Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Drive Home

She sits in the driveway now.

Her paint is faded and scarred. The mirror on the driver's side is bent. The windshield is badly cracked; the passenger window doesn't roll down. She wears thirty-odd stickers, magnets and logos that have adhered to the metal and can never be removed. She will never run another mile. But her heart still beats.

I am filling cardboard boxes with chewys and treats, bowls and water bottles, blankets and baby wipes...the detritus of a decade. This old girl had a calling.

Her odometer passed 195,000 some time ago, miles earned flying directly into enemy territory, the puppymills of Missouri. This was one helluva warrior.

Countless times we traveled deep into the night - sometimes all night - to bring back a precious cargo. Frightened, sick, wafting the scent of old barns and chicken coops, they were all welcomed. The moment her door closed behind them like a powerful arm separating them from their greedy captors - this was the moment they first became safe. I looked at the two canine carseats in the second row, remembering how many pugs had sat in those seats looking out the window, watching the old world fade away with the highway.

Now, her time had ended. Her life was honorable, her rest well-deserved. She had not another mile left in her, not one. But maybe, I thought, just one more story.

I never look at those old carseats without remembering how they got there. A decade ago, when the Pugmobile was new to us and had a mere 55,000 miles on her, I got a call asking me to take two senior pugs. Their names were Butchie and Blair.

Butchie and Blair were fawn pugs, 10 and 12 years old respectively. They were atypical of the pugs we normally rescued in almost every way. They had never seen the inside of a puppymill. They had been well-loved and had had excellent care since they were puppies. They were social and housetrained, for crying out loud. Why were they here?

Their owners had a baby. And the baby was having severe allergic reactions - not little sniffles, but the kind where the trachea can actually swell up and impede breathing. Allergy testing had brought the worst news home.

"I did not want it to be them," she said. "Anything but them." Of course, it was them.,

Butchie and Blair's owners sobbed when they met me for the drop-off. They were a rare gem of a couple who, I think, would have donated one arm apiece to be able to keep their pugs. They brought a huge tub of clothing of every kind: Harnesses, leashes, t-shirts, sweaters, shampoo, vitamins, toys and Halloween costumes. 

Butchie and Blair also had their own carseats. Their owners carefully strapped them into the van and showed me how to secure them using the seatbelt, and how to attach their own smaller seatbelts to their harnesses. 

I felt like a cab driver. Blair, a one-eyed grand dame, sat directly behind me and mostly slept on the way home. Butchie was another story.

In the carseat directly behind the empty passenger seat in the van, Butchie was 100% alert. He did not bark. He made no attempt to leave his seat. But his eyes were wide open and they missed nothing.

As I drove, I felt those eyes boring into my back. I would turn around and see Butchie sitting there, staring directly at the back of my head.  Another few miles, I'd look back to check. There he was, in the same position, staring unblinking at the back of my head. All the way home from St Louis, Butchie never moved, and he never let me forget he was watching me. He was not frightened, nor did he seem upset. Just puzzled...curious. Perhaps a bit judgmental, as if he wanted to be sure I was competent to chauffer the two of them. I can picture it still, as clearly as if it were a week that had passed rather than a decade.

Butchie and Blair proved to be wonderful pugs. Both were lovable and adaptable. It was, I think, a tribute to their upbringing that they held no fear of anything. They both fully expected to be loved and catered to - nothing more. In due time, a friend of a friend offered to foster them. Bobbie owned a little country shop where she sold produce and wine. Butchie and Blair went to work with her, where they proved to be capable ambassadors and quickly won a following. Bobbie said many folks commented favorably on the necklaces with St. Francis medals I had made for them, and these later became a trademark of our rescue. To no one's surprise, a kind lady fell in love with Butchie and Blair. She adopted them together, and their lives continued in grand style, uninterrupted.From rescue home, to foster home, to forever home, Butchie and Blair's special carseats went right along with them. 

I liked the carseats, and noted how the pugs seemed to enjoy sitting at window height. So I bought some for the rescued pugs, too. Many other pugs had ridden in these over the passing years, but they all owed their comfort to Butchie and Blair. So funny, I thought, the things I remembered just cleaning out a broken-down old van.

