Contributing Editor and Blogger
Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.
Sheriffs dispatch called me on standby about ten o’clock on a Friday night. They had a caller reporting an injured dog at an address out in the country. I pulled up in my animal control truck and met with a kind hearted family who pointed out the dog huddled behind a grill on the deck. They said they had tried to approach but she growled at them. I shined my light and that direction and the beam fell across an old, beat up pit bull. Her ears were cropped short, the eyes in the gray face were filled with fear and a large tumor hung from her belly. I heard a low growl. “Hey Doll, what are you doing here?” I called softly too her. Immediately I heard the sound of her hairless old tail beating against the grill.
I’ve been doing this job a long time. Most scared dogs that have wandered away will bolt for home when confronted. It was very likely that this old girl had been dumped put out of a car here, under cover of darkness. My heart broke for her and I called her again. The tail beat louder but she was afraid to come to me. I set my catch pole down and approached with a slip lead, talking to her the whole time. I was finally able to stroke the sweet face and slip the lead over her broad head.
I tugged the lead, trying to coax her out but she seemed to have no idea what the leash was. Finally I scooped her up and carried her to my truck. I settled her on a thick blanket and looked her over. The tumor was larger than an orange and she had several smaller ones as well. She was missing some of her hair and her skin was a mess. I could see that her mammary system had been used over and over. The skin sagged with the evidence of many litters of puppies.
I made the old dog comfortable at the shelter and put her on the vet log to be seen the next day. I dreamed about her that night, wondering if there was any chance that a family with few resources was missing her. Maybe she had gotten disoriented and wandered away from an elderly person who loved her but had no money? Maybe they would be frantically searching for her and we could help them with some vet care? I’m an optimist that way.
The shelter vets gave the old dog an exam and ran bloodwork the next day. I checked up on her and she was settled on a cushy thick dog bed although it was hard for her to lay comfortably on the tumors. We had saved old dogs with tumors bigger than this one though. One dog, Peaches, had come in with a cantaloupe sized tumor. The vet did surgery, she recovered fully and was adopted into a loving home. My own old pit bull Patty, had also come in terrible condition and with tumors. She had surgery and was doing great. I was hopeful.
I went in and sat with the old dog whenever I could and she climbed in my lap and cuddled as close as possible. I stroked the gray face, scratched behind her bad-ass cropped ears and massaged her muscles until she sighed with pleasure. I brought her special treats too and laughed to watch her tail wag and her cloudy old eyes light up when she smelled them.
Her stray hold passed, not surprisingly, with no one coming to claim her. I finally had a chance to ask the vet staff about her. She’s riddled with cancer, I was told, and her blood work looked terrible. She was dying. My eyes stung and I choked on the lump in my throat as I walked away. I so wanted her to have a few good years, with people who pampered and adored her. I knew she had likely been an outdoor breeding animal, used only to produce puppies, and I wanted to make up for it.
I sat with the old dog for a long time after work. I cherished this sweet time with her at the end of her life and tried to think of some other options but in spite of her good care at the shelter, her condition had deteriorated even more while she was there. Soon she would be in pain.
I had hoped to be with her the next day, as she slipped away in the gentle arms of the shelter staff, but I was tied up with emergencies and wasn’t able to make it back. How I wish she could have belonged to someone who loved her. Someone with the decency to hold her and drip heartbroken tears on her sweet face as she took her last breath. I know my dedicated co-workers would have been kind to her though and that is a comfort.
People often tell me they couldn’t do my job because they love animals too much. I tell them I love them too much not to. It’s not about my pain, it’s about helping the animal. What if no one were there to comfort this dog at the end of her life when even her owners betrayed her? Even though we couldn’t save her, I like to think we made her last days as nice as possible under the circumstances. Sweet dreams old lady.
The scruffy little stray peered warily at me from under her filthy, matted curls. She looked to be a poodle mix of maybe 15 pounds and animal control had been getting calls about her for a month or so. I called softly to her but she tucked her tail and trotted away. I spent the next several weeks trying every trick in the book to capture the little dog but she was too shy to approach and too clever to be cornered or trapped. She slept under old cars behind the meat company and roamed the nearby car dealerships daily.
