Himself and I both have a long history of helping out stray dogs, but in 2008 we came actively involved in volunteering. By the end of that year we and a friend had created our own small private dog rescue. Building and running that organization consumed me for the next five-plus years. I don’t regret it – we saved a lot of lives – but burnout is no joke. This blog is a place to share stories, and writing them helps me heal and prepare for the next big adventure.
I’ve just got off the phone with the vet clinic that helps with our “more complicated than spay/neuter and vaccinate” cases. Later today I may get a call requiring me to decide whether a cat should live or die.
This is never an easy call. It particularly sucks when money is a big part of the equation.
Take this cat. I haven’t met her; a friend, who is associated with the pet rescue Kuja and I started last year, picked her up. She’s a sweet kitty, except when she’s not. Loving and affectionate, until she whirls around and bites or smacks you.
Also, she is ferocious in attacking other cats and dogs, so we can’t find her a foster home, and finding her a forever home is going to be hard.
All this makes her a challenge and a pain in the arse … but it’s not a reason to kill her. Instead, we sent her to the vet with a request for evaluation. Maybe she’s mean because she’s hurting, and we can fix the hurt and let her sweet self come out. Or maybe she’s sick in a way we can’t help, and we’d do best to end it for her without more pain.
I emailed the vet – because putting things in writing is the best way to ensure that all involved have the same information. Then I followed up with a call to ensure that they’d check their email. And now we wait.
This is what I asked them to do:
Sedate her. She can’t be properly examined without that.
Check her mouth. Her behavior suggests she’s in pain, and also she drools a lot. If her teeth are a really terrible mess that’s going to cost a fortune to fix, or if she has some condition that will continue to hurt her, euthanize.
Test her for FIV and FeLV (feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia). These are incurable, highly contagious diseases. There are sanctuaries where infected cats can live together as long as their quality of life holds out, but that’s not an option for a highly territorial kitty, even if we could find one with room for her. So … if she’s infected, euthanize.
If her mouth is a reasonably simple fix, and she’s disease-free, she gets dental, spay and vaccinations … and, we hope, eventually a new home. In the meantime she’ll continue as an outdoor cat, cared for by her rescuer. Perhaps if her dental issues get fixed she’ll become a gentler, sweeter kitty, and bringing her in to live with other dogs and cats will be an option. That would also make her easier to rehome. One can hope.
Making these decisions is hard, and it’s harder knowing that, if we had more money, we’d simply fix her up and then figure out what to do next. And it’s hard not to feel guilty, knowing that if she were a dog we wouldn’t even be asking the question. For both Kuja and me, we care about cats and will try to help them … but dogs are people. You don’t order a person’s euthanasia unless you really and truly have no options.
Take Zeus, the German Shepherd the Hubbit and I took in last week. There were no questions, no discussion. I simply let Kuja know, “He needs a vet – I’m taking him to Urgent Care,” and she said, “Of course,” and that was that. Several hours and more than $400 later he was back home with a bucket on his head.
It helps that he’s the sweetest, most mellow German Shepherd I’ve ever known. It helps, but it’s not the reason. We’d have taken him in anyway.
It bewilders me, though, that a dog like this could be starved, apparently for most of his life, and then thrown from a moving vehicle onto a gravel road. Who does such a thing? How does a dog to whom such a thing is done continue to love and trust humans?
In cases like this, I find I have to make up a story, just to try to make sense of it. So this is Zeus’ Story According to Belladonna: He was bought as a puppy from a breeder who didn’t worry too much about bloodlines, but who probably didn’t let him go until he was old enough to leave his mom and his litter. While he was a puppy his family loved him and played with him, and there were probably other dogs in the family as well. But as he got older, he became an outdoor dog. Every day his food bowl was filled, but only with the cheapest food – Alpo or Old Roy – something that goes in, fills the belly for a little while, and passes through without leaving any nutrition behind. His coat got coarse and dry and sunk into the gaps between his bones, and he failed to grow as big as he should have.
