Pilar, the Chihuahua

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESSometimes, something happens that makes me realize why I love the animal sheltering world. Sometimes, something small can happen that makes a big difference.

I was at work, when a couple was at the shelter looking for a Chihuahua. They had a Chihuahua mix with them, and they wanted a companion dog. There is no short supply of Chihuahuas in California shelters, and Best Friends is no exception.

But this couple happened to be looking in particular for a small Chi, one no bigger than the one they had already, capping the weight at around eight pounds. Most Chi mixes are at least ten pounds, and they hadn’t seen anyone they liked yet. The couple was about to leave, ready to look elsewhere or come back another day, when that pesky little lightbulb of inspiration went off in my head, and I asked them to wait a moment.

All shelters (that I know of) have “back rooms” or “inside rooms”. They’re just extra kennels, not open to the public, where animals are held for a number of reasons: they might need a vet exam, or are on hold for a possible owner, or perhaps they have behavioral issues that need to be worked on before they can be put up for adoption. And in many cases, the animals are there simply because they’re waiting for a kennel to open up in the main adoption area.

At Best Friends, there are some inside kennels (although almost all of our adoptable dogs are “out on the floor”), and these are usually dogs that we have just pulled from the city shelters and will go on the floor in the next couple days, as soon as there’s room. They are still adoptable/available animals, but for obvious reasons, we want the animals that have been waiting longer to get adopted before the newer ones.

There were a few Chis back in those kennels, and I decided it might be worth it to see if there was anyone who might fit what the couple was looking for. The only small Chihuahua we had, coming in at a thin six pounds, was a little chocolate and tan female named Pilar.

I took Pilar out and her goofy expression and petite size immediately entranced the couple. She was extremely cute, had a great disposition, and was five-and-a-half years old.

She was bow-legged. After looking through her medical files, it turned out that Pilar had some orthopedic issues that could potentially cost a lot of money down the line. She had been at a city shelter since April, and had lost a lot of weight during that time (probably due to stress). But she kept a sunny disposition despite it all.

For most adopters, a medical issue is a major reason for not taking home an animal. So while I didn’t push the adopters one way or another, I was prepared for a “no”.

However, the couple—who came from an animal rescue family (they had a blind cat, among others)—loved Pilar. The medical issues were a serious concern, but after speaking with our shelter vet, and having a long discussion with each other, they decided to adopt Pilar.

She had a home.

Of course, it is the couple who deserves all the credit for taking on a special dog. But it sparked an appreciative acknowledgement in myself as well. If I hadn’t taken the extra time to check out the dogs available inside and picked out Pilar, this harder-to-adopt Chi could have spent a long time waiting for someone to take her home. Instead, she was with us for just three days.

Moments like these are the most rewarding part of my job. Sometimes, it might seem like the differences we make are small. But then I am reminded of the oft-quoted phrase:

“Saving one animal might not change the world, but for that one animal, their world has surely been changed.”

West Coast Alcohol Cats

I was standing in the corner of a dog kennel with my back turned, as a large, young Boxer jumped up, pummeling my arm, not letting me leave. It was the first day of work at my new job, and I could feel the bruises start. The shaded outdoor dog kennels house around 175 dogs at any given time, includes dozens of breeds (most common are pitties and chihuahuas, but also has huskies, shepherds, labs, beagles, etc.), many of them sweet, wonderful dogs. This particular Boxer was just young and rowdy, not aggressive at all. And he was beating the crap out of me.

As I got out of the kennel, unscathed except for a purpling arm, it was clear that this was going to be very different than my cat days at the ARL in Boston.


Scaredy Cat
Transitioning to a new coast was a very scary prospect for me. I’ve only ever lived in two places my whole life: my parents’ house in New York State, and Boston. And I love Boston. So even though I was eager for the new job, and gaining new experiences, on the inside I was panicking.

