There’s a lot of terminology and abbreviations and lingo and acronyms that are used in shelters. There are frequently used words entered into the computer every time we get a new face. Words like transport, surrender, stray, and seized. But this one word always carried the most weight for me:
It’s a word we use every day when we come home from a vacation, or from the office, or to our former selves. It’s a word used when making a phone call or doing a favor. It’s also used to describe something not wanted or something you’re unable to keep.
Things that are uncomplicated and painless to return:
- shoes that are too tight
- the wrong coffee order
- the ugly sweater Uncle Tommy gave you for Christmas
- the unopened pound of jellybeans you impulsively bought at the register
Things that are complicated and painful to return:
- a life
PRIME REAL ESTATE
A lot of people come in looking for an “apartment dog” under twenty-five pounds that can fit comfortably in their rented studio apartment in the concrete jungle.
A couple walked in today ready to fall in love.
The wife beelined it to Sam, a 95-pound Shepherd/Lab mix who is in his twilight years and just wants to retire to an empty lap.
“We don’t have a big place,” the husband reminded her and confessed to me.
I asked, “Is it bigger than this cage?”
FIRST WEEK AS RECEPTIONIST
Intake a cat that was returned because he “didn’t meow enough.”
Intake a cat that was returned because she “meowed too much.”
Politely explained to a caller that her kitty litter donation was not a kitty litter donation. “Ma’am, a litter of cats is not the cat litter we meant.”
Less politely explained to a caller who wanted to “donate their dog” that they were not doing us a favor.
Turned away a concerned couple who handed me seven ducklings that they found at their local pond and put in a shoebox and drove to us to get adopted.
Recovered from Monday through Friday.
Made a list of all the awesome people I know who don’t make me want to bang my head repeatedly against a brick wall.
One of my favorite coworkers was a huge fan of Boxers. She loved all breeds (mutts included) but her heart belonged to those brindle-masked faces with their signature white blaze stretching from their muzzle to between their big, curiously soft eyes. Let’s call her “I Love Boxers.”
A frantic woman had called to see if we would take her Boxer without an official appointment and without our surrender fee. “I Love Boxers” kindly offered to use her hour lunch break as a meet up in our parking lot because No Boxer Gets Left Behind.
It was a snowy rainy afternoon with dark skies. “I Love Boxers” sat in her Jeep for an hour without lunch, with the heat on and the windshield wipers going and stared at her cell phone waiting to get a text or a call that the woman and her Boxer had arrived.
She was headed back in when she saw the Boxer tied to her back bumper, hidden in between the snowfall and her foggy rear window with a note that said:
I am too embarrassed to face you. Thank you for taking him.
RAY IS BACK AGAIN
This is the second time this month he’s been returned.
Ray is a Husky mix who loves mattresses.
Not sleeping on them; eating them.
Sometimes I imagine which TV shows these dogs would star in if they had their own reality series.
Ray would definitely be on an episode of this season’s My Strange Addiction.
LEFT WITH GOOD INTENTION IN THE DONATION SHED:
- an umbrella
- a bra
- an unfinished bottle of vodka
- another bra
- a cat
At 5 pm every dog gets walked once more before bedtime. Then everyone settles down and waits for their goodnight kisses and last-call biscuit.
In order to stay sane, we have fun being creative with each kennel’s “décor.” You’d be amazed how the little things that seem inconsequential can get you through the day. Great thought goes into selecting pieces from The Leaning Tower of Donations in the back.
No buttons. No zippers. No down feathers.
Tonight, I decided Apollo gets a lilac bath towel on top of a lavender sheet with a striped navy/periwinkle blankie.
Ginger got the Lily Pulitzer beach towel with the pink dog bed and the green comforter.
Harley scored the Minnie Mouse sheets that some little girl outgrew with a red comforter and a black and white polka dotted fleece.
Lucy won my dream room of tie dye flannel sheets paired with a paw print quilt and a rainbow plush toy with clouds on both ends that she uses as her pillow.
