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Dogs Bring Comfort in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Tragedy
Throwaway dogs provide comfort in frightening times
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Mr. bones was only a few days old when someone left him and his littermates next to a dumpster behind a grocery store in Fairmont, W.Va. Fortunately, the squirming box of Beagle-mix pups was discovered before the trash was mechanically compacted and trucked to a landfill. We met the timid puppy a few weeks later; he cowered in the back of a stainless-steel kennel at the Marion County Humane Society & Rescue and yelped in fear when we tried to coax him out. Then, trembling, he managed to wag his white-tipped tail. We took him home.

Seven years later, on a Friday afternoon in April 2007, these memories returned as I watched a student with a blonde ponytail stroke Bones’ soft ears. Her blue eyes, bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, filled with tears as she frowned and said, “I really miss my dog at home.”

That afternoon, 20 or so dogs spread across the grassy lawn next to Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory on the Virginia Tech campus. Like Mr. Bones, they sprawled in the sun and gladly accepted hugs, pats and treats from the loose crowd of students. An aged Chihuahua in a maroon-and-orange jersey with “Hokies” printed across the back scrounged for biscuit crumbs. A fawn-colored Boxer mix bounded from one group of students to another. Nearly every dog was dressed in Virginia Tech–themed gear; Mr. Bones wore a maroon bandana with a black ribbon pinned to it.

Four days earlier, on April 16, the worst mass shooting in United States history had begun inside the gray limestone walls of the dormitory that towered above us. A 19-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old resident advisor had been fatally shot by a fellow student; two hours later, across campus, the same disturbed student shot 45 people — 30 of them fatally — inside classrooms in Norris Hall.

The names of the dead and injured had slowly been released; graduate teaching assistants, athletes, international students, world-renowned scholars, fathers, an ROTC cadet and even a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor were among them. Everyone had lost someone. I had lost a favorite student, a focused, kind, intelligent 18-year-old biology major with enormous potential and a smile that could brighten even the most boring class. She died studying Intermediate French along with 11 classmates and her professor.

The university cancelled classes for the rest of the week, and by Tuesday or Wednesday, most students had gone home, back to their grateful parents. But others remained, either by choice or because they had no way to leave or nowhere to go. It was for these hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived students that we gathered outside the dorm with our dogs.

I squinted in the April sun as more and more rumpled, dazed undergrads trickled out of the dorm, some singly, some in groups of two or three. At first they seemed surprised to see a pack of maroon-clad canines, but after a moment or two, they cautiously approached and finally found themselves cross-legged on the grass, stroking the sun-warmed fur of a friendly hound.

“My dog at home looks a lot like this one.”

“My mom is coming tomorrow. I hope she brings my dog.”

“I really missed my puppy this week.”

“Who brought all these dogs?”

Earlier that morning, an email had circulated through Virginia Tech’s veterinary school, where my husband Jesse was about to begin his fourth and final year of study. Members of a student organization, the Animal Welfare Club, had an idea about how to help the traumatized students who remained on campus, and a few hours later, we assembled.

Southern Virginia’s rural shelters are often overcrowded and operate on shoestring budgets; euthanasia rates are staggering. Veterinary students involved with the Animal Welfare Club fostered dogs and cats from the local shelters, extending the animals’ lives. Often, the fostered animals became permanent companions to the future veterinarians. Many former shelter dogs now milled around on the lawn: a yellow Lab mix with three legs and soulful brown eyes; two or three brindle Pit Bull mixes, tongues lolling; stubby-bodied Chihuahua crosses; a leggy black Greyhound mix. The majority, however, had obvious Beagle heritage.

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