Tag Archives: volunteer work

Surrender

Photo credit: Dianne Roland

Today I was leaving the shelter after my dog care shift, when I was stopped in the parking lot by a woman, standing by the open back door of a minivan. “Hi, do you work here?” she asked.

“I’m a volunteer,” I said.

“Do you believe in God?”

This was not a question I was expecting. “Yes,” I replied cautiously.

“I need to surrender my cat,” she said. “Here he is, look.” She lifted the grate of a cat carrier on the back seat to reveal a large white cat. He lay still, not reacting, only looking up at me with vivid blue eyes.

“He’s beautiful,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s a good cat. He never bites or scratches. He’s very affectionate. I just can’t give him what he needs. I went inside there — ” she motioned toward the Admissions entrance of the building — “and they told me I had to make an appointment for next week.”

I confirmed to her that this was our policy; in order to increase the likelihood that we’ll have space for incoming animals and not be forced to euthanize to alleviate overcrowding, we ask owners to set up appointments to relinquish their pets.

Then I asked, “Why do you need to surrender him?”

She said abruptly, “Come around to this side. I have to sit down.” I followed her to the passenger side of the van; she got into the front seat, reclined the back and put her feet up on the dashboard. I looked over at the driver, an older woman, who gave me a sly smile that seemed to invite me to share a certain skepticism about her companion.

I turned my attention back to the woman. She had a long face, and frizzy brown hair parted in the middle and braided into Raggedy Ann style pigtails incongruous for her age, which I guessed to be about forty. Her eyes darted from side to side, rarely meeting my gaze. “I have a lot of health problems,” she said. “If I stand too long the blood pools in my feet. Sometimes the cat will come sit on my lap – he’s very affectionate – but I have to push him off because his weight hurts me. Taking care of him, all that bending over and lifting, it’s too much for me.” She spoke in a rush, as if accustomed to people using any conversational pause to make an escape from her intense verbal barrage.

The driver spoke for the first time. “She also has two dogs.”

“If you can’t care for a cat, how do you take care of dogs?” I asked her. I’m not a cat expert, but I do know that, independent and self-reliant as they are, they generally require much less energy and attention than dogs.

“I just walk fast with the dogs and then the blood doesn’t pool in my feet,” she said. I didn’t press her for details.

She went on, “I’ve had this cat for eleven years.”

“She had another cat but she had to put him down recently,” the driver said.

I told the owner I was sorry. “He really misses his brother,” she said. “He wanders around the house looking for him. I thought that if I brought him here, the change of scene might be good for him, and he would have lots of companions.”

It was time for me to speak honestly. “You’ve had this cat for eleven years. He will very possibly be traumatized by being put into a shelter. We have about three hundred cats and kittens at present, and, while we take the best care of all of them that we can, he won’t get a lot of personal attention. He’ll most likely be kept alone in a small compartment. He may or may not get adopted. This cat is used to the quiet and comfort of a home. It will be very hard on him. And you say that he misses his brother – how will he feel if he loses you, too?”

Remembering her initial question about God, I said, “I think you should ask God to help release you from your guilt at feeling you’re not being a good enough caretaker. I think you should keep your cat and just do your best.”

The driver chimed in again. “She’s already been through all that,” she said, not clarifying what “all that” meant.

“If I do surrender him, would you keep an eye on him?” the younger woman asked me.

“I’m sorry, I’m not involved with the cats at all,” I said. “I only work with the dogs.”

“Will they put him to sleep?”

“We can’t guarantee that we won’t have to euthanize him, if he fails our behavioral assessment test or health check. Or if he doesn’t stay healthy in the shelter, which is possible. As I said, it would be a very stressful adjustment for him.”

A car pulled into the spot next to us, and a man and little girl got out. “Oh, Daddy, look at the kitty,” the child cried.

“Can we see your cat?” the man asked.

The woman vaulted out of her seat and turned the force of her attention to the newcomers, beginning to regale them with her saga. I chose this moment to bid her good bye and good luck. I heard the man saying, “Well, we’re really not sure we want to take a cat home today, we just came to look.”