As I reached in to remove the second carseat and store it in the shed, I gasped! In the seat was a bright-eyed little pug, eying me quizzically. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?", they seemed to ask.

In a blink, he was gone. Butchie was not there in the old van. He and his sister had gone to the Rainbow Bridge years ago. There was nothing there anymore but memories.

The van was empty. It was getting dark. Time to call it a day.

I turned toward the house, away from the past and toward an uncertain future.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Something Amazing Is Happening On Facebook

Something amazing is happening on Facebook.

It all started one week ago with a simple post made to our Facebook page. The post read:
"Bad, bad news...the rescue transport van broke down on Sunday and it looks like the transmission is gone. Replacement cost for a 1999 Ford Windstar is prohibitive. This may be the straw that broke the camel's back..."

At the time, I was despondent. Things had been going so well...adoptions were picking up, we were catching up on the bills, now this. I thought, maybe it is a sign that my rescue days are over.

My friend and former adopter, Peggy, offered to try to start a fundraiser to repair or replace the van, but I said no. It's one thing to ask for funds for the dogs but something else, I felt, to ask for money for a vehicle.

I guess Peggy didn't see it that way.

That evening, the strangest thing happened: I started gets emails from pugs. The pugs were named Frankie and Moosey. I later learned that Moosey, who lives in England, was the ringleader. The emails were in the cutest language and, well, I LOVE pugs so I could not resist following their posts and answering them. It seemed something was going on behind my back. As I followed the emails, I saw postings for an online auction.

The phone rang. It was Peggy.

"Melanie have you looked at the auction site?", she asked. I had not. "You need to go there. There are over 200 people on it already." 

The folks on the auction site were emailing each other, emailing other human friends, and other four-legged friends who all had Facebook accounts. They were posting items to help us get back on the road. Some I knew, many I did not. Lots of the participants were former adopters, which struck so deep a chord I just blubbered. I had never witnessed anything so awesome. Maybe, I thought, my interpretation of events had been premature.

Since then, I have spent literally days in tears. "Overwhelmed" is the word that most frequently comes to mind, but even that does not describe how I feel. 

Hundred of peoplehave donated items. Many people have made direct donations to help us. Those who could not, offered prayers and kind words of support. As Wayne and Garth would say, we are not worthy.

My friend, Sutton, who is a Native American shaman, helped me put it in perspective. "This is done out of love. You should accept it the same way."

It's not easy for rescue people to  feel deserving. To paraphrase a line from Annie Hall, "If there's one guy starving somewhere in the world, it puts a cramp on my evening".  That's how we feel about animals. No matter how much we do, we always feel we've fallen short. Our little rescue is no more deserving than a thousand other rescues out there fighting the good fight every single day.

In my 16 years of rescue, I have been to puppymills and dog auctions. Tiny rural  shelters where no one cared about the animals in them, and others whose workers seemed to perform miracles with almost nothing. I've met the absolute worst of the human race. But I can also say I've met the best. Over 500 of them are here tonight.

Now, it's the eve of the auction's start, and I want everyone to know something. 

No matter what happens, you have given me hope. I will never, NEVER forget this.

In every dog I pick up from the side of the road, every blind, 10y/o pug I take in when no one else will, every old, sick or injured animal who finds respite in this rescue from today forward, there will be a part of you. You will be there beside me. That animal's safety will not be because of one person, but because of 500-plus people. 

I'll never feel alone again. You are the finest, all of you.

Thank you.
Thank you, thank you...


Sunday, August 14, 2011


The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows looked lovely. Blue skies, green grass – such a peaceful place. A heat wave was keeping most folks indoors, but that was to be expected. Not much anyone could do except keep cool and tough it out. It was a mostly uneventful Wednesday and a routine scan of the area was going well, when suddenly God spotted a problem.

Francis!” shouted God. “Do you see what I see?”