Maybe his owner was old. Maybe they died or went into a home. However it went, something happened that separated him from the person who loved him – not enough to have him inside, or groom him, or feed him good quality food, but enough to win the whole of his big old Shepherd heart … Something happened, and he became the responsibility of someone else. Someone who didn’t want to be bothered with him. Someone who loaded him into the back of a vehicle, and drove down a country road, and then accelerated fast and gave him a shove and sent him flying onto gravel that tore the fur and skin off his face and neck, pitted his body and legs with puncture wounds. And then they drove away. And a few days later the Hubbit and I took him in.
It isn’t fair that he’s getting whatever he needs – treatment at the Urgent Care vet last week, dental care and a neuter last Monday, a visit to a groomer next week, and meanwhile a safe haven, affection, good food, a warm bed, and the certainty of a safe and loving home in time for Christmas. It isn’t fair that he’s getting all this just because he’s a German Shepherd, and the cat has to go through a series of steps in order to qualify to wake up from sedation this morning because she’s … just a cat.
Usually I like to end my posts with some sort of neat conclusion. This time I don’t have one. It isn’t fair, and I can’t do anything about it.
Sometimes a dent, a track of rubbed fur, circles their necks where a collar used to be. A couple times I’ve picked up dogs with wire twisted around their necks. One of those needed surgery to remove it, and the hair that grew back after the wound healed was a thin white streak in the dull gold of her coat. But usually, when people dump dogs, they remove the collar.
Later, when I’m trying to catch the dog and there’s nothing to take hold of, and it’s wary of the leash I’m trying to loop over its head, hoping that I don’t get bitten, I’m always angered by the absence of the collar, especially when you can tell there used to be one. It seems such a petty act of meanness.
But maybe they’re being frugal, saving the collar for the next dog. Or maybe there are tags, and they don’t want some do-gooder bringing the dog back to them. Or maybe … Oh, seriously, I don’t care about the maybe. Screw the collar. What kind of person dumps a dog?
The dog Mama Bear picked up at a truck stop last Thursday had a microchip. She called me early – I was still in bed – and I headed over to her house, where she was late for work and fretting over what to do with him. He was sweet, a black Labrador mix, worried about his people but willing to tolerate our bumbling efforts to help him. She’d found him on her way to work when she pulled into the truck stop to get gas, and he was running from pickup to pickup, nose up, frantically checking each one. He wasn’t in bad condition and we figured he’d probably jumped or fallen out of the back of his own human’s pickup. (Why do people persist in letting their dogs ride loose in the back of a pickup? But that’s a rant for another day.) When I scanned him and found the chip, and then learned that it had actually been registered – which is not something you can take for granted; people mean well but they’re sloppy – we thought it would be easy – a simple matter of returning him to a relieved and loving family.
Mama Bear works at a prison where there’s a dog program – qualified inmates can apply to raise and train a rescue dog; it lives in their cell with them, and goes wherever they go, and when it’s trained it’s put up for adoption. There’s quite a demand for prison dogs. Many of them start out labeled “unadoptable”, and the focused, one-on-one relationship with their convict trainer turns them around, gives them a second chance. I guess they have a similar effect on the human who works with them.
Anyway, the head of the prison program said the dog – the microchip company told us his name was Blackie and he was eight years old – could go back to the prison with her and hang out in the dog area until his people showed up to get him. When I called the microchip company to trace his chip they wouldn’t give me the owners’ contact information, but they took my information to pass along. It always annoys me when people instruct the microchip company to withhold their information. I mean, seriously, do they think that someone who takes the trouble to pick up their strayed dog is going to stalk them? And how rude, to refuse to give me their information, but require me to give them mine! It makes no sense!
Except in Blackie’s case it did make a bitter kind of sense. His owners didn’t contact us, so someone from the prison contacted the microchip company again, and managed to get the owners’ information. They phoned, and the conversation went like this:
“Hello – is this Mr. X? I believe you’re missing a dog? You’ll be happy to know we have him!”
So Blackie was homeless after all. It’s hard not to come up with a narrative in such a case, to try to make sense of it … An abusive new boyfriend, maybe, who dumped the dog … One imagines a conversation after the phone call: “Who was that?” – “No one.” – “Ohhh … I was hoping … He’s microchipped, you know. Surely someone will find him!” And then what? Silence? “Shut the fuck up about the damn dog!”? Or, maybe, “Never mind – I’ll get you a puppy.”
