shelters & rescues
Dog's Life: Humane
What does freedom look like? For some lucky dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, alpacas, cows and horses, it’s endless rolling green pasture and grassland, open skies full of sunshine and starlight, earth under their feet, and companions to play with. It’s the absence of fear, pain and stress. It’s a place in Wyoming called Kindness Ranch, the only USDA-approved sanctuary in the U.S. that takes in all sorts of animals used in laboratory research. At 1,000 acres, the ranch has ample room for the rescued animals who live there as well as for people who like to combine getting away and doing good.
Since its creation in 2006, Kindness Ranch has helped more than 350 animals. Executive Director Maranda Weathermon says they have capacity for about 18 dogs and 20 cats. Given their unique history and lack of experience with normal life, newly arrived dogs and cats live in homelike group yurts (two for dogs, one for cats) with a full-time caregiver providing socialization and rehabilitation. When an animal is adopted, a new one arrives to take its place, and, not surprisingly, there are waiting lists.
Most of the dogs at Kindness Ranch are Beagles, and it was her love for the breed that led Portland, Ore., resident Amy Freeman to discover Kindness Ranch and arrange to volunteer there in June of this year. Amy rescued her first Beagle years ago; the puppy, whom she named Boomer, was a handful. “But he brought me so much joy. After Boomer, I adopted Belle, a 10-year-old Beagle (no more puppies!). Belle died at 13, and then I adopted Spike through Cascade Beagle Rescue.” Freeman’s volunteer work with Cascade Beagle Rescue steered her to the Beagle Freedom Project, which takes in Beagles from research labs. “I started following them on social media, and that led me to Kindness Ranch,” she said. “I came for the Beagles but fell in love with all of the dogs!”
Labs use animals to test human drugs, pesticides, household products, biomedical and dental research, and surgical techniques. Those using dogs prefer Beagles, a medium-sized breed with a good disposition and a propensity for large litters. Of the estimated 60,000 dogs held in research laboratories each year, a significant number are Beagles. They and other lab animals come from Class A animal dealers authorized by the USDA to breed and sell them to research laboratories. When labs no longer need the animals, they are either euthanized or turned over to a rescue organization.
“Most of our animals were involved in pharmaceutical studies,” Weathermon says. “When the study is over, or the animals age out at seven or eight years old, we get them. The dogs mostly come from vet and vet tech schools, where they’re used as teaching aids for students to learn to draw blood, do ultrasounds and perform spay/neuter surgeries. It’s the same story for the cats, although because they’re also used in food studies, some are fat when they arrive at the ranch.” The ranch’s pigs were used for pre-human trials for things like heart valves. The horses came from a Premarin (estrogen hormone replacement) facility, the sheep from a pharmaceutical research study and the alpacas were part of a fiber study using genetic modification.
Like other lab-animal rescue groups, Kindness Ranch has to juggle several ethical issues when working with facilities to take their animals. “Labs are finicky; they keep information close,” Weathermon says. “People trying to stop animal testing often block getting animals placed. So we play it neutral; we don’t name the labs, we keep information confidential. It’s a very narrow line to walk to keep animals safe because it’s easy for the labs to just euthanize.” Ideally, animals would not be used in research or testing, but until that day arrives, the staff of Kindness Ranch focus their attention on making it easy for labs to transfer their animals to the ranch so they can be rehabilitated and live the balance of their lives as someone’s companion.
While volunteering at the ranch, Freeman immediately noticed the strong bond between the staff and the animals. “They truly treat these dogs like they’re their own, one of the family,” she says. “One Beagle, Texas, they hold him like a baby, rubbing his tummy before walks because that’s what he wants; he won’t go for a walk until he’s held that way. I know from my rescue experience how hard it is to let them go; it must be even harder when you’re living with them 24/7. It’s heartbreaking and lovely at the same time.”
Jenny Collins, also of Portland, accompanied Freeman on her June trip to the ranch. While she’s volunteered in many settings— Reading with Rover with her own dog, Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah and Maui Humane Society’s Beach Buddies program—she says that Kindness Ranch was special. “It was amazing, especially because I had just gone to Best Friends in April. The contrast was interesting. Best Friends is also amazing, but on a bigger scale—huge staff, their own vet clinic. Kindness Ranch … no one had heard of it and it has less financial support and staff. I loved it because it’s so small. I felt like being there could make a difference.”
Kindness Ranch is open every day between 9 am and 5 pm. For day visitors, one of the eight fulltime staff members will provide a tour. Vacationers like Freeman and Collins can rent a guest yurt and even bring their own dog if they like (the guest yurts have a small dog yard attached), volunteer with the animals, or simply enjoy the ranch’s serenity. “Almost every weekend in summer is fully booked,” Weathermon says. “Winter is our slowest time for visitors because of harsh weather.” Rental fees pay for maintenance on the buildings, with the balance going to the animals’ care.
Volunteers are usually enlisted to help with dog and cat socialization. “We sat with the cats for an hour or more each morning,” Collins says, “then we’d work with the dogs.” Volunteers can also help clean dog and cat living spaces; stuff Kongs; and walk dogs, accompanied by a caregiver who is also walking one or two dogs, each with equipment suitable to their needs. “The staff would coach us, saying, for example, ‘That one’s reluctant, so don’t pull,’” Collins recalls. “We’d walk each dog about a mile, usually on a gravel road within the sanctuary, letting them sniff, pee, just be dogs. If a dog didn’t want to walk, we’d hang out in the yard. Some were new to collars and leashes—it felt like being back in Puppy 101 class.” The morning and evening shifts are two to three hours each, and volunteers can choose how much they work on any given day. Collins noted that because of its remoteness, the ranch has no internet service. “I read four books—it was awesome!” she said.