I was glad that I spoke to the woman honestly about the realities of an animal shelter – though I’m not sure she had the mental focus to absorb what I said. I regret that it didn’t occur to me until later to suggest that she get another cat, to keep her present one company and relieve herself of the burden of being his sole source of affection. As for the difficulty of “all that bending over and lifting,” it did seem that, if she could walk two dogs at a fast pace, she should be capable of scooping and changing litter and putting down food and water.

I’m always saddened to see senior pets come into the shelter. They often seem depressed and confused by the noise and restriction of their surroundings, after having lived for years in a home. They miss their people, too. Sometimes it’s inevitable; their owner has died, or has had to go into a hospital or nursing home, or has grave life problems that prevent them from being able to care for another living being.

All too often, though, people simply tire of their pet, or don’t want to deal with the difficulties that can accompany advancing age. And so a faithful friend gets cast off.

But if animal shelter work is teaching me anything, it’s to try not to be judgmental. And so I hope that a source of wisdom and kindness greater than my own will guide the woman to make the best decision for herself and her longtime animal companion.

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.

Diamonds in the Ruff, Part II: Hoping for a Miracle

A group of us volunteers had banded together at our shelter to work intensively with some of longest residents, dogs who were beginning to show signs of severe stress as a result of their months of confinement. So far two of the three “Diamonds in the Ruff,” as we called them, had been adopted. That left Randy, the one I felt most attached to. And he was not doing well.

Randy’s story was all too familiar: he had been adopted from the shelter as a very young puppy, and as he grew and grew and grew (as an adult he was tall, a handsome dark-brindle pit mix weighing about 80 pounds, with broad, powerful hips) he became harder to deal with, and his owners kept him chained outside. At last they returned him to the shelter as a confused and unsocialized year-and-a-half-old dog.

The first few times I walked Randy I thought he was perfect. He didn’t pull on the leash. He knew “sit” and would even offer his paw in a courteous gesture. When I gave him a treat he took it gently, no snapping. There was a calm about him, and an intelligence.

But fellow volunteers began reporting incidents of chaotic behavior with Randy, sudden outbursts of jumping, barking and hard play-biting. It happened to me one day. We were walking along calmly as usual, when suddenly Randy looked back at me with something in his expression that I couldn’t read. He spun around and grabbed the leash in his mouth, thrashing it back and forth, working his way up the rope until his large teeth were chomping very near my hand. All the while he was jumping up on me, almost as tall as I was. I had no idea how to control him or break the cycle, and there was no one around who could help me.

Finally in desperation I began throwing treats onto the ground from my belt pack, which diverted his attention. By continuing to cast tidbits in front of him I managed to lure him back to his kennel.

The incident left me shaken. What had happened to the sweet gentle Randy I had first known, who walked with the leash slack, and gave his paw like a gentleman? It was also a reminder of how dangerous dogs could be, something I often lost sight of with the friendly animals I mostly dealt with in the shelter.

A few days later, Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, posted a disturbing report on our Diamonds in the Ruff private Facebook page. She had taken Randy out to the big exercise yard and he had ripped the leash out of her hand and bolted across the yard, then ran back toward her at full tilt. He slammed into her, nearly knocking her down, then began jumping up and mouthing hard at the underside of her upper arm. Dogs learn bite inhibition from their littermates and then from their human owners, but in Randy’s case he was taken from his litter very young, and apparently never given any training by his former family. Thus he hadn’t learned how to moderate his mouthiness.

“This was not play behavior,” Jane wrote. “I read this as extreme anxiety.”

Concern was spreading through our team. Brenna shared my affection for the big, troubled guy. She enlisted a group of us to chip in for an herbal “calming collar.” Randy looked endearing in the puffy red ruff with its bow-tie closure. Did it help? I couldn’t tell. Brenna thought so. She posted reports and pictures of time she spent with him in the shelter’s Education Room, cuddling with him and teaching him new behaviors like “down” and “stay” which he readily mastered. Her videos made me smile.

Jim, a longtime volunteer experienced with rowdy dogs, was another of Randy’s devoted fans. He believed that Randy needed firmness. We volunteers were trained not to harshly correct the dogs, never to knee them in the chest to keep them from jumping up, or jerk their collars, or yell at them. What we were advised to do was simply turn our back and withdraw our attention. But as Jim put it, “if you turn your back on Randy you just make yourself a bigger target.”