Anyway, Blackie was invited to join the prison program, which was a relief because the Hubbit and I already had an extra dog in addition to our five full-time family membrs. So he had a couple of days of peace, getting to know his convict. And then Mama Bear called to tell me he’d died during his neuter surgery.
“He died?” I was shocked.
“Yes – just started seizing. Some sort of reaction to the anesthetic.”
“Oh damn. That happens, but it’s rare.” It happened to a dog the Hubbit owned, in fact, 25 or 30 years ago.
She was upset. “Don’t they do some kind of blood test before surgery to make sure that won’t happen?” I had to tell her no, not when it’s a rescue. Blood work is expensive.
Anyway, maybe that’s why his people dumped him. Maybe they knew he was sick and they didn’t want to deal with it. It makes no difference. It doesn’t matter whether they were cowardly, mean or cruel. He deserved better, and we couldn’t give it to him.
The dog we took in yesterday doesn’t have a collar or a microchip. I’ve checked all the lost dog sites on Facebook, as well as Craigslist, and no one is looking for him. I put up an ad and I’ve had several responses, from heartbroken people desperate to find their missing family members. It hurts to have to tell them no – “No, I’m so sorry, this one is male.” “I’m sorry, he’s a purebred German Shepherd, not a mix, and he’s mostly black, not brown. I’ll send you a photograph.” I don’t put much information in the ads I place – just his breed and that he’s in poor condition. I figure his owner should be able to describe him. But the downside of that is that good people’s hopes rise, and I have to let them down.
The Hubbit told me this boy had been hanging around our private access road for the past couple days. He and Paranoiber had been trying to catch him, and he hadn’t mentioned it to me because I’ve been AWOL inside my head, for reasons that I may get into in another post. But yesterday when he opened our gate the dog ran through it and up the driveway, so the Hubbit called me on my cell phone. “Can you come? You’re better at this than I am.”
I am good at catching dogs. I’m good at expressing relaxed unconcern with my body and voice, and I’ll wait an hour or more for them to come to me, and when they do I don’t grab them right away. So yesterday I put on an extra sweater, slung a leash around my neck, took a can of dog food and ambled down the driveway. He was near the gate, worried, scared, pondering his chances of jumping out. I started chatting in a friendly singsong when I was still some distance away. I opened the can of food, hoping he might recognize the sound, or pick up the smell. He ran in a tight circle, looked for a place to hide. I scooped a gob of food out of the can with two fingers and tossed it to him. He eyed it, hungry. I yawned, half turned away, discussed the weather (crappy) and the season (an exceptionally golden autumn). He snuck over and picked up the food, then backed away.
I sat down on a patch of grass, tossed another bit of food. This landed too far from him, and he merely eyed me warily. I tossed a little more. At last (my aim pretty much sucks) I managed to land a bit right in front of him. He ate it, then worked his way toward me from one scrap of stinky chicken mix to the next. At last he came to a stop right in front of me. His eyes are deep, warm, the color of acorns, and they were full of questions.
“It’s nicer without grit on it,” I told him, and proffered a gobbet of food. He nipped at my fingers as he ate, but lightly, not meaning to, then licked my hand thoroughly. I fed him about half the can, looped the leash over his head, and we ambled up the driveway together.
He’s spent most of the time since then asleep. There’s a huge crate in our dining room, so he started out in that. Only Argos was an asshole about having yet another dog in the house – but Argos has never seen the point of dogs, and he particularly despises German Shepherds. I think he considers them overgrown wannabe Malinois. The rest of the pack was casually friendly, and pretty soon left him to rest. By this morning everyone had met him, and even Argos offered to play, and right now he is lying in front of my desk, farting with eye-watering dedication and persistence. I’m guessing, from the condition of his coat and the thrust of bones beneath his skin, that he’s not used to the quality of food he’s been getting since he arrived. Oh well, I’m sure his gut will settle down eventually.
He has bite marks on his legs and a wound on the side of his jaw that I’m going to have to look at later. The fur there is matted and crusty, and this morning when I caressed his ear he whined in pain. His ears are dirty too, and he holds them as though they may be infected. I’ll clean him up, see what’s going on. Take him to a vet if necessary.