Guests renting a yurt also have the option of hosting a dog overnight: one dog per yurt per night, chosen by staff. It’s another way to help socialize the dogs and make them more adoptable. “The first night we had a Pit Bull, Frieda,” says Collins. “She was the sweetest, but shy at first. Frieda discovered the loft. She would peek at us from above with a big smile. That night, she slept with me. She spread herself over the entire bed, leaving me a tiny sliver in one corner.” On the third night of their stay, Collins and Freeman hosted Zoey, a Coonhound. Sweet but nervous and shy, Zoey took some coaxing to get on the couch, where she ended up sleeping. At four in the morning, Collins took Zoey out to pee, and when they came back in, she asked Zoey to get on the bed. “And she did! She was very polite, curled in a corner, so sweet. She touched my heart. You often feel sad for shelter animals, but here, truly, this is the next best thing if they can’t be in a home.”
The ultimate mission at Kindness Ranch is to place all adoptable animals in loving homes.
For the dogs, potential adopters are required to come to the ranch. “They must come to us because our dogs are so special, not for every adopter,” Weathermon explains. “An eight-year-old dog who’s only been on sawdust or in a wire kennel—they need the right home. So we don’t ship them.”
Sadly, not every animal taken in by the ranch can be rehabilitated and rehomed. “We keep animals deemed unadoptable for the balance of their lives,” says Weathermon. For example, Odie, who’s 12 now, has severe medical issues. Kennel spinning destroyed the cartilage in his elbows and knees. He also despises most men and children, so he’s not an adoption candidate. He’s on lots of pain-management medications, and every two weeks, we take him to visit a chiropractor. We spare no expense for animals needing extra medical care.”
A stay at Kindness Ranch inevitably means confronting the issue of testing products, drugs and surgical techniques on animals. That moral dilemma hit close to home for Collins, whose mother was treated for breast cancer. As she notes, before most drugs are tested on humans in clinical trials, they’re used on animals. “I don’t want research done on animals, but if my mom is in a clinical trial, would I want her to receive a completely untested drug? It’s easy to say I love animals, but when it affects me personally, what will I accept? Kindness Ranch was eye opening in ways I never expected, and my thinking on these issues was changed by my time there.”
After learning more about the use of Beagles in labs, and animal testing in general, Freeman vowed to educate others while also making changes in how she buys products. “I started by downloading Cruelty Cutter, a free app created by the Beagle Freedom Project.” The app allows the user to scan bar codes to learn whether a product is tested on animals. When Freeman runs out of a particular household cleaner, shampoo or cosmetic, she replaces it with a cruelty-free product. “I’m making small changes, being more conscious,” Freeman says. “I can make a small difference.” And as we know, small differences can add up to a greater good, so be inspired by the staff and animals of Kindness Ranch: add your own small changes to those of Freeman and others and help create a world where animal testing is no longer necessary. That would truly make a big difference.
Dog's Life: Humane
Disasters like those created by Hurricane Harvey in southeastern Texas have a way of bringing out the best in people: a desire to help, lend a hand, do something to make the lives of those living through them—both people and animals—a little less grim.
Here, we offer a few options to consider. Before making your donation decisions, visit the BBB and Wise Giving Alliance’s “Tips on Helping Texas” page, and check to see if your employer will match your gift.
•Charity Navigator, an independent watchdog agency that evaluates charitable organizations in the U.S., has a page devoted to Hurricane Harvey.
•NPR has a dedicated web page with ways to help both human- and animal-focused groups.
•Best Friends, whose emergency response team is on the ground in Texas, has compiled a list of shelters in need.
•At the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster’s Hurricane Harvey page, you can find a list of Texas-specific groups of all types.
•To help make space in local shelters for animals rescued from the floodwaters, the Livermore, Calif., group Wings of Rescue is transporting adoptable animals from Texas to other geographic areas.
•The Houston Humane Society is doing their part in regional animal-related disaster rescue and relief efforts.
•The San Antonio Humane Society is housing pets from families who were forced to evacuate as well as transferred shelter pets.
•The Animal Defense League of Texas makes it easy to lend a hand with its Amazon wishlist.
An article today in The New York Times takes aim at temperament testing in animal shelters hopefully this article will get the attention it deserves from the shelter community. The effectiveness of these kinds of tests, that can result in a dog being swiftly killed if she doesn’t score a passing grade, has long been under examination by humane advocates. Back in 2003, our article, Dog Is In the Details, by Barbara Robertson, looked at this very issue. And more recently Jessica Hekman, DVM, wrote an indepth piece about more recent studies that, “could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.”
All these articles noted that testing an animal in a shelter setting is fraught with problems. Even the most modern of shelters can be a place for many dogs, as Dr. Sara Bennett, a vet behaviorist, detailed in the Times piece:
“Dogs thrive on routine and social interaction. The transition to a shelter can be traumatizing, with its cacophony of howls and barking, smells and isolating steel cages. A dog afflicted with kennel stress can swiftly deteriorate: spinning; pacing; jumping like a pogo stick; drooling; and showing a loss of appetite. It may charge barriers, appearing aggressive.”
But there are more and more studies, such as the one done co-authored by Dr. Gary Patronek, adjunct professor at the veterinary medicine school at Tufts, and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council suggesting that shelters should instead devote limited resources to “to spent the time in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training).”
“The tests are artificial and contrived,” said Patronek, who roiled the shelter world last summer when he published an analysis concluding that the tests have no more positive predictive value for aggression than a coin toss.