Finally after several weeks of trying different baits in the trap I was thrilled to find her safely confined. Back at the shelter she was terrified and trying to bite but I was able to wrap her in a blanket and get her vaccinated and scanned. To my surprise she had a microchip. There was no phone number so the next day I went to the home and met with her former owner. A pleasant man, whom I will call Marco, he stated that he loved his dog but had too many dogs and still had 4 of her puppies from a previous litter of 8.
It’s my job to help and educate rather than judge whenever possible and Marco needed help. He showed me the 4 puppies. There were two males and two females and he told me that he was trying to separate them because the boys were trying to have “the sex” with the girls and he didn’t want any more puppies. It’s important to remember that Marco was doing the best he could with the education and information he had. Other than a bad limp on one of the female puppies, they looked healthy and well cared for. They had enough to eat and a cozy bed in a shed.
Still, the dogs were reproducing at random and I knew it wouldn’t be long before there would be more puppies and I was worried about the limp on the female puppy. Also my preference is always that dogs live in the home as part of the family. We chatted a few more minutes and Marco decided to surrender the original stray mama and her two female puppies and I gave him information on getting the males neutered.
I took the little scared stray and the two puppies home to foster until they could be adopted. I named the mama Ava and she warmed up in no time, crawling tentatively across the floor and into my lap after a few moments. I bathed her filthy coat and trimmed the mats and scheduled her to be spayed as soon as she was more comfortable being handled. I had the two puppies, Charlotte and Cookie spayed (Cookie was in season), vaccinated and treated for worms and fleas. I also Cookie seen for her leg and X-rays showed a partially healed fracture that was crooked and needed surgery.
One evening about a week after I caught her, Ava lay blissfully relaxed on my lap. I was absently stroking her belly when I felt movement under my hand. Two days later I woke up to a single puppy nursing happily in the bed with Ava.
Cookie had her surgery and was adopted by one of the wonderful vets who took care of her. Charlotte went home with a friend of mine and will have the best of everything. Mama Ava and her puppy Bruno will stay in foster care with me until Bruno is weaned. Then they will be spayed and neutered and adopted out.
It’s funny how catching one little stray resulted in four dogs having a better life. I can’t help but think what good timing it all was. Little Bruno might have grown up under a car as a feral stray, if he even survived. The two female pups would have become pregnant and produced more puppies in the back yard. And little Cookies broken leg might never have been fixed, leaving her with a lifetime of pain.
I think Ava and little Bruno, snuggled up in a warm bed in my living room would agree.
There has been a man in our county for many years who has been breeding and advertising his large mixed breeds as the world’s perfect dog. The dogs live outside on runner systems and the pups are raised outside. He gives them an impressive designer name and offers his unwitting buyers a great story about why they should pay big bucks for them. I love all dogs, mixed or purebred, but as an animal control officer I've got a hundred dogs in my shelter that nobody wants and a good percentage of them are large mixed breeds. It’s hard to watch this man’s dogs produce litter after litter of puppies every year. He sells most of them as cute babies. Those he can’t sell grow up in the back yard until he surrenders them to the shelter at a year or two of age, never having seen a vet, had a leash on, or been socialized to strangers or other animals. He also has deafness and some other health problems in his line so we usually end up with those and it’s a huge ordeal to find an adopter or rescue to take them. In the cases where the dog’s poor health or temperament cannot be overcome, the shelter staff, myself included, faces the heartbreaking task of euthanasia.
A truly responsible breeder will not knowingly reproduce health problems and takes responsibility for the dogs he produces for life but this guy isn't doing anything illegal so there isn’t much I can do about it. It’s been a source of frustration for years. I was recently there for annual kennel inspection (he has over the regular legal number of dogs so he pays for a kennel license and inspection). I started talking to him about the number of unwanted dogs in our shelter. I also expressed concern about the deafness in his line. I was very nice but I put a bug in his ear about overpopulation etc and then let him sit on it for a week.