I won’t be sorry if nobody claims him. He deserves better than this, and we can give it to him.
What do you do when you see a stray dog? Do you ever take them home?
The problem with words is, we talk too much. They get overused and shabby, and when you really need them to say something they’re worn out and not up to the job.
But something happened, and I must tell, and words are what I have.
Where to begin? I’ll start with this text from the Hubbit, received while I was at a writer’s conference in Seattle in September. That’s as good a place as any.
“Scarlett died unknown causes. Suspect the food as several dogs don’t wanna eat it. Am buying new food.”
There was also a photograph. If I hadn’t read the text first I’d have thought she was sleeping.
Scarlett was one of our rescues … I’ve told you I rescue dogs, right? Kuja and I started a small group last year. So far we’ve rehomed around 75 dogs and 30 cats, and also helped owned pets that needed vet care, food, and so on. Anyway, Scarlett was a beauty. Her mother was a Belgian Malinois, daddy was a German Shepherd / Husky cross. She was the last pup left from an accidental litter, and when she came to me she was around eight months old and still didn’t have a name. Her people hadn’t been cruel to her, but they’d never wanted her, and it showed. She was pretty shut down, and I figured she’d be a good project for Peter Pan.
I’ve mentioned Peter Pan but never explained his place in the Took menage. He showed up several years ago with a teenage girl we knew. They pitched a tent in the backyard and all was roses for a day or two, then early one morning I saw her spinning her wheels as she roared down our driveway, and I went outside to find him forlornly folding his tent. That’s when I learned he was homeless. He was just a boy – 22 years old, and had spent the years since he aged out of the foster system couch-surfing and drifting back and forth across the country.
Well, he stayed for a few days, which turned into weeks, then months, until he was ready to move on in spring of the following year. I was sorry to see him go and missed him – both the help around our farmlet and the laughs. He’s high a lot, which makes him giggly; this annoys the Hubbit, who is sternly anti-weed, but amuses me. He showed up again a few months ago – I told you how happy I was to see him. Anyway, he took his puppy training responsibilities seriously. Scarlett didn’t warm to him – she was a shy pup, easily scared – but I kept encouraging and advising him, and he kept her with him all day as he went about his work on the farm.
Then we took in Cairo, a a gangly, goofy Malinois pup produced by a backyard breeder who sold him then wouldn’t take him back when the buyer changed his mind. (Mals are like velociraptors – not for the fainthearted.)
I already had my hands full with our other foster, Cojak, a German Shepherd designated “dangerous” that I’ve been rehabilitating. But it was no problem – it’s as easy to play with two puppies as one, and I hoped Cairo would bring Scarlett out of her shell. Peter Pan started going around the farm with two puppies prancing around him. He got less farm work done but I was good with that; the dogs were more important.
It saddened me that that none of the dogs really liked Peter Pan. He tried so hard to win them over, coaxing and loving on them … I felt bad for him. It didn’t help that Cairo got banged up in an encounter with one of the cows when he was out in the pasture with Peter Pan and got too close to her calf, and also both pups got badly stung by yellow-jackets while out in the shop with him. They were miserable, with their swollen faces and crusty, oozing sores, and they clearly blamed him for the hurt. I kept reassuring him and offering advice – “Don’t force it – let him choose to come to you and then reward him” … “Don’t try to bribe them; just let them know you keep treats in your pockets, and wait for them to come and ask” … “Give her space – she’ll come to you when she’s ready”. My advice was good – it worked. Puppies love treats.
Then it was September, and the conference, and before I could go I had to process a pile of adoption applications for a commotion of chihuahuas we’d rescued from a hoarding situation. So I was distracted, and when Peter Pan mentioned that some of the dogs were off their food I didn’t pay attention.
By the time I received the Hubbit’s text he’d already buried her, and he flatly refused to dig her up again for a necropsy. (Yeah, I’m that wife. But I was right this time.) Peter Pan had found her just before she died, and when I spoke with him over the phone he sounded devastated. Cairo was also sick; they rushed him to the vet, where he went onto a drip and had a bazillion tests, all of which came back looking scary but inconclusive. We sent the food off to a lab to be tested, and I fantasized angrily about the costly vengeance I would wreak upon the manufacturer … but then those results came back negative.