“During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction,” he said. “And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?”
Plus in many of the overcrowded shelters, the assessments are left up to staff members, who aren’t well trained, and who certainly aren’t behaviorists, to make the final say. “Interpreting dogs, with their diverse dialects and complex body language — wiggling butts, lip-licking, semaphoric ears and tails — often becomes subjective.” As Dr. Hekman noted, she had “observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff and was euthanized.”
So when space is such a limiting factor, as it is in many shelters, those dogs that attack a fake hand, just make space available for another dog.
The Times pointed out that one of the tests that is most disputed is the one involving the food test. Research has shown that shelter dogs who guard their food bowls, do not necessarily do so at home. And even Emily Weiss, the A.S.P.C.A. researcher whose SAFER behavior assessment is one of the best-known has stepped away from food-bowl tests, saying that 2016 research showed that programs that omit them “do not experience an increase in bites in the shelter or in adoptive homes.” And is study of this study, showed a stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression in the shelter, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
Tests that try to assess dog-on-dog aggression using a “fake” dog also have been shown to be less that ideal, a 2015 study showed that shelter dogs responded more aggressively to a fake dog than a real one.
Good news is that the A.S.P.C.A is reporting that annual adoption rates have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011. Euthanasia rates are down, although they still say 670,000 dogs are put to death each year. Some veterinary schools, like the University of California, Davis, Tufts University and Cornell University (that was the first one to offer such a program) are offering shelter-medicine specializations. And more and more shelters are employing more humane, and effective methods such as programs like Aimee Sadler’s Dogs Playing for Life that matches dogs for outside playgroups.
As Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the HSUS has noted: “There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort. Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show.”
What is important is to get the word out to your local shelters about the unreliability of behavior testing, it is surprising how many still employ them, including the Sue Sternberg’s “assess-a-pet” and the food bowl test. And while the Times piece is valuable because of the large audience it will receive, it did feature a behaviorist who used the fake-hand and food bowl test, but at least accompanied by a more thoughtful examination about the overall behavior of the dog. That dog was saved, but many who fail that test, in most other situations, without the benefit of expert opinion, would not have been. This is a complex situation that no one approach can truly fix. But it is important to heed the findings from Patronek, "Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general."
Dog's Life: Humane
Six Golden Rules for a Successful Rescue Start-up
It often begins with a whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own rescue?” At least, that’s how it began for us.
We were a handful of volunteers at a high-kill shelter. Like so many volunteers at so many shelters across the country, we rejoiced when dogs got adopted and were flattened when they were euthanized for no apparent reason. We knew there had to be a better way. But could we figure out what it was? One day, we decided it was worth a try, and took the plunge.
That was in 2014. It began with a few people with a shared idea who sat around a table and talked about it for more than four hours. It wasn’t especially glamorous, but it was exciting and empowering and, at times, contentious. Get a group of people in a room discussing a topic as passionate and based on what my friends and I learned by establishing and running DogsHome rescue three years ago, here are our six Golden Rules for starting your own rescue.
Golden Rule #1: Decide how you want to be different.
You want to save dogs. The good news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. The bad news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. Of course, it’s not really bad news, but it does make it harder for the new kid on the block (that’s you) to stand out. So you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do that’s different.
For example, you might decide to focus on rescuing senior dogs, dogs with medical issues or a particular breed. At our rescue, we knew that above all, we wanted to make sure every decision we made answered one question: Is this in the dog’s best interest? If it is, we do it. If it isn’t, we don’t. In many ways, that’s made our lives both simple (we always know what course of action to take) and difficult (the best course of action often requires much more time and energy). But we stand by it. However, this isn’t just about you.
Golden Rule #2: Ask your community how they want you to be different.
You’re going to need support, both helping hands and dollars, so make sure that when you decide the ways in which you’re going to be different, there will be something that resonates with your potential supporters.
In our case (and I can’t recommend this enough), we debuted our plan at a gathering at the home of one of our board members. We told everyone we invited to come with their ideas because we wanted to hear what they wanted from a rescue. To a person, everyone wanted better customer service. When they call or email, they want someone to get back to them. When they adopt or foster a dog, they don’t want to feel as though they’ve fallen into a black hole. They said they needed a place to turn with questions, problems and concerns.
We put this directly into our mission statement: we provide our dogs with lifetime support. In other words, we’re always there for our fosters and adopters. And while it means we sometimes get phone calls at 6 am or midnight, we’ve lived up to that!
Golden Rule #3: Think with your head, not your heart.
This is a tough one. How do you put logic ahead of compassion when it comes to saving lives? I can only tell you that it’s important to keep your heart in check or you’ll quickly find yourselves overwhelmed, both functionally and financially.
You can’t help a dog if you don’t have the resources to help him. And I know (oh, I know!) there is nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than realizing you can’t take a dog because … you just can’t. You don’t have a foster home available for him, you don’t have the money to provide for his expensive vet care or you simply won’t be able to give the dog quality of life. Set up yourself and the dogs for success. Get your proverbial ducks in a row before going forward.
Golden Rule #4: Be prepared.
“Getting your ducks in a row” means taking care of the boring stuff, like liability insurance and nonprofit certification, should you go that route. It means finding good, committed fosters (assuming you don’t have a shelter facility available) so that when you want to rescue a dog, there’s a place ready and waiting for him. It also means having funds available for dogs who come to you with urgent medical needs.
Involve people who are experienced in different areas. Find someone who has expertise in fundraising, another who’s good at publicity, someone who can evaluate and possibly train your dogs. And it never hurts to have an attorney on call.
