Tag Archives: animal control officer

Open Heart, Open Mind — How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue

In her workshop on Compassion Fatigue, Hilary Hager shared with our group of around 50 participants why she has devoted her career to animal welfare. Hilary is now Senior Director of Volunteer Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She travels around the country and internationally, helping animal welfare workers care for themselves so that they are happier and healthier, and thus can work more effectively on behalf of needy animals.

She told about her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia many years ago, when she somehow attracted a large number of dogs. They just gravitated toward her, until her canine family finally numbered 16. Then one day she came home to find that hunters had shot all her dogs—a measure sanctioned by the Mongolian government to control the stray population.

It took her a long time to recover from her shock and grief. When she returned to the States she began working at an animal shelter, and to this day she says that everything she does for animals is in honor of those lost Mongolian dogs.

Everyone in the room had experienced – thankfully, most of us not to that same extent — that loving and caring for animals has a high emotional cost. We were there to learn how to maintain our wellbeing amid the stress of the work. The audience was made up of shelter staff and volunteers, animal control officers, animal rescuers and legislative advocates. Like any caregivers, we’re a population vulnerable to compassion fatigue, defined as “emotional, physical, social and spiritual exhaustion that causes a pervasive decline in the ability to feel and care for others.” It is a multi-stage process which may begin with zeal and idealism, but then progresses to anger and cynicism, a sense of guilt that you can never do enough, emotional numbing, possible addiction, and other dysfunctional states. It can end in total burnout.

No Complaints. Hilary started by having the group list all the things we like about our work, and then all the things we dislike. She then asked, “How prevalent is complaining in your organization?” Sheepish smiles and nervous laughter gave her the answer. “Why,” she went on, “do we spend so much time talking about the stuff on this list” – she tapped the paper taped to the wall on which she had listed all our negatives – “instead of on this one?” — the list of the many positives.

Everyone agreed that complaining is toxic, demoralizing, divisive, and contributes to compassion fatigue. “I made a policy for myself,” Hilary said, “that I would only complain to the person in my organization who could solve the problem.” Then she laughed. “For the first several days I had to stop myself. It seemed like everything I wanted to say was a complaint.” But it gradually got better, and she found that her work life grew more harmonious. Her home life improved, too; she realized that unloading her work frustrations on her husband merely stressed him out about situations that he couldn’t fix. She recommended that all of us give the no-complaint experiment a try for three months and see what a difference it made.

But how would we handle the buildup of tension and frustration that the habit of complaining is an attempt (unsuccessful) to defuse? Hilary suggested breathing and relaxation exercises – “You can find on the Internet techniques like 4-7-8 breathing, relaxing the pelvic floor, facial tapping, which really do help. Though some of them you can’t exactly do at the front desk while confronting an irate customer,” she joked.

A daily gratitude practice – spending quiet time each morning thinking about 3 things you’re grateful for – keeps the heart open. Allowing yourself to take time off, enjoying activities and relationships apart from your work, dissipates stress and creates a more balanced life.

Changing the Narrative. The most dramatic part of the workshop for me centered on reframing your idea of reality – specifically, the common perception among animal care workers, who see such neglect and suffering, that “people suck.” Hilary explained the “Ladder of Inference,” a concept developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris:

· We begin with real data and experience
· We then select the data and experience that we pay attention to
· To this selected data and experience we affix meaning, develop assumptions
· The resulting beliefs then form the basis of our actions, which in turn create real data and experience.

Thus, how we act and how we think depend on how we understand the situation we’re in. And how we understand the situation we’re in depends more on our beliefs, assumptions and values than on the actual situation.

She told a vivid story to illustrate this: A coworker at the organization where Hilary used to work would arrive early in the morning and often would find a dog tied up at the front door. She’d set the dog up in a kennel and go about her day, without really thinking anything of it.

One day, though, she arrived at the same time as another employee who, on seeing a dog tied up, vented about people “dumping dogs all the time.” For some reason, Hilary’s friend’s narrative changed, and what had been just a normal occurrence started to cause her anger and distress.

The next time she arrived to find an abandoned animal, she took a moment to consider the situation and her reaction. After she got the dog set up in a kennel, she passed the receptionist, who commented with distaste,”They dumped another one, huh?”

“Yes, but this story is pretty amazing,” Hilary’s friend said. She explained that the previous night a family was rushing to catch the ferry (the shelter was in the Seattle area, with a ferry to the San Juan Islands)— “and they saw this dog running panicked in the street. They stopped their car, and the dad managed to halt 4 lanes of traffic while the mom coaxed the dog into the back seat with the two kids. They couldn’t keep the dog and they were rushing to catch the last boat, so they brought him here where they knew he would be safe. And you know what else? As a result of that experience, one kid said she wants to be a vet when she grows up, and the other one wants to be an animal rescue officer.”