The following week I consulted the manager of the local low cost spay/neuter program for openings and looked up when the man’s licensing is due (next month). The licensing has gone up tremendously for intact dogs and as a senior he will pay next to nothing once they are spayed. I called him up and reminded him that his licensing was almost due, amounting to hundreds of dollars, and let him know we had openings for surgery. I also offered to pay the minimal fee at the low cost clinic (believe me, it’s more than worth it) and to pick them up and drop them off. So he agreed! He’s already gotten two of them done and has tentatively agreed to get them all done and stop breeding. The key was gently educating him and making it as easy as possible to accomplish.
In many cases people want to get the surgery done but don’t have the resources. Donating to low/cost spay neuter clinics is one of the best ways to save lives on the least money. Bang for your buck it’s hard to beat. One dog sterilized can potentially prevent hundreds of unwanted births. A two-year-old dog I know of had already produced 3 litters of ten or more puppies per litter. That’s more than 30 puppies by one mama dog who hadn’t even reached maturity and of a breed that is most overrepresented in shelters. And those 30 puppies are now at reproductive age. It’s a mind-boggling problem and one of the reasons I donate most of my book sales to low cost spay/neuter programs.
It feels good to know that there will be fewer unwanted puppies entering our shelters in the coming years.
The day before Thanksgiving I received an animal control call from a woman who had recently found a pregnant stray Rott/Shep type dog and taken her home. The finder tried to find the dog’s owner but no one claimed her and 8 chunky puppies were born soon after. Unable to keep them and desperate about what to do with a large, protective mama and her 8 newborns, she called the shelter.
I told her that I would impound them through the shelter but then take them home to foster. I picked the family up, photographed mama and posted her on the shelter website and took them straight home where she would have a quite place to raise her babies. Ideally, puppies should be raised inside the house, however, I work ten to twelve hour days and have a house full of other pets. An 80 pound mama and 8 babies inside with me gone all day doesn’t work. What I have set up is a little shed and spacious kennel area with a floor heater that goes under the bedding and keeps it quite cozy. I settled the little family in on some soft blankets and let mama get used to her new digs.
I named the mama Bonnie and she did a wonderful job with her babies. The first 3 weeks or so with newborns is pretty easy. Mama does all the feeding and clean up and I just scoop up after her, change the bedding every day or two and keep her bowls full. I also try and pick up each puppy for a moment or two to make sure they are gaining weight and get them used to being handled.
Around 3 weeks of age puppies get fun. They also start to be a lot of work. Their eyes are open, they are walking around, the little tails start to wag and they learn to bark and growl and play. They start eating soaked kibble and mama stops cleaning up. For the next 5 weeks it seems like all I do is refill massive bowls of food and scoop up a few hundred piles of puppy poop a day. They start wanting to interact with people and I bring them inside as often as possible. I encourage gentle visitors of all ages to come and cuddle and socialize the babies and give them a great start. Puppies are so much work but they are also good for the soul. They kiss and cuddle and nibble fingers while mama gets a tummy rub. Just spending time with them is a great stress reliever.
As the New Year gets underway, I prepare to send Bonnie and the babies to adoptive homes soon. My hope for 2015 is that each of them gets a wonderful home where they will be cherished as adored companions.
Do you have any hopes or plans for you your dogs or others in the coming year?
Helping Save a Dog's Life
I had a profoundly moving experience recently. I pulled up on a call to pick up a sick kitten and the song The Christmas Shoes came on the radio. I wrote about this song in The Secret Life of Dog Catchers because it always makes me cry. Sometimes I see so many sad, terrible things on the job that I lose the ability to cry even when I need to. A tender song can be a catalyst to release some of that pain. The Christmas Shoes is about man who is feeling caught up on the stress and commercialism of Christmas. He’s in line to buy something and the little boy in front of him doesn’t have enough money for his purchase. The child is trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother to wear to heaven. The boy asks the stranger to help him and the man finds the true meaning of Christmas in helping a stranger.