At DogsHome, two of us decided to get our professional training certifications, and we also each enrolled in year-long online programs we knew would help us with the running of the organization. I got my certificate in lifesaving-centered animal shelter management, and the other team member got a certificate in nonprofit management.
Golden Rule #5: Find people who are committed.
It will be impossible to get your rescue off the ground without good, highly committed, like-minded people. This includes everyone from board members to volunteers who put up flyers around town. But nowhere is it more essential than with those who foster. Unless you have a facility available to you, you’re going to have to rely on fosters to provide homes for your dogs. However, not all fosters are created equal. Some come with experience, others don’t. Some are home most of the time, others aren’t. Some can physically handle strong dogs … well, you get the idea.
Keep in mind that even fosters who come with the best of resumés may have only shared their home with dogs that operated on autopilot. What if their new foster dog is suddenly guarding his food bowl or lunging in a not-so-friendly way toward the neighbor’s dog?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, you have to find fosters, and that’s no easy task. I’ve often said if someone offered DogsHome $10,000 or three new foster homes, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Foster homes win, hands down. To attract fosters, you need to get out in the community and beyond. Our info table loaded with foster brochures makes the rounds pretty much every weekend at pet supply stores, farmers’ markets and fairs. We use social media to let everyone know we need fosters, and we’ve held open houses aimed at attracting new fosters. Remember to let your fosters do the talking. No one can explain the rewards of saving dogs lives by providing them with a home better than someone who’s actually doing it.
Let’s go back to the foster with the dog who’s guarding his food bowl. This is where Golden Rule #4 comes into play. Make sure you have access to a trainer or behaviorist. They’ll need to work with the dog, but more importantly, they’ll need to work with the foster so that person can work with the dog. Whether this foster stays with your rescue (or even sticks with the dog until he’s adopted) may depend a lot on how supportive, tactful and patient you are in working through this. You can count on them making mistakes and getting frustrated. Just take a breath and be there for them. And yes, that may mean you’ll be getting texts at all hours of the day and night.
Bottom line: Take your time finding good fosters. Put together a thorough foster application, talk to them at length on the phone and visit them in their home. Trust your gut about how committed they are, because the last thing you need is a call in the middle of the night with a demand to “Get this dog out of here, now!”
Golden Rule #6: Keep your eraser handy.
When you first start out, your team will have a lot of ideas about how your rescue is going to function. Putting ideas in writing is a great way to get started, but once you get into the day-to-day, you’ll probably find that some of them don’t work, aren’t relevant or just aren’t what you want to do anymore.
When we first created DogsHome, we all agreed that we wanted to raise enough funds to eventually buy or rent a facility. This way, we reasoned, we’d be able to help a greater number of dogs. But as we got into the daily, hands-on operation of saving dogs, we realized that, with all the personal attention and TLC they got in their foster homes, our dogs were thriving in a way they probably wouldn’t in a facility. I mean, when it comes to knowing a dog, does anything really beat letting that dog sleep on the bed with you?
Having a dog live in a home provides us with valuable information for potential adopters, things it would be impossible to know if the dog lived in a shelter environment. Does he chew the furniture? Suffer anxiety when left alone? Greet visitors nicely? Guard his food? Bark excessively? Get along with the cat? And, if we have dogs living in a facility, how will we make sure they’re getting enough exercise, socialization and stimulation, let alone food and bathroom breaks? Then there’s the high cost of buying or renting a building, money we could be spending on veterinary care if we didn’t have the overhead of a physical structure.
So, our original goal of getting a facility has gradually faded. Finding fosters is hard work, to say the least, and no, we can’t save as many dogs as we might if we had a building. But the dogs we’re rescuing get quality of life and we’re able to meet their veterinary needs (our biggest expense) without worrying about going in the red.
The Big Surprise
I had a pretty good idea about what was required to build and run a nonprofit rescue organization from the ground up. I knew there would be a lot of scrambling, frantic phone calls, homing and re-homing and possibly re-homing dogs (yes, it happens). I knew there would be veterinary emergencies (who knew a dog could/would find his 20-pound bag of dog food and eat all of it when left alone for the first time?). I knew I’d evaluate dogs based on what I was seeing at the moment, only to have them present entirely different behaviors once they’re in a home. I knew running a rescue would frequently put me on mental, physical and emotional overload. I knew there would be days and nights when I’d cringe when my phone rang because I couldn’t handle any more bad news. I was prepared for all that.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the majority of the time I devote to DogsHome is actually spent running the organization rather than working with dogs or even doing anything dog-related. Among those non-dog tasks: all the written communication (daily Facebook posts, twice-monthly newsletters, brochures, flyers, ads, promotions, signs, appeal letters); licenses, insurance policies and permits; creating a website; arranging adoption events; running board meetings; fundraising; designing and ordering t-shirts and car magnets. And the list goes on.
In the midst of all that administrative busy-ness, there are those actual moments when you race to a shelter to save a dog and you’re able to take him on that glorious freedom ride to his new life. Knowing everything I know now, would I decide to create and run a rescue all over again?
In a heartbeat.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Amazing activists who are fighting to save Greyhounds worldwide.
Set against Ireland’s green and rocky beauty and its harsh economic realities, The Dogs of Avalon is the story of a determined group of women who fight for the well being of ex-racing Greyhounds. Marion Fitzgibbon helped to found the County Galway sanctuary she named Avalon, is a model of compassion in action, and author Laura Schenone journeyed to Ireland to learn more about her work and what motivates her to do it.