Cairo had a series of follow-up visits with the vet, but remained a sad, sore, floppy puppy. X-rays revealed two broken ribs and a cracked vertebra – an ugly shock; my cows aren’t friendly but they’re not mean – it didn’t make sense that she’d hurt him that badly. The vet prescribed crate rest and various medications, but there was a grim set to her jaw, a look in her eye that told me that, after more than ten years of taking my dogs to her, I had been judged and found wanting.
Cairo’s misadventures continued. He snapped his lower left canine, revealing raw nerves, and developed a hematoma on his left ear. I didn’t know how – snagged the tooth trying to break out of his wire crate? Hooked it in a bone and yanked it out with excessive force? (Everything a Malinois does involves excessive force.) Smacked the ear against something while playing too hard during one of his brief bouts of normal Malinois energy? It was strange and frustrating, but a broken tooth and a hematoma could be identified, diagnosed and fixed. My attention was consumed by more bewildering questions.
The vet noticed that he “walked funny”. “There’s something else going on with this dog,” she muttered. Could he have panosteitis? His face was still swollen, the lesions on his nose weren’t healing properly, and the lymph nodes in his throat were swollen. Could it be juvenile cellulitis? But when I tried to discuss it with her she wouldn’t quite meet my eye. She suggested we hand him off to another, bigger, wealthier rescue, because we’d already run up a sizable bill, we couldn’t afford all the diagnostics she wanted to do, and she wasn’t offering any more discounts.
Back home the other dogs were doing well on their new kibble but Cairo wouldn’t eat, so I started cooking for him – elk, home-raised eggs and veggies, home-made bone broth. He began to get better. I thought gentle exercise might help, so once again he was out with Peter Pan as he worked around our farmlet.
Then Destra collapsed. Destra is my girl – my first Malinois – an 11-year-old I’ve had since she was a puppy and came to us to recover from the injury that eventually cost her a hind leg. She has an inoperable thyroid tumor wrapped around her throat, so we’ve known for a while her time was limited. She threw up everything in her gut, but once that was done she wasn’t in distress. She just wanted to sleep, wouldn’t eat, and couldn’t really walk. I googled “how to tell my dog is dying”, and all the symptoms checked out. So I made her comfortable, kept her company, and left the care of the other dogs to Peter Pan. Eventually I snugged her up to a hot pillow and went to bed, expecting her to be gone by morning.
She wasn’t. When I sat up in bed and looked at her, she was sitting up and looking at me, and she made it clear that getting her outside to do her business was my most urgent priority. (She didn’t like to be carried but looked very regal in a wheelbarrow lined with blankets.) By the next day she was moving under her own power. I started feeding her the same food as Cairo, and she quickly recovered.
Reading over this I see that I’ve left out so much – but it’s already too long. I just don’t have the space to tell you about the cat Peter Pan found lying dead in the south pasture, or the three perfectly healthy hens that dropped dead without warning. I don’t know if it’s relevant that we brought home a Chihuahua mama and four puppies born by emergency c-section and two of the babies died. One was the runt but the other … I was sure he’d make it. But neonates die, after all – especially after a too long labor, when their mama is still exhausted and too stoned to keep them under the heat lamp.
And then there was Argos. I told you what happened to him. He survived that first night. A test for toxoplasmosis came back negative. The leptospirosis test needs to be confirmed but is a probable negative. Yesterday’s follow-up with the eye specialist revealed that he’s doing well. His eyes may recover fully, but if they don’t … well, he’s a Malinois; he’ll figure it out. Only it makes me crazy that we have no idea what happened to him. We can run test after test, we can speculate about trauma, but we can’t know.
And that’s true for this whole horrible story. We can add 2+2 and pick a number. We can speculate, extrapolate, assume. But there’s not a lot we can know.
Yes, okay … I skipped over the thing that happened last week. Fine. Let’s end this.