A monkish fellow in brown robes peered over the clouds in the direction of God’s finger. “Si”, he replied, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “That no look good.“

Do we have anyone we can send?” asked God, flipping through radio stations.

Francis’ sharp eyes quickly settled on an older beaten-up mini-van chugging dutifully along in the right direction. “Good luck is with us!,” he answered brightly. “We do!”

Send ‘em over,” replied God. “Five more minutes and that dog’ll be toast.”

I had left work ten minutes earlier and was driving down 15 on my way to the vet’s office in St Louis. I was looking about a half-mile ahead to size up the rush hour traffic. To my surprise, I saw a young deer standing at the edge of the highway near my exit. My stomach immediately knotted. The animal was clearly considering trying to cross. As I got closer I could see it was no deer at all. It was a big dog in grave danger.

Highway 15 is a four-lane. In the center of this section is a tall median. I envisioned the dog running across the first two lanes only to hit the wall of that median and have to turn back. By that time, the traffic would be on him.

I slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder. The dog turned away and ran about twenty feet, far enough to observe, but no further. As I got out, the sweat immediately began to pour down my face, stinging my eyes. It felt like a sauna. The air was heavy, the humidity oppressive.

The dog stood in the big green sphere between the highway and the ramp circling upward to 255. There were no houses anywhere along here, only the Flying J, and I wondered how he managed to get himself into such a predicament. He was drooling and panting rapidly – not good signs. He stood there looking at me, not about to come closer. He was big. It was a bit intimidating for someone accustomed to small dogs, but when his eyes met mine and held my gaze, I saw something there. I walked toward him, speaking in a soft, calm voice, hoping he would not run. As I edged closer, his tail wagged tentatively. He gently sniffed my outstretched hand and allowed me to scratch his head. Coaxing him along, I placed one arm around his shoulders. Walking back toward the van, he stayed right beside me. When the hatch opened, he jumped in and immediately lay down, exhausted. I got in the driver’s seat and, turning the AC up full blast, we hit the highway.

At the vet’s, we picked up Logan and Ruby, a pug and a Brussels Griffon respectively. They sat in the carseat beside the dog from the highway, peering curiously at the new critter in the van. His tail thumped and they touched noses a couple of times before his big head hit the deck again. He looked terrible. I realized he must be suffering from heat exhaustion. Recalling the picture of him standing beside the highway, I wondered how long he had been there baking in the hot sun, and how much longer it would have been before thirst and sickness drove him to try to cross.

At home we discovered he was actually a she, a big Lab mix about a year old. We called her Rosie, in honor of a dear friend who’d recently had surgery and was in the midst of a painful and difficult recovery.

An attempt at a cool bath ended with me hanging onto one foreleg while Rosie clambered out of the bathtub. This dog was definitely a pacifist. If she would have bitten anyone, it would have been me as I hung on her foreleg in a futile attempt to keep her in the water.

“Ok, you win,” I said, ruffling her ears. “We'll call the groomer in the morning.”

Although the bath had been a failure, I managed to get her fairly wet. She collapsed on the floor of my bedroom and I set two fans blowing directly on her. We had to get her temperature down. Eventually the panting slowed and Rosie fell asleep there under the cool air.

The next day, the groomer and I relieved Rosie of at least 50 ticks. The groomer, being a pro, was able to finish the bath and brushing I had clumsily started. Rosie had no tags or even a collar, nor was she microchipped. She was underweight, but not starving - someone had at least been feeding her. All in all, she appeared healthy. On the way home from the grooming shop, I picked up a bucket of chicken for dinner and sat it on the stove while I showered. When I returned to the kitchen, the empty bucket lay in the center of the kitchen floor. I looked at the only dog in the room tall enough to have reached it. There would be no repercussions. What could I say? I'd have done the same thing.

Knowing we now had a counter surfer, all food went into the empty oven or into cabinets. Funny, I thought. I had not heard a sound from anyone while they were feasting on the Colonel – no barks, no growls or skirmishes. I realized Rosie must have shared and I had to smile.

