Until recently, my understanding of “rescue” has been too traditional and narrow. I’ve been a breed foster mom. But rescue? Isn’t that something done by selfless, saintly people in nonprofit organizations who give their entire lives to assisting dogs and other animals? Those who drop everything to rescue homeless and lost animals after a natural disaster? I’m no saint.
Yet 2008 was my year of the “rescue trifecta,” when I unexpectedly played a direct role in the rescue of three dogs. I learned anyone can facilitate a rescue when he or she stumbles upon the need. All that’s required is a little creative thinking, lots of compassion and a willingness to see it through. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
Rescue #1: Buddy, Easter Sunday, 2008
How appropriate—even for this ardently unreligious woman—that my rescue trifecta started on Easter Sunday, the Christian holiday of rebirth and resurrection. I was living in the mountains of Idaho, near McCall. Ponderosa State Park sits on the edge of town. The park is groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter.
I knew if I got on the ski trails early Easter morning, I’d have the park to myself. And I did, until, about 10 minutes into my ski, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned to see a large dog of indeterminate lineage. He also stopped. We considered each other, our breath hanging in the frigid air. I called softly, “Hey there…” with my hand extended in greeting, but he stood his ground. Dogs are not allowed on these trails. I assumed he lived nearby and wandered into the park for the same reason I came—peace on a beautiful, sunny morning.
I started skiing again. He followed. He trotted alongside me, then ahead, behind, off into the trees after a chipmunk, back alongside. Yet he wouldn’t come close enough for me to touch. Okay, play it your way, big guy. Let’s ski.
Onward we went, a quiet yet simpatico pair, deeper into the park. The white path, sparkling in the early light, contrasted with the grooved brown bark of tall pines topped with branches of long green needles. Sunshine filtered through the tree tops. The temperature was in the single digits, making everything crisp and vibrant. Views of frozen, snow-covered Payette Lake sneaked through the trees. Somehow, having this dog along made the experience even more perfect.
Soon we came to a fork in the trail. The dog took the right fork. I went left, a little sad he would no longer be my companion, but hoping he was going home. I’d gone only a few yards when he appeared beside me again, before charging off into the trees after another chipmunk.
I started talking to him, as I do my own dogs when I take them on trails with me. “Hey, Buddy. Having fun? Good dog!” I missed my dogs. He assuaged that longing. I laughed and smiled at his antics, launching into the deep untracked snow after critters, clearly having a ball.
After 45 minutes, we reached my turnaround point. I stepped out of my skis, planted my poles, and moved off the trail to pee. Buddy stayed nearby, seeming to guard me. After pulling up my tights, I squatted again, to his level. “Hey, Buddy, come say hi,” I murmured. This time, he did. He not only sniffed my ungloved hand, he melted into my embrace, almost knocking me back into the snow. Oh my. We instantly, incredibly, bonded. He trusted me.
His collar carried no tags. He didn’t feel overly thin. His coat was thick and clean. His eyes were warm and bright.
I spent the return leg wondering, “Is he lost? Abandoned? He can’t have been lost for long.”
I stopped by the ranger’s office and asked if she recognized the dog. “No, but we get strays in the park all the time,” she said. “I usually just call McPaws [the local shelter] and they send someone over to pick them up.”
I wasn’t quite satisfied with that solution. I went outside again. A car with a couple and their two dogs had just arrived. I asked if they recognized Buddy. “No,” the woman said. “But I volunteer at McPaws. I could take him over when we’re done skiing.” This sounded a little better. But I was also thinking I could provide a foster home for him. I knew my two female Malamutes would adore him. “Could I see how he behaves toward your dogs?” I asked the woman. She agreed, saying her female could be a little aggressive. Buddy was off leash; her dog was on leash, and yes, a bit pushy. Buddy simply turned his head away and was completely non-threatening, letting the other dog sniff and posture all she wanted. His was the perfect reaction.
I spent the next ten minutes fighting with myself: “Take him home!” then “No, he’d be 10 miles from his likely home in town.” I finally realized that, if he did have a home, his family would most easily find him at McPaws. With the woman’s assurance she would take him there, and the ranger’s offer to keep him in her office until that time, I left Buddy with the ranger.
My mind churned as I drove home. I wasn’t ready to adopt Buddy myself. I’d been thinking about getting another dog for more than a year, but a much smaller and younger dog. I already have two 80 pound dogs; I didn’t need another large one. But I couldn’t just forget him. In those 90 minutes skiing together, we understood each other, trusted each other. We bonded. He chose me, and now he was mine in the sense that I felt responsible for his wellbeing.
Inspiration struck. Friends in Seattle, who winter in McCall, had lost their 14-year-old Golden a couple of years before. I called them Sunday afternoon, planting the seed. I can be devious, that way. They didn’t reject the idea outright.