I was out, and the Hubbit called and told me to get my ass back home because he’d just caught P beating Cairo. I passed P on the way home and my foot lifted reflexively from the accelerator. He looked so lonely, such a gangly, lost boy walking an empty road on a gray day. “I can take him into town, or to a friend – at any rate, someplace warm,” I thought. “We can talk in the car. There has to be an explanation.”
But then I let my foot drop back onto the accelerator pedal, because the truth is we’d started to wonder about him before that day. The Hubbit had never trusted him but held his peace until I confessed my fears. Then we’d found a private place and prayed together: “Lord, please reveal the truth, and give us the wisdom to know what to do.” We’d borrowed a motion-activated infrared camera and hoped to borrow more, so we could monitor the house and workshop. I’d begun to watch him more closely with the dogs, intervening when they didn’t want to go with him, feeding them myself rather than asking him to do it. I told Kuja, “It feels like we’re cursed. Like there’s something evil loose on our property. And really I’d rather encounter some Halloween-style ghost or ghoul than…” I didn’t want to say it, but she knew. And she knows one doesn’t abandon someone, whether they have four legs or two, without a clear and certain reason.
So anyway, the Hubbit and the Cool Dude walked into the house and heard Cairo screaming. They rushed to him and found that P had somehow folded himself inside the big wire crate to get at the puppy, who was crammed up against the far end. P was stomping Cairo with his army boots. He scrambled out, made some asinine excuse about Cairo having pooped in his crate (there was no poop, and anyway, what the fuck?)
That was five days ago. Since then, I’ve taken over most of P’s chores. One of them was to put out food and water for the invisible barn cats and clean their litter box. I find they’ve gone from being invisible to not there at all. The food and water I put out is untouched, the litter box unused, and mice scurry boldly all over the shop.
On the other hand, Cairo has gone from being a sad, listless puppy to a wonderful lunatic, leaving a wake of destruction wherever he goes.
So that’s what happened, and I feel ashamed that I didn’t pay attention when Cairo and Scarlett tried to tell me they weren’t safe. I feel stupid that I was so slow to figure it out. I feel betrayed. Sickened. Abused. Disillusioned. Angry.
I think of the lost boy that I thought I knew, that I thought I could trust, that I thought I could rescue, and I feel bereaved.
Let’s talk. Have you ever trusted someone, and thought you and they were walking the same trail, only to realize the person you trusted may never have existed outside your imagination?
Himself and I spent most of yesterday driving around 300 miles to help a scrap of a dog get home. We were just one small part of a big effort. To get Jane from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington involved 14 drivers working in relay, after hours of intensive work by the coordinator who put the project together.
It feels pretty special to be part of something like that. Yes, you can argue, “Why put so much effort into one puppy when there are so many in desperate need?” And yes, maybe, differently managed, that same amount of human love, time and energy, not to mention the cost of the gas alone, could have been directed into saving a whole lot of dogs – or whales – or children.
I heard the same argument back when I ran a mission school in South Africa. I often asked people I met to make a small donation, or maybe sponsor just one child. The cost of sponsorship was equivalent to maybe one fast food meal for four, once a month. Several times wealthy people, who routinely spent more on a single dinner out than the families I served spent on a month of eating, replied, “But what’s the point? There are so many kids like that – I can’t change anything.”
The argument is valid, but it misses the point completely. We can’t change the whole world, but anyone can touch a life. As long as you stay safely outside the war zone of life, you can think in abstract terms and pray for world peace and argue on Facebook about which political party “cares” more. But, with heartfelt apologies to the Democrats and Republicans out there, no government program will magic away poverty, and nor will setting the market free enable everyone to pursue life, liberty or happiness. There is no global solution to the problem of human failure and imperfection.
If you want the world to be better, you have to make that happen yourself, one act of kindness at a time. And I honestly believe it doesn’t matter whether you direct your kindness toward a kid or a puppy or [Insert Cause Here]. Any act – large or small – that adds to the sum total of happiness, peace and beauty in the world is worthwhile. One of the best things to happen to me this year was when I was having a rough day, dealing with physical pain and a whole lot of sadness, and the guy ahead of me in the Dutch Brothers drive-through paid for my coffee. He didn’t save the world or change my life, but he transformed that one day for me, and while he has certainly forgotten the few dollars it cost him, I still remember how good that coffee tasted, and how it warmed my heart.