I walked with Jim and Randy one day, and Jim brooked no nonsense. If Randy pulled, Jim would give the leash a tug and say sternly, ”No!” Then they’d walk on, and Jim would reward the good walking with praise and treats. Randy actually seemed to like having limits set. It appeared to calm him, supporting Jane’s theory about his anxiety level. We sat on a bench in the sunshine and Jim patted Randy who lay placidly at our feet as we chatted. “He’s a good companion,” Jim said. “He just needs firmness and consistency. And most of all a home. I wish I could take him. But my wife says no more dogs, and the townhouse we live in isn’t a good setup for a dog.”

Around this time I injured my hip and had to take a break from walking dogs. I still wanted to help with Randy, however, so, following Brenna’s example, I took him out of his kennel to spend time with him in one of the meet and greet rooms. I had read a news article that talked about the beneficial effects on shy and anxious dogs of having a person read to them, and decided to try that with Randy. I sat on the bench and began reading Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey.

The experiment was short-lasting. Randy wouldn’t settle down. He paced in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass window, whining and squeaking at the sight of people and dogs passing by. Then he began jumping up and nipping at me. “Sorry, buddy, game over,” I told him, and took him back to his kennel. When I told Brenna about the incident she said, “Being able to see all the people and dogs probably made him nervous. He’s a worrywart. I try to work with him in a room with no view.”

A few days later my shelter friend Deb messaged me, telling me that Randy had been moved from the adoption ward to a ward where dogs were held for behavioral assessment, or reassessment. “There was some kind of incident with new volunteers today,” she said. “I don’t think it’s looking good for him.”

When I next went to the shelter I ran into Lee Ann, the head of behavioral assessment, and asked her what had happened. “Two very inexperienced volunteers took him out and he started acting crazy,” she said. “They couldn’t handle him and yelled for help. A staff member helped them escape and got him under control.” Then she gave me a sympathetic look. “I know how hard you’ve all been working with him.”

“Yes,” I said, “a lot of us have gotten very attached to him. But we’re realistic. And we all want what’s best for him.”

“That’s what we have to keep in mind,” she said, and her expression was solemn. “What’s best for Randy.”

The next day I went to the ward where Randy was being kept. I had brought a can of Vienna sausages with me, thinking that this might be the last time I would see him and that I’d like to give him a special treat. There he was, lying on his bed. When he saw me he got up and came to the gate, wagging. His cheery red calming collar had faded and grown soiled over the weeks he’d been wearing it. It looked like a badge of failure, and made my heart wrench.

“I’m sorry, boy, I can’t take you out,” I said. My hip was still very painful. With difficulty I lowered myself to kneel on the floor beside his kennel and put my fingers through the metal mesh to touch him. He whined and pressed against the gate.

I opened the can of Vienna sausages and slowly fed him three of them, not wanting to overdo it and give him an upset stomach. As always, he took the treats very gently. I said to him, “You are so smart and can be so good. I almost feel like I can reason with you. I wish I could. But just know this – lots of us care for you and are pulling for you.” I stood up and said goodbye. As I walked away I felt tears stinging my eyes.

In the days that followed I kept checking the shelter database, dreading to see a certain final word under his status update. But it continued to be “Awaiting Behavioral Assessment.” Still, we were all apprehensive. I ran into Maura, another teammate, the next time I went to the shelter. She said that she and Brenna had come in the previous day and taken Randy for a walk. “At first she didn’t know if she could take it,” she said, “but I said to her ‘think how you’ll feel if he has to go and you didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.’ We had a nice walk with him. No hijinks.”

We always hope for a miracle for our at-risk animals: A foster partner coming forward, eager to help rehabilitate a problem dog; someone walking into a ward and spotting a particular dog and just knowing that’s the one for them. Sadly, sometimes our hope is in vain.

But at the eleventh hour, a miracle happened for Randy. A young man who lived in a city an hour and a half away saw his picture and profile online, drove all the way over to meet him and hang out with him, and then talked for a long time with Fiona, one of the adoption counselors. She was, as always, positive but forthright, telling him about Randy’s wonderful qualities but also his challenges. She reported to our group that she had a great feeling about the guy: he was thoughtful, low-key, and really seemed to feel a connection with Randy.

