouse blaming the other for perceived missteps that aggravated the dog’s fears. “We’d quit kissing each other goodnight to avoid getting our fangs tangled.” Things came to a head the morning Scott said, “It would be easier to return Penny Jane than to get a divorce.”

But Amy could not imagine becoming one of “them,” the people who returned dogs, whose breaking of the implicit commitment to lifetime care for their adopted pet made her fellow shelter workers roll their eyes and sigh. “If I become ‘them,’” she lamented, “I won’t be me.”

The crisis passed; returning Penny Jane was never mentioned again, and in time the couple became deeply attached to her. For her part the dog came to accept domestic life, though she would always be shy and never very affectionate. “For the first time,” Amy says, “I loved a dog who showed no great love for me back.” That’s the tone of this book: clear-eyed, warm-hearted, but never sentimental or cutesy.

Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes is touching, honest, funny, at times heartrending, and enormously informative about the plight of homeless dogs and the people nationwide who are working on their behalf.

Amy Sutherland devotes several chapters to her travels across the country to meet exemplary shelter and rescue workers and visit outstanding dog care facilities. There’s the woman in San Francisco who runs Muttville, a shelter just for senior dogs, so that they’re not at a disadvantage in competition with the spiffy newer-model pups as they would be in an ordinary shelter. There’s “Adopt and Shop” in (where else?) L.A., which showcases the adoptable dogs in a colorful boutique setting along with cute accessories and high-end doggy supplies. There’s Best Friends, the Utah desert sanctuary for creatures – dogs, cats, horses, others – who have lost out in the adoption lottery but who are guaranteed a peaceful, loving place to live out their days.

A team of trainers at an ASPCA facility in New Jersey focuses on the “scarediest” dogs – the ones whose aversive behavior toward people would doom their chances of adoption. Many “graduates” from this program have gone on to find permanent loving homes.

The Animal Farm Foundation in upstate New York is dedicated to reversing the stigma against pit bulls, widely considered wrong and unfair by most animal experts. Sutherland herself was at first suspicious of “pitties” but, like the great majority of shelter workers, came to love and esteem them.

These are just a few of the organizations and individuals she spotlights that are all working toward the same goal — ending canine homelessness — in a variety of ways: promoting spay/neuter; assisting needy pet owners in keeping their animals; tirelessly and creatively promoting adoptions; rehabilitating damaged dogs into good companions; transporting dogs from overpopulated areas (like my Tennessee city) to areas where strictly enforced spay and neuter laws create a shortage of adoptable animals.

These profiles are fascinating, but the book’s real heart is Sutherland’s stories of the shelter dogs she has walked, fostered, adopted herself or found homes for, loved, and, sometimes, lost.

Some of the stories are hilarious – like that of Walter Joe, her foster Jack Russell terrier who hung out on top of the clothes dryer and would not let her touch him; to avoid being bitten she had to keep the leash attached to him and tug it to get him to go for a walk, after which he would hop back up onto his warm perch. But then came the night when Amy and Scott lay down on the living room floor to watch TV and suddenly saw a small silhouette in the hallway, tentatively approaching. Walter Joe had gotten down from the dryer and come in search of…what? “A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest.” After that, he slept in the bed with them.

When their agreed-upon foster term was up, Amy and Scott returned Walter to the shelter with a great report card — “yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel.” On hearing that the shelter was considering euthanizing Walter as unadoptable, Amy brought him home for good, to join Penny Jane as an exceptionally lucky dog.

This experience convinced her that some dogs, like Walter, are “homeable” but not “shelterable” – which presents shelter staff with a dilemma: they have to make their assessment of whether a dog is safe to adopt out based solely on his behavior in the stressful environment of the shelter. “The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character?”

This insight affected me greatly, since, like every shelter worker and volunteer, I have loved and grieved for some dogs who I felt sure would have done great in the right home, but who couldn’t take the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs in the shelter setting. Thus, they “lost it” and had to be euthanized.

But there is great hope in this book, in the vast network of people who care for dogs and are working for better conditions for all of them. And in the individuals like Amy Sutherland, who, day after day, show up with treats and the offer of an outing and individual human attention, to brighten — you could even say, save — the lives of shelter dogs.