The next day, Marion picked me up in the rain. On the way out of town, as we sat at a traffic light, I saw a monstrosity by the side of the road, an ugly conglomeration of cement and steel which was evidently a huge construction project abandoned before it was even halfway built. I asked Marion about it.
“Isn’t it terrible? It was going to be a shopping mall, but they ran out of money.”
It felt unnerving to look in and see the unfinished floors and concrete walls, steel beams reaching up to nowhere, as though the workers had dropped their tools and fled due to some catastrophe. In fact, this is exactly what happened, though instead of the volcanic ash of Pompeii or the huge waves of a typhoon, it was an economic disaster. This was just one of many incomplete real estate projects left behind from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. With hundreds of years of poverty behind them, the Irish had been rich oh so briefly—and now they were poor again.
It receded behind us as Marion continued north. In Ireland, it never takes long to get from city to countryside, and soon we were surrounded by green, leafy trees on a road that ran alongside the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.
After more than an hour, we turned west and crossed into County Galway. That’s when the terrain changed, as though we’d entered another dimension. The bright green landscape was gone, and suddenly the car was climbing a rugged small hill that led to an open plain of brown untilled fields on one side and a bog on the other. The sky hung low and grey, and the vista was gloomy yet beautiful, with brown moor grass and rushes dotted with yellow wildflowers and heather.
In the distance, the hills rose up into the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Patches of dark earth lay in small heaps of broken rectangles left behind by local turf cutters. I remarked on the untillable soil and Marion said, “To hell or Connacht,” with an ironic laugh. We were in the rocky, harsh part of Ireland’s west, the place to which Cromwell banished the Catholics after he stole the fertile land in the 1600s and gave it to English Protestants.
“I remember when Beverly and I first came here and found this land,” Marion said, changing the subject. “It really shook my foundations when she left. I thought we’d be saving dogs together until we dropped.”
We turned down a dirt road that led to a large wrought-iron gate flanked by a wall of round, smooth stones, beautifully placed by hand.
A sign hung in front, bearing the word “Avalon” inscribed in Celtic-style letters.
“Whenever I come here, I feel happy because I know Avalon will be here after I am gone. Kilfinane, I cannot be sure. Maybe they’ll turn it all into condos someday after I’m dead. Or maybe they will knock it down. I don’t know. But Avalon will always be here.”
Marion had been one of Avalon’s directors from the start. And though she felt responsible for helping bring Avalon into existence, it was very clear that Avalon was Johanna Wothke’s project. It was part of Pro Animale. Marion didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking: How could it be that she and Johanna had both been doing this for thirty years, and now Johanna had more than thirty sanctuaries while Marion couldn’t even complete one?
We drove up the road, passing through a stand of trees, and then beyond to open meadows and rolling fields for grazing and running. We had arrived at an animal heaven. The long necks of horses came into view, bent over to graze. Sheep stood in distant, misty fields. The most dominant presence was of Greyhounds, dozens of them, barking aggressively. In their paddocks, they came leaping toward us and jumped up, forepaws to the fences, pink bellies and fangs showing, ears up, barking so forcefully that I felt afraid and checked the height of the fence.
The entry road led to the main building, covered in climbing roses and vines. Inside, every wall was hung with art—paintings, woodcuts, and sketches of animals. The floors gleamed with stone tile.
There were a few humans here, mostly Polish men, walking horses between fields. An Irishwoman named Noreen was in charge. She’d studied animal science and spent her life on farms before coming here. She sat us down at the kitchen table and made tea. She and Marion began to talk about Johanna’s high standards, how everything had to be just so.
In 1996, a year after Johanna Wothke, Rosie, and Marion first met about their Greyhound adventure, Wothke invited Marion to Germany to see some of her sanctuaries. Marion and Johanna were similar in age and had started their animal work at around the same time, by bringing dogs into their homes.
On that trip, Marion learned that Johanna had started with no great financial means—she’d been a schoolteacher. Early on, she’d had the idea to write a newsletter—first, for her friends and acquaintances —to let people know about her work, and also to appeal for donations. She continued to write these newsletters a few times a year, and her subscribers and supporters grew. In time, some donors left bequests to Pro Animale, which allowed her to build several sanctuaries in Germany. When the Soviet bloc fell, she bought cheap land in Poland and, later, in Russia, Austria, and Turkey. She kept a notebook for each sanctuary and spoke several languages, which helped. She ran these sanctuaries down to the last Deutschmark. Each one was designed the same way, with art on the walls, gardens and tiled floors. She was not a social being, but a workaholic. From what Marion observed, she slept only four hours a night.
They drove across Austria and down into Italy. Johanna had just acquired about ten acres of prime land in Assisi. At sunset, they reached a secluded valley. There was a broken-down mill and an orchard. A stream ran through the middle of the property, and at the center stood a farmhouse with thick walls and Gothic windows with deep ledges where you could sit and look out at the green valley. To Marion it was all incredible.
Johanna was about to open yet another sanctuary right there in the shadow of St. Francis, on this spectacular piece of land. She had raised her money by writing stories about the suffering of animals. People had responded. Germany was a wealthy country. Marion pushed away any feelings of envy.
The Assisi property came with a flock of sheep, which were still in their winter coats. While she was there, neighbors arrived with shears and got to work. They also brought a big feast and set out tables and napkins. Everyone sat under the stars, with lanterns hung from the trees. The magical experience imprinted on Marion an entirely new vision of what was possible.
At Avalon, the dogs lived in small social groups, and had large grassy fields to run in, contained by eight-foot-tall fences because there would always be those extra-talented Greyhounds who could jump a six-foot fence. Inside the main building, each pack had its own large room, much like a den. Wothke passionately opposed putting any dog alone in a cage or a pen.