The receptionist stared at her. “How in the world do you know all that?”

“I don’t,” Hilary’s friend admitted. “I made it all up. But based on the available evidence it’s just as likely to be true as whatever people-sucking scenario we could come up with.”

I was stunned by this simple yet powerful example of attitude adjustment, a reminder that most of the time we can’t know the circumstances that make people behave as they do, and that erring on the side of compassion will help us feel better about ourselves, other human beings, and life in general.

Staying Positive. The session concluded with recommendations for achieving “Compassion Satisfaction”: Validate yourself by considering what you do well and how you positively contribute to your organization. Think about what you appreciate about your coworkers. Find ways to defuse your emotional triggers. Cultivate a daily gratitude practice.

At this stage in my animal care work – 3 years of volunteering some 400 hours per year – I needed this workshop. I had begun comparing myself unfavorably to younger, more energetic volunteers who can walk the big rowdy dogs tirelessly, or who have leadership gifts that I don’t possess, or who can handle the public with the right combination of directness and tact, whereas I shrink from any hint of confrontation. I had begun to lose my zest, my belief that I was really making a difference.

Hilary Hager helped me see that the things I am able to do also have value – driving transports, using my writing skills to promote the shelter’s mission, giving affection and walks to the dogs I feel capable of handling (God knows there are always more dogs in need of loving attention than there are people to give it), doing my share of the chores required to keep the shelter clean, healthy and functional.

Most of all, she opened my eyes to the possibility of creating a different reality: one governed by kindness, understanding, and choosing to believe the best of people. Including myself.

Wanted: A Knight in Shining Armor

Offsite adoptathons are not my favorite ways to serve the animal shelter where I volunteer. They’re chaotic, with volunteers transporting dogs in our own cars; lots of crates, tables, chairs and pop up tents to set up and break down; and the challenges of keeping stressed-out dogs safe in the unfamiliar environment. They seldom result in more than one or two adoptions. And, held in the summer months, they’re usually unbearably hot.

Still, when the email came in asking for volunteer dog handlers for an adoption event to take place in the parking lot of a shopping center near my house, I signed up. My main motivation was to find a home for Harlequin, my current “shelter crush.”

Harlequin was impounded by one of our animal control officers along with several other pit bulls who were kept chained in a yard without shelter, food or water. In Harlequin’s case the chain itself was cinched around her neck, not attached to a collar of any kind. She was emaciated, heartworm-positive, swaybacked with sagging teats from multiple breedings. Her ears had been cropped short, some of her teeth were broken, and her face was pocked with multiple scars. She had been hard-used, probably as a breeder for a dog-fighting operation.

After such a past you wouldn’t expect a dog to be sociable and sweet natured, but Harlequin was Miss Congeniality. She wasn’t much for walking; instead, she would jump up on you to be hugged and give kisses. And although we discourage jumping, I couldn’t help rubbing her sides and gazing into those improbably trusting brown eyes, and planting kisses on her sweet scarred head. She also liked being read to and would drape herself across my lap as I sat on the floor, a comforting warm weight.

She got her name from her black mask and dramatic black and white markings. Over her weeks in the shelter she had filled out, and was now quite a sturdy girl. The week before the adoptathon she had been to the “beauty parlor” – a local dog grooming shop that donates their services to help our shelter dogs look their best. Shiny, smelling nice, nearly finished with her heartworm treatments, Harlequin was ready to win some adopter’s heart.

I took her to the adoption event in my car. There were six other dogs, several other volunteers, and the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, and we all settled in for a long sit.

Around mid-morning an SUV passed our little setup, slowed, then swung into a parking space in front of a wine store. A young man got out and immediately came over to Harlequin’s crate. I greeted him and he introduced himself as Brad Smith, a realtor.

“I saw that dog and had to come meet her,” he said, squatting in front of Harlequin’s crate. He pressed his hand to the wire mesh and she licked it.

“She’s a doll,” I told him, and filled him in on her past, her heartworm treatments, her amazingly trusting and loving temperament.

He told me his story – two dogs, the third, their “big mama” – not biologically, but emotionally – having died just a month before. Now, he said, he was looking for another large, calm female to fill the void in all their lives. “I have a good feeling about this one,” he said.

He spent a lot of time with her, chatting with all of us, saying, “She’ll sleep up in the bed with me and the others. Sometimes my girlfriend objects but that’s the way it is.” Exercise? “There’s a large fenced ballfield near my house and when no one’s there I take the dogs and let them run free.” His schedule? “Very flexible. I take them for a good morning walk, come home at lunch to take them out, and then before bed they get another walk. That’s the minimum,” he added. Then, with a little evident anxiety, he asked, “Does that sound okay to you?”

Harlequin wagged her approval. As for me, I was almost ready to ask him to marry me – his girlfriend and my good husband and the, say, 30 year age gap between him and me notwithstanding.