On the DL

My dog Ruby and I are both on the Disabled List (in sports terms, the DL) at present.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, last weekend, she came to my side of the bed and nuzzled my hand, whining, something she never does unless she needs to go out. I got up and limped (more about that later) to the back door to let her out. She did her business and by flashlight I verified that there was no problem with that. Normally I wouldn’t have been so inquisitive, but we had a major family event later that day, for which our son had flown down from New York City and my brother and sister-in-law had come up from Atlanta. If Ruby had a problem I wanted to know exactly what it was so that I could deal with it promptly, both for her good and for the smooth functioning of the day which we had all been looking forward to for over a year.

When she came back into the house she was clingy and holding her tail funny, crooked to the side. Her amber eyes entreated me to make it better. I told her I would try, and at first light we headed off to the local emergency vet. An impossibly young and fresh-faced doctor examined her – no problem with the anal glands, which was my first suspicion since she had shown the same symptoms the previous summer and that had turned out to be the cause. He did find a small cyst a few inches below her tail, and biopsied that. Could that cause the tail immobility? I asked him, and he shrugged and said possibly: the cyst was inflamed and she had obviously been licking it. He gave her some pain meds and a Cone of Shame, and we headed home. I was at least reassured that her distress would soon be relieved and wouldn’t disrupt our plans. (Though I admit I will worry until I learn that the biopsy of the cyst is normal, in a few more days.)

Ruby with the C.O.S. (The bed is borrowed from her basset hound cousin Slapshot the Awesome Hockey Dog, who tweets — via his press agent, my sister Adele Jones — for the Nashville Predators.)

As for me, a week ago, chronic stiffness in my hips localized and intensified deep within the left hip. I thought I could walk it off, and took Ruby for our usual 3 mile hike in our favorite park. Trying to ignore the pain I focused on the warm sun, the blue sky, the distant vistas of hills and valleys visible through the bare trees, the sounds of spring birds. Spring, already, here in Tennessee, in mid-February — it amazes this ex-New Yorker. There were even some daffodil spears poking up from the ground.

But my “cure” only aggravated the situation. The pain became acute – not enough to mar my pleasure on our big family day the following Sunday, but severely limiting my mobility. By Monday I was using the device my husband acquired after he tore his knee in an injudicious but glorious last hurrah as a softball player at age 64. This device is cleverly marketed by L.L. Bean to age-resistant baby boomers like me as a “trekking pole”; it’s sporty green aluminum, adjustable, with a rugged cork grip. But, in truth, in form and function it is a cane. And, hobbling along with it when we all went out to breakfast on Monday before taking our son to the airport, I felt that people were looking at me differently.

Though I’m in my mid sixties, I have prided myself on being active, and especially in my ability to handle the biggest, rowdiest dogs in the shelter where I volunteer several hours a week. In fact, walking them, giving them a break from their confinement, the stimulation of time outdoors, and the sociability of one-on-one interaction with a human – all have become, in the 3 years I’ve been doing it, a major part of what I consider my mission in life. But now, suddenly, I can hardly even walk Ruby around the block.

I also regularly drive dogs and cats from our shelter to a partner shelter in Atlanta, which involves climbing in and out of a tall cargo van and lifting heavy crates – activities which, in my present state, seem as impossible as pole-vaulting 20 feet.

In short, I am beginning to experience a premonition of the losses that accompany what our witty and kind former doctor once called “attaining longevity.” I liked his positive spin on the matter and, having lost my parents at 47 and 55 respectively, am grateful for every year of life denied them but granted to me.

And I have an inspiring model for aging well in my maternal grandmother, who into her late 80s was still walking the beaches and fishing off the pier in her Jekyll Island, Georgia home. She delighted in asking strangers to guess her age and seeing their genuine amazement when she told them the number.

So I don’t hide my age. But I have tried to hide (from myself as well as from others) its increasing limitations: the difficulty of rising from a kneeling position, the stiffness after a prolonged sit, the haze of cataracts over my vision.

But the cane, the limp – they tell the story loud and clear.

Probably I have pulled a muscle and with rest and gentle stretching will get back to normal, back to the nature walks with Ruby that nourish my spirit, back to the outings with the shelter dogs that give me the sense – rare enough in other areas of my life – that what I am doing really, truly makes a difference. And if, as I attain greater longevity, I have to give up certain activities – like walking the biggest and most energetic dogs, there will still be many ways to help and serve them. In recent posts I described the abundant menu of volunteer roles at our shelter and, presumably, others, so need only to choose different activities from that list to continue the mission that has become so central to my life.