The song had me feeling teary as I got out of my animal control truck and as I crossed the parking lot a woman called to me from a car. She asked me to please help them so I approached and saw a family holding a tiny, older Chihuahua in their arms. The dog, Lilo, was the special pet of the ten year old daughter and was critically ill but they had no money. Every vet clinic and shelter had turned them away. Veterinarians are generally hard working and compassionate people but they have to make a living just like everyone else and shelters are there for animals who have no owners.
Lilo probably didn’t weigh more than 3 or 4 pounds, with just enough gray around her muzzle to show her maturity without advanced age. The big brown eyes were resigned to her fate, whatever it may be and I could see that she was lethargic and dehydrated. The family was distraught and obviously adored their pet. I asked a few more questions and then called in my credit card number to a nearby vet clinic and asked them to please see the dog. The family and I embraced and exchanged some tears and I sent them on their way.
A couple of hours later the clinic called and said Lilo had a life threatening pyometra and needed emergency surgery to save her life. Pyometra is a nasty uterine infection common in un-spayed female dogs. The kind-hearted veterinarian gave me a break on the surgery and many generous people chipped in to help pay for it. Lilo ended up with major complications and spent 5 days in the hospital before she was well enough to be released. I was finally able to pick her up and drive her home and placing her in the daughter’s arms was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.
Now animal control officers don’t make a lot of money. I buy most of my clothes at the Goodwill and drive a 20 year old car. We don’t spend much at Christmas other than some gifts for the kids. We have everything we really need and although I love giving gifts, I don’t like buying them just for the sake of buying them. Helping this family meant more to me than any gift I could ever get.
If I look close I can see my reflection in the dog’s eyes.
The holidays can present a different picture for animal control officers and shelter workers. It’s hard going to work each day and seeing all the homeless faces. Some eager and hopeful, some scared and lonely. All in need of someone to show them how good it can be. Of course not everyone can adopt a pet and certainly in most cases pets shouldn’t be given as gifts. The exception is a parent who is committed to the life of a pet giving a pet to a child or a family who is picking out a pet together. It was once thought that no animals should be adopted out around Christmas but the thinking later changed to encourage people to give needy pets a home for the holidays. I’m all for taking things on a case by case basis. An easy-going family adopting a confident, happy dog can be a blast at any time.
Even if you can’t adopt, there are lots of ways to make life sweeter for homeless pets during the holidays. As we look at our beloved pets lounging in pampered comfort, remember the dogs who have no one. Contact your local shelter or rescue and ask for a wish list. Donate blankets, food, toys, treats or money. Volunteering to walk and play with shelter dogs is a great way to walk off all the rich food most of us indulge in this time of year and makes all the difference for a lonely dog.
The holidays can be a stressful time for our own dogs as well. Some dogs thrive on all the activity this time of year but many don’t. We often see cases of dogs biting visitors around the holidays. Even nice dogs can bite and dogs are limited in the ways they can ask for space. I constantly see well meaning people ignoring numerous stress signals from dogs. If your pet isn’t thrilled to see visitors, settle them in a quiet room with some treats and toys instead of subjecting them to the chaos of people who may push them past their limits.
We can all benefit from slowing down and focusing on the real meaning of the season. What are you doing to make life sweeter for your pets and others?
Girl Scout went missing on June 14, 2014 after jumping a five foot fence at a friend’s house in another town. An athletic 30 pound mixed breed, she was on the run in an unfamiliar area many miles from home. Her frantic owners immediately began the search and plastered missing posters on every surface for miles around. I saw the fliers every day as I went about my calls and I patrolled the area repeatedly hoping I would be able to find her and give her people the happy ending they were looking for. Girl Scout was microchipped and wearing a collar and tags (an animal control officer’s favorite), and occasionally there would be sightings, but she was too frightened to go to anyone.
