Sunday, November 14, 2010

May They All Go Home

I love it when a dog goes home.

I love it when the bouncy, happy puppy goes home, and when the healthy two-year old with no issues goes home. But it's the "special needs" dogs going home that reminds me why I rescue.

Yesterday, a very special pug went home. This blog is about how God, or Fate, led this dog from a terrible, painful and hopeless existence through a series of remarkable people to a one-in-a-million ending that could have been so much different.

The story begins when a woman entered Noah's Ark Veterinary Office carrying a bloody mess of a pug.

"Can you take this dog?" she asked. "I came home from work for lunch and found him in my backyard. I don't know how he got there. I think my dogs may have attacked him."

Dr. Karen Stufflebean was just leaving for lunch. WShen she saw the emergency come through the door, she stayed and instead took the dog - a young male pug - into an exam room. He was underweight and crawling with fleas. He had also been badly mauled by two large, intact male dogs. One eye had been surgically removed at some earlier point in his life. The remaining eye was ruptured and hanging out of the socket. Despite his pain and blindness, he kissed the doctor and tentatively wagged his tail. While most vets may have put him down, Dr. Karen decided he was "too sweet to euthanize". She sacrificed her lunch hour to perform the necessary surgery to remove the damaged eye, provide much needed pain relief and treat his bite wounds. While Dr. Stufflebean and her staff hovered over him, the woman who had brought him quietly left and was not heard from again.

The pug stayed there at Noah's Ark Veterinary Office in St. Louis and began recuperation from his surgery. The staff there began looking for a rescue or shelter to take a pug with no eyes. The pug rescue in their city said they "couldn't place blind dogs". Likewise, all the nearby shelters were full and said the dog had zero chance of adoption - why give up much-needed space to him? The vet and her staff began to feel like had saved him only to find they now had no place to go with him.

They could easily have given up. Instead they tried harder, expanding their search to the next state over.
I already had two blind pugs in the rescue when they called me about this one. Though I've placed many blind dogs over the years, it's not an easy thing to do. I was not overly thrilled about taking a third, but I've never yet turned my back on a pug in need. "If no one else will take him, call me back," I said. Of course, they did.

I picked him and named him Sugar Ray, because he truly was a sweetheart,and the name "Ray" seemed to fit his laid-back demeanor. Dr. Stufflebean donated all Ray's vet work, and I brought him back a week later to be neutered. Ray was a real gem who loved other pugs and had the best sonic navigation system I had ever seen. I knew he must have been blind even before the attack. He learned his name and the surrounding geography very quickly. If I called "Ray! C'mere, Ray!", he would make a beeline from the back of the yard straight to me. When he found me, the tail went wild and the kisses flew!

I posted Ray for adoption and expected to wait a year, or longer.

To my amazement, just two weeks later I opened an application from a woman who lived about an hour away. Reading it, I could feel the adrenaline start to flow - it's that feeling you get when you just know something is right. I quickly realized she was a true animal lover. She had rescued before. She was also a natural-born caregiver - a nurse who worked with cancer patients, a vocation requiring extraordinary compassion. And she wanted to adopt Ray! I tried not to get my hopes up - lots of people fail to follow through on apps - but I was so excited! This was better than I could ever have hoped for Ray. I quietly said a little prayer and had Ray cross his paws. I emailed asking her to call me. The call I received a few days later confirmed everything my intuition had already told me.

When Mary Sue walked into my home she was, naturally, covered with happy pugs wanting her attention. "This is my idea of Heaven," she smiled. She petted everyone, then asked "Where's Ray?"

"He's asleep on my bed, " I answered. "I'll go get him."

Ray was standing alert on the edge of the bed. As soon as his paws hit the floor, he headed for the living room and straight for Mary Sue. It was love at first sniff. As Mary held him and Ray leaned into her, I knew Ray had found his forever home.

The next morning, I missed Sugar Ray at breakfast. I could not stop thinking about the way so many people and events had aligned in his favor. What should have been a terrible tragedy had done a full 180 through an improbable series of encounters, each of which (by all rights) could so easily have gone badly for him. Could that possibly be coincidence, I wondered? No, I concluded, it had to be something more. It appeared to me that Ray had - not one guardian angel - but a whole bunch of them!

We see so many bad things happen in rescue, and lots of bad people. There are times when I seriously dislike human beings. 

Sometimes I forget about the caring, compassionate people out there.

You see them working in hospitals and nursing homes, in social services or coaching kids' sports. They foster dogs for rescue, or screen applications, share what little they may have with those less fortunate. People like Mary Sue make this a world where even a dog with no eyes can find happiness, can be loved and treasured. People like you, too. Because if you are reading this, chances are pretty good that you're one of those special people.

So, with the holidays upon us, and in the wake of Ray's astounding odyssey (it still blows me away to think about it), I want to take this time to acknowledge all the people of the world who do the right thing, even when it is not the easy thing. This is for the good people out there. You know who you are. You inspire me. I am overwhelmed by your boundless compassion. From the deepest breath of my being, at my darkest point and most euphoric, in the face of hopelessness and on the brink of endless possibilites, I will live in awe of you every day as long as my heart keeps beating.