I was peering into one of those rooms now. It seemed like a revolutionary design. Rather than four walls and a floor, the layout was a system of steppedup ledges wrapped around the room, except that each ledge was three or four feet deep and covered in earth-colored tile. If you stood in the middle of the floor, you were encircled by dogs, each in its own soft bedding on the ledges stacked halfway up the walls. Above the ledges, the walls were painted a soft yellow, and a hand-stenciled frieze of Greyhounds circled the room near the ceiling. It was more like a home than a dog kennel.
I stepped inside with Noreen as my escort. She was a strong-boned woman of middle age who inspired confidence, and yet, when the door closed the behind me, a wave of fear rose in my chest. Noreen stood in the corner and watched.
“I have to be very careful about introducing any new dog to a pack,” she said. “If one attacks another, then they all will. And they’ll kill a dog very quickly, you know.”
Six dogs circled round and began jumping on me. One managed to put its paws on my shoulders. The others nearly knocked me off my feet. They were exuberantly curious about me, sniffing my body and licking my hands. There was a wildness to them. They had never been tamed and had astonishing strength. As a pack, they were unified and powerful—and slightly terrifying. I sat down on a ledge, thinking it might calm them down, but this only gave them more access. Noses in my ears. A mouth around my hand. Tongues licking my cheeks, noses sniffing. One took my pocketbook and carried it to its bed. Across the room, three dogs remained in their spaces on the ledge—not interested. But the six around me could not have been more intrigued. My heart pounded fast.
Shortly after I came home from Ireland, I had a dream that Lily got out of the house and ran away. The last time I’d seen her was at a neighbor’s maple tree, and from there she’d vanished. I kept returning to that tree, looking for her, but she was never there. When I finally realized that she was gone and not coming back, I was overcome with the most excruciating grief—the kind of grief you live in fear of.
It was bottomless.
The next day, I was still rattled and felt a shadow over my brain. I told a friend about the dream.
“You do realize that you were dreaming about Gabriel,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Excerpt from The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril by Laura Schenone. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Schenone. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
On May 12, The Bark had the pleasure of hosting author W. Bruce Cameron for a special Q&A on Facebook. Cameron is a #1 New York Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author with several books to his credit, including A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey. His newest book, A Dog’s Way Home (Forge Books), was released in early May, and Cameron shared his thoughts on his new work as well as on one of his favorite subjects: dogs.
Bark: Tell us about A Dog’s Way Home …
W. Bruce Cameron: A Dog’s Way Home is a story of utter devotion, of a bond between a person and a dog, a bond so powerful that the dog will do literally anything to be with her human family. Bella is a rescue and Lucas, a young man, is her whole world. When Bella is banned from the city in which they are living (she is a Pit mix) and relocated hundreds of miles away, she decides a mistake has been made and sets off on a multi-year trek through the Rocky Mountain wilderness to find Lucas.
Bark: Is it fair to say it’s a little different than your previous books?
W. Bruce Cameron: I’m told that A Dog’s Way Home is rapidly turning into a reader favorite. I think it has to do with the lack of fantastical elements! In the “A Dog’s Purpose” series, there is the reincarnating dog; in Emory’s Gift, there is a bear who may or may not be real. In the “Repo” series, a man has the voice of a ghost in his head. But A Dog’s Way Home is a very realistic story about a dog separated from her people who needs to find her way back to them. Could happen—in fact, DOES happen—all the time.
Bark: For us dog people, the fear of being separated from our dogs is always at the back of our minds, isn’t it?
W. Bruce Cameron: I once had a dog—her name was Chinook—who was lost for seven days. She hopped the fence in a thunderstorm. She was eventually found by a farmer, who called in response to my newspaper ad. She was 50 MILES away.
Bark: What inspired you to write about this particular subject? Do you have a special interest in breed-ban laws and the work canines do with veterans? Is there a story behind the canine character being a Pit Bull?
W. Bruce Cameron: My dog Tucker gave me most of the ideas, or at least, that’s what he’s been telling people. I’m not a political agitator, but I just don’t believe Americans want their government telling them what kind of dogs they can own, especially when the law is about how dogs look, not how they behave. It is as ludicrous as arresting someone because he looks like a criminal.
I am proud of and grateful to our men and women in uniform—they have made great sacrifices for our country. Some have had experiences that left them with injuries, not all of which are physical. Dogs can be wonderful in helping veterans cope with and recover from trauma.
I have met many Pit Bulls and Pit mixes and generally find them to be among the most gentle and loving of breeds—though, let’s face it, the majority of dogs are gentle, loving and devoted.
Bark: Your books often involve a journey, sometimes of the heart, sometimes a physical journey. In A Dog’s Way Home, a 400-mile trek is at the center of the story. Can you talk about the role journeys play in your storytelling?
W. Bruce Cameron: My novels look at characters who evolve over time and distance. In this new book, Bella is an entirely different animal at the end of the trek than she was when she started out.
Bark: What message do you want people to take from your “A Dog’s Purpose” series?
W. Bruce Cameron: I guess it’s that dogs need us and we need them. That the ones we rescue, rescue us. That without us, they are lost creatures and they need our love, our help and our kindness.
Dog's Life: Humane
Recently I was pulled over on the side of the road in my animal control truck, entering notes from the call I had just finished. A man out checking his mail saw me and came over and tapped on my window. I rolled it down and he launched into a long complaint about the cost of his dog license. I tried to explain that his license fee helps ensure that we can be there to help animals in need, but he cut me off. “There was a dead dog in the street in front of my house one day and I called but you guys wouldn’t come. What is it you do then?” He demanded. I explained that our department doesn’t pick up DOA’s and again tried to tell him what we do. He brushed me off, asked me if I would go out with him and then turned and walked away when I said, no.