Rosie was housetrained, but knew no commands. The first two she learned were “SIT” and “OFF”. She followed the pugs everywhere. If one of the small dogs growled or barked at her, she simply looked at them curiously. One day, I turned around to see her crawling through the 12” pet door. Rosie adapted.

Except for her coloring, and her eyes being a tad smaller, she looked exactly like my heart dog, Malachi, who had died in 1998. Malachi had been a big, handsome yellow Lab. I still thought about him and missed him almost daily. He and Rosie shared a rare and beautiful trait: The gentlest of hearts. My roommate, Kevin, and I watched as Rosie played on the floor with 18 month-old Logan, a vision-impaired black pug. She put his whole head in her mouth, and released him without a scratch. Logan immediately wrapped both paws around her huge muzzle, tail wagging furiously. Maybe having a big dog around again would not be such a bad thing, I thought.

“I'll be glad when we find a foster for her, “said Kevin. “She'll make someone a really good dog.”

I kept my eyes on the dogs on the floor, poker-faced, aware that Kevin was watching for my reaction.

“Then again,” he said, “she really doesn't have to go anywhere”.

Stopping for her was a good decision, I thought silently. I tried to remember that moment. Had I made a conscious decision at all, had I? I didn't think so. Nope, just pulled right over the minute I got close to her, just like Rosie was a magnet and the van her direct target.

Rosie stood up, walked over and nudged my hand for a head scratch. Yep, I thought. Funny how things fall into place.

God looked down and smiled.

Nice job, Francis. That worked out perfectly.”

The monkish man nodded, his hand stroking the head of a large yellow dog.

I thought it might,” he answered.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Hawkeye Goes Home

Hawkeye was born at my house. In fact, I literally pulled him from his mother, Beverly, tore open the sac and cut the umbilical cord. I’m not much for puppies as a rule, but he was the exception. 
Born March 25th to a mother who had lost all three of her other pups, it was touch and go with this one for the first few days. I said an earnest prayer (“Please, can’t I just have this ONE?”). God was good. Hawkeye lived.

Initially, he was referred to only as “the puppy”. I refused him any other moniker thinking he might fade and die at any moment just like his siblings had. When I felt sure I could trust him to stick around, I chose a favorite character from “The Last of the Mohicans” for his namesake. Every step of his development was scrutinized. His eyes opened at 10 days. A week or so later, we realized he was actually starting to see us. Before we knew it he was walking – stumbling, really. The one day, he began to run, a feat he accomplished with great enthusiasm and zero grace. It was a sight that made us roar with laughter! Our houseful of old puppymill girls doted on the sole youngster in their midst. Hawkeye was constantly being washed or diapered, or dozing dreamily between the paws of any of a dozen adult pugs in the rescue house. Our old man, Angus, quickly became a favorite playmate and role model. Having a puppy around seemed to put some extra bounce in Angus’ steps; he was endlessly patient, like a doting grandfather.

I can’t imagine any puppy ever having a happier life. Little Hawkeye was swimming in love and acceptance everywhere he turned.

I began to think about keeping him forever.

I have always had a rule about puppies: No keeping them. Everybody wants puppies, there’s no reason to keep them. The fees they generate help provide medical care for the sad old mill survivors with their bad skin, tumors and rotten teeth. Puppies deserve to be the center of attention and part of a real family, rather than tossed into the continual flux of a rescue house. Yet, the bond I felt with little Hawkeye was so strong…

We rarely see puppies in rescue, and I knew that was part of the problem. Getting a puppy in rescue is like finding a gold coin in the dirt – it just never happens and, when it does, it generates a lot of excitement. We cannot keep every dog or puppy who comes into rescue, of course. Most of us who operate rescues end up keeping the unadoptables…the unhousetrainables, the blind, the elderly…pugs more like Vincent.

Vincent – aka Vinnie Bamboose – still howls at night on occasion. Vinnie has one ear – the other has a tiny opening that must be cleaned regularly. His paws are stubby little clumps, deformed by years on wire cage floors and recurring infections. Vinnie is pigeon-toed – he has a comical walk that I find endearing. He has three teeth. He looks at me with big, liquid eyes and I see trust there. That trust was not the casual trust of a puppy who has never known cruelty. Vinnie’s trust was hard-won, the bond between us all the more precious because of it…my regard for him higher because I’ll never understand where he found the courage to give it.