A few days later the man came back with his dog, a female pit mix; the meet and greet went well, and Randy went home. At last. We know an adoption is a good one when the new owner proudly sends pictures and videos, and we’ve had several of Randy and his new sibling playing and sleeping contentedly together, as well as glowing reports of how Randy is settling into the family.

Randy, left, and his new sister

Now we’re starting with a new batch of Diamonds. Of this precious commodity the shelter has as ample a supply as any South African mine. And, as Randy’s saga shows, it also has a dedicated workforce willing to do whatever it takes to help these gems shine.

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.

Protecting Pets in Paradise

The first thing my husband and I saw when we pulled up beside the chainlink fence surrounding the Key West campus of the Florida Keys SPCA (FKSPCA) was a sign:

“PLEASE DO NOT THROW ANIMALS OVER THE FENCE. PLEASE USE AFTER HOURS HOLDING PEN….THANK YOU”

I sat for a moment staring at the sign in disbelief. The “please” and “thank you” were a quaint touch, suggesting that anyone who would contemplate pitching an innocent creature over a 6’ fence topped with three rows of barbed wire deserved and would respond to courtesy.

After 3 years volunteering in animal rescue it seems that there are still things people do to animals that can shock me.

Key West is an incredibly beautiful place, sunny and warm year round, surrounded by vast expanses of aquamarine ocean and blessed with an abundance of marine and terrestrial wildlife. But even in paradise, animals still suffer at the hands of humans and need the protection of committed advocates like those I met at the FKSPCA.

Inside the shelter’s main office, which was housed in a small, rather ramshackle building, I was warmly greeted by a pleasant young man named Del, the administrative assistant. I mentioned to him that I was a shelter volunteer visiting Key West from Tennessee and always like to pay a call to shelters in new places, to see how they do things and what we at our facility might learn from them.

He introduced me to Tiffany Burton, the volunteer coordinator, and for the next half hour or so she graciously answered my many questions. As we stood talking on the porch behind the main building she explained the functions of the motley assortment of structures and enclosures that made up the shelter.

There were fenced gravel yards for the dogs, shaded by large umbrellas and palm trees, and furnished with splash pools, toys, and dog houses for protection from the sun. I was happy to see a pair of canine pals frolicking in one of these pens.

Two rustic buildings housed, respectively, the shelter’s cat colony, and its rabbit and gerbil residents. A long cinderblock ward was where the adoptable dogs were kept, some 40 of them at any given time. A white trailer functioned as the medical clinic, where, Tiffany explained, visiting vets performed spay and neuter surgeries and other treatments.

The facility opened in the late 90s and, like so many structures in this island community (except for those possessed by the wealthy), had apparently been patched together as their occupants’ needs evolved or exigencies demanded, and as nature issued her repeated challenges of blazing sun, corrosive salt air, and the occasional ferocious hurricane.

But also like every other dwelling in this island paradise, whether a homeless person’s tent or a lavishly renovated bungalow in Key West’s Old Town, the shelter was surrounded by extravagantly gorgeous, oversized vegetation. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Palm fronds clattered gently over our heads in a balmy breeze, casting alternating shafts of sun and shade.

Clearly the shelter, which serves some 2000 animals per year, has outgrown its facility. But, Tiffany told me proudly, just a quarter mile down the road a new shelter is being constructed. It is to be a state of the art, multimillion dollar structure for which the SPCA has already raised $7 million; $1 million more is needed to buy equipment and furnishings. The projected opening date is December of this year.

We talked about the shelter’s challenges and where most of their animals come from. “This is a big military area,” she said, “with Coast Guard and Navy bases. Sometimes when people are transferred here they have no choice but to live in military housing because real estate prices are so outrageous. If they have dogs that the military consider to be pit bulls or pit mixes, they can’t keep them on base. So we get them.”

This was yet another example, I thought sadly, of the breed-specific restrictions that primarily target pit bulls and their owners. Major animal welfare organizations like the ASPCA (not affiliated with the FKSPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) oppose these laws, maintaining that pit bulls are no different from – no better or worse, no more inherently vicious or amiable, than – any other dogs. (Please see my earlier post, “At last…the definitive word on pit bulls,” for a more thorough discussion of this issue.)