Most people have no idea what animal control officers do. April 9-15 is Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week so it seems like perfect timing to let people know why we are here. Yes, we pick up strays, and in some cases DOA’s, but there is so much more to it. ACO’s do humane investigations, seek justice for abuse, neglect and abandonment, and bring animals in need to safety. We write long reports, face abusers in court and deal with lost, injured, sick and aggressive animals. We protect people from dangerous animals and animals from dangerous people. We do bite quarantines and rabies prevention. We educate the public and teach people how to better care for their animals.
I’ve seen abuse and neglect so severe that years later I still choke up at the memory. I’ve removed animals from the arms of their deceased owners, from fatal car accidents and from floods, fires and murder scenes. I’ve fed and cared for people’s pets and livestock at their homes while they were hospitalized. I’ve removed animals from homes and vehicles after their people were arrested and removed large aggressive guard dogs to enable law enforcement to search areas. I’ve picked up animals after suicides and animals that were left with human bodies and no food for long periods. Some of the things I’ve seen will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I do it because the animals need me.
I’ve had to put critically injured deer down with a rifle at two in the morning in my headlight beams because they can’t be saved and a release from their pain and fear is the only mercy I can offer. I’ve been injured in a cockfighting raid and taken to the ER to be sewn up. I’ve been threatened by gang members and animal abusers. I’ve had people scream profanity in my face and flip me the bird for no reason at all. I’ve been called puppy killer and worse, by people who have no idea that I’ve dedicated my life to this profession because I think dogs and other animals are one of the greatest gifts we will ever have.
I’ve taken home animals that were too young, too ill, or too badly injured to stay at the shelter. I’ve stayed up all night caring for the orphaned, the broken and the dying. And I’ve dripped heartbroken tears over the ones I couldn’t save and the ones nobody wants. But I’ve also seen some incredible rescues, saved animals from certain death and removed animals from terrible abuse and given them the life they deserve. That’s what keeps me going and that is why I do what I do.
And when someone tells me “I could never do your job, I love animals too much” I look them in the eye and say “I love them to much not to.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Pennsylvania animal haven celebrates its 50th anniversary.
What do you call an organization that for 50 years has addressed the medical, behavioral and emotional needs of homeless animals? You call it an inspiring success.
In 1967, Lesley Sinclair left her job as an interior designer in New York City, bought a five-acre chicken farm in New Jersey and turned it into a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats. Fifty years later, the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)—which since 1980 has occupied more than 130 acres of Pennsylvania countryside in East Smithfield and, more recently, Wellsboro—is still in the caring business. Roughly 500 dogs and cats, all of whom are monitored, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered by the sanctuary’s resident vet team, are usually in residence. It has a vigorous adoption program, placing 90 percent of the animals it takes in. For those who aren’t adopted, ACS provides a forever home.
ACS’s no-kill policy was practically unheard-of in the 1960s sheltering world, and Sinclair’s pioneering adherence to it is just one of reasons for the “inspiring” label. Another is its long engagement in out-of-the-box thinking as a way to address the challenges that routinely arise in this type of work. ACS stands out in its embrace of innovative approaches to facilitating animal well being.
One example can be found in its alternative-housing program, which pairs dogs most in need of behavioral help with college-level pre-vet or animal science interns in onsite housing. Within this carefully monitored environment, dogs undergo individually tailored behavior-modification training regimes. To date, the program has a 100 percent success rate, with 24 of its 24 dogs now in new homes.
The organization’s support of shelter medicine also exemplifies its innovative thinking. ACS draws from a deep academic pool, one that includes Cornell, Purdue, Michigan State and Emory Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.
The sanctuary has the benefit of students’ time and attention and the students get a hands-on perspective on shelter medicine, learning the intricacies and demands of caring for the group as opposed to caring for a single animal in private practice. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, professor emerita of epidemiology and founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been instrumental in making recommendations and providing guidance as ACS develops its robust veterinary team and intern program. The sanctuary puts equal effort into community outreach: The two clinics it supports provide the only low-cost wellness and spay/ neuter services in their respective counties. It educates the public on humane issues. And it vigorously advocates for anti-cruelty laws. Fifty years in the no-kill arena is an enviable achievement, and Bark salutes the Animal Care Sanctuary for all the good it’s done, and continues to do, for the most vulnerable members of the companion-animal world as well as the cause of humane treatment of animals everywhere.We spoke to Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese about the changes and stresses that have come about in the last 50 years.
Bark: Whom do we have to thank for the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)?
Joan Smith-Reese: Lesley Sinclair founded ACS in 1967 in Toms River, N.J. She was from England, came to the U.S. during the war, was an interior designer in NYC and had a home in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore. She discovered that when beach residents returned home at the end of the summer, they often left their pets behind. She began rescuing those dogs and cats, and the rest is history.
She quit her job, bought a five-acre chicken farm and began the nonprofit ACS. From day one—long before any of the national organizations were focusing on spay/neuter—every animal was altered.
In 1980, after years of fighting New Jersey zoning regulations, she purchased 132 acres in East Smithfield, Pa., which is our current home. We recently added 64 acres at our Wellsboro site, one hour west of East Smithfield. We are so fortunate today to have so much land.
B: Fifty years ago, no-kill was still a pretty novel concept among mainstream sheltering groups. Why was it adopted by ACS?
