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?”
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“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.
“That’s before he realized that we weren’t going to give the pups back to him once he found another place. Said they were worth $20 each to him. And he needed this poor girl to make more pups for him to sell. He only brought her in ‘cause the trailer park guy threatened to call the pound.”
I swallowed my disgust. Twenty-buck pups seldom ended up in nice places.
“We’ll find wonderful homes for all your babies,” I promised Momma dog as we guided her up to the side of my van. Even with the van’s low floor, it took four of us to pick her up and ease her inside, where she settled into the quilts with a moan. I started to climb in the back with her, but Diana stopped me.
“No, I’ll sit with her. I hit a pothole, she’ll pop. You know how to avoid them.”
So I drove and Diana sat on the floor of the van, Momma dog’s head cradled in her lap.
Twenty minutes and one contraction later, we off-loaded the dog into my basement. I constructed a snug den by draping towels over the sides of a puppy pen and cushioning the bottom with old quilts. Momma dog took a few laps of cool water, then relaxed into her new nest.
We stood watching her for a few minutes, but I knew the dog needed time to settle in, so we left—Diana on her way home and me to feed the rest of my foster animals. From time to time I checked on Momma dog, but as far as I could tell, there were no more contractions. That was normal; under stress, a pregnant dog can go out of labor for up to 48 hours, and the early hours of the morning were the normal time to whelp.
I did, however, take the opportunity to get her cleaned up a little. She cringed at the sight of the brush; she’d probably never seen one before. But soon she was stretched out on her side to allow me to groom her all over. I used a soft rag and mild soap to bathe her teats as well as her ears. Once again I was moved to tears by this creature’s willingness to place her complete trust in a stranger.
Later that night, I settled into a chair near Momma dog. With one eye on her belly, I finished sewing the new trim onto my Santa suit. The next day would be a long one.
I went to bed early, but got little sleep. Every few hours, I slipped down the stairs to check on Momma dog. The first time she gave a tentative wag of her tail. The next time she heaved herself to her feet and came over to me. I sat in the chair and we talked about the upcoming event and how different this whelping would be. I resettled her into the nest and sat beside her for a while, my hand resting on her belly. Her sides twitched and jerked—a tiny bulge of a foot, the rounder bump of a head as the pups squirmed in their sacs. Still, no more contractions.
A light rain blurred the next morning. Not auspicious Santa weather. Some pet owners would stay away, and every dog who did come would greet me with muddy paws. My usual excitement at being Santa was further tempered by the fact that Momma dog had not whelped during the night. When Diana came to pick me up, I asked if she could check on Momma a few times. She refused, but kindly offered to drive me home to check on the dog myself.
The Humane Society’s “Santa Paws” photo shoot had a new location that year, a roomy local storefront. The floor was covered with worn rugs, Christmas trees lined the brick walls; there was even a stately throne for Santa and a huge stack of brightly wrapped boxes for a backdrop.
The Santa shoot went well; there was a steady flow of people, but never so many that we couldn’t take time to assure the dogs that Santa wasn’t going to eat them—or try to convince the cats not to eat Santa.
Twice we put out the “Santa’s feeding the reindeer” sign and Diana rushed me back to my house. The first time, Momma dog looked unconcerned, but on the second visit, she was panting and squirming about the nest in an attempt to get comfortable. Although I didn’t see any while I was there, I knew the contractions had resumed. Nevertheless, she showed no undue distress and appeared to be at ease with her surroundings, so I left her to her job and went back to mine.
The last two hours labored by: a few more soggy dogs, a cat that left a claw in my leg, a kid who fussed about the muddy condition of Santa’s lap. And then, at long last, it was over. We wished the last dog “Merry Christmas,” locked the door and pulled the blinds.
“I wonder how many pups she’s had by now,” I said to Nancy, the Humane officer, as she drove me home. “Four, at least.”
“None,” Nancy argued. “If she didn’t whelp last night, she’ll wait and have them tonight. Dogs always whelp during the night.”
“Normally whelp during the night,” I insisted as I removed my Santa beard and scratched my face. “She looked pretty uncomfortable when I left. I’m betting four pups.”
“Zero,” Nancy said, numbers we repeated minutes later as we stood outside the door to my basement.
Nancy grimaced as I eased open the door—there was no mistaking the soft, insistent whimpers of newborn pups. Momma dog lay in her snug nest, several tiny creatures wriggling by her side. I knelt beside her, me with my stuffing-enhanced Santa belly, hers still fat with pups. She licked me as I brushed my hand over her babies.
“Six,” I whispered, but as I stroked her belly, another contraction rippled beneath my fingers and out slid puppy number seven. Panting with pain and exhaustion, Momma dog carefully lifted the pup in her mouth and placed it between her front paws, where she could wash it without disturbing those already suckling.
An hour later, I found an eighth pup, and Momma resting at ease beside them. Eight brand-new lives, clean and well-fed.
At midnight, I went back down. The pups whimpered and twitched in their sleep. I lured Momma out of the nest with a bowl of warm formula, and then quickly changed the bedding and resettled the new family.
One by one, I picked up the pups and noted the sex, weight and color in my notebook. And with my face still itching from a day of wearing Santa’s beard, I gave them their names:
“Here’s Dasher, here’s Dancer,
“You’re Prancer, you’re Vixen,
“So this must be Comet, and this Cupid,
“And I can’t forget Donder and Blitzen.”
And I tucked them away to their brave mother’s breast. To all a good night, and to all a safe rest.
As the puppies grew, Momma dog’s ears worsened. Since antibiotics failed to cure the infection, and the only other option was an expensive surgery that would leave her totally deaf, she was declared unadoptable; once her puppies were weaned, she’d be euthanized. Again, Diana came to the rescue. Though she’d planned to adopt one of the puppies, she decided to adopt Momma dog—whom she’d named Asha—instead. Then began the battle to save Asha’s ears. Together, we hauled her to every specialist in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and every one said the same thing: to save the dog, the ears would have to go.
Finally, took her to the young and eager miracle workers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Six months later, after a strict diet and a host of medicines and treatments, Asha had her ears, her hearing and her health. Asha is 13 now, and thoroughly enjoying a second puppyhood in her happily-ever-after home. And every year, this brave dog and her caring human come to sit on Santa’s lap.