Sometimes a few dollars, or a bit of time, is all it takes. Sometimes it’s more about a change of attitude. Sometimes you get to take on something big.
Sometimes it costs a whole lot more than you bargained for. I have been trying for months to write about what it was like to create a dog rescue organization, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally – just as I broke beyond repair under the strain – to hand it off to people I trusted, and then to find that my trust had been misplaced. But writing about that kept leading to what it felt like to start a school out of nothing but a gang of children, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally to break when people I trusted turned against me. I wanted to write about what it’s like for your best never to be enough, about the pain of broken trust and shattered dreams, and also about the soul-scorch of burnout.
Here’s the thing about burnout: you hold it at bay for as long as you can, because the need – whatever it is – is unrelenting. You feel the heat, you know you won’t hold out forever, but you keep going in an effort to save what you can while you can. When you finally quit, you think that at last you’re free. That’s when you find out that all that’s been holding you together is the purpose that has also been devouring you from the inside out. Rid yourself of the purpose, and whatever is left collapses upon itself.
So I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so without sounding like I was whining or – worse – looking for a pat on the head. And while that might have been the case a year or even six months ago, whines and pats are irrelevant now that I’m through the pain.
I’ve just realized that what I want to write about is the fact that sometimes the cost of kindness is so high it seems to bankrupt you – but it’s still worth it.
Don’t get me wrong: it sucks when you take on something too big, and it eats you alive and hacks you up and leaves the remnants lying in the dirt. Burnout sucks, and being disappointed or betrayed or blamed sucks, and feeling guilty and ashamed because you know your personal flaws contributed to the crash-and-burn sucks most of all.
But it doesn’t suck enough not to risk it. I believe the key to riches is to give fearlessly whenever you see a need and have the capacity to respond, no matter how little you’re able to give. A small act of kindness may be to humanity like the perfectly timed flap of a butterfly’s wing – and even if it isn’t, it will still give wings to that one moment. And if you are blessed to have the freedom and opportunity to pour yourself out, do so with a lavish hand – because that may indeed change a small corner of the world, and it will certainly transform you.
The truth – my post-burnout truth – is that there are a whole lot of alive-minded young people out there whose kids call me granny. One of them, a girl who grew up in unimaginable poverty, is a qualified and highly paid engineer who now helps support my parents. Another is a musician, some are teachers, a few are entrepreneurs. One is a single mom who occasionally needs help with her kids’ school expenses. Also, hundreds of dogs and people are happy because we brought them together, and the rescue Himself and I started is still the best in our town and doing just fine without us.
Sometimes your best just is not enough, and then failure or burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you can’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt. But you can buy one child a study aid, you can help out one cash-strapped shopper at the till, you can give one puppy a ride home.
Yesterday ended with a chicken. I told you about her. To wrap up that story: she didn’t make it. I’m sad, of course – and became sadder when I saw my beautiful Mr. Roo calling and searching for her this morning. He knows one of his girls is missing, poor guy.
On the other hand, I did eat an omelet for breakfast this morning. How emotional can I get over the death of a creature whose unborn young I eat almost daily? Not very, to be honest! I love Mr. Roo, and I enjoy the kippies – watching them scratching in the dirt and crooning to each other is immeasurably soothing. I’m really happy that we are, at last, putting a dog-proof six-foot fence around our huge veggie garden (which contains the chicken run), because that will give them access to a much larger area for crooning, scratching and nibbling. But when it comes to deciding whom I’d rather cuddle – a chicken or a chicken-killing dog – I’m going to pick the dog every time.
So last night, after posting yesterday’s blog, I forgave Miss CeCe and let her crawl into her usual spot under the duvet. Snuggled up with her it dawned on me that yesterday began as well as ending with a chicken and a rescue dog, and I sleepily wondered whether there was some mystical connection between these two separate events.
The morning’s story started about a year ago, with a call from a vet who was poised to load up a big syringe of blue juice and inject it into a gorgeous German Shepherd pup. His name was Rip, and his owner had brought him in because he had killed a chicken. In our county that crime carries a death sentence.