Tiffany shared my chagrin at this state of affairs, and also informed me of the unhappy fact that Miami-Dade County, their nearest big neighbor some 158 miles to the north, is one of the few municipalities in the U.S. that has a total ban on any pit bull type dogs or mixes.

Another challenge that this shelter faces, she said, is “a high number of transient pet owners and individuals who come here with their pets looking for the good life, but sometimes they can’t make it and wind up homeless. They can’t care for their animals, and so they surrender them to us.”

Given the warm climate year round, feral cats also proliferate. “But we have people all around town who watch over the cat colonies,” Tiffany said. “They let us know about any problems they see, so we can address them.” The shelter also has a TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release) program to keep feral cat populations under control.

Although it varies seasonally, the shelter’s volunteer program is active, with, typically, around 100 volunteers at any given time. “Less in the summer, with the heat, and more in the winter when the snowbirds are here,” Tiffany said. For now, volunteer dog walkers have to use the road outside the shelter where, she admitted, there are lots of distractions and safety concerns – cars and bikes, wildlife that the dogs react to, and little shade. I reflected on how fortunate we are at our shelter to have large exercise yards and a shaded, fenced woodland trail to give dogs and their handlers a safe walking environment. I hope the new Florida facility will include some similarly accommodating spaces.

I asked Tiffany if they transported many animals to other shelters and rescue organizations. This is an important part of our shelter’s mission; it relieves overcrowding and relocates many of our animals to places where they are more likely to be adopted, such as cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which, partly because of strict spay and neuter laws, don’t have enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand.

Because of the Key West shelter’s remote location, she said, they don’t do a great deal of animal relocation, but sometimes they will send dogs like huskies, who do poorly in the tropical environment with their heavy coats and huge need for exercise, to rescue partners elsewhere. She mentioned one outstanding local hero in animal transport – Jeff Bennett, an aviator who flies missions for a rescue organization called Pilots N Paws, ferrying animals in his private plane from the Keys to points north. “He just completed transporting his 5,000th animal,” she said.

At that point Tiffany had to leave to train some new volunteers, but she invited my husband and me to tour the facility on our own. We visited the bunny house and the cat colony building, chatting with the friendly staff members there. Then we headed toward the place I was most interested to see – the dog ward.

It was dark inside, and cool. Each kennel, though old with rusted wire gates and worn paint on the walls and cement floor, was clean and stocked with new toys and raised beds for the dogs. I walked along the two rows of kennels, getting a welcome vacation fix of wags, licks and cold-nose nudges.

I left with the sense that this shelter was run by caring, capable animal professionals who, despite the limitations of the facility, were doing the most with what they had. It’s heartening to think that the next time we visit this area we are likely to find them settled in a new shelter that will make everyone’s – humans’ and animals’ – lives easier, safer and happier.

Rendering of FKSPCA new shelter facility

And, while I’m contemplating a rosier future, let me expand my vision to include the hope that no one will ever again consider tossing a terrified animal over a tall fence topped with flesh-tearing barbs. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Goodbye Too Soon

To Shelley Bunting Pickett, in memory of Jessie

It was two weeks before Christmas and the early darkness turned the windows of the shelter’s Admissions department into black mirrors that reflected the sparkling colored lights of the office Christmas tree.

Through the front door came a tall, sandy-haired man in a military-style jacket. He paused inside the entry and seemed to have difficulty speaking at first. I watched him a little anxiously, wondering if he was ill, or mentally limited, or under the influence of some substance.

But then he said, “I have some things to donate. A lot of them. Beds, crates, toys.”

Darla, one of the admissions counselors, gave him a form to fill out while I put on my coat and went to get a cart from the storage room.

When he had finished writing we walked out together, me pushing the cart. As we approached his shiny oversized truck, I asked him, “How do you happen to have so many things to donate?”

“We lost our dogs. The old Bernese a little while ago. The little Shih-tzu just recently.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” He opened the door and we hauled out brand new-looking pet beds, towels, carriers, crates, bowls, sacks and cans of food, and a Hefty bag lumpy with stuffed toys. There must have been hundreds of dollars worth of premium dog supplies.

“These are all clean,” he said.

“You don’t want to keep them? For the next dog? They’re really nice.”

“No.” He gave me a tight, sad smile. “We’ll start fresh. When and if the time comes.”