The day soon came when I had to make a decision. With a mixture of hope and loss, and the certainty that I was doing a proper job of rescue even if it hurt, I sent Hawkeye home with the most wonderful young family he ever could've hoped to have. I have to admit, I miss him a lot. But his new mom is my Facebook friend, so I get to see pictures of him as he grows. He has a pug brother, and is obviously very loved and very happy.

Every night when I go to bed, Vinnie Bamboose comes into my room to be lifted and sat beside me. If I'm lucky, I get one small kiss, am allowed to scratch his bony head and clean the deformed whisper of an ear. He never stays. Vincent has a post on the raised dog bed next to the TV in the living room, where he guards us against intruders. Vinnie takes this job very seriously. But we still share our special time together each evening and I know that when I wake in the morning and look over the side of my bed, Vinnie will be standing there. His tail will wag a bit. Sometimes he even plays. And if I’m not up by 6:15am, I’ll soon hear him howling. Vincent has achieved a level of safety and comfort here that he might never recover were he to start from scratch somewhere else. “Who needs a puppy?” I ask. I wrap my arms around him, give him a gentle hug and kiss his nose, which makes him squirm. He knows the answer to the question hovering between us, and now so do I.

Vinnie stays.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I know, I've been unusually quiet lately. I often tell people that I know I was a bear in a former life because I do my best to hibernate every Winter. I don't do cold well. Heat is even worse. I am an Autumn person - October is my favorite month.

My fellow midwestern rescuers will know exactly what I mean when I say we're all keeping very busy just stepping up to the plate after the passing of Prop B in Missouri. We wanted it, we got it. Now it's time to pony up. So when the call came from a Missouri Ozark rescue asking me to take three pugs, I didn't bother to ask any questions. I simply said "yes". A few nights later I picked up three eight and nine-year-old male pugs fresh from the puppymill at a gas station in O'Fallon, Illinois. I noticed one of them was missing an ear, and we named him after that famous Dutch painter with a similar affect. Vinnie, for short.

Vinnie had clearly not had a wonderful life. Aside from the missing ear flap, I counted four suspect growths on him: one on his side, one on his haunch, and two large, saucer-shaped crusty spots on his abdomen that I was sure were MAST tumors. One foreleg looked a bit crooked and larger than the other, possibly an indication of an earlier break and resultant osteoarthritis. I could not tell whether the missing ear was congenital or the result of cage aggression. When I fed him, I noticed he tossed his head to throw the kibble to one side of his mouth, perhaps avoiding a painful area. I immediately switched him to a soft diet, which he relished! On the bright side, Vinnie had two perfect eyes, rare in pugs, and a sweet disposition toward humans, something that will never cease to amaze me in puppymill survivors.

New rescued dogs always suffer through an adjustment period. With surrendered pets, it can be very tough coming into a houseful of strange dogs and strange people. On the other hand, puppymill survivors are about as happy as a dog can be...joyous is a good word for them. My meager home is a BIG step up from the environment they came from. Even the ones who are afraid of humans generally make the adjustment  to near-perfect contentment in just a week or two. 

I could see that Vinnie was different. He liked us well enough. He seemed to know right away our intentions were good - his tail wagged, he even gave us kisses - but he was tense beyond belief! I could sit Vinnie on my lap and his legs would never bend. He couldn't lie down. He'd look at me and those big, liquid eyes would dart everywhere as if he expected the dreaded puggie-eater to pounce on him at any moment.

I quickly discovered that Vinnie's stress worsened at night. Vinnie could not be still for long. Rather than sleep with me, he chose a large raised dog bed in the living room next to the television. There he would hunker down among the pillows and observe the daily goings-on. Next to him I placed a stuffed lamb bigger than Vinnie himself  whom he quickly befriended. This was Vinnie's outpost. He guarded his corner and that stuffed lamb against all comers. If we walked by after dark, Vinnie barked. If he heard something moving down the hallway, he barked. He barked if the furnace kicked on.