A bit of history: Rip had been dumped out in the country on a cold day a few months previously. The people who picked him up didn’t actually need a puppy (contrary to popular belief, not every farm-dweller is in want of a dog) and they weren’t up for the hard work of training him – but he was a sweet, affectionate fluffball, and he needed a home, and they had room. So they kept him, and it was all happy-ever-after until the weather warmed up and their neighbor let his chickens out to roam.
None of these people had fences.
Fast forward through the inevitable, and there Rip was, happily washing the tears off Doctor A’s face while she tried to steady her hands enough to load the syringe. She couldn’t do it – it was just too wrong – so she called me.
I was in no shape to take in a wild child with a chicken habit. I had retired mere weeks before from running the dog rescue Himself and I established in 2008, and I was fully occupied in burning out like a Roman candle. On the other hand, saying no wasn’t an option, so we agreed to care for him for the few days the rescue needed to find a foster home. Problem solved – right?
Wrong. Some weeks later, a couple of sheriff’s deputies pulled up outside our house. They’d heard that we had a designated dangerous dog on our property. That’s right – the chicken-owner was making a case out of the issue, Rip’s previous owner was facing a fat fine for not having him euthanized – because, in terms of the county statutes, a dog that kills a chicken is automatically deemed dangerous.
Well, we told them he’d moved on and was in the care of a rescue that would rehabilitate him and keep him well away from chickens, and off they went. Until … a month or two later, when they returned and we did the same dance again. (Need I point out that their gas alone cost more than a replacement chicken?) And then a month or so later I received a summons to appear in court.
By that time, Rip was being fostered in a different state, and was on the point of being adopted to a home hundreds of miles away. I also had a file full of affidavits from the vet, a trainer, several fosters and my own self, attesting to the fundamental goodness of the dog, as well as my complete absence of personal responsibility for him in any capacity whatsoever. None of this made the smallest difference. A chicken was dead and, by golly, no matter what the cost (which I haven’t figured out, but this was one expensive chicken), they were determined to prosecute to the full extent of the law.
They just needed to figure out whom to prosecute … because everyone involved had complied with their demands. The chicken’s owner had been compensated, Rip’s original owner had been exonerated, and the rescue had removed the canine culprit from this jurisdiction. I was the sole itchy spot on the smooth skin of their butt cheeks. Because they were unable to articulate what they wanted me to do, I couldn’t comply. So they kept coming back, and the more I told them I didn’t own the dog, had never owned the dog, didn’t wish to own the dog, and didn’t even know where the damn dog was, the more determined they were to give the ghost of that chicken its day in court.
Eventually the new head of the rescue group and I met with the Assistant DA, who agreed to give Rip 12 month’s probation, subject to a bucket-load of terms and conditions. The probationary period ended yesterday, which is why I was seated in an otherwise empty courtroom shortly after the sun fumbled its way into the sky. Suddenly the doors slammed open. The judge marched in, her robes flapping like a crow’s wings, with the ADA scampering and chattering in her wake. “All riiiise,” intoned the person responsible for intoning. I was the only one there, apart from the legal folks, but I stuck my finger in my book and rose dutifully.
“Oh my goodness – I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed your hair!” squeaked the ADA.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s been a while.”
The judge stared at me, stared at the ADA, and shook her head. “Case dismissed,” she said, flapped her wings, and left the courtroom.
The ADA assured me it was all over, but gave me no stamped or signed paperwork to that effect, so who knows. We’re short on criminals around here, apparently, and one must do something with those pesky Halls of Justice or the taxpayers get tetchy.
Or … do you think there might be more to this than over-heated bureaucracy? Could we, perhaps, all have been dancing to the inaudible piping of the chicken’s outraged ghost? Could the ghost have taken possession of a naughty mongrel (herself not much bigger than a chicken) in a final effort to have revenge? Could this, in fact, be more than a coincidence?
Nah, I don’t think so either – but, just in case, Argos and I have a date to take Miss Kippy up into the hills this afternoon and lay her in her final resting place. We’ll put her somewhere out of the way (but with a nice view of the river), where coyotes and crows can absorb her into their bodies and so end this unearthly cycle of events forever.