JSR: That was the marvel of our founder. She believed every life was precious, and while the hope is always for a forever home, if not, we are the animal’s family. This is one of the reasons quality of life is such an important issue at ACS.
B: What kind of stresses, if any, does no kill put on a shelter/sanctuary? How does ACS address them?
JSR: Because there are still so many high-kill shelters in America, people who want to surrender do seek us out. We try to find ways for people keep their dogs and cats. If the issues are behavioral, we offer our services to help put together a plan and work with the owners (although, often, that’s not an option). If economics are the reason, we have a program called Project Home, which provides food, medical care and security deposits if landlords will allow a dog or cat; funding for this program comes from the United Way. The waiting list for owner surrenders is always our first priority, but we also help pull dogs from high-kill shelters, or shelters that want to be no-kill and, with our help, are moving in that direction.
B: What kind of changes has ACS seen and implemented over the past 50 years?
JSR: One really important change has been the advancement of shelter medicine through standards developed by the American Association of Shelter Veterinarians in 2010. The pioneer in beginning this curriculum is Janet May Scarlett, DVM, Cornell professor emerita in epidemiology, who created and taught the first shelter medicine course in the country at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and serves on the ACS Professional Advisory Committee.
We are also fortunate to have a director of veterinary medicine on staff to coordinate and oversee the vet team that cares for both our sanctuary animals and our two subsidized community clinics.
Another change is the use of behaviorists. ACS is privileged to have two, and their contribution is enormous. Dogs undergo an initial assessment on admission, and then a care plan is developed and modified as needed. Dogs are assigned to the canine care team, and they work on any issues using only positive reinforcement. We do a great deal of enrichment, including animal reiki, music therapy, aromatherapy, long walks in the woods, play groups, swimming, puzzle toys and so forth.
A big change now in the works is the way the kennels are designed. In the 1980s, the center aisle layout—dogs across from and next to each other, divided by chain link fencing—was state of the art. Today, we are in the midst of a capital campaign to change all of that. Our plans are to gut and rebuild our existing kennel so the dogs don’t face one another and have solid walls between them, natural lighting and noise abatement, among other things. It’s a $2.8 million project.
B: ACS has some interesting programs. How did they come about? What’s the process for evaluating and putting a new program into action?
JSR: We are fortunate to have talented staff who think outside the box, so new ideas come quickly. In order to be methodical, we start by presenting a concept at our leadership team meetings. Then, we decide which experts to bring in to help us evaluate our ideas.
A good example is our alternative housing program. We have pre-vet students who live with us for a semester and in the summer, we have far more applicants than we can take, so we needed a way to both whittle down the list as well as help our dogs. So one of our screening tools is “Would you be agreeable to living with one of our behaviorally challenged dogs, understand and accept training from the behaviorist, work with the dog and also collect data, and provide weekly reports?” We met with our Professional Advisory Committee for input and structure, then implemented this program. The interns who participate provide us feedback on what works and what could be improved. We have adopted 24 out of 24 dogs in the program, and the interns were the key.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.
And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.
My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.
There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.
Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.
For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?
The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.
My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.
For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.
My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.
I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.
Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?
The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)
As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.
Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.
When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.
The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.
After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”
Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.
As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.
As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.
As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.
That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.
I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.
“Who needs it most?” I asked.
“Promise,” she said without hesitation.
And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.
For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.
But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.
Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.
Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.
I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.
Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.
I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.
Dog's Life: Humane
Partnership between shelter and local business benefits shelter dogs
“Why run alone when you could have a running buddy? Love dogs? Like to run? Lace up your shoes and join Run Flagstaff as we partner with Second Chance Center for Animals to help exercise and promote shelter pets through a weekly run. You run and Second Chance provides your running buddy! Enjoy a neighborhood jaunt with nine to twelve shelter dogs.”
This announcement in the monthly newsletter from our local running store was proof that life is good. Any combination of my two favorite interests—dogs and running—is sure to make me happy. This program is designed to promote shelter dogs to the community as the dogs gain social experience and get some exercise. Each dog wears a glow-in-the-dark collar and a reflective vest that says “ADOPT ME: SECOND CHANCE”.
Second Chance Center for Animals is eager to help their dogs short term with a great outing, and long term by increasing their chances of adoption. In addition to their training work at the shelter, the Running Buddy program offers the dogs new experiences to meet people in the outside world. Run Flagstaff is owned by a couple who are serious dog lovers. They are guardians to three dogs and are likely at any time to add to their family by adopting another one. I love the collaboration between a local business and a shelter for the good of the dogs.
My sons and I were running buddies last week and had such fun that we signed up to attend again this week. The best news was that so many dogs had been adopted during the past week that they were not able to bring as many dogs as planned to the run. Dogs going to loving homes is always good news, even if it means that we had to take turns running dogs since there was not a dog for everyone despite that being the original plan.
Each of us in my family had a dog who charmed us, but made the event a bit of an adventure. My younger son ran with Boomer who must have some sort of sight hound in him. He was Fast with a capital F. My son got some good sprinting work in, and their love of speed made them a great match. My older son had a dog named Deuce who was extremely strong. He was presumably part freight train, but just as sweet as could be. I ran with Oreo, a very loving mix with black on either side of her face and white in between. Though she prefers her space around other dogs, she is gentle and kind around people, no matter how close they are to her.
While we ran on the path along the main road in Flagstaff, Ariz. (Route 66), many people walking or driving by smiled and asked us questions about the dogs. Seeing polite, well-behaved dogs out in the community is perhaps the best way to remind people that shelters are great places to find great dogs.
Copyright © 1997-2017 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc