This is awkward. Damn, I'm getting too old for this mess.
The tile floor felt cold against my bare legs as I lay there straining to see under the blue plaid couch. I was sure he was under there. I had already checked under the other furniture and I had been very clear with my sons that no one was allowed down in the basement. He couldn't have gotten out. He was just hiding. I was sure of it. I looked behind books on the built-in bookshelves. I looked behind the television. I pulled the crate out and checked behind it. I had admittedly even lifted the crate up to look underneath it. I can't explain why I had taken that step before looking under the furniture. I was a little panicked and I was prepared for the most horrific outcome. I crawled around on the floor looking under chairs and love seats. Why do we have so many freaking love seats?! But, nothing.
So I belly-crawled my way to the blue plaid couch. He must be under this one.
Initially, the cold floor felt refreshing on such a hot summer day, but after laying there for 30 minutes I was beginning to get chilled. And impatient. And hysterical.
"AppleJaaaaaack. Sweet, sweet AppleJaaaaaack."
I was using the softest, sweetest, babiest voice I had, but all I got in return was silence. I cautiously slipped my hand further under the couch anticipating vicious teeth latching on, possibly striking a vein. A trip to the ER. Futile attempts to wash blood stains out of the blue, plaid couch.
"Little AJ JackJack. You can come out sweet, handsome boy. You're safe her sweet AppleJackie JackJack."
When I could see no sign of orange fur under the couch, I cautiously ran my hand along the underside of the couch and felt a lump. I held my hand there for a moment to see if the lump would move. I was sure this was no ordinary lump and I was determined to wait him out until he proved me right. Admittedly, my confidence began to waiver after ten solid minutes of waiting. My shoulder began to ache from holding my arm up at an odd angle to maintain contact with the lump. Everything was silent. I'm not even sure I was still breathing. Then, finally, I felt the lump shift slightly.
"AppleJackie! AJ Jackie JackJack! You're here! You should come out and see me little boy."
I wonder how comforting it is to have some obviously mentally unstable woman blocking your only means of escape and calling you what is clearly not your name. His response told me that it was definitely not comforting.
"Lady, the name is APPLEJACK. Really, its not that hard. And I'm gonna advise you to remove your hand from my safe space. Now."
I could hear him and I didn't want to provoke him. I just wanted to see his beautiful little face and tell him he would be ok. And I wanted to cuddle him. His fluffy orange fur looked awfully cuddly.
"Why did you let him out of his crate?" Megan would ask me later.
"Ummmmmm, cause he told me he wanted out?"
"Really? He told you? The cat told you he wanted out? Sure. Ok."
She was probably right. I was probably a special kind of crazy. I'd brought this gorgeous long-haired cat with the big green eyes home three days ago after his original adopter returned him to us for reasons I didn't fully understand. I had set up a large dog crate and filled it with everything he would need to feel comfortable and draped a large sheet over it to help him feel secure. I'd fed him and cleaned his litter box and almost petted him once. Still, he would sit there, eyes cast downward, cowering behind his litter box. For three days I had tried to coax him into trusting me, but he remained silent and unmoving.
I needed a different approach. Maybe he was feeling trapped in the crate. If I let him out of the crate, he could explore the basement area in peace and start to feel more relaxed. I, in all my genius, thought that having access to a more wide open space might make him feel more secure. I opened his crate, told him he could come out and play, then left him alone to explore. I thought that when I returned to the basement later that night, Applejack would be so grateful to me for freeing him that he would immediately run to me, throw his front paws around my leg, and express his love and adoration for me. Instead, he disappeared. He disappeared into my couch. Not under it, mind you, but actually IN it. He found a hole in the bottom lining and climbed up inside. There was evidence that he would come out of the couch to eat or use the litter box, but never when I was present. He wanted nothing to do with me and all the baby talk in the world wasn't going to change his mind.
So here I was lying on my cold basement floor, freezing, hand tentatively stretched under the couch, talking baby talk to, well, to my couch. It wasn't working and I was feeling like an utter foster failure. And I couldn't remember the last time I’d actually cleaned the floor. I definitely couldn't remember ever cleaning under the couch where my hand was currently resting gingerly upon something not quite sticky, but not quite solid, either. This is my life now. Three years with the local humane society had brought me to this point.
Working from home has allowed me to devote much of my time to animal rescue. When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m a teacher. In truth, I’m more of a glorified cat maid. I spend a large portion of my day filling food dishes, scooping poo out of boxes, and wiping vomit and hairballs up off of the most random of places throughout my house. Seriously, inside of a rolled up yoga mat in the closet? How?
I’d seen the humane society newsletter asking for families to help foster animals. Before that moment, I hadn’t even realized such a thing as animal fostering existed. This sounded like something I must do. My two teenage sons were excited when I told them about this decision. I, too, was excited and eager to get started. What better way to volunteer my time and give back to my community than to spend my free time playing with puppies and cuddling with kittens? The reality of animal fostering isn’t quite so glamorous. Scrubbing poo out of my bedroom rug wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned when I decided to start fostering. But the playing and cuddling is what I was focused on when I decided to begin fostering. I was certain that there would be a lot of playing and a lot of cuddling.
Before we started fostering we had one pet. We had adopted Lobo three years earlier from another humane society when he was eight weeks old. A Rottweiler/English Setter mix, he had grown into ninety pounds of fur and sweetness and joy by the time we brought home our first foster animals. Little did I know how drastically the decision to foster animals would change all of our lives. It all began when I applied for a part-time position working in the office of a local animal rescue group. In the beginning, it involved answering the phone and doing some paperwork a few hours a day. But, as with anyone who dabbles in animal rescue, it quickly pulled me in. I was able to see the new foster animals that came into the rescue and I knew I needed to give it a try.
I started my fostering career with a tiny little kitten that I named Gracie. She was a stray that the board president had found and brought to the humane society office to be the office cat. She was only supposed to stay with me over the weekend because there were no other foster homes available to take her and I didn’t want to leave her in the humane society office alone for two days. But as soon as I brought her into my home, I knew she could never leave. I called the board president to tell her I wanted to adopt Gracie.
“Oh, I knew that days ago.”
“You did? Cause I didn’t know until just now. How could you know before I knew?”
“It was obvious. Just wait. She won’t be your last.”
Foster failure number one. That was a quick one. And so it begins.
I've always talked to animals. I think most people do. Really, don't you? But I couldn't always hear what they had to say. We had always had dogs as I was growing up and as a child I would sit and chat with whatever poor dog was willing to pacify my at the time. Because six-year olds have a lot of thoughts and insights to share. It makes me sad now to think about how much I missed out on, not being able to hear the voices of our wise old German Shepherd, Lucky, my guardian and constant companion as a toddler and young child. Or our high-strung Weimeraner, Marya. The gentle, loping Basset Hound, Stoney. That sweet boy would go out running rabbits every day and on the rare occasion that he actually caught one, he would look completely bewildered. He would just pause and try to work through what just happened. Then he would just let the rabbit go and walk home looking awfully proud of himself. God, what I wouldn't give to have heard what they were all saying.
And my goofy little Lobo. He was my first pet as an adult. A Rottweiler/English Setter mix, my boys and I adopted him as a puppy from a local humane society. We went to the shelter to meet the litter of puppies an animal rescuer had told me about. It was my first experience as adopting and I had this picture in my head of what my perfect dog would look like. We kept focusing on one of the puppies, in particular. She looked like the kind of dog I'd been picturing in my mind. But was we sat on the floor playing with her, we barely even noticed that one small, quiet boy had cuddled up between us until the rescuer pointed it out. She said she was pretty sure he had already chosen us. I looked down at those sweet, brown eyes and fell in love. He just sat their patiently waiting for us to finish playing with his sister so we could take him home. I only wish I could have heard his voice at that time. I would love to have known what he was saying.
This is how it works in animal rescue. Our pets choose us. Of course, there is that other world. That world where people buy pets based purely on breed without giving a second thought to personality or how this pet will fit into their family and lifestyle. Those poor animals often end up in the pound, sitting on death row, because the person that bought them didn't take the time to get to know them, connect with them, understand them before buying them. Without taking that time, there is no commitment. When people buy an animal, it is often easy to give them up without concern for the trauma that the pound brings. On the other hand, when you adopt a pet, you fall in love. You promise them a life of love and safety. I didn't really understand that distinction before getting involved in animal rescue. It wasn't until I had the opportunity to hear the animals' voices. Once you hear their voices, the entire world changes. And it becomes both incredibly tragic and overwhelmingly beautiful.
It doesn't seem to be a gradual process, either, the ability to hear their voices. At least, it wasn't gradual for me. It just happened. I brought home my first foster cat and this new world just opened right up and welcomed me inside. And, oddly enough, I wasn't shocked or surprised by it. It seemed very natural, like I had always belonged there. It wasn't until I was talking to a friend about documenting my experiences that I realized I hadn't always heard their voices. And I had to assure her, as I will assure you now, that I am not crazy. It's not actual voices speaking to me through my dog. Please put the phone down.
No, the voice of an animal is not something you can actually physically hear. It is something you sense. It comes through their eyes and when you look into the eyes of enough animals that are sitting in the pound simply waiting for their turn to die, yet hoping for another chance at life, you begin to hear what they are saying.
The stories I am about to share with you are the few that I have had the honor to hear. Some are sad. Devastating. They have left a lasting mark on my soul that I will never be able to remove. And I honestly wouldn't want to. Some are humorous. There is little in the world more comical than a house full of cats with one poor dog living among them. But with the small exception that they are my interpretations of the stories and voices, they are all very sincere and very real. And I am in love with every single one of them.
Something happens to most people when they walk through their local pound. These are places of overwhelming sadness, especially for those of us that see the depth of love and purity of soul in the eyes of our pets. We know the great range of emotion they are capable of experiencing and the unconditional acceptance and love they are capable of giving. So, I wasn’t really prepared for what I was about to experience my first time going in.
When I walk through the pound now, I see dogs that react to their situation in one of three ways. Some dogs remain positively aloof to the fate they face. They bounce around in their kennel, wagging their tails and smiling happily at any human that walks past. They are not actually aloof, though. They are demonstrating a very cunning survival mechanism. They are fully aware that adoption or rescue is their only chance for survival and so they make every attempt they can to draw the attention of that one person that might save their life. I’ve fostered a few of those.
Some dogs get aggressive, growling and barking, daring someone to come into their kennel and try something. They are the most likely to be euthanized quickly, seemingly vicious and dangerous and unadoptable. They are quickly passed over by the few families that come through looking for a new pet, but most are not vicious at all. They are terrified and demonstrating a less successful survival mechanism. It’s understandable, really. They know what this place is, what happens here. They see it, because quite tragically, animals are often euthanized right there in front of the others. Can you imagine the reaction of human rights activists if we put humans to death that way? (I know some of you are reading this thinking, hey, that’s actually a great idea! Maybe. But that’s not what this book is about.)
These aggressive dogs are not only overlooked by potential adopters, but rescues are reluctant to pull them out of the pound, as well. They represent a significant liability if they are adopted out and then bite someone. So, most of them remain in the pound until their death. Occasionally, though, some make it out and the immediate change in demeanor once they realize they are finally in a safe place is nothing short of miraculous. I’ve fostered a few of those.
The third type of dog has simply given up. They lose hope immediately upon arrival at the pound. Again, they are fully aware of what this place is and they simply lie down in their kennels to die. They don’t lift their heads to greet potential adopters. They don’t bare their teeth to ward off potential death. Some cower in fear at the back of their kennel, but they make no effort to defend themselves. Others just lie there and put up no resistance at all. I’ve fostered a few of those, too.
However, I noticed none of this during my first trip through the pound. I was there in response to a call that told me we had thirty minutes before the pound had to start euthanizing to make space. I got permission from the foster committee to go get my first foster dog and drove straight to the pound. From the outside, the small building is quiet and unassuming with only one small window in front and a large fenced area in back. The parking lot is small, allowing enough space for five or six cars, at best. A few sparse bushes do little to soften the stark white walls. I heard nothing aside from a few cars passing on the road behind me as I approached the front door.
I stood at the front door for a moment trying to steal myself for what I was about to do. This was it. This was my moment. I was going to save a life. There would be magical lights and special angel music following me out of the pound as I led the fragile life out of the building of terror and into the joyous land of freedom. With a final breath of courage, I put on my imaginary cape, and walked confidently into the pound. It was still eerily quiet in the office area. It almost felt like walking into a dentist’s office except for the heavy air of sadness that had settled over the staff. I walked forward and let the woman behind the desk know I was there to save a life.
“You’re here to do what?”
“Uhhhh, pull a dog? I’m here to pull a dog for the humane society. To foster for the humane society. I’m here to pull a dog to foster for the humane society.”
“Oh. Ok. Here’s the list of pen numbers scheduled to be put down in ten minutes. Do you need me to go with you?”
Not wanting to look like a baby my first time through the pound, I assured the worker that I would be fine.
“Ok, hun. Just let me know which one you want.”
Yep. I can do this. I can totally do this. I was going to save a life. This was going to be a great experience. I took the list of pen numbers for the dogs set to be put down and walked through the door that led from the office area to the hallway. I stood for a moment looking at two doors, one to my left and one to my right. There was a third open door behind my right shoulder and I could see from where I was standing that it was filled with cat cages. The bulletin board in front of me held photos of lost pets, dozens of them. I looked to my left at the sign on the door labeled “A-Side,” took another breath, and walked through. Immediately the kennel area came to life. Dogs that were sitting mutely in their kennels suddenly began barking, howling, growling, crying, and jumping up on the kennel doors to see who I was. I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand. Nine dogs were on the list and all would be euthanized in the next ten minutes. I only had room for one. I stared down a row of fifteen kennels until the din overwhelmed me. This wasn’t great. It was the opposite of great. It sucked. It completely sucked. I took hesitant steps down the first row of kennels thinking, “They’re all freaking adorable! How am I supposed to pick just ONE???” Then it dawned on me. I wasn’t swooping in to save a life like some super hero. I was deciding which one gets to live and which ones have to die. This wasn’t cool. This so wasn’t cool. I needed to regroup. I walked back out, stood dumbly by the door, and tried to talk myself through the process.
“Just walk through and don’t make eye contact with any of them. Wait. I have to make eye contact. That’s how I’ll know which one to save. Ok, so make eye contact, but don’t pet any of them. Buuuuut, how will I know whether or not it will try to eat my face off when I come near it if I don’t try to pet it? Fine. Ok, so make eye contact and pet a few of them. Just don’t think about what you’re doing. Yeah. Yeah, that sounds like an excellent idea. Don’t put any actual thought into which dog you’re going to pull from the pound to foster and get adopted. Genius. Pure genius.”
I can’t really explain how I shut my emotions off or why it worked, but I was eventually able to walk through each row of kennels and interact with each dog on the list without emotionally processing what I was seeing. In my mind I was just walking through a building full of adoptable animals. I stopped and talked to each one, giving head scratches or kissy faces, not entirely certain of what I was looking for. I was so new to animal rescue that I had no idea what made one dog more adoptable than another. I didn’t know what criteria other rescuers used to decide which dogs to pull. I was going with my gut. I assumed that when I saw the dog I was supposed to pull, I would know.
And suddenly there he was.
He was probably the least adoptable dog there. He was not a cute little designer breed or a unique larger breed. He was a little odd-looking and at first glance there was nothing particularly special about him. He was definitely some sort of Beagle mix, but it was hard to say what he as mixed with. He had long, skinny legs and mismatched whiskers. But he was the one who pleaded with me the most to save him. As soon as I approached his kennel, he stood up on his hind legs, wagged his tail in anticipation, and said, “Oh good, you’re here. I was beginning to worry that no one was coming for me.”
That was enough for me. Decision made. I went back out to the front desk and announced that I was saving the dog in Pen 21.
“Which one, sweetie? There are two dogs in pen 21. They came in together.”
“Oh, yeah, um the one with the expressive eyes pleading for a chance to achieve his unfulfilled dreams.”
“Ooooookay. So, the brown one or the white one?”
“Um, brown. The brown one.”
The pound worker pulled out the paperwork and wrote the name “Buster” at the top of a piece of paper then began filling in boxes. Beagle mix. Two plus years old. Intact. Then she slid the paper around and handed me a pen. I signed the Transfer Authorization, stuck the copy she handed me in my pocket, and prepared my best nurturing voice for this fragile dog they were about to bring out to me. Buster walked out only slightly reluctant to go home with a stranger. He required no coaxing to get him to the car. He may have been confused about who I was, but he seemed very clear on one fact – he was leaving the pound for a better life. I didn’t really need my best nurturing voice for him yet. He was going to be just fine.
I’m sure the foster committee was exasperated with me when I told them I’d chosen the odd-looking Beagle mix who was neither house trained nor neutered, had no medical records despite being surrendered by his owner, and who was very intimidated by men. His whiskers were black on one side and white on the other. His legs were a little too long for his body. And he cried like someone was gutting him anytime another dog wandered near. But adoptable or not, he was not going to die that day.
I should point out that Buster had been dumped at the pound, along with another dog, by his person after a reportedly ugly divorce. While the other dog was clearly not a littermate of Buster’s, I still refer to him as Buster’s brother. They had grown up together and had likely cuddled together while chained outside during severe weather or cowered together at the hands of an angry owner. I cannot say for certain that this is what happened. I can surmise it based on the behaviors that Buster exhibited during the time I fostered him. I didn’t save Buster’s brother that day and I did not ask whether or not he made it out of the pound after I left. In my heart I know that he didn’t and I failed in several areas that day. I left Buster’s sweet brother behind to die and because Buster was kenneled together with his brother, I didn’t even free up space for the pound to avoid euthanizing. My first attempt at saving lives and I failed in all respects but one. I saved one life worth saving, one rather unadoptable life.
I brought Buster home and after he finished his five days of mandatory quarantine in my basement, I slowly introduced him to Lobo, hoping for the best. I hadn’t actually considered this part of fostering, that my dog may not like having random new additions move into the house. I really went into it figuring I would adjust to an extra being in the house and so would everyone else. That was reasonable, right?
Well, probably not. But luckily my first adventures in fostering found the other beings in my house to be exceptionally welcoming to the new additions. I suppose “exceptionally welcoming” may be an exaggeration. Gracie was less than impressed by the idea of having another dog in the house, but she handled it. She didn’t complain. In fact, she was completely quiet about it. She simply avoided Buster.
Lobo, however, appeared excited and eager to embrace his new foster brother. His best friend, Rocky, lives across the street and visits regularly to play outside. But since Gracie came to live with us, Rocky is no longer allowed inside the house. And really, blaming Gracie for that new rule probably isn’t fair. Rocky and Lobo each weigh a good ninety pounds. That’s a lot of dog to have running wide open through my rather small house. It was fine when they were younger and smaller, but my nerves simply can’t handle it anymore. So, now we tell Rocky that he can’t come in and we blame it on Gracie. She doesn’t care.
I brought Lobo down to the basement and let Buster out of his crate. They sniffed each other in greeting and then Lobo looked at me and said, “Sooooo, what? He lives here now? Just like that?”
“Yes, Lobo. Buster is living with us until he finds his forever family.”
Lobo looked at Buster. “Dude, you’re lost? How can you not have a family? Everyone has a family.”
Buster’s response, “Uhhh, I gotta pee.” And with that, Buster lifted his leg on the closest wall and had at it. Ok, so this wasn’t going to be as easy and glamorous as I imagined. After I finished shrieking and Buster finished running through the rest of the basement in terror while still peeing, I took him outside and explained that we pee outside, not inside. He looked at me with a blank stare and said, “OK. Uhhhh, where’s the food?” Fine. It would just take patience and clear guidance. I could do this.
I spent the next two months picking poo up off my cheap bedroom carpet and scrubbing pee off of my living room walls. I kept Buster crated when I had to go to the store and I kept him on a regular food and potty schedule. And eventually I was cleaning up poo and pee less and less. Still, Buster didn’t like to be crated. After several nights listening to his bone-chilling howls drift up through the basement door, my youngest son moved Buster’s crate into his room, thinking it would help him sleep better at night being in the room with him. But Buster cared little about who was in the room with him. When he was in his crate, he would have what can only be described as a doggy conniption. He would flip around inside of the crate until the crate would bounce against the wall. He would then start scooting the bottom of the crate across the carpeted floor until it snagged and ripped away from the floor. Throughout all of this he would be yowling at top volume, nails scratching against the crate tray.
Within a few days, we had given up the crate altogether and Buster was sleeping in my room. On my bed. Under my covers. He cuddled up as close to me as possible and snored loudly through the night. He was always reluctant to get up in the morning, but quickly fell into routine when he learned that early risers get morning treats.
Then there was the running. Buster was a Beagle. Beagles like to run. On more than one occasion Buster slipped out of his collar or through the front door, caught a scent, and took off. So off I’d go after him, commanding him to stop. Eventually my commanding turned into begging, maybe some crying. Groveling. Obscenities. Usually, during these chases, I was only partially dressed and almost always without shoes. So here I would be, running down the road in my bathrobe, barefoot, and begging at the top of my lungs for this adorable little Beagle to PLEASE STOP RUNNING!
Eventually Buster would find a random tree that he needed to mark, allowing me just enough time to catch up with him. I would pick him up and carry him back home. “Hey, lady. That was a nice morning run, wasn’t it? Uhhhhh, why are your feet bleeding like that?”
I couldn’t stay mad at him. He was just too cute, in a goofy, not-shaped-quite right kind of way. But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was unlikely to get adopted anytime soon.
He peed all over my house. He cowered in the bathroom when it stormed. He trembled when people approached him. He howled loudly on walks when he caught a scent. And he ran more than once when he managed to slip out the door. He was untrusting of everyone and impossible to keep contained without double-leashing.
But Buster also looked at me gratefully every day knowing that he had been saved. He cuddled close to me on the couch in the evenings. He played gleefully with whatever animal would tolerate him. And he slowly learned that we do not pee on momma’s carpet. He cuddled with me at night and traveled to work with me daily where he patiently allowed the office cat, Cassie, to cuddle with him on the floor. He was quickly playing his way into my heart and still, I doubted he would ever be adopted. When people call looking for a new pet, they’re looking for Chihuahuas and Poodles. When I took Buster to adoption events, he was terrified by the sounds and people surrounding him, so much so that I would have to sit on the ground so he could curl up in my lap to be comforted. There was nothing overtly adoptable about this dog. His specialness was in his soul and you had to look into his eyes to see that.
Then one day I received a call asking if we had any Beagles available for adoption. It was an unexpected call just before Thanksgiving and though the family was looking for a pure-bred Beagle, I suggested they meet my Beagle mix named Buster. I assured them that if they would only meet him in the calm and quiet of their home, they would fall in love. Buster and I eagerly visited the home of this wonderful family with three children and a fenced yard where he would be allowed on the furniture and be at no loss for playmates. They fell in love with my baby boy. And he seemed to enjoy being surrounded by little ones. He found his forever home. And I cried uncontrollably on the way home to mine.
But the addiction was set. I needed to save another life. And I needed to start keeping a box of tissues in my car. Dammit.