Weeks and then months went by and the sightings grew fewer. I wondered about her often, as I still saw the faded and tattered fliers everywhere. Sometimes new fliers would pop up as a result of another sighting but Girl Scout was no closer to being caught. Even formerly friendly, outgoing dogs sometimes get where they don’t trust anyone and they just stay alive scrounging from trash cans and outdoor pet food bowls.
Three months after Girl Scout went missing, someone who had seen the fliers recognized her with a homeless man and was able to reunite her with her ecstatic family. A vet visit showed her to be thin, covered in tick bites and having broken her leg at some point. The leg had healed slightly crooked but overall, she is doing well.
Girl Scout’s owners did a lot of things right to help her come home. They made reports to animal control, offered a reward and put up (and are taking down) more than 700 fliers, many of which were laminated, helping them last longer. They left their car, her crate, blankets etc at the areas she was seen. She had tags and a microchip, which would have helped in many situations although they weren’t the saving factor in this case. They posted on Facebook, took out ads and searched relentlessly, but most of all, they never gave up.
I would love to hear from readers who have recovered a lost a dog. Tell us what you did to find them and how you were reunited.
I cried today, for a dog I only met once, years ago. I first met Hector at a Bad Rap (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls) event. Hector and another dog that had been rescued from Michael Vicks dog fighting ring were there. The two of them were as delightful as any dogs I’ve ever might. Hector was horribly scarred but all he wanted to do when he saw another dog was play. His eager whines, gently wagging tail and welcoming play bows were evident whenever he saw a potential new friend, human or canine. I fell in love with him on the spot.
As a long time shelter worker, I have an embarrassing confession. When I heard that Bad Rap was going to try and save some of Michael Vicks dogs, I disagreed with it. I love dogs. I love pit bulls. And I had seen far too many of them euthanized for lack of homes. My feeling at the time was that we couldn’t even find homes for all the pits that hadn’t been bred and trained for fighting so it didn’t make sense to save a group of dogs with such a terrible history. I felt that the kindest thing was to gently let them go. Hector taught me that every dog deserves to be judged on his own merits. As it turned out, most of Vicks dogs were just neglected, unsocialized animals in desperate need of a friend. With few exceptions, most of them even liked other dogs.
Thankfully for Hector and the rest of the Vick dogs, the amazing folks at Bad Rap believed the dogs deserved a chance. They evaluated them, found foster homes, waited through a lengthy trial and finally placed the dogs in homes or sanctuaries depending on their needs. Hector was placed in amazing home and soon had his own facebook page that topped 200,000 likes. He lived out the rest of his life as an adored and beloved companion until he passed away October 27th from cancer. Sweet dreams Hector.
You were loved.
There is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it
I followed the sweet, white-haired woman down a flight of stairs as we chatted about her day. She had called our shelter and stated that she had found a stray dog a few days previously had been unable to locate the owner. She requested an animal control officer to pick it up. When we reached the basement she opened the door. I looked inside and stopped in surprise. It’s pretty rare that I’m speechless. In my job I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. The dog wagged his tail eagerly but it took me just a moment to get my wits about me. He was extremely tiny at only three pounds but his slightly graying muzzle showed him to be long past puppyhood. He was unusually small but what caught me off guard was the fact that he had no front feet.
The little guy stood up on his rear legs and wiggled and wagged at me in delight. I scooped him up, impressed by his happy attitude, while still being shocked at his lack of front feet. One limb ended abruptly just past the elbow, while the other was slightly longer with a floppy bit of flesh at the end. One tiny nail spiraled bizarrely out of the tip to a great length. He was a little thin and his coat was black with fleas that swarmed over his skin in tremendous numbers. Even as I held him, he was attempting to scratch the pests that plagued him. Closer inspection showed him to have rotten teeth and a penis that would not retract into the sheath and he kind of stumped along on that too. Even his back feet, while appearing fairly normal, only had two toenails apiece.
