Sunday, August 30, 2009

Save Me

My love for dogs and cats has taken me into the world of animal rescue, and I volunteer with two organizations, German Shepherd Rescue and Adoptions, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Animal Compassion Network, in Asheville.
Emma, at the Seattle Animal Shelter

I am an animal rescue "lightweight" though, just to be clear. I am not one of those heroic types who get involved in abuse and neglect situations. I simply don't have the stomach for it. I can hardly read about those cases, because they stay in my head, haunting me for days. Nor am I one of the noble ones who has a house full of foster dogs and cats. I've tried fostering twice, once in 2004 (Lucky) and then again in 2007 (Lady). We see how well that worked out, since both live with me today. I seem to be better at "adopting" than "fostering." Perhaps I could foster a plant or fish and give it up, but that's about it. I respect, and am often in awe of, the ones who take on the hard stuff in the world of animal rescue. They are my heroes, and we always need more of them.

My roles tend to be more supportive than central, and that suits me just fine. With the German Shepherd Rescue, I am typically called upon to do dog assessments and home visits of potential adopters. I also assist with transport as needed, when a rescued dog needs to be transported to another part of the state. At Animal Compassion Network, I am a photographer. This is a particularly satisfying avocation, as it allows me to combine my love for photography with my interest in helping abandoned dogs and cats find new homes. I upload my photos to Petfinder, a huge national directory of homeless pets and adoption agencies. People searching for a pet to adopt will find around 320,000 homeless pets listed, from over 13,000 nonprofit animal welfare organizations. With my camera, I attempt to capture the dog's or cat's personality, in order to reach that person out there searching the Internet for their next furry family member. It's a challenging and rewarding job, and I love it.

One of my more memorable rescue adventures occurred last winter, when I was contacted by the German Shepherd Rescue about a dog at the county animal shelter. It had apparently been left at an elementary school, probably with the misguided hope that one of the children would take it home. A kind hearted man across the street noticed the poor dog standing vigil, near the flagpole by day, and in the bushes at night, most likely waiting for its people to return. After several days, he coaxed the dog over to his house, fed it, and gave it water. He planned to ask around, or try to find the dog a home, but it would not stay on his porch - it broke through the screen and returned to the school to resume its vigil.

By the time I got the call, the dog had been picked up by animal control, and it was nearing the end of its stay at the shelter. The sheer volume of homeless pets at shelters results in many perfectly healthy and adoptable dogs and cats being euthanized simply because there is nowhere to house them. The kind hearted neighbor was still on the case though, making calls to various animal and breed rescue groups to describe the dog's plight. It was at the shelter, it was a nice dog, and it was running out of time. Most of his calls resulted in dead ends. In the current economy, the numbers of dogs and cats being surrendered in local communities has overwhelmed many rescue organizations, and foster homes are frequently filled to capacity.

When GSRA contacted me about this dog, asking if I could go take a look, they also told me that all of our foster homes were full. If the dog assessed well, and a recommendation was made to bring it into the network, then some sort of emergency boarding would likely need to be arranged while a foster home was sought. They made it clear - we'll try, but don't promise anything. In short they were saying - there is absolutely nowhere to put this dog, but go assess it anyway. I had the next day off work, but had both a dentist appointment and an eye exam scheduled. I called and rescheduled them both. I have no idea why, other than something nudged me to do so.

I have to confess, I hate going to the animal shelter. It is an amazing place, filled with amazing staff who do incredible work despite having few resources. But I am such a weenie, and so soft-hearted, that it breaks my heart to see the rows of cages and runs, with all the searching, expectant faces. I want to take them all home. But off I went to the shelter that day, fortified with a friend's advice "not to look around." That seemed like a good plan. Just walk straight in, follow the staff member to this dog's run and don't look around.

I never know what I'm going to encounter when I go out to do a dog assessment. Sometimes the dogs are friendly, but wild and unmannered, having been taught no social skills whatsoever. It's hard to learn appropriate behavior when you spend your entire life alone in a backyard, or at the end of a chain. Other times the dogs are quiet, mistrustful, and suspicious of me. Sometimes they look at me and want to interact, other times they are completely disinterested in my presence.