Monday dawned. I called the shelter to check on Buddy. Closed! Somehow I waited until they opened Tuesday. Yes, he was there, and doing well. “Very calm, a very sweet dog,” I was told. (This, I already knew.) They found a microchip and would try to reach the person listed. If that failed, he could be adopted as early as Saturday.
I visited Buddy at the shelter. We hugged and I cooed. He was calm and friendly, but subdued. I learned that the phone number on his chip had been disconnected. All other efforts to trace the name failed, but they’d keep trying. I started to wonder if Buddy was a “foreclosure” dog – left behind by a family no longer able to afford to live here.
My Seattle friends called Tuesday evening to ask more questions about Buddy. Good sign. On Wednesday, they drove ten hours to McCall to meet Buddy. Great sign.
We met at the shelter on Thursday. The visit went well. Wife was ready. Husband played it cool. I saw a crack in his armor when he arranged and paid for Buddy to be bathed as we left that day. “Whether we adopt him or not, he should look good.”
The next day, my friends called to say they’d do it and by Saturday “Buddy” was in his new home. But what to name him? They felt he needed a solid, manly name. I jokingly suggested Wally, in my honor, since he found me in the park, I rescued him, and matched him with them. Wally it is.
When I brought the ranger up to speed a few months later, she smiled and said, “Sounds like he found his own Wally’s World.”
Rescue #2: Hope, May 2008
My job was to worry about the man, but I found myself more worried about the puppy.
I sometimes act as a guardian ad litem (temporary, court-appointed guardian) for alleged incapacitated persons. The local prosecutor asked me to represent the best interests of Sam (not his real name), a 77-year-old man who, she feared, was sinking into dementia and unable to care for himself.
I first met Sam in the prosecutor’s office. We quickly discovered common ground: He had graduated from law school and loved dogs. He had a puppy back at his trailer, he said. “The puppy’s blind. Gonna have to put him down,” Sam told me.
I followed Sam to his “home” which was the sort of camper trailer that fits in the bed of a pick-up, set in a gravel parking lot. All his earthly belongings were stuffed inside or underneath it. His landlord disconnected water and electric hook-ups in an attempt to get Sam to leave. His toilet was an old coffee can. It was a warm June day and the puppy was locked inside the trailer. I was saddened by the general clutter and disarray of Sam’s trailer and living circumstances, but happy to see food and water bowls set out for the pup.
Hope, the pup, was an eight-week-old purebred Pointer. Sam picked him up by his scruff, as Hope had no collar. Sam lamented Hope’s blindness and explained that one can’t have that in a hunting line, so Hope would have to be shot. He’d taken Hope to the vet, he said, seeking a cure. The more I heard and observed, the more concerned I became, for both Sam and Hope.
Sam set the pup on the ground. As I watched Hope scamper around the trailer and into the street, it was obvious to me that Hope’s eyes, nose and ears were fully functional. My most immediate fear was that he’d be hit by a car. Apparently, Sam’s previous puppy met just such a fate.
Normally, my job as guardian ad litem would include an investigation of Sam’s current circumstances, his family or community connections, mental and physical health needs, and ultimately, a recommendation to the court regarding his ability to manage his own affairs, whether a guardianship of any level was necessary. This was the first time, in my 25 years of doing this work, that I was so directly confronted with the issue of a pet. Pets are property, and, as such, they would eventually become the responsibility of a guardian, should the court appoint one. In the meantime, Sam was the owner, and made the decisions; he could decide to kill Hope. I simply couldn’t let that happen. This puppy needed immediate care and a safe living situation. Neither I nor anyone else could deprive Sam of his property without a hearing and order from the judge, but that could take days or weeks. My legal duty was to investigate and advocate for Sam’s best interests; my moral duty was to also advocate for this helpless and innocent puppy, to save its life.
McPaws, the local shelter, was bursting at the seams with “foreclosure” pets. Besides, Hope wasn’t a stray or surrendered animal. It would be a clear conflict of interest for me to take Hope. I asked everyone I knew if they’d take the pup. Finally – with the prosecutor working to get Sam on board – a court clerk stepped forward, saying she would take Hope in on a foster basis; if Sam was unable to reclaim him, she would adopt him permanently. Sam, to my relief, was happy with this arrangement; with his mental health issues, I don’t think he was capable of bonding with the puppy.
Another successful rescue! I learned, two months later, that Hope was doing wonderfully in his new home, as was Sam (assisted living, in another community).
Rescue #3: Finn MacCool, July, 2008
Now it was time to address my own companion animal needs. I wanted to add a young, smaller dog to my pack. My two Malamutes—best trail running companions a woman could ever want—are aging and slowing. Our runs are getting shorter, and less frequent; often we just hike or walk.