Carrie, the volunteer coordinator, asked him if he thought he might want to go ahead with the adoption. He said yes, definitely, and for the next half hour filled out all the paperwork and responded to the counseling questions with answers that could not have been more perfect.

“You’re approved,” Carrie said with a smile, “pending a successful meet and greet with your other dogs.” He said no problem; he would bring them to the shelter that afternoon. He thanked us all and bid us goodbye, and said he’d see us later. “Now, to get that bottle of wine for the girlfriend,” he said, and jokingly added, “Can I get you one?” What a nice, friendly guy, we all agreed when he had gone. Heaven or the universe seemed to have sent Harlequin’s perfect forever dad. So many adoptions have a tinge of apprehension to them; some leave us with outright reservations, but usually we’ll go ahead if there are no real red flags. We reason that even a so-so home is preferable to confinement in the shelter. And also, as I freely admit, my standards for dog care are impossibly high.

But Brad Smith seemed to meet or exceed them.

I drove Harlequin back to the shelter and turned in Brad’s application for the adoption staff to hold for the afternoon’s meet and greet. I made a sign for Harlequin’s kennel door: “Hooray! My adoption is pending!” Then I returned to the adoptathon.

The hours crawled by in the heat. Many dog lovers came over to ooh and aah over our animals. Most said, “I’d take them all – but I already have four – five – fifteen at home.”

Around noon a middle-aged couple came out of the check-cashing and title loan store across from us, and made their way over to our tents. The woman was skinny and sinewy, the man rotund with a belt pack stretched around the widest part of his girth.

“Y’all are taking dogs for $30?” he said, pointing to our sign.

It took me a moment to process the question. Then I explained that we were an animal shelter and the dogs we had brought could be adopted for a $30 fee.

“We have a dog we have to get rid of,” the man said. He went on to tell me a stunning story of his son’s dog, a Newfoundland mix, who lived in a shed on the property of the son’s repossessed mobile home in a county about an hour from ours. “She gets food and water once a week,” the man said, “when we bring her a 40 pound sack of food and a couple gallons of water and leave them for her.”

Trying to keep my tone from betraying my dismay I asked, “Can’t you bring her to live with you?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” the man said, laughing, and his wife added, “She’s the sweetest thing, but huge and like a bull in a china shop.”

“I feel bad,” the man said, shaking his head. “It’s all my son’s fault. He won’t work and couldn’t keep up the payments on his mobile home so he lost it. I guess his meth addict girlfriend is all that’s important to him. You might think I’m talking about a 20-year-old kid but our son is over 40.”

I said I was sorry for their trouble. Meanwhile, though, my mind was fixed on the dog. Kept in a shed, starved and dehydrated, her heavy Newfie coat probably full of fleas, her heart no doubt choked with heartworms – what hope was there? What recourse? If I suggested the couple bring her to our shelter we would charge them an out-of-area $250 fee which, given that they had just come from a lender of last resort they would no doubt balk at. As for intervention by local animal care authorities, I knew that rules and enforcement were very lax in the country; dogs were regarded as people’s property to do with as they wished. While I was pondering the situation the couple said goodbye and walked off. I have been haunted ever since by my failure to – do something.

Not all dogs were destined to be as lucky as Harlequin – with someone reporting her abuse and our animal control officers intervening to bring her to the safety of our shelter. Unfortunately it seems she is destined to be with us a while longer. Her knight in shining armor never reappeared. As almost any woman will attest, knights in shining armor do tend to be undependable.

Thankfully, Harlequin is none the wiser about her jilting. And those of us who love her will keep on hugging her and reading to her and reassuring her – and ourselves – that soon someone will come along who will make promises to her that he or she can keep.


Chica was a beautiful, year-old, black and white pit bull with cropped ears. She had been captured as a stray by an animal control officer at the shelter where I volunteer, and she was extremely scared. Whenever I approached her kennel she would skulk away to the farthest corner and bark at me. I didn’t push her.

But a young adoption counselor, Vanessa, won Chica’s trust. I often smiled to see the two of them, Chica up on her hind legs dancing with Vanessa, or being hugged by her, or playing tug o’war.

When Chica was adopted by a sweet young family with a three-year-old son we all rejoiced. They spent a lot of time with her in one of the shelter’s meet and greet rooms to be sure that there was a strong connection.

A day later, however, I groaned aloud when I saw on the shelter’s Facebook page that Chica was lost. The couple had invited friends over to meet their new family member, and as the visitors were entering, the dog bolted out the front door.

She was loose in a neighborhood just a block from a congested four-lane highway, one of our city’s busiest shopping strips. To make the situation worse, the temperatures that night were forecast to be in the 30s.

As early darkness fell I looked out my window, over the wintry landscape and the bare trees, their few remaining brown leaves shuddering in a stiff breeze, and I said a prayer for Chica’s safety.

