Forever home

When I met Mr. Eebs he was chained to a broken down doghouse inside a jury-rigged run in an untidy backyard. His two brothers lived in similar conditions, but where Eebs was merely defensive, they had turned dangerous. Inside the house were two more stiff-legged, hackled-up dogs, and a large litter of puppies had taken over the kitchen.

I heard about this situation from a neighbor. She had adopted one of Eebs’ sisters several months previously, on an impulse that she later regretted, so she called our little rescue group to ask for help. When I went to pick up the neurotic mess that was her dog, she told me about the over-population problem next door. Being a sucker for punishment I asked her to give her neighbor my card, and a couple days later I got a call. This was a pleasant surprise; it’s sad how bitterly people can resent an offer of help.

I liked the woman who called. I like to think that if we hadn’t both been drowning when we met – I in dogs, she in being the single mother of three angry teenagers – we might have become friends. This is not to deny that her situation was bad. The three dogs in the backyard were hungry, scared and miserable, and I later learned that one of the kids was beating them. There was poop on the kitchen floor. The puppies had fleas, and all the dogs were stressed and skinny. It would have been so easy to set myself up as judge, jury and executioner – as she clearly expected.

Instead I asked, “What happened?” and the story spilled out. She’d started out with one dog – a beautiful big pitbull. Money was tight so she put off neutering him, but it was okay because he was the only dog. Then a stray turned up on her front porch – a scared female, dumped by some loser. (Let’s be clear on this: I don’t care what your “reason” is or what hardship you’re going through – if you dump an animal, You Are A Loser, and I do judge you, and if I ever catch you there is no limit to how far I will go to make your life hideous.)

So anyway, not long after that there were puppies. Most of them found homes, but Eebs and his brothers weren’t chosen. The best she could do was throw up ramshackle runs to keep them off the street (there was, of course, no money to fence the yard), feed and shelter them (sort of), and try to prevent them from killing each other (because, as often happens with litter-mates, rivalry between the two big boys was fierce, and they both grabbed any opportunity to beat up on poor, scared little Eebs).

Mr. Eebs
Mr. Eebs

Seven or eight months later more puppies came, and they were already weaned and rambunctious by the time I wandered into the picture. The first part of helping out was easy – we brought in food, dewormed and vaccinated everyone, got the mama dog spayed, and rehomed the puppies (who were also all sterilized, of course). Then we hit a wall. The three boys in the backyard couldn’t safely be adopted out – they were all too unpredictable. Himself and I had 12 or 15 or 20 dogs already in our care and no room for another – especially not one (or three) with aggression issues. No one else in our group could take on dogs like these either. So … we had them neutered, and they stayed on their chains, and every time I took food over I wondered what we were going to do about them.

The thing about rescue is, how much you can do is defined by how much actual, practical help you receive. Several times on this blog I’ve mentioned that I “burned out” last year. Burnout is a bit like what happens when you make an engine carry a load that’s way beyond its design capacity. And you don’t give it oil. And maybe you throw some grit into the works. In rescue, burnout happens when you are all there is between an unstoppable stream of creatures in desperate need and an array of ugly options, and you are maxed out and running on empty, and you look for support but your supporters are all off doing other things, and you…just…can’t. And what happens next is all your fault.

One day one of Eebs’ brothers got loose and went into attack mode. After that Animal Control took all three of them away, and scheduled each of them a date with the needle.

Here’s another thing about rescue: No matter how many you help, the guilt over each one you fail lodges in your gut and consumes you from the inside out.

I knew I couldn’t help the two aggressive boys. Maybe I should have acknowledged this from the start, but they were so young, and I’d turned around a few tough cases over the years, and I kept thinking that, if only we could reduce the number of other dogs in our care – in other words, if only we could find more foster homes – I might be able to take them home and pull off some kind of miracle. Well, so much for “if only”. Those two dogs were out of time and there was nothing I could do about it.

But Eebs was still salvageable, and he deserved a chance. I called the animal control officer and told him so.

The ACO was new on the job – in fact, new in town – and had never heard of me or our rescue organization. He told me Eebs was as crazy as his brothers, and releasing him to us was a liability the city couldn’t take on.

I begged. I name-dropped our town’s top vets and trainers, and I promised him the sun, moon and stars if he’d just let me try to save that one dog. Eebs got his miracle – the ACO said yes. And then another miracle – I brought him home and incorporated him into the pack, and the dogs taught him how not to be afraid. And at last the biggest miracle – he went home to people who love, love, love him, even though he’s still neurotic and freaky.

Yes, I’m aware that I’m being overly free with the word “miracle”. But in the context of this dog’s life, what else would you call it?

All this happened more than a year ago, and in the meantime there have been a lot of dogs, and burnout, and my withdrawal from rescue work. But Mr. Eebs is on my mind because I saw him a few days ago. He didn’t recognize me at first and he wasn’t especially friendly, but I didn’t care because really all I wanted to do was introduce him to Cookie.

Cookie, the day we took her in.
Cookie, the day we took her in.

I don’t have a lot to tell you about Cookie. She’s just one more half-grown pup, past the cuddly-puppy stage and well into the if-you-don’t-teach-me-manners-I-will-jump-on-you-with-muddy-paws-and-then-maybe-eat-your-house stage. Just one more pup dumped in our neighborhood by a Loser.

(Seriously, what do people think when they drive out into the country and dump a dog? Do they really think “Someone here will take care of it because farmers always have room for an extra dog”? Because, hello, farmers shoot stray dogs. Maybe they think the dog will enjoy being “set free” … because who wouldn’t enjoy being lost and cold and hungry and then shot or hit by a car or torn apart by coyotes?)