As I arranged the items on the cart I suddenly heard a small sound. I looked up and saw that the man was trying unsuccessfully to suppress sobs, his face contorted with sorrow, tears running down from behind his glasses.

My mind took quick note of the deserted parking lot, the dark forest on three sides, the road that led to the deserted dump and recycling center. My heart won out, however, and I went to him and gave him a hug, which he returned, his shoulders shaking. “It’s so hard,” I said when we separated. “I’ve lost four. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” he said in a choked voice. He wiped his eyes and with an obvious effort at self-control said, “Here, let me help you take that in. It’s heavy.”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay. There are people inside who can help me.” I didn’t want him to see me rolling the loaded cart into the building, leaving him with a final image of loss. “These things will make some other animals very happy,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I hope so. You’re welcome.” He walked toward the driver’s side and opened the door, then hesitated. “Maybe I’ll be back sometime, to get a dog.” He attempted a smile.

“We have wonderful dogs. When the time is right we’ll be glad to help you find one.”

He nodded, then climbed into his truck and drove away.

______

In his poem “The Power of the Dog,” Rudyard Kipling marvels at why we let ourselves love these short-lived creatures when we know how the story will end:

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear…

Some people take losing their animal companion so hard that they can’t contemplate going through it ever again. But others are simply unable to bear life without a dog.

One day last summer a man came into the shelter and tearfully confided to Addie, one of the volunteer adoption counselors, that he had just had to put his dog to sleep the night before and couldn’t stand the silent, empty house, the ache of loss in his heart. Addie introduced him to Morningstar, a beautiful black pit/Lab mix who had been waiting for months for someone to choose her. In fact, we were all beginning to get worried about her, because she was changing from a playful, happy girl to one so depressed that she would not even lift her head from her bed when someone opened her kennel gate to take her for a walk.

But when this sad man met Morningstar, the bond between them was immediate and so strong that some of us speculated that God, or fate, or the universe had been saving her just for him.

Addie posted a picture of the two of them on the shelter’s Facebook page; in it, the man is holding the dog in his lap and the mix of emotions on his face is unfiltered, plain for all to read: lingering sorrow filling his eyes, hope and joy radiating from his unsteady smile. As for Morningstar, she looks perfectly at home, draped across her new person’s legs and enfolded in his arms.

______

As another Christmas approaches, I think of the grieving man who donated so many wonderful toys and supplies to the shelter dogs, and hope that he has found a new dog to share his life with. Because for many of us, the only consolation after loss is getting another pet to love, no matter the future cost. As Kipling put it:

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

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?

driving-dog

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.

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

Love for a Season

The unsung heroes of animal shelters are foster partners. These devoted people take an animal into their home for a limited time, to help the dog or cat recover from illness, or teach them the manners that will make them more adoptable, or build up their strength after abuse or neglect. Many of them will keep the animal until he or she gets adopted, and they are an invaluable resource for prospective adopters in that they can give a full picture of the pet’s charms, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes, and special qualities.

I have great admiration for these selfless caregivers. They are willing to endure disruption in their lives from ill or unruly animals. Some of these loving souls will bottle feed orphaned newborn pups or kittens every two hours, round the clock. Foster partners open their homes and hearts without reserve, and then let the pet go to an adoptive home. Unless they can’t let go – in which case the happy outcome of the animal being adopted by the foster is called, ironically, a “foster fail.” I would be a foster fail for sure.

Suzanne Held was an English professor at a nearby college who had fostered several dogs for Northside Animal Shelter. I met her at a restaurant for lunch to interview her for the shelter’s newsletter.

The vivacious, Canadian-born woman was petite, her black hair hanging in bangs practically in her eyes and swept into a tall updo reminiscent of the sixties. She sparkled with love for the dogs as she told me about some of her challenges and breakthroughs.

“Lizzy Lou, a collie mix, was literally paralyzed by fear,” she said. “She wouldn’t walk on the leash, she wouldn’t go up or down stairs. I live in a third floor apartment and my boyfriend and I had to carry her in and out several times a day. But gradually she became confident, loving — a normal dog. The first time she walked upstairs by herself I cried!”