Thank you. From me, and from Ray.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Just like all of you, I'm up to here with political ads and can hardly wait for the election to be over. There's only one issue on the ballot that I really care about. If you live in Missouri, you hold the only tiny thread of hope available to tens of thousands of innocents suffering beyond comprehension at this very moment. I'm talking about the parents of those darling little pet store puppies - the ugly adults being bred to death while they live in filth, pain and loneliness to provide financial support for humans who couldn't care less.

It's wrong. And Missourians have a chance to do something about it.

Missouri  has more puppymills than any other state in the union. If Proposition B passes there, then there is hope anywhere in the United States, from the Amish puppymills of Pennsylvania to the rural pits of southwest Texas.

Puppymillers have a powerful lobby. There is lots and lots of money in breeding dogs to death. They have successfully squashed every previous attempt to pass legislation that would require them to provide humane care for animals in commercial breeding facilities. Providing humane care would cut into their profits. It would mean that every single breeding dog they own would be required by law to see a vet at least once a year, have access to exercise, and live in an environment free of unbearable heat and wire floors that injure sensitive paws. Why, those puppymillers might have to spend the price they get for a single one of their own pitiful dog's progeny to actually provide a bit of medical care for the parent. Perish the thought! Yes, every previous attempt at passing a puppymill protection bill has failed.

But this time is different.

Someone in the opposing camp is throwing serious money into the effort this time, inundating the airwaves with a terrific commercial featuring reputable breeders illuminating the differences between themselves and the large, commercial operations. The puppymillers are feeling the heat this time. For those of us in the rescue trenches, it's exemplified by their dumping animals left and right, frantically reducing their stock to a managable size. One breeder told me she was selling her dogs through classified ads becuase, she said, "they are going so cheap at auctions, you have to sell them in groups of three or four or five to sell them at all, and you can't make any money". Many are liquidating everything, getting out of the business altogether.

So be it. It's a shameful business, no better than children working 12 hours a day in sweatshops. If you cannot do something honorable to make a living, you don't belong in a civilized society. Kids, animals and the elderly - the Triad of Helpless Beings - are protected by a civilized people, aren't they?
 Recently, I was told that Proposition B was just another law, and we don't need to be making any more laws we can't enforce. What's the point of passing Prop B if we don't have the ability to enforce it? It's very true, enforcement will be a tall order. But it's like this, folks - you have to start somewhere. 

Filthy matted mill dogs in wire cages aren't even the tip of the iceberg of cruelty taking place in puppymills. I have been to puppymill auctions, have seen and heard much worse. Rural puppymillers will not spend a penny on their breeding stock, even to euthanize them. Why buy a bullet when swinging them by their legs and smacking their heads on a truck bumper is free? Think I'm kidding? A friend of mine who attended auctions posing as a puppymiller once told me how a well-known puppymill veterinarian in southern Missouri described to him in great detail how he debarked his dogs using a metal rod, which could be brutally shoved down their tracheas to rip their vocal cords to pieces. My friend, who was a Vietnam vet, told me it took every ounce of strength in his body to keep from strangling this man. The same vet is famous for telling his puppymiller clientele how they can dose their dogs with tetracycline to get a false negative on their brucellosis tests so they can be sold to other unsuspecting puppymillers.

Puppymillers are not an ethical lot, even to each other.

Several years ago, when I was fairly new to rescue, I took in a sweet little puppymill poodle from a monster (I cannot call her a woman) in southern Illinois. This monster turned the dog over to rescue because the dog had killed and partially eaten her last litter of pups. The dog was in horrid shape when I got her. She had two ruptured eyeballs from untreated infections, and was missing a paw on her back leg. The transporter, who acted as a go-between for rescues, said the monster had told her how it happened with no hint of shame or remorse. The poodle had been kept in a stacked wire cage, and gotten her paw stuck in the wire floor. A dog in the cage below had chewed it off while she screamed with no one to hear or help her.

Can you imagine having your hand held in a vise while it was eaten from your arm? How about being blind so that all your other senses are heightened, and being forced to endure such a thing?

I named her the poodle Sweetie Pie, because she was one. This sad, abused little dog was so incredibly responsive to the least bit of kindness given her, I never thought to call her anything else. Anytime Sweetie Pie was near me, she practically melted into me - she craved affection so badly. Sweetie Pie was no trouble at all. Even blind, she followed the sighted dogs everywhere, hobbling on three legs while she carryied her maimed leg in the air. She quickly housetrained.

It was not hard for me to understand why she killed and ate her babies, in fact, it was probably the smartest move she ever made. After that, she was no longer useful. Remember, the breeder got rid of her because she was a bad mother, not because she was injured or in agony. Dogs with missing eyes and limbs are still breedable. They can still make money.

A friend of mine in recently asked me how I let it go. "I dream about them," she said. I told her, in order to continue doing rescue, I make myself focus on the dogs I save. Were I to dwell on the thousands of others like Sweetie Pie, still suffering with no warmth or compassion, no help or relief, I don't think I could bear to go on. I have to "let go and let God". That allows me to continue functioning. And like the starfish in the parable, there are many sentient beings out there who are safe and living well because I function. I suspect that most rescuers have similar coping mechanisms that work for them.

Sweetie Pie was adopted by a wonderful woman named Crystal, a human being with a huge heart and enough love for a whole herd of tortured little puppymill survivors. The last time I saw Sweetie Pie, it was in a photograph. She was beautifully groomed and wore a bright pink collar. She was laying on a white chenille bedspread with her best friend, a little puppymill dachshund. Crystal said she had fit right into the family and was doing great! I've long since lost touch with Crystal, and that picture resides on some old computer that now sits rusting in a junkyard somewhere. But I can see it in my mind as clear as I saw it the first time.

