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?