Safe Haven. What should you, as a new owner, do to help your pet, who is very likely anxious and disoriented, to safely make the transition from shelter to home?

First of all, the dog needs a place where she can take a break from human interaction and the new stimuli that may be overwhelming to her at first. Hands down, dog experts agree that a crate is best, one big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around and lie down in. Also, a crate will keep your pet safe when you can’t actively watch her. Consider how bewildering it is for a shelter dog to go from a 4’ x 6’ kennel, to having the run of a whole house. If you let her out of your sight she may get into mischief that places a strain on your new relationship, and could possibly endanger her.

“But I can’t put my dog in a cage,” some people protest. “It’s cruel!”

This attitude shows a misunderstanding of the canine nature. Dogs are den animals, and most will quickly accept a crate as a restful refuge that is theirs alone. Crate training your dog will also help with housebreaking. Dogs have a natural aversion to soiling their den, so if you leash and take your pet outside immediately upon letting her out of her crate, and praise her and give her treats when she “potties” outside, she’ll quickly learn.

Here is a thorough description of how and why to crate train, by renowned dog trainer and author Patricia Miller. https://www.peaceablepaws.com/faqs.php?subaction=showfull&id=1261405432&archive=&start_from=&ucat=2&

The tie that binds. Umbilical leashing, attaching the dog’s leash to your belt so that she stays with you always, is another practice that, in combination with the crate, is an excellent tool for housetraining, as Patricia Miller explains: https://www.peaceablepaws.com/faqs.php?subaction=showfull&id=1261405199&archive=&start_from=&ucat=2&

In addition, umbilical leashing can establish you as the dominant “alpha” in your dog’s new world. Tethered to you, every place you go she has to go. Is she taking a snooze? Too bad; you have to put the laundry in the dryer, so she goes with you. She learns that you set the rules and the pace of life. That knowledge helps a dog relax and feel secure in your care.

The scent of safety. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking of Chica all through that cold night. But in the morning the Facebook message bore a new comment: “FOUND!”

I couldn’t wait to get to the shelter to learn the whole story. Vanessa was there, looking tired but relieved. She told me that she had spent the previous afternoon driving around the area where Chica was lost, looking for her. As evening approached, she set a live trap near a wooded area not far from the owners’ house.

Then, every two hours throughout the night, she drove from her home to check the trap. At dawn, frustrated and upset at the empty cage, she considered what more she could possibly do. She peeled off the socks she had been wearing and put them inside the trap, hoping their familiar scent would lure the frightened animal.

Two hours later, there was Chica in the trap, holding one of the socks between her paws as if for comfort.

Dog and owners were joyfully reunited. Thanks to a devoted shelter worker’s persistence, and the couple’s determination to learn about and accommodate the needs of their canine family member, Chica is safe now in her forever home.

How to find your lost dog: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/what_to_do_lost_pets.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

Hot Pursuit

Once a stray, Macho couldn't stand confinement. As I would learn the hard way!

Once a stray, Macho couldn’t stand confinement. As I would learn the hard way!

Every month the Mayor invites a dog from our shelter to spend the day in the office with him and his staff. The exposure is great for our animals, and so far the adoption rate has been nine out of nine.

My husband and I, having more flexible schedules than a lot of volunteers, bring the dogs to City Hall. For the latest visit, Celia, the head of the shelter’s behavioral team, suggested Macho. “He has good manners, he’s completely housebroken as far as I can tell. And he would just love to get out.”

Truer words, as it turned out, were never spoken.

Six years old (or more), Macho was a senior citizen, and the biggest dog we had taken to City Hall yet. His shelter biography called him a German Shepherd/Chow mix (!) and all we knew of his background was that he had been impounded as a stray by an animal control officer. He had a tan coat brushed with black, a very fluffy tail, and a pointed face with graying black around the muzzle. His eyes were golden brown, thoughtful-looking. When he panted I saw that his tongue was spotted with black, which, along with the full, curved tail, probably prompted the Chow I.D. His legs were long and his bearing was regal.

On the morning of our date at City Hall, I brought him out to the car. Doug, who had earlier carried out the crate and other supplies of treat, water bowl, blanket and chew toy and stowed them in the hatchback, greeted the dog with a pat. “Hi, Macho,” he said, and added to me, “I feel like a weirdo calling him that.”

“Yeah, I know. He should be called something like Percival or Quincy. He’s so dignified.” I opened the back door and Macho hopped up into the back seat. I took off his leash so that he wouldn’t catch it on something and choke, but for the entire ride I sat half-turned in my seat, patting him and ready to grab his collar if he got any ideas.

He was fixated on the open window, however. He kept his head outside the car, sniffing the breeze all the way downtown. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw his noble profile, the wind making his black lips flap.

At the imposing stone municipal building with its steep, long, wide staircase suggesting that supplicants ought to advance up it on their knees, Doug pulled up at a meter. I opened my passenger door to get out.