If you live in Missouri, or if you have a friend or relative who lives in Missouri, please ask them to go out on Tuesday and vote YES on Proposition B. We have to start somewhere. Having the law in place is a good beginning, I think. Then we can work on the next step - making the law work for all the Sweetie Pies still suffering in loneliness and neglect, terror and endless torture. A wise man once said the journey of a lifetime begins with a single step. So the first eye-teeth of justice for one third of the Triad of Helpless Beings begins the same way, with a single step. Missouri is poised to take that first step.

Please. Let's do everything in our power to make sure we do.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Calvin Takes A Treat

Those of you who occasionally kill abject boredom reading my blogs might remember my mentioning a nine year-old silver pug named Calvin (see New Age of Rescue, April 22). After a long trip in a rescue van driven by my friend, Lisa W.,Calvin arrived at a rescue barn near St. Louis. I was there, too. It was unrequited love at first sight. I was in love. Calvin was not impressed.

Four months later, I can safely say that Calvin has been one tough egg to crack. Nine years in a puppymill had produced a 14 pound pug with legs wobbly from disuse, a bland affect, and a deeply ingrained certainty that human beings are all-powerful and full of bad intentions. 

Pug certainty is a hard thing to dispel.

Like most newly arrived puppymill survivors, Calvin enjoyed the company of other dogs, but would go to the ends of the earth to avoid any human - namely, me. "Cagey" is the word i used to describe him. Calvin's eyes never left me. When I zigged, Calvin zagged. He wasn't really fast, but he knew how to avoid the tackle. When I did manage to catch him, keeping him became the hard part. Calvin writhed like a sackful of snakes - it was all I could do just to hang on.

Worse yet was trying to get medicine down Calvin. For the first few days, he would not touch a piece of kibble to save his soul. He had horrible diarrhea - a reaction, no doubt, to the incredible stress in his life - but I couldn't get any meds down him because he wouldn't eat. Not braunschweiger, not chicken, nothing. After rotating the tastiest stuff I could find through the rarefied air under Calvin's nose, I was on the verge of surrender. Calving would eyeball the dish of food, then raise his mug to give me the bad-eye. He would not touch anything in the bowl

After a week, I finally noticed him showing some interest in the puppy's food. Yes, he had definitely discovered a fondness for Purina Puppy Chow with soft morsels. At last, I could breath a sigh of relief. Calvin was eating. But if I put a pill in it, even in a chunk of something delectable, Calvin would eyeball me until I left his range of vision, then eat around the medicine. I had to smash them to ribbons, then mix them in some soft food until they were invisible.

My old standby medication delivery system has always been braunschweiger - it's yummy and really, really sticky. After a few weeks, Calvin got to expect his little bit of liver sausage every morning and evening. I found that if I crushed a pill and kneaded it into the mushy stuff, Calvin would eat it, as long as I wasn't watching. Of course, I had to sit it down on the floor first. But it worked! Through it all, I did my best to be as non-threatening as I could in every way. When  I picked Calvin up to put him in his private dining quarters, I kissed him and scratched his ears, telling him what a "good man" he was. He would squirm fiercely and try to break free of me.

Every night at bedtime, Calvin would peer into my bedroom and watch alertly as the other pugs climbed the pet stairs onto the bed. Sometimes he would leave, then come back, leave, then back again to watch the flurry of curly tails in motion. After a couple of weeks of observance, he felt comfortable enough with the nightly ritual to stay in the room with the evil human. Then one night, it happened.

I looked up just before turning off the light, and there was Calvin. True, he was in the farthest reaches of Serta country, where I couldn't possibly touch him.  But there he was. It was the first crack in Calvin's armor. He had been watching for weeks as familiar dogs climbed the steps suffering no ill effects, and a decision in my favor had been made. As nonchalantly as I could (I was euphoric), being careful not to look in his direction, I turned out the light. But I could feel his presence there, and I knew those beady little eyes were pointed right at me. Watching.

Sleeping on the bed with me and the rest of the pack quickly became a nightly event for Calvin. After a couple of months, I noticed he had moved within reach. I began to gently scratch his chin, being careful never to come at him from overhead, or to extend my touches beyond very brief intervals. I would scratch his chin and chest, then move on to the pug next door without fanfare. Calvin got to like this, and petting time got a little bit longer almost every day. Sometimes he'd become annoyed and move. Other times, he'd stretch his head upward and close his eyes. 

Every morning at 6:30am, meds were delivered for those dogs who need it, followed by breakfast for everyone.  By this time, I no longer had to crush Calvin's meds and knead his braunschweiger like playdough. He loved braunschweiger so much, he gobbled it down whole. Calvin knew the routine now and actually allowed me to pick him up for breakfast. Any  squirming was from excitement - he knew it was chow time. We were making progress.

But Calvin still refused to take anything from a human hand. Even his beloved braunschweiger was off limits if I held it out to him. I still had to drop it before he would touch it.

With the other dogs in the household, Calvin was like a calm, wise grandfather. They all seemed to love his quiet energy. He always slept in the middle of a big pug pile. Everything was subject to his sharp scrutiny. Calvin assessed everything for what seemed an impossibly long time for a dog. You could see the cogs rotating in that little brain, but nothing other than his own observations had an iota of influence on him. Calvin had been around the block a few times. He was no dummy.

