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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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Good Water

At our house there are many small daily rituals, many established by the cat. For instance:

a) within a reasonable period of time after waking, one must turn on the cold water in the bathroom sink for Lucy.

Just a trickle. Not too fast, and not too slow - erring on either side will merit you an unhappy look. And it is important to keep the cat happy. If Lucy ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. You see, she is a very vocal kitty. It's no secret when something is not to her liking. But, more about that later.

Lucy loves the trickling sink water, hence the name "good water." The water in her water bowl is "bad water," (despite the fact that it is refreshed on a regular basis). On a typical morning, Lucy likes to have good water out of the hall bathroom sink first, then out of the master bathroom sink, in that order. An outside observer, upon witnessing the morning routine would think, "Poor kitty, she must not have access to a water bowl."

I know that many cats love running water, but back in the early days, Lucy's pursuit of water had me worrying about scary things like "kidney disease" and "feline leukemia." But she always checked out fine at the vet, and this morning ritual has continued for many years.

This morning, after drinking her fill from the sink, she decided to stick around and keep me company while I washed my hair. Her contented presence in the center of the bath mat, little feet tucked underneath, purring, brought such a sense of peace. It relaxed me, and eased the frenzied feeling that always threatens to overtake mornings when I smack the alarm clock off. It is good to start the day in a cat's presence.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Wonderful (Endangered) World of Bees

Perhaps you've heard of the bee crisis. For reasons both known and unknown, colonies are collapsing, and honeybee populations are dwindling. It's a serious situation, with potentially grave consequences for the food chain. In my particular corner of the world, bees are even more endangered than elsewhere, but not because of pesticides or climate change. No, it's because my dog has made it her mission in life that we have a bee-free environment. I have tried to explain pollination and the food chain to her, but she doesn't seem to care.

Lady is fascinated by bees, and will eat every one that I am not able to personally protect. Bumblebees are a particular favorite.

Thankfully, she doesn't spend time outdoors by herself, so most of the time I am able to intervene. But why one would be drawn to chomp down on something that stings your tongue and mouth, I have yet to figure out. And she does get stung. That initial chomp is predictably followed by a facial expression that conveys the following:

"OUCH! ICK!! BLEAH!" chomp...chomp..."OUCH!"...chomp..."UGH!"

Then follows several minutes of licking and facial contortions. Sound like a fun experience? No! So what is the fascination?? That part remains a mystery. Maybe they taste good, once you get past the stinger. Lady will lurk near the flowers, mesmerized by the sound of the bees buzzing.

And, once I begin scolding in earnest "Lady, NO! Leave the bee alone!" - I get this look. Sheepish, mixed with disappointment that I insist on ruining her fun.

* sigh *

Welcome to "A Scratch Behind the Ears!"

My life has always been populated by dogs and cats. There has never been a time when my floors were free of dog hair, or the windows of my home sparkling clean and free of nose prints. At least not longer than 30 minutes past their last cleaning. I was the child who brought home the box of week old kittens, and the one that the stray dog followed home from the bus stop..."He's scared and lonely, can we keep him?" In those days, my love of all creatures great and small also included guinea pigs, gerbils, and fish. As an adult, I've abandoned the rodent kingdom (much to the relief of those near and dear), but dogs and cats have been a continual presence in my home. They currently number three (two dogs - Lucky and Lady, and one cat - Lucy), and it never ceases to amaze me how much joy they bring. Each with their own unique personality and quirks, they season my life with colorful, sweet, and amusing moments. Last weekend, as I watched Lady obsessing over a bee, it occurred to me that writing about my quirky pets might be a good way to try out the world of blogging, something I have recently wanted to explore. Certainly there will be no lack of material. Whether I can do the moments justice, and capture them in words and pictures remains to be seen. In any case, I believe it will be fun to try. So - welcome to my blog!