Here again my grandmother is my model, as she continually adapted to loss and change. She experienced more loss that seems fair for one person to have to endure: her parents, naturally; twelve brothers and sisters; husband; friends – and, most unnaturally, all four of her children. Yet she never complained. She took a keen interest in other people, kept a great sense of humor, stayed active. When, at 90, she realized that she could no longer handle driving and living alone, she sold her house and moved to Nashville, to an assisted living facility near my mother and sister. She always said she didn’t want to be a burden. Whenever she experienced sadness or discouragement, she would sit and read her Bible, sharing her troubles only with her Lord.

* * *

On a follow up visit to our regular vet, he diagnosed Ruby’s recent problem as a sprained tail! Too many exuberant greetings as so many exciting people – her “brother,” Marcus, her “aunt and uncle,” my brother and sister-in-law – arrived to share the special day. Useless to tell her to approach love and life with less gusto, more restraint.

In this, she gives me another model for how I want to face the future: Reveling fully in the joy of the moment. Loving without counting the cost. And always eager to explore new terrain — even if with a crooked tail and a gimpy gait.

Speed Dating, Shelter Style

I have to hand it to the staff and my fellow volunteers at our large municipal animal shelter: they’re always coming up with creative ways to get our animals into the public eye and promote adoptions.

Three days before Valentine’s Day, the shelter held a “Speed Dating” event.

The concept was based on research showing that most people make up their minds about adopting an animal (or choosing a potential romantic partner?) within eight minutes of meeting him or her. (For me, it took much less time: I made up my mind about Ruby, our adopted shelter dog, the very first moment we locked eyes — she a winsome seven-month-old stray, I a new shelter volunteer looking for someone to fill the dog-shaped hole in my heart ever since the death of our golden retriever, Rufus, seven months earlier.)

The shelter was decorated with hearts and cupids and pink and white crepe paper streamers. Volunteer “matchmakers” with stopwatches waited at the six meet-and-greet rooms. Visitors roamed through the wards of adoptable animals and chose the ones they would like to meet; when they entered the room with a dog or cat, the clock would start running. At six minutes, the potential adopters would get a two-minute warning. If, at eight minutes, they weren’t ready to make up their minds but still wanted to consider the animal, they could take their place at the end of the line and hope that when their turn came again their chosen dog or cat would still be available.

If, however, they decided that they had met their perfect match, off they’d go to a staff member who would finalize the adoption.

The day was dreary but the rain held off, and we had a steady flow of visitors and several adoptions. One of the most heartwarming was that of little Marty McFly, a Jack Russell terrier mix who was found as a stray, afflicted with heartworms. He had been at the shelter for several weeks, being treated for his disease and endearing himself to everyone. Contrary to the feisty, stubborn reputations of most Jack Russells (so I’m told), Marty loves to cuddle. He is also housetrained and generally an amiable, get-along kind of guy. Just two days earlier, my husband and I had taken him to City Hall, where the Mayor and his staff once a month host one of our shelter dogs for the day. Reports on him were, “I know we say this every time with every dog, but Marty was the absolute best yet!”

Marty was adopted by a woman who heads up a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. By day, he will be an ambassador and comforter for these traumatized individuals, and I can’t think of more powerful medicine than an affectionate dog to cuddle up with when you’ve lost your home and everything you once trusted and loved and hoped for. And by night he’ll go home with Valerie and be a thoroughly pampered pet. Happy life, Marty — as we always say, with both smiles and sadness, as one of our favorites departs from our care to his or her new home.

As if things weren’t active enough, with families queuing up for their chances to “date” their chosen dogs and cats, and volunteers and staff rushing around getting animals out of their kennels and putting them back, mid-morning a group of kids and adults arrived. They were members of a church group called S.O.S. — “Serving Our Savior” — and had brought a pallet-load of donations: bags of dog and cat food, kitty litter, pillows, towels and blankets, and more. The only “payment” they wanted was a tour of the shelter and the chance to see and pat the animals. I was honored to give it to them. As I witnessed the smiles of the kids giving dogs treats through their kennel gates, and their gentleness in one-on-one interactions with a kitten or a pup, and their courtesy –“Please; thank you; yes, ma’am” — I thought “There’s hope, with kids like these coming up.” Their adult escorts were also admirable, kind and generous, putting hands and feet to their faith.

Eighteen animals went home with new families on this day. And many others who are still in the shelter will benefit from the donations of the church group and several others who came in throughout the day to contribute food and supplies.

I’m filled with wonder and warmth as I think of the enormous efforts that went into this event: by the staff and volunteers who planned it; the photographers who took pictures of the animals to post on Facebook and Instagram and draw people to the shelter; the volunteers who decorated the building, transforming it from utilitarian to festive and welcoming; the other volunteers who gave their precious free time on a Saturday to help bring people and pets together, some arriving at 8:30 in the morning to walk the dogs and settle them down so they’d show their best selves to the public.