A couple of weeks ago, I held out a piece of braunschweiger to Calvin, just as I always did, waiting for him to give me that look until I dropped it on the floor. Very gently, I felt Calvin's mouth on my fingers. He licked tentatively at the treat. I pushed a little. It sort of rolled into his mouth and disappeared.

"Good man!" I said. "What a good man!" 

The second and third treats went much better. Something had clicked - Calvin knew. Taking treats became routine. If the treats were not quickly forthcoming, I got the old man bark until I stepped it up. I marveled for the umpteenth time at dogs' powerful ability to forgive and change.

This morning, Calvin fell in with a pack of pugs following me out into the yard. When I bent down to greet them, he did a joyous happy dance along with his fellows. His tail does not wag, but it's held high and tightly curled. In the far corner of the yard was the pug I'd picked up late the night before, standing and staring, afraid to come closer.

"Can you have a word with her, Good Man?" I asked, being careful not to look directly into those frightened eyes.

Calvin said he would.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teach Your Children

A few years back, I got a call from a rescue group upstate I'd never heard of or spoken with before. They had a blind pug puppy they'd rescued from an outdoor pen and were looking for a breed-specific rescue to take her.

A week later on a Saturday afternoon, I was parked at a corner gas station on Broadway in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. It was February and still a bit nippy, so I sat in the transport van and watched participants arriving for the Barkus Dog Parade. If you never been to the dog parade in Soulard and you live within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend it. Everyone's invited. Dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes parade through the neighborhood dragging two-leggers behind them - many in costume, some dressed to match their humans, which is a real hoot! I found it so entertaining just watching people and dogs preparing for the event, I didn't even see the RV pull up. A sandy-haired young woman knocking on my window startled me. Then I saw Baby.

"Here she is!" she smiled. "She's a sweetheart, but she can't see a thing." With that, she handed me a bundle of squirming six-month-old pug puppy and an envelope of vet records and took off with her friends and their own costumed canines. I looked at the blind pug puppy in my hands. Baby was walleyed, both orbs out of focus and clearly useless. I sat her in the car seat. She immediately jumped out and paddled her way back up to the driver's seat. "Well," I said, "they shoulda named you 'Fearless'!" Needless to say, she rode back to Illinois on the driver's lap. Baby was unusual, the first blind puppy I'd had. Although I had placed many blind dogs over the years, most were adults.

At home, I sat Baby on the ground in the back yard. After the requisite sniffs, she started spinning in tight circles that seemed to widen more and more as she spun. I was terrified I'd gotten a mentally ill dog, a whirling dervish that would never be adoptable! Even the other dogs were fearful, ogling this odd behavior with great trepidation. No one got too close. Baby spun and spun until she grazed the edge of a tree trunk.

Suddenly, she stopped.

As I watched in amazement, Baby located and thoroughly examined the tree with her nose and paws. After a minute or so, seemingly satisfied, she moved to the other side. The spinning commenced.

 It was not insanity I was witnessing. It was navigation.

Baby had adapted to her blindness incredibly well. In fact, she had developed her own technique for making her way through unfamiliar terrain. I dubbed it "circular navigation".

Baby was an incredible teacher, an energetic and amazing young pup. But who'd want a blind puppy? Puppies are ideally for families. But when people go to adopt a puppy for a child, they want perfection. They want the expensive sneakers, the state-of-the-art game console, the perfect puppy.

A young woman named Chris - a single mom of three - put a dent in my tidy assumption by adopting Baby. She called after speaking with her vet about the ramifications of having one sighted dog and one blind dog. "He asked me what made me think I could tell the difference", she laughed. I silently thanked that vet for knowing something most people do not: As humans, we depend heavily on vision. It is our first sense. But dogs are different. Hearing and smell are primary. Vision is third. Once a blind dog learns it's surroundings, few people can tell the difference.

Over the years, I've gotten a few pics from Chris and her family, all with Baby featured prominently. Unless you looked very closely at the smiling family holding their two dogs and one cat before the lit Christmas tree, you wouldn't notice anything unusual about that fawn pug in the middle.

Rather than choose a puppy for her family who fit the general public's ideal, Chris chose a puppy most people would probably want euthanized. In doing so, she had given her family a tremendous gift.

Kids with perfect puppies would never get to witness the wonder of "circular navigation", or experience the amazement of seeing a sightless animal walk a hallway and turn corners as if they had 20/20 vision. They would never use their imaginations to walk through the house with their eyes closed, never experience that empathy that might give them an insight into what replaces darkness in a blind dog's world. They'd never love something that others might perceive as defective. They'd miss the very important lesson that perfection is not necessarily what most people think it is, nor is it all it's cracked up to be.

Would Baby help instill an exceptional compassion and insight into her adoptive family? Maybe.

I so wish that, in choosing a pet for their kids, more parents would consider what message they are conveying:

I bought a purebred puppy for my child: Buy what you want. Overpopulation among companion animals is not our problem.

I adopted a rescued animal for my child: This animal is worth loving, too; there are just too many animals. 

Our pet is neutered: We care about animal suffering and about the millions being killed because there are not enough homes for them all. We will not contribute to that. Our pet is a family member, his/her well-being is our responsibility.