When Vinnie finally did surrender to sleep, he would startle awake suddenly emitting the most awful sound I have ever heard from a pug. It was a cross between a howl and a scream, as if he woke in absolute terror. Words cannot describe this sound. If you heard it, you'd think an animal was being skinned alive in the room next to you. The first few nights it happened, I'd get up and move Vinnie from his post in the living room, laying him next to me where I would speak to him in soothing tones, stroke his face, massage his neck - anything I could think of to get him to calm down. I could not imagine what was causing this behavior. Then something made me think of old Pete.

When I was a kid, my grandparents lived on a farm in Bonne Terre, Missouri. They always had lots of animals around. One I remember well was a big old collie named Pete. Every night, Pete would lay on his side on the covered front porch, barking softly, all four legs whisking against the wooden boards beneath him. Grandma always said he was chasing rabbits in his dreams.

Dreams...dogs dream...

Pete chased bunnies in his dreams. What kind of dreams, I wondered, would cause a sweet little pug to wake up screaming?

Vinnie's trip to the vet turned out to be a revelation. The two "MAST tumors" on his underside were actually pools of filth that had dried there. Even after a bath, the vet tech was able to drain a nasty fluid out of them. None of us knew quite what they were but, once emptied, they went away. Beneath Vinnie's absent ear flap was one tiny opening that yielded mountains of crud that persisted for weeks. No wonder, I thought, he did not want me to touch it. After a dental, he was left with four teeth. A soft food lifer, but free of dental pain.

Night after night, Vinnie woke with night terrors. I occasionally gave him benadryl just so we both could get some quality rest. My vet did not quite get it when I inquired about doggie Prozac. Then again, I wasn't sure that was the right thing for Vinnie. His major issue seemed to be anxiety, but doesn't that go hand-in-hand with depression, I wondered? When he stared up at me with those liquid eyes, he may as well have been saying, "Help me". I wanted to, but I wasn't sure how. I decided to do some research into holistic remedies. After days of searching, I suspected I may have something when I came across an all-natural pet product company that sold a palatable powder containing St John's Wort and several other herbs known to have anti-anxiety properties. I had actually heard from a few human friends that St. John's Wort had worked well for them, or for an acquaintance. The product description said not to expect immediate results - very like human anti-depressants, I thought. I ordered two jars, enough for a good month.

For the first five days, there was no change. Then I began to notice subtle differences in Vinnie. In the morning, he appeared in the yard as we all went out for the first potty break of the day. Later, he came into the kitchen with all the other pugs and waited for breakfast. Before, we'd always had to go get him, but here he was, the recipient of lavish praise just for being there! At night, he sometimes failed to bark as we went by. After two weeks, he rarely howled at the furnace anymore.

Then, one evening as I was reading in bed, I felt two paws on the edge beside me. It was Vinnie! He had come down the hallway all on his own and asked to come up onto the bed. I lifted him up and rewarded this courageous act with loads of love and praise! He endured the hugs and kisses for a short time, then wanted back down, whereupon he headed down the hallway with a purpose and right back to the stuffed sheep on his chosen bed in the living room. nevertheless, it was a HUGE step, one that would be repeated nearly every night thereafter.

At this writing, Vinnie rarely wakes up screaming anymore. But he still does it sometimes. Every morning he gets a tablespoon of his holistic medicine mixed into his soft food, along with a chewable glucosamine tablet for the arthritis in his foreleg.

Last night, as I pulled my blanket around me, Vinnie grabbed it and pulled. I pulled back. We had a little game of tug-o-war, the best I've ever played, because it was Vinnie's first. I knew the nightmares haunting our little Dutchman were beginning to recede. The pain and terror that accompanied his arrival are slowly giving way to joy and long overdue mischief!

Vinnie has a very long road ahead of him. We've only passed the first bend. But we seem to be on our way. That's what counts.