There was a sudden blur and commotion as seventy pounds of tan fur vaulted over the back seat and used my lap as a springboard to launch out of the open front door. I grabbed at his collar but it was too late. Macho was loose.

He sauntered over to the line of plantings beside the sidewalk and lifted his leg, looking at me with those serious brown eyes. “Macho, treat,” I said in a calm, cheerful voice, holding out my fist in the hope that he would think it contained a tidbit. I got about six feet from him and he took off. With the practiced lope of a street survivor he crossed the road, weaving amid the traffic. Panicked, I ran after him, hardly even looking from side to side as I bolted across the street. Doug could not join the chase; he had strained his knee badly at the gym and was wearing a brace.

Macho continued down the sidewalk at a brisk trot. I charged after him, calling his name. To every approaching pedestrian I hollered a plea – “Catch him! He won’t bite.” Some made half-hearted grabs for him, futile of course. Others were understandably reluctant to get anywhere near a large running dog, and a few gave me looks that expressed doubt of my sanity.

A small part of my brain was aware of how ridiculous I must look as I chased the escapee, a living contradiction of the slogan on the back of my volunteer t-shirt: “Helping Animals, Saving Lives.” Other desperate thoughts were whirling through my mind. This street was set back a little from the main thoroughfares of downtown but at the rate he was going he would soon be on one of the busy city arteries amid rush hour traffic. What if he got hit? What if he just vanished? How was I going to tell the people at the shelter that I had lost one of our dogs?

I puffed after him for four blocks. A young man was approaching, wearing headphones. He looked like someone who might be willing to be a hero, so I gestured to him and he nodded and stepped in front of Macho. But the dog veered around him with his streetwise skill at evasion and kept up his brisk, wolf-like trot. He turned left onto the next street.

Just then my true hero appeared – Doug, deftly speeding in the car the wrong way on the same one-way street Macho was traversing. Doug stopped and I ran to the open window. “A treat…” I gasped, “Give me a treat.”

“In the back!”

I went to the hatch and lifted it, glancing around to see where Macho was. He had stopped running; from a distance of around thirty feet away he was sitting on the sidewalk and watching me, Doug, and the car. His expression looked hesitant…speculative.

“Hey, boy,” I said, in a perky, inviting tone. “Want to go for a ride?” I opened the back door.
And, to my complete amazement, he bounded over and jumped in.

I told Doug to hold his collar as I got into the passenger seat. I sat for a few moments, limp with relief. Then I turned and patted the panting dog and told him he was a good boy. I didn’t blame him for trying to bolt. I could only imagine how stressful it had been for him, being taken from the by-then familiar world of the shelter, put into a strange car with two people he didn’t know, and driven to a new environment in the busy center of a large city.

But why had he come back to the car? What had clicked in that agitated, flight-driven brain to make him see the vehicle as a refuge, and us as benevolent rescuers?

Or was it just that, like many dogs, he found the allure of a ride in the car irresistible?


In the Mayor’s office we put on our game faces, and everything was happy and upbeat as Macho had photo ops with His Honor, cuddles with the Mayor’s staffers. We got his crate set up, gave him a bowl of water which he inhaled, and took our leave, promising to come back to pick him up by the usual time of 3:30 if all went well. I left my cell phone number just in case.

When we picked Macho up that afternoon, the reports were that he was such a laid back guest that he had slept pretty much the whole morning. I didn’t let on the likely reason for this, or the fact that I had gone home and done the same thing.

Why We Love Dogs, #3: They Don’t Discriminate

Mad Man. In the 1980s when we lived on New York City’s West End Avenue, the blocks just west of us had a high concentration of SROs – single room occupancy residential buildings which housed indigent people at government expense. Many of the tenants were mental patients prematurely dumped from institutions to save money. They, and assorted drunks and addicts, often hung out on the stoops of the buildings, a gantlet of unpredictability that we had to run every time we went to Riverside Park.

Once, walking outside with our big golden retriever, Miles, I was amazed when he pulled me across the avenue and down West 95th Street toward the park. Pain from severe arthritis made him usually reluctant to walk, but on that day he seemed eager, and I didn’t want to do anything to stop him.

Halfway down the block of rundown buildings with people loitering outside, a man stood on the sidewalk, disheveled and ranting loudly, cursing and waving his arms. I tried to cross the street, but my 90-pound dog had other plans, pulling me along purposefully toward the scary man. When he got close to him, Miles laid his ears back and wagged his entire back end.

I was terrified that the man would vent his fury on Miles, but instead a change came over him. His tone quieted and softened, as he growled to his unseen audience, “Damn dog doesn’t know any better. Look how he comes right up to me. He’s not scared of me. That’s a dog for you.” And he reached down and, with a grimy hand, half-patted, half-pushed a reluctant Miles on his way, repeating in a gentler voice, “Better go on now. That’s a good dog.” He never so much as looked at me.