I placed the dog in a well padded carrier in the front seat of my animal control truck and he curled up, seeming content other than the constant scratching at his fleas. I kept glancing at the dog as I drove. It was likely that his feet had been missing since birth. Whether it was a congenital issue or the result of an overeager new mom chewing more than the umbilical cord, I couldn’t say. He looked back at me, big brown eyes trusting and accepting of whatever I chose for him. Someone must have cared about him somewhat or he never would have made it to adulthood. I pictured a poor but caring family with few resources to deal with a dog like him. The must have fed him, sheltered him and cuddled him for he was friendly and trusting. I wondered how he had ended up on his own after all this time. Back at the shelter, I placed him in a warm sudsy bath and scrubbed and rinsed the fleas off of him until the water ran black. I dried him in a big fluffy towel and he was photographed, vaccinated, wormed and treated for his fleas.
Due to his numerous medical issues, I took him home to foster. I decided to call him Joey as he reminded me of a baby kangaroo the way he stood up on his hind legs. Joey’s attitude and good nature is a constant source of delight and a reminder that life is less about what happens to us and more about how we respond. A veterinary check up and bloodwork showed him to be relatively healthy other than the obvious. The vet guessed him at around 7 or 8 years of age and also found that his jaw is fractured, maybe from his rotten teeth, and he’s a bit anemic, likely from all the fleas that had been feasting on his blood for who knows how long. He will need at least another month or so in foster care to try and resolve his anemia before he’s neutered and has his dental needs addressed.
Joey is thriving in foster care in my home and has numerous adoption options, including a woman who previously had a Chihuahua with no front feet. He is friendly and happy and loves people, especially children. In every way, he is a well adjusted little guy who doesn’t let his issues define him. As much as I would love to keep him, he would be happier in a home that where the adopter doesn’t work full time as I do. He is such a reminder that in spite of the challenges that many of us have, there is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it. There is a lesson to be learned from every dog I meet and Joey certainly has much to teach.
I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs with unusual challenges.
As an animal control officer, I’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, but last summer’s callout to pick up a stray Pit Bull was about as bad as it gets. The old dog was so emaciated that I could count every rib and vertebra, and could have hung my hat on her hip bones.
She was also missing much of her hair, her skin was inflamed, her nails were long and the cruciate ligaments in both of her hind legs had clearly ruptured. In spite of her condition, this old girl was thrilled to be shown some attention. She held my gaze with big brown eyes that melted my heart. When I stroked her sweet face, her hairless tail whipped so hard that she nearly fell over. I wrapped my arms around her stinky, bony body and hugged her.
The shelter vet gave her a poor prognosis. Not only was she old, she was in extremely bad condition, and her blood work looked terrible. Still, the shelter did what it could for her, among other things, starting her on a gradual re-feeding program; her appetite was voracious. I visited her every day, and when her stray hold was up, I named her Patty and took her home to foster.
As Patty settled easily into life as a pampered house dog, I went to work on finding justice for her. I consulted a friend, an investigator for the DA’s office, and together, we put in many hours on the case. During the investigation and court proceedings, Patty lived in our home but could not be formally adopted until the case was resolved. In the meantime, she gained 20 pounds, her hair grew back and her skin improved tremendously. She was so strong, shiny and vigorous that it was hard to believe she had ever been anything else.
Finally, 10 months after I picked her up, we wrapped up Patty’s case with two arrests, a felony conviction with jail time and a court-ordered diversion program.
During her time with us, my entire family fell in love with this delightful old dog (we learned that she will be 12 this year). She cuddles with my geriatric cats and ancient Chihuahua mix, greets visitors like long-lost friends, and adores children. Without a doubt, Patty has blessed our lives at least as much as we have blessed hers. You can guess where this is going. Years ago, I made a sort of “bucket list,” things I wanted to do or to accomplish. One was to adopt an old, beat-up dog and pamper the heck out of him or her. Last week, I finalized Patty’s adoption as a formal member of our family. This may be the best thing I’ve checked off that list yet.
This experience reminded me of two important facts: justice for abused dogs is possible, and many elderly dogs—even elderly, broken-down dogs—have life and joy left in them; all they need is a chance. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, find it in your heart to give one of these venerable creatures a home.
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