I adopted a deaf puppy for my child: This animal is worth loving. From this experience, you will gain insight into a soundless world. You will learn hand signals, and know how to protect another being from dangers they can't hear.

I adopted a puppy with no eyes for my child: this animal deserves a loving home. You will learn how other senses compensate for lack of vision. You will love a being whose appearance may horrify others and through this, learn to love the soul and not the exterior.

I adopted a senior dog for my child:  The elderly should be well-cared for and treated with love and respect, not discarded. Loss is a natural part of life. Sometimes doing the right thing requires a bit of sacrifice.

When I originally went to write the blog called "Teach Your Children", I wanted to include examples of families who had adopted special pets, but I ran into a roadblock.

There weren't any.

Other than Chris, I could find no one with children who had added a special pet to their families.

My question is this: Do we really want a ME society?

I think back on the Special Olympians who stopped their competition to help a fallen comrade. Is it just me, or wouldn't we like all of our children to grow up with that kind of heart? In a world where reality TV rules and contestants eliminate each other any way they can for cash prizes, do we ever stop to wonder what they've sold?

Baby is still out there somewhere. I've lost touch with her wonderful family, but I'll never forget them. Or her. Because it was such a special experience.

I learned something priceless.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Today I said goodbye to Tessa, a blind pug of indeterminate age who had survived a puppymill to spend her final; two years of life here with me.

Tessa came to me in a load of retired breeders. She was the oddest-looking pug - short, squat and wearing oversized skin that rolled when you grabbed it  - it was like holding a water balloon. My roommate quickly nicknamed her Tub-A-Goo - I christened her with her formal name. 

It quickly became apparent that Tessa had major issues, courtesy of human greed. Wall-to-wall pigmentary keratitis ensured that the the little ladypug had zero vision. Though she was trustworthy on the bed we shared, she proved unhousetrainable. Blood work we had done showed kidney disease, and that was the kiss of death for her adoption potential. Although we did post her as "available for adoption", no one ever even asked about Tessa. We put her on prescription food, and expected her to die in six months or less.

Two years later, I carried her in to our vet to find her in congestive heart failure. She was suffering, struggling to breath, and I could not allow that to go on. We sent Tessa to the Rainbow Bridge.

Usually, when a pug is never adopted, I feel I've failed them. I really cannot say that about Tessa. It's probably not much of an understatement to say that it would have taken a saint to adopt a blind, unhousetrainable old pug with kidney disease. Saints are in short supply.

So Tessa stayed in this house, a rescue house. But she knew it was her house. She knew the geography of the house and the yard like the back of her paw, used the pet door, and fell into a steadfast routine here that she adhered to religiously. Each morning, we delivered meds (Tessa took an antihistamine twice daily for allergies), then Tessa was placed in a kennel and fed her special diet. After her meal, she retired to a doughnut bed in the bathroom. There she slept until I got home from work. We'd go outside for awhile, then do evening meds. Tessa looked forward to this - her meds were delivered in braunschweiger. After meds came bedtime for Tessa. If I was too slow to let her in my room, she would patiently rest her chin on the bars of the safety gate across the hallway until I came to open it, or lift her over.

Tessa was one of my "special" pugs - the odd ones who were allowed to sit in the bathroom while I bathed, or on the bed as I watched a movie. My girls. At mealtimes, Tessa did the "Four-Paw Shuffle" - it was the most animated we ever saw her. At bedtime, she wandered down the hall to my room and waited to be lifted onto the bed. She always had to lay right next to me so she could rest her chin somewhere on my body.If it was warm and I moved her away, she'd come right back. Occasionally, she would come into the bedroom and lose her sense of direction, staring at an end table or closet door when she really wanted the bed. On these occasions, I would lean over the edge on the bed and blow a stream of soft air in her direction. As soon as it hit her, the tail started to wag, she'd turn and come straight for me.  I'd lift her up and tuck her in for the night. "There's my Tessa".

Today, I am crying and I'll continue doing so on and off all day. I've put my phone away. I just want to curl up in a ball. I miss her so much already...the little pug no one wanted...she stayed long enough to tear me apart when she left.

I try to remember the good things. Tessa loved me, and she knew I loved her - she knew that very well, and was utterly secure in that love. I never left her anywhere that she did not know I would come back for her. I know this with a certainty. For any lengthy trip to the vet or groomer, she was never scared when I picked her up - just impatient ("It's about time," she'd sigh). She had two really good years here, post-puppymill, years filled with love and belonging. It was the closest thing she ever had to a real home - in Tessa's case, I guess it was a real home.

I'll never forget you, Tessa. And I'll think of you often from now until I get to join you. I know one day I'll think of you and smile. I'll talk about you with people who knew you, and we'll laugh about some silly thing you did. But not today. Today my heart is in ashes.

I love you, Tessa. Goodbye.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday evening, I was lying in bed half-asleep when my cell went off. I grabbed it. It was my rescue friend, Lisa. 

"I'll be coming down I-255 in about a half-hour. Wanna meet me?" Not many folks could induce me to leave my bed once I'm tucked in for the evening. But kindhearted Lisa has been donating puppies to IMR to help us pay for the old puppymill survivors who are our staple clientele. I knew we needed the little ones she was bringing. "I'll be there," I replied. I rolled out of bed, through some jeans on. Twenty minutes later, I rolled up behind Lisa at the Flying J.