This dog was, in a word, terrified. The staff member told me her name was "Luna" and led me to her run, where I found a filthy, trembling white German Shepherd. The staff spoke kindly to her, snapped on a leash, and began to lead her outside, so that I could do the assessment. Luna made it about halfway to the door when the other dogs spotted her and began barking uproariously, at which point she dropped as if she'd been shot, flattening herself to the floor. She would not move. The staff member coaxed and coaxed, but eventually had to physically pick her up and carry her outside. I thought to myself that I had never seen such a pitiful and terrified creature. Outside and away from the din, however, Luna relaxed. What she did next though, was something I had never seen before. She leaned into the shelter staff member for comfort and reassurance, almost clinging to her.

Then Luna turned and looked right into my eyes and said: "Please. Save me." It gave me chills. I had never seen such deeply expressive eyes, or had a dog communicate with me so clearly. What she was saying to me could not have been more clear had she spoken it verbally, with words. I knew instantly that we had to get that dog out of there. It was a terrifying, overwhelming place for her, and she needed out. But, there were no foster homes, and nowhere to put her. Even if we were able to pull her from the shelter, she would still most likely have to go to a boarding facility, or some other loud scary place, at least temporarily. It is moments like these when I wish I were a stronger person, and that I possessed that ability to love, nurture, and then let go.

I did my work, going through a thorough assessment, which involved testing her reaction to being touched all over, her response to sudden noises, and observing her interaction with people, other dogs, and cats. Luna passed everything with flying colors, with only 'fearfulness' as possible cause for concern. I felt almost certain, however, that this was due to the hectic shelter environment with all of its strange sights and smells. Above all I was impressed with her gentle nature and her interaction with me, including her beseeching looks. This was a dog that needed people.

After the behavioral and physical assessment, it was time to take some photos. I realized that if I could somehow capture with my camera the way her eyes were pleading with me, surely someone would be moved to open their home to her. I took a series of photos, pursuing candid instead of posed shots. It worked. I captured Luna's desperation, and within 30 minutes of sending out the email and photos, there was not one, but multiple offers from people willing to take her in. Foster home spots opened up like magic. It was a thrilling moment for me, and springing her from the shelter the next morning, mere hours from when she was to be euthanized, remains one of the highlights of my rescue career. Today Luna has a loving home with an adoring family, and the days of her abandonment and the scary shelter are but a distant memory.

"Save me"

*cat photo courtesy of Wikipedia
*close up photo of black and tan German Shepherd Dog above courtesy of German Shepherd Rescue & Adoptions

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (I deleted my originalcomment b/c I'd called you by name..stoooooooopid me. accept now my edited version!!)

    Well, this entire post only confirms what I remember of you... When I'd reconnected with you on Facebook I told my bride that I remembered you as being "one of the sweetest souls I've ever encountered." Honest to God spoke these exact words. Well this post and your work confirms that this is still the case. I've considered many, many times doing some type of volunteering along these lines...but my sheepishness (if that's a word) about animals in need and time constraints have kept me from it. You may have inspired me to look into it, however. Excellent post..(I'm in my office and now strongly compelled to go home and give Maggie the wonderdog a hug and take her for a walk.)

  3. Wow, really?!? Well what a wonderful way to be remembered! Guess I always have had a soft spot for small, helpless things - whether they be children or animals. And, if you have any inclination at all toward some sort of animal rescue volunteer work, I strongly encourage you to look into it! There are about a million jobs that need doing - from tiny things to big things - and they all need doing desperately! I know a person who goes to the shelter for a couple of hours on the weekend just to walk the dogs, get them out of their runs for a little bit. The social interaction with people helps their "adoptability" too.

    Hey!! You know what YOU would be good at?? Writing website descriptions! One of the things that entices people to go meet a particular dog or cat, besides the photo, is the website description. You are so good at writing, and with your sense of humor - you would be excellent at that! Check out some of them on, and at, and you'll see what I mean. Many times there are no descriptions at all (since stretched rescue organizations often don't have time to get anything up besides a photo), some descriptions are well, boring. And some (I personally love the ones on GSRA's website) make you want to drop everything and go meet the animal in question. :) Just a thought....

    Anyway, thanks for reading and thanks for the wonderful comments.