People suck. OK; that’s not entirely true; I’m just feeling a little misanthropic. That’s because I’m sitting at a sports bar nursing a beer, having just returned from the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter. Allow me a moment to provide some context.
Two weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Karoline at Rudy’s BAR-B-Q in Round Rock. She had taken the morning off to pick up some furniture at the Ikea there and invited me to lunch. I’ve known her for more than 15 years. We’ve seen each other through a divorce and two marriages each. I’ve worked with her, for her, and near her, and although I’m three or four years her senior, she’s like a big sister to me.
She frequently offers sage advice and tells me when I’m wrong (sometimes with significant verbal force), but always with the back-drop of the maternal nurturing I never received as a child but always craved. It’s therefore unusual that I have the opportunity to offer advice to her.
She was talking about her weekend getaway to Dallas with her husband Dan while I worked on my brisket sandwich. And then an unusual lull in the conversation pressed itself upon us.
I raised my head and saw her looking up and to the left, with glassy eyes. “K? What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” she whispered quietly. “What?” She turned to me and with a haunting sadness in her voice said “I was just thinking about Tater.” Tater was a Jack Russell Terrier she had raised from a puppy and who found her way to Rainbow Bridge the day before New Year’s Eve 2011.
This was Karoline’s first experience with losing a family member, which—if you’re a dog lover—is exactly how it feels. I attempted to assuage her grief: “You know K, you’re going to feel this way less and less often and each bout will be less intense over time, but in the meantime what you’re feeling is normal.” Soberly she replied “I know.”
I continued: “You gave Tater a very long, happy life. The average life span of a canine is only about three or four years in the wild. They endure the harsh elements of weather, hunger, and predatory attacks. You not only gave her a very long life, you gave her a really good life. In return she gave you a life of loving companionship.”
She responded with a gentle thank you and we moved on to another topic.
Fast forward one week to last Thursday. I received a text message from her. “Got a lead on a rescue Jack Russell at the Williamson County shelter, very unusual. Heading over Saturday. Want to join us?” A truly awesome compromise. She found a potential companion that suited her and it was a rescue dog. Brimming with excitement I replied “You bet!”
What happened next falls squarely in the category of feast or famine. The following day she got a lead on two rescue puppies—something as rare as platinum. So now she’ll not only have the breed she wants and the opportunity to effect a rescue, they’re also puppies; exactly what she wanted, rendering a trip to the animal shelter unnecessary.
Later that afternoon, someone posted a heartwrenching video on FaceBook, which documented the rescue of two dogs living in a landfill foraging for food and water among the filth. Now here’s the thing: I can’t get crap like this out of my mind. It gets stuck up there and I can’t seem to exorcise it, which is reason #25 why I drink. Compulsively, I began researching the Williamson County shelter Web site.
All weekend that video and the shelter remained on my mind—so Monday I arranged a visit to the shelter with the director Cheryl Schneider. Some time ago I visited the Austin Humane Society where my friend Fran volunteers every Saturday just to see what he did exactly. His experience of walking dogs and training other volunteers is truly a labor of love, but it didn’t satisfy my desire to understand what we (humans) are doing for strays more generally. I hoped my trip to the WilCo shelter would set my mind at ease.
I entered the shelter and saw a woman in an office around the corner to my right. “You must be Guy.” she said. “And you must be Cheryl.” I replied. “Yes, and this is Daisie.” she offered, gesturing to her foster dog, who was dropped off after the owner adopted her and then decided she was too much trouble. She was a German Shepherd mix with a very sweet disposition who stuck by us through the entire tour. Daisie’s insecurity was palpable as she stared up at Cheryl each time we made a stop.
We paused briefly by the operating room to see a vet who was about to spay two kittens. She then showed me the isolation rooms, including one that was specifically designated for rabies observation.
Finally, there were all the housing kennels. We walked by kennel after kennel of dogs who had either been dropped off by disaffected owners or picked up as strays and placed here with the hope that the shelter could find them homes. I read the names: Chuck, a quiet Pit Bull, a Black Lab named Onyx, and a beautiful German Shepherd named Geneva. As we passed each one, they made eye contact. Some, like Onyx, would jump up and beg for affection. Others, like Chuck, just sat quietly and asked to be held with a longing look.
We both offered a single finger through the cage and let them lick the digit that offered the only human contact they would receive that day—contact they were genetically programmed to crave. The one exception was Geneva. She just laid there gazing up at us casually with a distant look in her eyes.
As we left the room Cheryl said “The most common reason for euthanizing these animals is aggression toward humans or other animals. That’s why Geneva is here.”
“Really? She attacked another dog?”
“No; she bit someone.”
“Was she abused?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. We don’t know her history.”
“Do you think you’ll have to—I mean will you; is she going to make it?” I asked, as a painful lump formed in my throat.
“I don’t know.” was all Cheryl would offer.
Here’s the thing. I’m thinking as I sit here drinking beer and craving whiskey because of what I saw at the shelter and what I heard from Cheryl, that we invented these creatures. Breeds have been created for their appearance, their speed, their ability to herd, and for their disposition—and that last one is huge. We bred them above all for companionship, which means that being with, spoken to, and touched by a human is hard-wired into their DNA. And yet we do this to them.
We decide it’s just too much trouble to support a creature whose only crime is loving us unconditionally. And then we lock them away in a cage, and make it someone else’s problem. Yeah. Some people really do suck, but some people make up for those folks by donating the only thing any of us really own: their time.
Here’s to Fran, Cheryl and anyone else out there who redeem the rest of us with selfless acts of kindness. You really do make the world a better place, and you are truly a dog’s best friend.