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?