From My WindowIssue Date: October 3, 2019
Jane Thibodeau Martin
I have been volunteering for about nine months at a small no-kill animal shelter. I spend time at the shelter about three times per week. Sometimes it is stopping in on my way home from yoga class to give all the dogs a "potty walk," sometimes it is six hours of staffing the shelter during "open hours" when people can stop in to look at animals, drop off donations or call to ask questions about surrendering their pet. I have learned a tremendous amount about animals during this time; I have learned even more about people. Yesterday's six hour stint was a rewarding one, because one of our saddest dogs got his "freedom ride" home with a new human to call his own. I got to discharge the little guy and see the moment the animal realized (and they always do,) that their lives are about to change for the better. A tearful "high" for me. But some days I hang up the phone after the sixth conversation of the day with someone who has an entire litter of kittens or puppies they don't want and that we can't take, and I could just cry.
It is hard for me to remain neutral and helpful when someone wants to surrender their older dog, because "we want a puppy, and we only want one dog." I can't fathom how they can do what they are doing; they know what they want and don't see a problem with it, since their dog is "really nice, someone will want it." I remind myself at least they didn't drive their older dog out in the country to dump it; or shoot it. Other times, a teary-eyed person will tell us they can't afford the medication their pet must have to stay healthy, so they are surrendering it knowing we will take care of its medical issues and try to find someone else willing to accept an animal that will have ongoing, expensive needs. My heart breaks for these people, because they are surrendering the pet hoping it has a chance for a better life. Marriages fail and new partners have a dog that "doesn't like my cat." So the cat comes to us, bewildered at its new surroundings and frightened at all the other animals it can smell, hear and see. Or the family is moving, and due to the complexities they see as daunting, the pet is left behind, with us.
These encounters can be depressing. Yet I try to "find the good," as I must if I am going to continue to work. I know that dependable volunteers like me are scarce, and that my time makes the difference between animals that are kept clean, feed and watered, what we call the "bare minimum;" and those that get the enrichment of long walks, a session of ball-chasing in the fence, or some laser pointer tag in the "playland" room for a bored cat.
Yesterday's adoption made all the volunteers at my shelter happy. The dog is an elderly small purebred. He was found wandering in a city, and taken to the local Humane Society. During his two-week hold, no one came to claim him. He had a collar and tag, but no one answered the phone and numerous messages were not answered. His microchip was scanned, and it was registered to the shelter I work at, meaning he'd been adopted through us years ago, but his owner had not re-registered the microchip; something that we explain in great detail how to do. We knew his chances of being adopted at 16 years old were small; but he was gladly welcomed back to our shelter. An astute (and crafty!) shelter volunteer took him to a charity fundraiser for a therapeutic riding school, knowing horse lovers like this particular breed, and sure enough, a woman heard his pitiful story and felt compelled to adopt him. His remaining months or years of life will be in a good home, not locked in a steel kennel.
Down the row of kennels is another small purebred, an extremely popular breed. She's cute as can be, but she trembles in fear when anyone approaches her. Before she came to us, she came to expect nothing but unpleasantness from human contact. This little girl was a breeder dog in a large scale breeding operation, also known as a "puppy mill." She was kept in a crate at all times, and bred as often as possible, probably only surrendered because her eye became infected. She came to us through a sort of underground railroad that rescues unwanted breeder dogs at the puppy mills and transports them to shelters who have room to take them. The dog flattens herself in terror when you carry her outdoors, because she's never been outside. She has no idea how to walk on a leash, go potty in grass, or play with the toys we leave in her kennel. She's been with us about ten days and has made minimal progress. Dogs like her often do fairly well once they are in a stable, quiet home environment; but they need someone with immense patience who can put up with potty training and reassuring such a timid dog. And because of her eye condition, she'll need twice a day eye medication for the rest of her life. It is utterly depressing to look at her and know there are hundreds more like her in Wisconsin, pumping out puppies litter after litter who are removed from the mother as soon as possible, and who will be sold on the internet, in shopping mall parking lots and in pet stores. She is a lucky one; she is in a safe place now and sooner or later some saint of a person will take her home and teach her how to be a dog.
Another puppy mill dog that arrived about the same time is faring worse. He seemed to have some sort of breathing problem and a scan revealed a mass in his lungs. A two-week course of antibiotics is underway to see if it helps " if not, our vet thinks the mass is probably cancer. A sweet volunteer has taken him home for "foster care" in the meantime, and posted wonderful pictures of the dog on our volunteer-only web site, enjoying some free time on a beach and riding on a pontoon boat. Sadly his time may be very short, but the volunteer is giving him "his best life" in the meantime.
In the cat room I make time to pet a sweet female, ten years old, who has diabetes. She lost her life-long happy home when she became diabetic, with her busy family deciding it would be too hard to give her the twice daily insulin she'll need to live. Like many of the surrendered animals, she went through a lengthy period of depression after she arrived. She has no idea why she lost her family and now lives in a cage. She's been with us months already and we all hope she will get her chance to be a house cat again, but with the thousands and thousands of free kittens available everywhere, a middle-aged cat who needs shots twice a day is very difficult to re-home. In the meantime, I know I am not the only volunteer who makes sure she gets some lap time and some play time as often as possible.
On those hard days when yet another animal arrives with a sad story, I remember that Luna, Nala, Grayson, Nibble, Shadow, Galileo, Max, Hera, Chief, and many others overcame their difficult situations and have gone on to great homes " and we love getting the pictures and updates their wonderful new owners sometimes send us. While we also get young, healthy animals who we know will eventually find a home, there is always hope for the old, sick and broken pets who sometimes end up with us, and it is that hope that allows me to persevere on those days when I am having a harder time. Because for many of these hard-to-place animals, there is an angel somewhere, who might walk in our door at any time, ready to take on that less-than-perfect animal and be a hero to all of us shelter volunteers.
You can avoid supporting puppy mills by not buying puppies unless you personally visit the breeder, meet the mother dog; visit the kennel where the puppy lives and ask specific questions about the number of dogs the breeder has. Be very wary of someone who wants to deliver the puppy, or "meet up" to transfer it. Or, just adopt, don't shop. If we stop paying for puppy mill puppies the bad breeders will go out of business.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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