I asked her if she had ever helped a dog get over problem behaviors like food aggression. Sadly, these behaviors sometimes cause dogs to be deemed unadoptable by the shelter staff, who can’t risk having a child or anyone else bitten. Unless a rescue or foster can be found, the animal may have to be euthanized.

Suzanne has saved some at-risk dogs. “Les, a chow-Lab mix, had a sort of low-grade food aggression,” she said. “When the behavioral assessors at the shelter pulled at his food bowl or pushed at him with that rubber hand on the pole that they use, he would snap. He wouldn’t actually bite, just sort of poise his teeth on the hand without bearing down. So I guess they thought he might be trainable.

“And he was,” she went on, picking at her kale salad. “I worked with him around food, taking his bowl away and immediately giving him a treat. When I thought he was ready, the two assessors from the shelter came over to my apartment with that rubber hand on the pole. It was pretty comical–I can only imagine what the neighbors thought was going on! They used it to pull his bowl away and he was fine. He let them. And soon after that he went to a home. I hear he’s doing well.”

“What’s your training technique?” I asked her.

“Just to shower them with love, try to teach them good behavior using food rewards and lots of praise. I take them out to various places to help them with socialization and try to get them noticed — outdoor concerts, parks, the streets downtown. When I have to leave them alone I crate them, to keep them safe and also keep my apartment safe.”

The average time a dog stayed with her, she said, was two months. That was long enough for her to make a difference. And in the past year, her record for adoption was six out of six. “They stay with me till they get adopted,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll bring them to one of the offsite adoption events or to spend the day at the shelter, but most of them have found their homes by people searching online and asking to see them.

“If by any chance one of my foster animals gets returned,” she added, “which has only happened once – I’ll take them back.”

That was reassuring; I thought it would be awfully stressful for a dog who had grown used to living in a home to be sent back to the shelter.

“I wish I could adopt them all,” she said. “Usually around day two or three, I’ll be overwhelmed by the urge to tell them, ‘I love you!’”

Which brought me to The Big Question: how did she let them go, loving them so much?

“The main thing that I feel,” she said thoughtfully, “is that when they leave me they’re going to the place where they’re meant to be. I’m part of the process—“ she pronounced it in the Canadian way, with a long o – “of helping them take the next step in their lives. It’s my job to get them ready and let them go.

“After all,” she concluded, “if I decided to keep one of them, I couldn’t keep fostering other dogs.”

I wish I could be more like Suzanne. I confess that I’m too wedded to an orderly house and an orderly schedule to take on a behaviorally-challenged or sick animal. Also, my husband would protest. Much as he loves our adopted shelter dog, Ruby, one dog is enough for him.

So I go to the dogs – spending regular time at the shelter, walking and cuddling them.

But, despite the caring staff and fine facilities at the shelter, some dogs just can’t take that environment — the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs, the constant parade of strangers past their kennels. Kept too long in institutional care, a few will “decompensate,” which is shelterspeak for “lose it,” or “go crazy.” Foster partners can intervene before it’s too late, take the dog out of the stressful situation and into a calm home until an adopter or rescue organization can be found.

If anyone reading this feels called to be a foster hero, contact your local animal shelter or rescue organization. You are sure to be welcomed with fanfares and a tickertape parade, but the real reward will be when you see your frightened or sick foster dog grow confident and healthy under your care, and possibly go on to a loving forever family. You will know that you have truly made a difference — maybe a life or death difference. How many of us can say that?

Orphan of the Storm

petey

I was volunteering in the shelter’s admissions department on a late-autumn evening, and had just returned from walking one of the dogs from our holding area, when I came upon a scene in the reception room.

A young man, wearing a wool watch cap pulled down to his brow and the dirty overalls and jacket of a construction worker, was holding a small brown terrier mix, a stuffed black plastic bag, and a dog toy — a silly-looking blue fur lion nearly as big as the dog in his arms. He was explaining to the admissions staffers, Darla and Leslie, that he and his wife had to move and the place they were going to didn’t allow pets. “I heard that y’all take dogs that don’t have no other place to go.”

“We do,” Leslie said, “but…”

Just then Kerry McBride, the shelter director, rushed in. Leslie paused.

Kerry said to the young man, “Sir, I heard that you wanted to surrender this dog. But, see, there’s a problem. This shelter takes dogs from the city only. You’re not even a resident of this county, right?”