Miles turned back for home then. I glanced around to see the man shuffling into a building, quiet now. The encounter with a friendly dog seemed to have stilled his inner demons, maybe making him feel, for that moment, like a worthwhile and attractive person, maybe recalling to him his essential humanity.

Invisible Spacesuit. I have just finished reading a wonderful book about another marginal, outcast man and the transforming power of a dog’s affection. Called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s a first novel by an Irish writer named Sara Baume, and it’s one of the best dog stories I’ve ever read, right up there with The Call of the Wild.

Its hero, Ray, is a 57-year-old man – “too old to start over, too young to give up,” but in a sense he has given up, or, more accurately, he never felt capable, or worthy, of trying for a better life. Raised in a small Irish coastal village by a single father, Ray was never told who his mother was or what happened to her. He was kept a virtual prisoner – in body and in spirit — by his father; he never went to school, made a friend, “held a woman’s hand,” held a job, or even left the house much. His father showed not the faintest glimmer of affection toward him, or ever disclosed anything of his inner life to his son.

Now his father is dead and Ray has been forced to regularly venture out into the village to apply for government assistance and obtain supplies. He feels that “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside….when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit.”

At the book’s opening Ray sees a flyer in a store window from the local animal shelter. It shows a blurry picture of a dog with a scarred, crooked face: one eye missing, a portion of his lip gone. Drawn somehow to the picture, Ray goes to the shelter and adopts the dog, whose injuries, he is told, have come from his former career rooting badgers out of their lairs for hunters.

Ray names his dog One Eye, and they become inseparable, taking walks, sharing meals, having conversations – or rather, Ray talks, and One Eye listens, the first creature to ever show any interest in what Ray has to say. For the first time Ray loves another being, and in return receives his dog’s devotion.

On the run. Disaster looms when One Eye, who still has in him the wildness of his badger hunting days, attacks another dog, and an animal control officer soon afterward comes to Ray’s house to take the offender away. Ray makes some excuse that the dog is with a neighbor – and when the officer leaves, in desperation Ray takes One Eye in the car for a meandering journey that carries them from summer into winter, or, in the language of the title, “simmer” into “wither.”

Over the course of the trip Ray tells One Eye his life story and, at last, painfully confides a terrible secret he carries, a crushing burden of guilt and dread. One Eye loves him no less for this revelation, of course. As for the reader, when we learn the details, despite our horror we understand completely why this fearful and damaged man was driven to do what he did. We still trust, as his dog does, in Ray’s essential goodness.

It’s a tough read at times – and yet there is redemption. “I wish,” Ray says to One Eye, “I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.” In a way, he gets his wish.


This book shows how dogs don’t judge on the basis of appearance or conformity with socially-approved norms. They give their devotion without conditions. I finished it thinking that, if humans could see one another the way dogs do, people like Ray and, perhaps, the scary man of West 95th Street could live free from fear, and know that in someone else’s eyes — or, one eye — they are wondrous and deserving of love.

The One Essential Quality All Animal Rescue Workers Need

Warning signs. I had a bad feeling about the adoption from the start. But there wasn’t a clear reason to deny the woman who came to our booth at a big adoption event and wanted Callie, a beautiful, large German Shepherd-type dog. All her answers to the counseling questions were acceptable; my gut just told me there was something flaky about her.

This feeling grew stronger after the adoption had been finalized and I escorted the woman to her car. She hadn’t brought a leash and, although we were in the parking lot of a large pet store, she declined my suggestion to go inside and buy a leash and collar. So I looped together two of our flimsy giveaway leashes into a slip lead, and the woman led Callie out of the adoption area, loosely holding the leash with just two fingers — one good pull and that strong dog would be free. As we passed among the booths of other rescue organizations, I had to keep telling the woman to keep Callie away from other dogs, whose friendliness couldn’t be assumed. Nevertheless she let Callie go nose-to-nose with every approaching animal.

Her car was a VW beetle, the back seat packed with boxes. Clearly no preparation had been made for bringing home a large dog. Somehow I wound up being the one to try to move the boxes into the trunk while the woman held Callie, and then, when they wouldn’t fit, I had to reload them into the back seat.

After Callie had hopped up into the passenger seat, her head almost touching the ceiling, I kissed her nose, silently wishing a better future for her than this beginning predicted.

As it turned out, a week later Callie was picked up running loose on a busy road, having jumped the woman’s broken fence. The owner reclaimed her, but soon afterward a neighbor reported that Callie was tied outside all the time, barking constantly. One of our animal services officers impounded the dog; the woman was given a summons and had to go to court. Callie was taken from her and returned to the shelter.

Awkward meeting. A few weeks later I arrived for my dog-walking shift and saw the same woman browsing along the row of kennels in one of the adoption wards. She spotted me and said, “Is that Mimi?”