I had to remind myself of Pacino, and all the other cats who came to the ARL several times before finally finding the right home. Pacino, when he first arrived at the shelter, was super sweet but super shy. Hiding in everyone’s lap. The second time he came to the shelter, he was still shy, but still sweet. And then the third time he ended back at the shelter, something had changed. He was sweet as ever, but finally over his fear of change. He had been moved around so much, that he was suddenly able to adapt to being in new situations. He strutted the upstairs hallway of the shelter like he owned the place. And finally, he was adopted by the perfect family and became the first cat to a young boy.

I had to be like Pacino. I needed to uproot myself in order to build confidence. If I had stayed in one place, I would have been too comfortable, and in turn too scared to ever go anywhere. As I was panicking about the move, I had to constantly remind myself that it would be good for me, just as it was good for Pacino and other shelter cats like him.

So despite the fear, and with the hope of moving forward in life, I packed everything up, including Smirnoff and Bacardi, and headed for Tinsel Town.

Cats on a Plane
Animal aviation is a complex web of rules and procedure and sedatives. But after I had called the airline to book two passengers and two cats, ordered the right pet carriers, experimented with cat sedative dosages (as Bacardi has panic attacks when he travels), and made sure all of my checked bags were under 50 pounds (it was touch and go for a while, and I eventually had to leave behind Bacardi’s dry food). After I had given away or sold the alcohol cats’ nice scartching post and cat tree, and tried to encourage them to use the litterbox one last time before I threw it away, it was time to go.

At security, I had to take each cat out of the carrier, walk with them through the metal detector (while their carrier went through the xray), and have the cat hair from my hands tested. Luckily, they let me walk back and forth and do both cats (first Bacardi, then Smirnoff), so that my friend who was traveling with me didn’t have to try and wrangle a nervous cat.

But despite a two-hour delay, I was so incredibly proud of the alcohol cats. They were in their carriers for about 11+ hours, didn’t have any accidents, and only started to meow and complain about 30 minutes before the plane landed (by which time, the sedatives had long since worn off). For most of the flight, they slept under the seats in front of us.

The Pacino Theory, Part 2
When I moved last summer, it was a 20 minute drive across the Charles River. Both cats wailed the entire time, and Smirnoff huddled behind Bacardi in the bathroom of my new apartment. He had spent the past two years of his life (so, two-thirds of his total life) in my Brighton apartment. For a week, he spent most of each day under the kitchen sink.

So naturally, I was apprehensive about traveling across the country. But then the day of plane travel went smoother than I could have possibly expected. And the alcohol cats were fully settled in my new apartment in two days.

They proved once again that the Pacino Theory is true. The more you uproot yourself and take chances, the easier the transition becomes every time you do it.

So then I had no excuse. If Smirnoff and Bacardi could brave a transcontinental journey, and stand strong at the other end of it, so could I.

Best Friends Animal Society
I spent the first few days of work being pulled around by large dogs, eager to get out of their kennels and into the play yards. I knew that dogs would be at least half of the job, as the shelter can house around 175 dogs at one time, (and I made sure to spend time with the dogs in order to get more comfortable handling them), but I was eager to show my expertise.

During the quieter hours, I snuck into the cat rooms for some peace.

There are two communal cat rooms at the shelter, both designed by Jackson Galaxy. I slipped into the bigger one, and purring bodies came over, rubbing against my legs and arms.

I picked up a grey tabby with a crooked mouth. His name is Kirby and he’s fourteen. He only has three teeth, has some arthritis, and spends all day lounging on the floor. I scooped him up and he sat in my lap, purring gently and drooling as I petted him.

And despite the marks of the Boxer still on my arm, I felt like I was in a good place. A no-kill shelter that cares deeply about its animals, that will rescue all types of cats. The Best Friends Animal Society shelter in Mission Hills, CA, has several senior cats, FIV+ cats, a FELV+ cat room, and a mostly volunteer-run neonatal nursery, that bottle feeds tiny kittens around the clock. A room that would make the ARL cat ladies swoon in envy.