Lisa's car was packed to the rafters, as always. She handed me two beautiful creme cockapoo puppies - enough to pay for four seniors easily. Then she pulled out a little wad of blackish fur that wiggled in her hands. She held him up so I could see his belly, pointing out a barely visible hole. 

"He needed surgery," she said. "The vet did this so he could pee from here. They think his mom might have chewed some of his equipment off my mistake. Either that, or it's a birth defect." She then pointed out the lack of a tail - not even a stump to suggest a tail. "They called him Possum. His mom is their house dog. Her name is Possum, too." Ah, puppymillers - not a terribly inventive bunch. The little dog could not have weighed a pound-and-a-half soaking wet and he smelled like a chicken coop.  But there was something about him that made me want to give the little poodle a shot, and "Possum" seemed to suit him. 

After three baths and careful trims so they could at least see where they were going, all three pups settled in nicely at my house. They made impressive use of the house and yard, running and rolling like tumbleweeds when their feet got too fast for the rest of them. All of them were darling - who doesn't love puppies? But it quickly became apparent that Possum was a force to be reckoned with. The smallest of the three by half, he held his own in play-battles. He stared at us and stood on our shoes, demanding to be held. If Possum had issues with something, he protested LOUDLY. 

On afternoon, I heard Possum yowling as if the hounds of Hades were shredding him right there in the hallway. I rushed in to see him spinning in circles, pausing to screech his frustration, then spinning some more. It seems Possum did not appreciate being unable to reach the poop on his butt. This was not an anomaly - I have since seen this behavior duplicated. Each time, it continues unabated until the butt in question has been cleaned with soap and water and patted dry. Possum is a fastidious fellow.

Possum knows his name now. There is nothing funnier than seeing that little ball of fur whose head barely breaks a wave in the grass beating feet like the ship is pulling away from the dock without him when someone calls his name. What Possum lacks in size, he more than makes up for in heart.

The best thing about Possum is that he never feels sorry for himself. Not ever. He's always up for anything. If he tries playing with a grouchy old pug and is reprimanded, he simply goes to the next dog. When you pick Possum up and hold him near your face, prepare to be smothered with kisses. This is one happy puppy.

Yesterday, Possum went to the groomer for the first time. He didn't have much done - it was more of a "get acquainted" visit (meet Mr. Clipper), but his face was shaved and his nails were trimmed. He looked really foo-foo when I picked him up.

I think a couple of bounces around the yard will fix that.

Possum is unique. With his physical defects, I doubt he will be adopted soon. But just to be sure, I put an exorbitant fee on him. 

Of course, that will be reduced for the right person. But they can take their time finding Possum and me. I cannot look at this quirky little man without smiling. 

Sometimes, I really need that. At least, for a little while.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adoption Fees: About The Disparities

 It was an adoption event in New England. A man approached Pansy, a fit, attractive tan and white Boston pup. "She's cute," he commented. "I'm looking for a Boston. But why is her adoption fee so high?" Pansy's foster mom wanted to answer him. "Well, she's a purebred Boston terrier puppy who has been spayed, vaccinated, heartworm tested and microchipped, not to mention transported across nine states to get here. None of that was free, and the adoption fee you think is so high is actually considerably less than you'd pay for a fully vetted puppy bought from a breeder. That's why!"  But we do get tired of explaining ourselves to people who, rather than commit a charitable act, simply want to buy a desirable dog for a great price. So I thought, I could blog the Pansy incident and...

Wait! I digress! This blog is not about Pansy. It's really about Betty.

Betty is an eight year-old black pug from a puppymill. Most rescues who see Betty carried off by anyone-but-them can sigh and say they dodged a bullet. Betty came into rescue direct from a "commercial breeder" in Rolla, Missouri with a case of heartworms, rotten teeth, and a couple of small tumors. Like most puppymill survivors, Betty has never heard of housetraining. Most people would probably not be astounded to hear that eight year-old dogs who pee everywhere are not hot commodities on the adoption circuit, but Betty doesn't know that. After spending her entire life churning out litter after litter for greedy humans who withheld affection and medical attention, she has embraced pethood wholeheartedly. She now lives in a rescue house with her foster parents, who love her no matter what. Betty needs no special incentive to do the full-butt wag for anyone who looks the least bit interested in her. In short, Betty is a charmer and a money pit. Betty has a chance to be what she always should have been - a beloved, physically well-cared-for family member. We want her to have that chance. But how do we pay for it?

Admittedly, we pray a lot. God always seems to take pity on fools, so our prayers are answered, sometimes with donations from caring people. More often, the answer comes in the form of dogs like Pansy.

That's right - back to Pansy, the beautiful 10 month-old purebred Boston Terrier with the exorbitant adoption fee. She did not "show well" in the shelter, so she was sent to the same rescue where Betty resides. Pansy has no health issues, and no major behavioral issues. After a bit of one-on-one in a foster home, she's ready for a permanent family. The inequity: This highly desirable puppy's adoption fee is roughly double the fee asked for Betty, whose medical care cost three times as much.

Here's a truism for folks looking for cheap dogs: Healthy puppies rarely need rescue. We can place Pansy and dogs like her all day long. If that was what rescue was all about, it would be an easy task, wouldn't it?

But we think rescue should be more about the Bettys than the Pansys.