“No, ma’am, we’ve been living in…” he named a rural county northwest of ours.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I just can’t help you. We’re full up and you’re from outside our jurisdiction.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” the young man said. “We have to leave first thing in the mornin’. I done everything I could to find homes for our other three dogs but nobody wanted Petey here.”

Kerry reached out and grasped the little dog’s paw with its long, shiny black nails. “This is a small dog and small dogs are very adoptable,” she said. “Have you tried other shelters in the area?”

“No, ma’am. Where are they at? Would they be open this late?” It was now six o’clock.

“No, they close at five,” Leslie said. “I have some information sheets here that give their hours and directions.”

“I just don’t know.” This was all too much for the young man, it was clear.

“You’re not going to just drop the dog off somewhere, are you?” Kerry asked, looking at him directly.

“Oh, no, ma’am, I’d never do nothing like that.” He seemed horrified by the suggestion.

“Well, try those other shelters. Good luck.” She went through the door into the adjoining Animal Control officers’ dispatch room. Then, as the man went over to the desk to take the information sheets from Leslie, Kerry opened the door a crack and beckoned me in.

She stood with Dave, one of the Animal Control officers, and Diane, the dispatcher. “Mimi,” she said, “here’s what I want you to do if you’re willing. Get your coat and act like you’re leaving for the day. Follow that guy out to the parking lot and tell him that you’ll take the dog from him, make up some story. Then you can fill out a form saying you found the dog as a stray somewhere nearby. I just can’t let it get out that anybody can bring dogs to us from anywhere, but I don’t want him to be so desperate that he just leaves the dog somewhere.”

“I get it,” I said.

“Are you worried that he might be dangerous?” Dave asked. “Should I follow?”

“No, he seems like a nice guy,” I said. “Just really up against it.”

“He’s leaving,” Kerry said.

“I’m gone.” I followed him outside and caught up with him in the parking lot. “Sir,” I said, “wait.” He turned.

“I need to do this sort of under the radar,” I said, “but I have a friend who’s looking for a small dog. And this one seems really sweet. I’ll take him from you.”

His face relaxed. “Oh, thank you, ma’am, God bless you,” he said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do. He is a good dog. The only thing about him is he sometimes gets a little nervous, like when you come back home and he’s glad to see you, he might pee a little.”

“That doesn’t worry me,” I said.

“Well, I sure do thank you.”

I took the dog from him. Little Petey was trembling. I held him close, took the plastic bag – “those are all his toys,” the man said — and the blue furry lion. “Goodbye, Petey,” the man said, and patted his head. “Goodbye, ma’am. Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll take good care of him.”

He was walking away but raised a hand and nodded, as if not wanting me to see the emotion on his face.

I watched him drive off in his battered white truck. I wondered what his whole story was.

Back inside I filled out the stray form in my name and then took Petey out for a walk. He pranced along, wearing a tiny black harness imprinted with silver bones; he was the daintiest little dog I had ever walked. We went into the puppy yard and I saw that Kerry’s office light was on and she was at her desk. I knocked on the glass door that led from the yard into her office and she came and opened it.

I gestured to Petey. “Mission accomplished.”

“I’m glad. Thank you. I was worried that he would just abandon the dog.”

“He didn’t seem like that kind of a guy. But it’s great of you to do this.”

“We do what we can.” She smiled at me. “I called Phil over at the SPCA. They’ll come pick him up tomorrow. He’ll get adopted quickly, I’m sure.”

After getting Petey settled in a kennel in the holding area, with a bowl of water and a fleece blanket to warm him against the chilly stainless steel floor, I took his bag of toys to the laundry room so that the re-usable ones could be washed and shared with the other shelter dogs. Opening it I saw a large number of nearly-new stuffed animals and squeaky toys. This had obviously been a loved dog, well cared for. It was sad to think of his owners having to part with him.

Sometimes I’ve heard animal care workers grouse about owners who move to pet-unfriendly places and surrender their animals:”How can they do that to a family member? I would never move anywhere that wouldn’t take my pets.” But some people truly have no choice. Here at the shelter I was seeing how unexpectedly the tides of human fortunes can shift, leaving helpless animals to wash up wherever they can find solid ground. Petey, it seemed, was going to be one of the luckier ones.