Steeling myself for a difficult conversation I greeted her, and we stepped outside a moment to talk in a bark-free environment.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said to me. “You were so nice to me.”

That took me aback, because my thoughts about her, and what I had said to staff and fellow volunteers after the adoption event and Callie’s subsequent mishaps, had been anything but nice. “I’m sorry about what happened with Callie,” I said.

“Is she still here?” the woman asked, hope in her eyes.

“No, she got adopted.”

She shook her head, her face pained. “I really did love her. But she kept jumping over my fence. That officer who came to take her – he was so ugly to me. He acted like I was some kind of abuser.”

Then she really floored me by asking, “Do you think they would let me adopt another dog?”

Having had an animal impounded and taken from her by the court it was almost certain that she was now on the shelter’s permanent do-not-adopt list. I told her as tactfully as I could that I thought a future adoption through our facility was unlikely. Then I excused myself to go back to my dog-walking duties, and I wished her the best.

Later, as I led a dog into the big exercise yard, I saw the woman crossing the parking lot to her car, her head bowed and shoulders drooping, and I felt sorry for her, and ashamed of the uncharitable thoughts I had had about her.

Attitude adjustment. The one essential quality that all animal advocates and rescuers need to cultivate is compassion. Compassion for animals is, of course, fundamental. Few of us would be involved in the hard, messy, low- (or,no-) paying, stressful work of animal rescue and care if we were not motivated by love and a passion for helping these vulnerable beings.

It’s the human aspects of compassion that become more problematic. Animal care people — myself among them — see cruelty and neglect on a daily basis, and often gripe about the stupidity of the public: “They returned the dog after two days because they said he peed on a priceless oriental rug. They called him a ‘defective product.’” “They said their kid lost interest in the puppy once the ‘new’ wore off. They seemed to think that was a valid reason to bring her back!”

My fellow shelter volunteer, Shelley Bunting Pickett, recently posted on Facebook a call for compassion toward people who may try, but fail, to care for their pets as all of us wish they would: “Offer to help a neighbor provide for their animals. Spay/neuter information, fencing, dog houses, food, and/or education may help someone provide a better life for their dog. Please remember to be kind, some people are struggling but really do love their animals, and their animals love them.”

I thought about what I might have done for Callie’s hapless owner. Sensing at the outset that the dog might be too much for her, I could have tried to steer her toward a smaller, less active animal. A briefing on crate training could have prevented the woman’s misguided efforts to keep Callie “safe” by tying her up. Witnessing the woman’s inept handling of the dog, I could have recommended training classes to her, and suggested to the shelter that we follow up on the adoption more thoroughly than we usually do – and I might have volunteered to make the calls.

I should also have been more charitable about the owner in my thoughts and comments to other people. Negativity both poisons the spirit and has a demoralizing effect on those around us.

As I continue my work at the shelter I will try to make writer Henry James’s observation my guiding principle: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Next: When Caring Hurts – Compassion Fatigue and How to Protect Against It

No Throwaway Pets

If someone can’t keep his or her pet any longer, here are some DO’s and DON’T’s. If you think some of these stories are preposterous, know that they are actual cases we’ve seen at our shelter or experienced firsthand. (I tell what happened to the animals involved at the end of this post.)

First, the DON’T’s:

DON’T throw kittens out of the window of a moving car. A twelve year old girl standing in her driveway was horrified to witness this.

DON’T drive out to the country and dump your animal. I visited the home of a woman who told me that her six dogs had all been abandoned on her rural road. Many others had been, as well, but six was her limit so she had found homes for the others, not without considerable difficulty.

DON’T leave your pet abandoned and tied under a tree in the summer heat, like the dog in the picture above. (At least, however, the abandoner cared enough to put the dog in shade with food and water bowls.)

DON’T stuff an injured, sick puppy into a garbage bag and throw her into a dumpster.

DON’T move away in the dead of night, leaving your dog tied in a shed with no way to get food and water.

Now, the DO’s:

DO try to find a home for your animal. Here is an excellent article on how to do that, and dangers to avoid: http://www.dogingtonpost.com/the-scary-truth-about-free-to-a-good-home-dog-classifieds/

If all else fails, DO bring your pet to a shelter where he or she will be safe, humanely treated and quite possibly put up for adoption. DO tell the shelter everything you know about the animal, so that they can give full information to his or her adopters.

The End of the Story

One of the kittens thrown out of the car window died; the other was saved thanks to intensive treatment by Northside Animal Shelter’s veterinary staff.

The dog left tied under a tree was brought to Northside, spayed, cared for, and adopted four days later. Here she is in her new home:

abandoned dog at home!