While adopting cute, healthy puppies is certainly an option, anyone can do that. It's the rare breed of humans who adopt the senior dog, the blind, deaf or wheelie dog, the puppymill survivor so afraid of human hands she won't take food from them, the unhousetrained, the asocial...those adopters are the humans I treasure! The dog they adopt will probably have cost considerably more than the adoption fee asked. That dog will likely go on to incur an even greater cost in time, patience and sometimes in ongoing veterinary care. But for humans who are willing and able to open their hearts and homes for these special dogs, the reward is worth it a thousand times over.

The folks carrying away those cute little puppies can tell their friends they "rescued" their dogs. What does it matter that they don't comprehend the lot of all the Bettys of the world? How can we expect them to? It would be like trying to teach a table leg to play piano, don't you think?

So we let people think they are rescuing healthy young dogs and we listen to them gripe about the adoption fee with a secret smile. We know the truth.

They are actually rescuing an old puppymill survivor with a long list of health issues. We don't need to tell them.

But sometimes, we're so tempted.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's In A Name?

I looked at the senior dog I had just picked up from a shelter. She looked at me. We sat there for a moment, sizing each other up.

"What's your name?" I wondered aloud. She tilted her head quizzically from the canine booster seat behind me in the transport van. She'd been a pet, probably purchased from a breeder as a very small puppy. Now at 11 years of age, they dumped her in a shelter where she likely would have died had no rescue come forward to take her. No one had bothered to leave her name with the staff, and I guess they hadn't asked.

My rescue does not accept many pets. The ones we do take or old or disabled - otherwise, they're easily adopted from the shelters, no need to call us. I always feel much worse for the pets than I do the puppymill survivors, for whom abandonment by their owners is a step UP.

What kind of person has a dog for nine, 10, 12 years and simply drops them at their local shelter? I ask myself that almost daily. I've yet to arrive at a simple answer. I picture this dog being lifted into the car by her owner, completely trusting. What did she think when they walked through the shelter door and she heard the barking, the wails from the kennels? How did she feel when she smelled the multitude of animals, the fear, the confusion? Or watching her owner walk away from a decade of unconditional love without so much as a glance back?

The fact that these senior dogs even survive that kind of experience is a testament to their incredible strength. Might it have been a tiny bit less awful if someone had said, "Hello, Gracie (or Chloe or Muffin)". Would she have thought, "She knows me", and felt some connection in a world of chaos? How little effort would it have taken to ensure that someone there knew her name?

To some rescued dogs, names are not an issue. My heart is with puppymill survivors, the victims of human avarice. If they have names, they don't know them. My house is almost always the first place they learn to recognize a name as their own and respond to it.

When I do take in a former pet like this one - sitting in my van, glad to be out of the kennel, but still wondering what will happen next - I know she already has a name. But it's locked inside her speechless head where I cannot reach it.

Some adopters change a dog's name - I guess they feel differently about the import of that act. My rule is this: If he or she knows the name, I do not change it. There are rare exceptions (puppymillers seem fond of naming black pugs "Sambo"). But if the name is acceptable and the dog knows it, I figure they've been through enough, why rattle them any further?  Changing a dog's name-that-it-knows is an exercise in human ego. Some people argue that the dog is starting a new life and needs a new name, which can sound like it has some merit. But again, that's the human perspective - I say, try looking at it from the dog's point of view. It's the one familiar thing they have, and you're taking it away?

I have another rule about names: I always use human names for my rescues. Somewhere deep in my soul, I hope that having a human name will make it harder for anyone to ever again treat them as objects. Does it work? I honestly don't know, but it's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Looking at the dog sitting behind me, I play a guessing game. "Betty? Maggie? Tinkerbelle?" She's as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa.

"Ginny," I state. She seems to like it. In a few days she will recognize it as her own. It's not the best situation, but the best I can do for her today. "It's okay, you're safe. We'll be home soon". I put the van in gear and we set out on a long journey. It will end with a new home where a new family will open their ranks for her as one of them. We've taken the very first step.

She has a name.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Age of Rescue

A few weeks ago Calvin, a silver pug with wobbly legs, left a puppymill for the first time in his nine years of living and came to stay at my house.

When I left home that morning, I did not know that Calvin existed. A friend of mine - who acts as a kind of clearing house for puppymill suvivors - had invited me along on a rescue mission. The rescue was conducted jointly by Best Friends, a Utah shelter perhaps best known for the NatGeo series, Dogtown, and the North Shore Animal League, a huge shelter that has been around as long as I can remember.
The location was a huge horse barn on a ranch outside St. Louis. When I arrived, volunteers had just unloaded a van full of crates containing very smelly, frightened dogs. I was instantly astounded by the breadth of the operation. There were at least 50 volunteers there from all over the country, many wearing "Best Friends" t-shirts. Three times as many dogs already occupied crates in the horse stalls. Rescuers were in a constant pattern of cleaning, sorting, loading and unloading - the place reminded me of a bee hive. As vans were unloaded, rescuers inspected the crates for vomit, urine or feces and removed dogs as needed. Sick and special needs dogs were relocated to a stall with a huge Red Cross symbol on it - sort of a canine MASH unit. The rest were sorted and made comfortable. One person with a laptop logged in every new arrival. Other folks were filming the entire operation as it went down. I couldn't believe how well-organized and professional the whole operation was. The next day, a vet was due in to see every single dog - easily an all-day job.

