I was halfway through attaching new trim to my Santa suit when the call came from the Humane Society. The pregnant dog they’d asked me to foster three weeks before had finally been brought in. Only now she was very pregnant, and they advised that I get the dog to my place as soon as possible, before she started “poppin’ pups all over the place.” I tossed an old quilt into the back of my van, and then, when my friend Diana happened by, I tossed her in as well.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Humane Society, gotta pick up a very pregnant dog.”
“Very pregnant? Is that why I’m along, so if she starts, you know, I can drive while you, you know?”
“Or I can drive and you can, you know,” I generously offered.
Diana shook her head. “Uh-uh! I don’t do ‘you know.’”
I thought I was joking, but upon arriving at the Humane Society, I was rushed through to the clinic, where the vet greeted us with the news that Momma Dog was in full labor.
“The contractions are still far apart. You should be able to get her home before she whelps.”
“I’m driving,” Diana muttered as we followed the vet back through the clinic.
“That is,” the vet continued, “if we can get her out of here. She’s been growling at people ever since her water broke.”
By then I was standing at the door to the narrow enclosure: cement floor and walls with a wire gate across the front—not a nice place to have babies. I needed to get her out, and fast. After motioning the others away, I put on my best midwife demeanor and eased open the gate.
Inside lay a mid-size Shepherd/Lab mix, black where she wasn’t gray with age and wear, far too old and worn to be having babies. Her swollen breasts bore the scars and calluses of several litters of sharp-toothed pups. Her panting mouth displayed a full set of rotting teeth. Her pain and fear were as visible as the ribs and backbone that protruded through her dull coat. How long had her body been feeding upon itself in an effort to sustain the tiny lives within?
Although she uttered a low growl as I entered, her eyes were soft and pleading. She knew the pups were on the way, but everything else in her immediate world was new and frightening. And now a strange human was reaching out to her. I closed the gate and stood quietly, uttering soothing sounds. The growl softened to a whine. Despite the years of neglect and abuse, deep within her battered body, the age-old human/canine bond still lingered. She longed to trust.
I sank to my knees and crept forward. I stretched out my hand, and she raised her nose to sniff it. I stroked her chin, her head. She gave two tentative wags of her tail and a nervous lick to the back of my hand. Please don’t hurt me, her eyes begged.
I moved closer so I could stroke her head. Dirt crusted the corners of her eyes and filth oozed from her ears. A tear hit the back of my hand; Momma dog licked it away. I settled next to her and caressed her swollen belly. She lay her head on my knee and gave a great shuddering sigh that was followed by another small contraction. I kept my hand steady, reassuring her that it was early yet and we had plenty of time. I murmured promises of good wholesome food, clean fresh water, a warm nest to whelp in, kind words and gentle handling.
“Momma, we have to move you just one more time. Come on, old girl,” I coaxed with soft urgency. “I’ve gotta get you out of here, gotta get you back to my place. Trust me, I won’t let anything happen to you or your babies.”
I lowered my head and whispered into her ear, “I am Santa Claus, and Santa always keeps her promises.”
It took me 20 minutes to get the dog on her feet and out of the narrow confines of the kennel. Other people came forward to support her wobbling steps out through the clinic to the sidewalk and down the street to my van. Enroute, the employees gave me a colorful account of the dog’s bleak past.
“The jerk who owned her got kicked out of a trailer park. Took his other five dogs to his mother’s apartment but left this one tied under the trailer.”
“I thought he was going to bring her in three weeks ago,” I said, trying to keep the anger out of my voice.