Luckily for Cookie, our neighbors [don’t] know that Himself and I [no longer] do the Rescue Thing, so she came to stay with us for a few weeks, and we hooked her up with the rescue group we started, which is under new management and still going strong. And that’s how Mr. Eebs’ people found out about her – because they had been looking for a friend for him. So that’s why, on a bitterly cold morning last week, we met in a lonely field outside a small town. She was so thrilled to meet him, and immediately rushed up to make friends. He was shy at first and needed reassurance – to be expected in a dog who has been bullied – but then he remembered how to play.

And this the real reason I wrote this blog post. I mean, I’ve been wanting to talk about rescue, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. I want you to know that this is something you can do, or at least help others do, and if you do that you will in fact help make the world a better place. But mainly I just wanted to share this video, which Himself shot on his cell phone.

It’s not that it’s great video, or that these are exceptional dogs, or that their stories are unusual. But the thing about rescue – the one key thing – the thing that keeps us coming back again and again for just one more dog – is that it transforms hopeless situations into moments of joy, like these.

Thank you for reading. Now it’s your turn … Please tell me what you think.

Day 7, and Dude’s story

It’s the last day of my first week on the Daniel diet, and I am beyond sick of it. I am sick of being hungry, and desperate for the taste of brie on my tongue. Will you think less of me if I just quit? Why should I care what you think? And yet … I do. It’s disappointing not to get more comments and messages of support, but that’s a new blogger thing, I guess. And every now and then there is a comment, and that’s how I know you’re watching. I’m not just shouting into the void; there’s someone out there. Plus, my mother reads this blog. So does Himself – and he expects me to fail; I shouldn’t blame him (although I do, of course) because he’s seen it happen so many times before. But not today.

So instead of eating, or thinking about eating, or writing about eating, I will tell you a story.

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The Dude, plotting the kidnapping (or rescue) of Argos’ blue bunny

I got involved in dog rescue the way I make pretty much all the major changes in my life – on blind impulse. First there’s the growing pressure of dissatisfaction with the status quo, then an opportunity emerges, promising change. Maybe something better, certainly something different. I teeter on the brink, pushed one way by fear of change and the other by fear of not-change. I remind myself that I need to “seek God’s will”, think strategically, weigh the odds, seek advice. And then I leap, and deal with the consequences as they march up and smack me.

Hey, it’s a method. It works. And yes, I get bruised and quite often I break, but I also see glory.

So … Dude. Actually, there’s nothing all that special about Dude’s story. He’s just one among thousands. He turned up at our local shelter, an unclaimed stray (in other words, dumped). And there he sat, for months, until we bailed him out. I was responsible for evaluating the dogs our rescue took in, and it was clear from the start that he would never be adopted from the shelter. He’s kinda funny-looking in a pop-eyed way, and although he has the softest coat, you couldn’t know that when he was incarcerated. First, he wouldn’t let anyone touch him; he was one desperately scared boy. And second, he stank the way all shelter dogs do – of pee and shit made of cheap dog food and harsh cleaning chemicals. No normal person would want to cuddle that.

Fortunately (sometimes), rescue people aren’t “normal”, so he got to go stay with a volunteer foster mama. She had a securely fenced yard that he couldn’t escape from (he tried), and a couple other dogs who showed him the ropes once he quit showing them his teeth, a cat who made him feel safe, and an unending stream of teenagers who just kept treating him like a normal dog until he learned to behave like one.

One of the things I was especially proud of with our rescue was that we never rushed our dogs through the process. Sometimes a dog that’s been unkindly treated or injured needs extra recovery time. If you’re lucky you might find an adopter who’s willing to put in the work, but most people want their new dog to be ready to fit in with their family. We also took our time about ensuring that the home we chose for each dog was the best fit we could manage. If a family wasn’t the right fit, they didn’t get that dog.

Dude was with his foster family for a whole year before he went home “for good” to an older woman who lived with her 50-year-old daughter. I drove him to their home myself, and it was just perfect! A big yard with trees full of squirrels, a cozy little house with a dog bed in every room, and two active, healthy moms to dote on him all day and every day. I checked in a couple times in the months that followed, and he was happy and well-loved.

But sometimes forever doesn’t last. A few weeks ago I got a call from Dude’s adopter’s other daughter. Something happened to her sister earlier this year – something bad; I don’t know what. (Yes of course I googled her name.) She’d moved out of the home. And then mom started failing, and moved into a retirement complex near the other daughter. She had her own apartment and Dude went with her, but within weeks of moving in she slipped into dementia and had to go into a high-care facility. Dude was homeless.

The daughter told me,  “When I went to help Mom get packed up, your business card was on the fridge, with Dude’s name on it. Can you help?” Well, retired or not, we’d made a promise to that dog – and to every dog we rehomed. We promised they would never be homeless again. So he’s back with me, until the people who now run the rescue find someone else who promises to love him “forever”.

I should be glad to know he’s okay. Well of course I’m glad! But … I’m also haunted. In the five years Himself and I ran our rescue, we placed at least 600 dogs, all with the same promise. Are they okay? What if something bad happened to their people, and whoever cleaned up their mess didn’t know about us? What about all the refrigerator doors that don’t have our card?

That saying, “If you save someone’s life, you are responsible for them for the rest of their life” – it’s not real. It’s a literary construct – fake Confucianism – and anyway, I’m not Chinese. But.

I saved their lives. They’re lodged in my heart.

Are they okay?

Your turn. Have you saved any lives that have then moved on to be lived away from you? What about the creatures who depend on you – is there a plan in place if something bad happens to you?