In the midst of all this hubbub were the objects of all this activity - the dogs themselves. Most were small breeds - chihuahuas, yorkies, shih tzus -  but there were a couple of boxers, and one very happy hound. Some seemed to know they had gotten lucky - they wagged their tails and looked around excitedly. Most were either numb or fearful - the more typical demeanor of puppymill survivors. For them, this was sensory overload. One little older female chihuahua in a wire crate stood and shook the entire time I watched her. She had probably never before seen anything outside the three or four cubic feet of her breeding cage.

Normally, I'm the type of person who keeps her emotions under wraps. But on this day, I found myself wiping away tears over and over. Rescuers see the dregs of humanity, i.e., people who abuse and neglect the most helpless and vulnerable creatures among us. Here I was seeing the antithesis. I was completely overwhelmed. Here were humans giving their time and skills, paying their own transport costs, renting vans for local rescuers who spent hours driving from city to city to free these animals, to provide care and comfort, to escort them to safety and a future as beloved pets. I had never seen anything like this. I was deeply moved.

As I walked from stall to stall observing all the dogs and activity surrounding them, I thought about how different rescue had become today. I'm in my fifties now, and I can name the names of rescue folks who sat beside me in dingy auction barns spending whatever funds we had left from the season to buy the dogs the breeders did not feel were worth feeding through the winter. We'd walk the rows of wire cages, choosing which ones to try to take home with us, knowing most of them would go to other, worse puppymills. The dogs we bought for a pittance were sick, old, blind and no longer producing. These were my favorites because they responded with such gratitude to the smallest act of kindness.

Those barns were a far cry from this clean, brightly lit shelter. Lost in thought, I barely heard the last van pull up to the garage door entry. I crossed the roadway in a chilly drizzle, stepping over puddles, waited by the van to help unload. The big side door slid open. The first thing I saw was an old pug in a wire crate. The driver, who knew me, said, "He's nine years old. You don't have to take him".

"I'll take him," I responded. In fact, I would have fought anybody for him.

 He stiffened up as she handed him to me, eyes blank, despondent. I put him in my van, and gave him his first and only name. Calvin. Later, I would work hard to put a spark back into those eyes, to strengthen legs weak from disuse, and to instill a thimble-full of trust between us.

As Calvin and I headed out, the rain picked up. It was getting colder and everyone was tired, yet I felt energized. I felt both affirmation and inspiration. I had seen the future, and it looked really, really good. For both of us.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The State of Rescue

I'm a rescuer.

Being a rescuer is not a choice - you either are or you aren't. Watch your kids for the warning signs: Bringing home strays, moving turtles from the roadway, trying to feed baby birds who fell from the nest...when other neighborhood kids start bringing their sick, injured or found animals to YOUR kid, you know you're in trouble.

Those of you who know me, are aware that IL-MO Rescue, NFP is pretty much a one-woman operation. I do my best to keep it small, assess each animal as an individual, provide the care they need and find them a home where they will live happily until they leave this life for the next.

This formula used to work pretty well. From my viewpoint, organized rescue went along pretty well for about 15 years. But this last year has been the absolute worst year. The national economy is the major culprit and, well, there's just not much I can do about it. I have begged for money more often this past year then all the previous years combined. It's a bad sign. It hurts the rescue, it hurts my stalwart few who seem to give over and over again, and it takes a toll on me as an individual. The other culprit is outrageous veterinary costs. Here's an example:

The pug pictured here is Gracie; she has a story. At age 11, her owners, who had bought her as a tiny pup, abandoned her at a shelter in STL where she would have been euthanized had I refused her. Despite her age, Gracie is bright, playful, alert and an all-around marvelous little ladypug. She had been spayed, but her teeth were pretty bed. Normally, I can get a dental done for right around the senior adoption fee of $150. It's doable.

Here's the twist: There is one area vet I rarely use because, although they're very good, they are pricey and I know it. But a downtown groomer, whom I considered a friend, did a small fundraiser for us and, instead of making a check out to IL-MO Rescue as would normally be done after a fundraiser, they made it out to this vet and told me we had a credit of $167 there. This did not thrill me, because I had a $910 bill for a parvo pup to pay and could have used that $167 for that. But okay, a credit is better than nothing. How bad could a dental be? To use the credit, I sent Gracie to them. I walked out with a $595 charge for a dental! My heart nearly stopped. Even worse - the money that had been raised in our name had not made it there, and the groomer will not return my calls to find out why.

I have to admit, the vet - who, BTW, drives a car worth more than my house - did a nice job on Gracie. And I just love her - I'm glad she's pain-free now. But at age 11, she will be hard to place at all. Isn't part of being a veterinarian offering care at a reasonable cost to the old, the rejected, the puppymill cast-offs?

I love dogs, cannot imagine living without them. I wouldn't want to live without them. My little wood-frame ranch needs lots of work I can't afford, in fact, I've nearly lost my home twice. I drive an 11y/o van coming up on the 200,000 mile marker - three-quarters of those miles transporting rescued dogs. I don't live in a nicer house or drive a newer car, not because I couldn't, but because I rescue.

We have some great pups for adoption now (Thanks, Amanda!) who should go for decent fees that will cover a few more pugs like Gracie, but no one is adopting. Things are bad all over.

I'm starting to wonder how long I can continue rescuing on $27,000 a year. Then I have to wonder, how do I stop?

How do you stop being who you are?