I’m not working tomorrow so I know that tonight is probably the last time I will ever see some of these beautiful beasts. Come Monday, there will be new faces in their place, piercing my ears and stealing my heart.
While they are in our care, they are our children. As I lock the main door, I hear Michael Caine whisper, “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
THANK YOU, NEXT.
Conducting behavior evaluations is such a nice departure from the mundane tasks and as much fun as it is necessary.
A few of the staff sit in a room to observe the incoming dogs one at a time. We even have a script and a small costume rack. It reads like an acting audition complete with headshots and bios. Once the dog is present, one of us enters cloaked in a trench coat with a hat and a cane. The rest watch closely how the dog reacts, if at all. We bring in fake babies and stuffed animals and just observe, readily prepared for any shift in the energy of the room.
Most of them pass with flying colors and don’t get a callback.
Today was crazy emotional.
A young gentleman stumbled in and tried to tell me something.
Then he abruptly turned around and walked back out.
Then he walked back in and said he needed to surrender his best friend who was waiting in his truck.
“I’m being deployed and don’t have anyone who can take him.”
He filled out the forms and went to get his buddy.
He handed him over to me and right as I was turning the corner, I heard his shaky voice again.
“Is there anything else I can do?”
I turned around.
“Can you leave him with a shirt or something that smells like you?”
As if on command, he pulled his sweater over his head, tossed it to me, and walked out of our lives
I placed the sweater in his boy’s kennel and told him he was loved.
The sweater that smelled of memories.
The sweater that smelled of safety and friendship.
Of sorrow and guilt.
And hope and loss.
Sigh, sigh, Sweater Guy.
Don’t cry, Sweater Guy.
Bye-bye, Sweater Guy
THIS HOLE IS MY HOLE
“What is he guarding?” I asked.
“He’s guarding that hole in the ground,” she replied, having witnessed this before.
The term high-valued item is used a lot in shelters (and prisons) when protecting possessions. You would be highly sensitive to protecting your bone, too, if it’s all you had. I’ve seen this behavior before but never over a hole—literally the absence of something. He would defend this cavity he dug in the dirt like a mama bear would defend her cub. This hollow little ditch he created was his fortune not to be shared.
Everybody needs to know that something belongs to them and that they belong to something. It’s primitive and fundamental and it must be honored.
All life and death is arbitrary.
Hershey was a handsome Pit Bull who spent three years in the shelter undergoing training and boy did he graduate with flying colors. He quickly became one of our favorite long-term residents. Hershey was ready for an adopter who could handle his strength and infinite slobbery kisses. That day finally came on Christmas Eve.
The staff threw a little sheet cake party in the downstairs breakroom in celebration of this Christmas miracle!
Two days later Hershey died on the operating table during surgery to remove a glass ornament he ate off the Christmas tree in his new house. Everyone obviously was devastated and just emotionally deflated.
It was a horrible accident but I am glad that he got the chance to be someone’s pet.
Even if just for two days.
THE TRANSPORT VAN
Imagine waiting for (insert your favorite band here)’s tour bus to arrive in your driveway. Basically, we all stand around like crazed groupies, our arms draped in leashes, waiting for the doors to burst open so we could get right down to the business of falling in love at first sight.
While it’s understood that they are all the cutest, it’s clear we each have “a type”.
I notoriously fall head over heels for the scruffy wall flowers who pee on me out of excitement. The more disheveled, the better. I always seek out the underdog with their coarse fur pointing in every direction, with one ear up and one ear down, and one leg missing. The discount pity puppy that looks like they’re on the Clearance rack.
There’s litter mates and crate mates comprised of puppies and adults coming all the way to New England from Tennessee to start their new lives at our version of Ellis Island.
I can’t imagine the stress and curiosity and fear and joy and delirium and upset stomachs they’re experiencing. As white dust begins to fall out of the sky, we see them witnessing snow for the first time.
I should be filing out all their paperwork, but I can’t stop taking pictures.
Getting bitten unfortunately happens.
Today, Kallie, an Australian Cattle mix redirected and bit Courtney’s ankle.