Many trail running friends have Aussies. Good trail dogs. I investigated breeders, while regularly surfing Petfinder.com. The idea of rescuing appealed to me; my interest increased after the experiences with Wally and Hope. A friend recommended a specific rescue organization. Within a couple weeks of my contacting the organization and completing their paperwork, I was offered a young male, about six months old, likely a mini-Aussie.
He and his siblings had been dumped at the door of a shelter in eastern Washington by an unscrupulous breeder known to the local breed-rescue community. The first attempt to get all three to the Idaho rescue failed; while his siblings arrived safely, this boy got away and was a stray for a month until he was found tied to the front door of another shelter, miles away. Photos verified it was the same dog.
In for a rescue penny, in for a pound!
I named this rescued redheaded mini-Aussie Finn MacCool, after a minor Celtic god: The heroic Finn-MacCool delights in cross-country running into strange situations with dogged persistence. Finn has some separation anxiety, but gains confidence daily. My Malamutes accept Finn completely. He brings out their inner-puppy, shaving years off their ages. Occasionally all three hike trails with me, Finn leading the charge. His name fits him, and he fits me.
Coda, July 20, 2009
It happened again. Last night, I was riding my bike on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. I came down and around a bend to see a wet dog dash up a driveway and into the road in front of me, obviously scared and lost. Left alone, he’d surely be hit by a car. I braked, twisted my bike shoes out of the pedals, and stopped, straddling my bike. “Hey you, come say hello,” I calmly said. To my surprise, he did. His butt wiggled in friendliness, and he sniffed my hand. He was soaking wet, making me guess he’d been swimming in Lake Washington. He shook, soaking me! I noticed a Haltie dangling from his neck. He allowed me to pet him and wrap my fingers around the main band of the Haltie so I could control him, keeping him out of the road. He wore no other collar, no obvious ID. Now what?
He seemed willing to stay with me, so I quickly got off my bike and tossed it into some roadside shrubs. I scanned the area, but no people appeared; I couldn’t hear anyone calling out. With cleats on my bike shoes, walking was difficult. I walked with the dog—either a very tall Wheaten, a cream-colored Standard Poodle, or a mix—across the road to peer down the driveway he’d come from. No one appeared to be home at the house at the top of the driveway, and I wasn’t able to walk down the steep drive to the house down below.
I pulled my cell phone out, but wasn’t yet ready to make the call for animal control. A few cars passed. I hoped one would see the incongruity of a woman wearing a bike helmet and shoes holding a wet dog by the side of the road, but no one stopped or offered to help. Finally, I sat with the dog on someone’s lawn, determined to wait as long as I could before dark fell. The dog stretched out next to me and started rolling in the grass, tossing his legs in the air and pushing them against me; he grunted with joy and pleasure, making me laugh out loud.
Ten minutes later, a car came around the corner and made a beeline for us. A young man, jumped out, smiling broadly with relief and hugged the dog, who was clearly glad to see him. I explained my end of the transaction. The young man said they were at a friend’s house when the dog spooked, ran under a fence, into the lake and just kept going. Boaters saw him swimming. We were a good half-mile away from where the dog started! After introducing himself, the man thanked me profusely for keeping his dog safe. I said no thanks were necessary, I hoped others would do the same if one of my dogs was lost. I did diplomatically suggest he make sure his dog always had ID on him in the future, just in case.
As I rode home I felt such joy at helping reunite dog and guardian. I mentioned the episode on my Facebook page and got lots of atta girls! from my friends.
My rescue trifecta—Wally, Hope and Finn—plus one has taught me that rescues can be accomplished by anyone, with a minimum of effort but an abundance of concern for the animal. Rescues can present themselves in a wide assortment of scenarios.
Imagine if all of us took on the welfare of just one rescue dog or cat a year. Maybe you find a stray and deliver it to the Humane Society or local shelter, following its status until it has been adopted. Maybe through your job as a social worker, home health care worker or hospital employee, you hear about a pet suddenly alone (because it’s human has died or is gravely ill) and arrange for its care. Perhaps you find a dog or cat, injured by the side of the road, or lost after a natural disaster, and take it to a vet for treatment, guaranteeing payment or asking friends to pitch in to cover the cost. You can do something.
Even if we can’t foster or adopt the animal, we can work our contacts, place some calls, write some emails, do our utmost to reunite them with their guardians, or if none can be found, search for a new home, taking that burden away from an already overcrowded and financially strapped shelter system. We can donate the cost of food and vet care while that dog or cat is in shelter or rescue or foster care. We can visit them, soothing, socializing and exercising them, which makes them easier to adopt.
Make that one pet your project in 2009. Make it personal. It’s not that difficult; it doesn’t require a long term commitment. It simply requires a big heart and a can-do attitude. The rewards—for pets, and us—are enormous.