And, of course, let’s not forget the staff members who took on the extra duties of the event on top of their regular huge workload. And the church group and the other caring souls who brought donations to help the animals.

Love was in the air, and love ruled the day.

Abandoned!

The January day had been dreary, foggy and rainy, but I was determined to get out for a walk with my dog Ruby. We went to a nearby park, a large area of woodland trails and paved paths. It’s usually busy, but there was only one other car in the parking area, and I saw no other walkers.

We ambled around the quarter mile circular roadway that bordered a big field, and then headed down to a path that meandered by a slow-moving brown creek. The clouds to the west had lifted and a cheering patch of blue was visible.

Movement on the park’s main road, some hundred feet to my right, drew my eye. It was a man walking with his dog. The dog was a pretty creature, white with a tan face and a feathery tail. She halted and looked at Ruby and me curiously, wagging, but the man kept walking on, his face averted.

Ruby and I reached the end of the creekside path after about twenty minutes, and headed back the way we’d come. When we reached the large open field I was surprised to see the white dog running toward us. The man was nowhere in sight.

She came near and greeted Ruby, who instantly dropped into a play bow. “Where’s your person?” I asked the dog, but I feared that I already knew the answer. A 360-degree survey of the empty expanse of parkland confirmed my suspicion that he had brought her to this deserted place on a rainy day in order to abandon her, unobserved. She was on her own.

She had no collar and she was shy of me, coming almost close enough for me to pat but then frisking away before I could touch her. She was medium sized, with long, wavy white fur speckled with golden-tan spots, and a golden head. Her muzzle was narrow, like a collie’s, and her ears were feathery. Her eyes were ringed with charcoal gray, making their amber color stand out.

I put Ruby into my car for safekeeping and got a spare leash and some treats out of the trunk. “Here, baby,” I called and the dog came near, cautiously, and sniffed the treats. But just as I almost managed to slip the leash over her head she scooted away.

A couple appeared, walking their dog across the big field, and the stray ran over to them, obviously drawn to the other animal. “Can you catch her?” I yelled to the people. “She’s friendly.” The man caught her in his arms and I went over and leashed her. “Thank you,” I said, and told them what I thought her situation was. Their expressions showed that they shared my disgust at the man’s callous treatment. “She could have been killed on these busy roads outside the park,” the woman said.

“I’m taking her over to the animal shelter where I volunteer,” I said. “She’ll be safe there.”

The following Monday I went to the shelter for my usual dog-walking session and checked up on the dog. Her new name was Bella, which was perfect; she was indeed a beautiful animal. She greeted me with her long nose poking through the wire mesh of her gate; she wagged and looked into my eyes. Did she recognize me? I hope so.

She’s one of the lucky ones. But countless other abandoned dogs and cats suffer, starve, endure fear and cruelty, are killed by other animals or by cars. How can these sad situations be avoided?

First, prospective pet owners should be sure they know what they’re getting into. We hear so many unhappy stories of preventable adoption failures at our shelter. Some examples: “I have to return this puppy. She’s biting and scratching and messing everywhere.” (Perfectly normal and foreseeable puppy behavior.) “I have to get rid of my dog; my apartment complex doesn’t allow them.” (Was this not known beforehand?) “I don’t have the time to walk and care for a dog.” (Some self-assessment — and maybe a trial run fostering a shelter dog for a short time — might have made this clear.)

But sometimes, even with the best intentions and preparation, things don’t work out. Here are some excellent suggestions from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on what to do if you feel you have to give up your pet. I would only add a caution I’ve read elsewhere: don’t advertise your pet “free to good home;” charging a fee will reduce the chances that your companion will wind up in bad hands, like a dog fighter’s.

If, however, you’ve exhausted all other options, what should you do? Take your pet to a well-run shelter, where he or she will be safe, fed, provided with medical care and treated kindly.There may be a fee for surrendering the animal, and most likely you won’t have access to any further information about him or her. But you will have the consolation of knowing that you’ve done the best you could in a tough situation, and maybe your pet will be one of the lucky ones.

Like Bella. Today I visited her and walked her at the shelter, where she’s been for a week. I learned the happy news that one of our most valued rescue partners has chosen her for their highly selective adoption program. The odds are excellent that she will soon find the person or family who will give her the love she deserves, forever.