The sick, injured puppy was found by a good Samaritan who noticed the black garbage bag squirming in the dumpster. He tore it open, discovered the animal and brought her to Northside. She was given the name Desiree (which in French means “wanted, desired”); her broken leg had to be amputated, but she made a full recovery and was adopted by the shelter’s head of vet services. Below are her before and after pictures:

The dog abandoned by her family who skipped town under cover of darkness was found by my brother, who lived next door and heard her barking. He went over to the house cautiously, because the people who lived there had been problematic, but the place had obviously been vacated. Making his way around to the back he found a filthy shed and a little blue pit bull tied up. He fed her and gave her water while he tried to get his local animal services agency to intervene; legally they had to post a notice on the front door for 48 hours before they could impound the dog.

Meanwhile my brother was continuing to care for the dog and struggling not to get attached. “I didn’t name her because I knew if I did I’d have to keep her,” he said. He and his wife already have two dogs and couldn’t take another.

Fearful at first, the dog grew to trust my brother, wagged whenever he approached, and let him pat her. The second night after he found her, he came home to see a rental truck parked in the driveway of the house. The residents had obviously come back to collect the last remnants of their possessions. After they left, my brother went back to the shed. To his astonishment and disgust the dog was still there — abandoned not once, but twice.

Things came together after that: the humane society took her, then a pit bull rescue organization got involved — and now she is in a loving home. “I cried for happiness when I heard that,” my brother said. She’s called Serenity, and hopefully her circumstances will always reflect that peaceful name.

Good people are good to their animals; the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them. – Proverbs 12:10, The Message (MSG)

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Next: The One Essential Quality All Animal Rescue Workers Need

Why We Love Dogs, #1


Just look at this sculpture of a dog from the Eastern Han dynasty of China (AD 25-220). You can tell by the playful expression that the sculptor loved this creature. In fact, our species has loved the canine species since we crouched together in caves by flickering firelight, sharing bones and listening for saber-tooth tigers outside the cave entrance.

Why has this intense bond grown between dogs and people? Over the next several months I’ll post some of my musings. Here are some of the first reasons that come to my mind:

Nothing gets old for them. They are as enthusiastic about your walking through the door for the thousandth time as they were the first few. They love to play the same games over and over. They greet each meal with the attitude: “Oh, boy! Dog food again!”

They make us laugh. We were trying to get a roof leak fixed, and the handyman couldn’t figure out where the leak was coming from. He had tried a few remedies without success. Finally he told us, “You need a roofer.” And on cue came the tap of claws over the tile floor of the kitchen and our golden retriever, Rufus — the “Roofer” — appeared, having heard what he thought was his name and come to see what was wanted of him.

They are delightfully shameless. Not only are they totally accepting of their own, and our, bodies and natural functions — they are downright enthusiastic about them.

A woman I met, on learning that I volunteered at the shelter, told me about her rescue dog’s intense separation anxiety. “Finally I figured out that if I put a pair of my used underpants in the crate with her, she would calm right down.”

They forgive and forget. She came to the shelter close to death, her heart clogged with worms, her ears scarred by fly bites — a dull- coated skeleton of a pit bull whose blocky tan head looked outsized for her wasted body. Her story was sad but all too familiar: chained outside, seldom fed and never enough, repeatedly bred. She delivered litter after litter of pups and let them suck out her strength, as mothers will do.

But one day her luck changed. A Northside animal control officer spotted her in the yard, cut her chain and brought her to the shelter. She was given the name Praline, and a fluffy comforter printed with Disney princesses to cushion the cement floor of her run. She was fed three times a day and gradually gained a layer of fat over her bones. Her tan coat and her eyes began to shine. She was cured of her heartworms.

Throughout it all Praline was friendly, affectionate, as if she had known nothing but kindness. She loved walks, she loved to snuggle and give kisses. The shelter had begun a program, “Dog Days at City Hall” ; once a month my husband and I would bring a shelter dog to Mayor Cary Lewis’s office to spend the day with him and his staff, and hopefully get adopted when the dog appeared on the Mayor’s Facebook page. Praline, the third dog we took, was a perfect lady and won hearts all around. She didn’t get adopted that day, though.

Back at Northside, she gave a wag to every person who passed by her kennel, or a courteous touch of her nose on their offered hand. The weeks passed. Until one Saturday, Courtney, a young administrative assistant on the Mayor’s staff, brought her husband to the shelter.

“Ever since her visit to the office, I just can’t stop thinking about Praline,” she said. Her husband instantly fell in love with the dog and they adopted her as a companion for their other pit bull, a big male named Tug.

Over the next several months, whenever we brought other dogs to City Hall I heard glowing reports from Courtney about how Praline – now Angel – was getting along. Once Courtney showed me a picture of the four family members, canine and human, curled up together on the couple’s bed.

And then there were five, when Courtney had a baby girl in December. The photo she sent with her Christmas card showed Angel lying on a blanket close to the infant, like a little mama to this strange smooth puppy. “Darby’s guardian Angel,” Courtney had written.

Next: Through the Eyes of Love