I cut her jeans open with scissors, grabbed the nearest piece of towel to make a tourniquet, and off to the hospital she went.
She was back an hour later.
She said they took her immediately to the ER because the towel that I grabbed was deep red and the attending staff thought it was a blood-soaked wound.
I’m pretty sure that’s what saved her life.
You’re welcome, Courtney.
That’s how long it took for us to say out loud what we both were thinking.
“You know we’re keeping her,” I threatened.
“Obvi,” he replied.
And that’s how she went from foster to forever and officially became our Miss Mississippi Mable Walnut Mabes the Babes Mabledee Babledee Boop Boop.
A MATTER OF TRUST AND A LITTLE PATIENCE
Outside of Time, I believe Trust is the most valuable of all commodities.
Unlike Father Time, Trust is earned.
Day 1: I meet Nathan, a hound mix who will not make eye contact with anyone here.
Day 2: Nathan’s tail is tucked. Still no eye contact.
Day 5: Nathan’s eyes meet mine for a split second and he breaks contact.
Day 10: Nathan looks at me when I say his name and steps toward me.
Day 16: Nathan lets me pet him.
Day 17: Nathan wags his tail happy to see me. He holds my gaze for more than a split second.
Day 19: Nathan looks at me as if he just met me for the first time.
Day 20: Nathan is my buddy for an hour at the front desk in his crate. He is scared but trying.
Day 21: Nathan looks at me as if he just met me for the first time. Again.
Day 25: Nathan lets me take him on a long walk and flood him with smells, sights, sounds and every day experiences.
Day 29: Nathan lets me pick him up and he sits semi-comfortably on my lap.
My heart is full.
THE ODD COUPLE
Before one of our dogs can get adopted, they must meet the entire potential family and their resident dog. This either goes remarkably well or it ends in tears.
Today a gentleman walked in and wanted to adopt a dog that he hoped was a good fit for his resident cobra. His beloved snake was in his car while I got someone other than me (because I was hiding in the supply closet now) to bring out the dog he was interested in.
“Good luck. Let me know when it’s over,” I yelped through the crack in the door.
Dogs tend to be fascinated by snakes because they look like self-powered toys so my imagination ran away with my anxiety hand in hand down the dark rabbit hole of all the horrific possible outcomes.
All went surprisingly well.
Why can’t we all get along like this?
(According to Chinese zodiac compatibility: Snake and Dog can provide each other with a stable home life and a lot of encouragement. Both can make great friends.)
This stands for ‘Returned to Owner’ and it’s always a joyous reunion.
Dogs get loose sometimes. It happens. We had one dog that would run away from home and make his way to our shelter several times a month. He was an adventurer and he was hilarious. His humans always came right away apologizing and thanking us profusely and often we’d waive the fee because he was only there for thirty minutes. RTO was typed into his profile on the computer.
There was that word again: Returned. But this time it was to a family and not from.
I grab the nearest Sharpie on my desk and scribble on a Post-it that I stick to my computer screen to remind me why we do what we do day after day. Month after month. Year after year. Case after case. For all the lives we saved. For all the lives we lost.
“LOVE GIVEN IS LOVE RETURNED.”
Everybody wants you. There is a list with five peoples’ names on it already waiting to see you. Everyone thinks you’re going home with them. But I know you’re coming home with me.
You are a gorgeous super model of a dog and you come with a back story that makes any decent person want to be a hero and save you. But I’m more qualified than anyone here. I earned you. I know drama comes with trauma and I see you. You can trust me.
“Be aware that she may never show affection,” the adoption councilor warned us.
You were pulled from a hoarding house with 100 dogs, and you look like you’re done with this disappointing life. My dad was a hoarder and I tried for 25 years to help him. I couldn’t. But I can help you.
Here’s what’s going to happen:
We are walking out of here together. We are both going to take our anti-anxiety medication and your fur will grow back and you’ll learn how to be a dog and accept my love and we are going to live happily ever after. Non-negotiable.
(And we did.)