To be a part of that, I’ll take on a few dogs.

To Be Continued…

Of Bombs and Foster Dogs

IMG_5724_smallerPeanuts was dropped at my apartment one evening by his regular foster mom, as she was going away and I had been called in as a foster–foster mom. He was from the Great Dog Rescue of New England, who is often in need of puppy fosters. (They rescue litters, among other dogs, from high-kill shelters in the south.) At five months old, Peanuts weighed around fifty pounds and reminded me of a slightly smaller version of my friend’s dog, Majic. Peanuts was a Beagle/Bull Terrier mix, but the resulting features resembled a Pit Bull at first glance, which was cause for one failed adoption as a puppy. He trembled in the living room of my apartment after his regular foster mom left, and I sat with him and a bag that held a few of his favorite toys. He gave a few licks and whined.

“It’s okay, Peanuts.”

He leaned into me and licked my hand.

I was only going to foster him for ten days. A convenient ten days, luckily, as the Monday was Patriot’s Day, giving me the day off work. After some anxiety from a roommate (who suddenly wished to revoke the permission he had given to foster a dog), I set about introducing Peanuts to the Alcohol Cats.

* * *
Smirnoff and Bacardi have done well with a dog before. But that dog weighs much less than 50 pounds, and is such a friendly dog that anytime Smirnoff or Bacardi got uncomfortable, he would simply walk away and give the cats their space. Peanuts had lived with a cat (and other dogs) in his foster home but was already nervous being somewhere he didn’t know.

At first, all animals kept a respectful distance. But then I made the mistake of turning away to make a phone call, and in those five seconds I moved, Peanuts followed me and walked too close to Bacardi. Bacardi flipped and whacked Peanuts on the nose, and Smirnoff began vocalizing while Peanuts tried to hide behind me. Strike one.

I borrowed a baby gate so that Peanuts could be free in a room but the cats could come and go as they pleased. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution. Smirnoff, ever-wary of his territory being invaded, kept a close eye on the canine. As Bacardi approached the gate, Peanuts went over to say hello. In an instant, the gate fell down, Bacardi panicked, and Peanuts was chased from the room by Smirnoff. The dog was so scared he peed on the floor. I separated them. Strike two.

Peanuts_Bacardi_smallWhile I was slightly touched that Smirnoff would so boldly rush to Bacardi’s defense (even when none was needed), having animals scared of each other wasn’t going to work. I was not going to allow a strike three; so I kept them apart. While the dog was loose, the cats were shut in my room. While the cats were out, Peanuts was in his crate. Normally, Smirnoff sleeps on my bed and Bacardi sleeps elsewhere in my room. But for the next nine nights, Peanuts sprawled himself on the bed, Bacardi slept in a smaller puppy crate in my room, and Smirnoff was banished to the living room.

Not ideal, but Peanuts refused to be anywhere other than next to me. As soon as I was home from work, he would follow me around the apartment. He’d climb onto the couch next to me. He would whine if I went to take a shower. I tried to keep my distance, making sure he had time resting in the crate while I sat nearby (and so the cats could come out), and keeping him busy with treat puzzles. Any attachment he had with me was going to be broken eventually, and while he was otherwise an extremely well-behaved puppy, I didn’t want to get too attached because I had to put my cats’ needs first.

I set out to ease the anxiety of the foster as much as possible. It would be stressful, of course, but it was only ten days. Ten very normal days.

* * *
Then the bombs went off.

I had the day off work, but I couldn’t go anywhere because of Peanuts. He was scared of public transportation, and while he eventually got used to taking the bus (after some initial fear), I didn’t feel it was worth it to try and get him used to the T, as he would most likely be adopted out to the suburbs.

So that afternoon we walked over to my boyfriend’s apartment and the three of us sat on the couch and watched a stand-up show. Peanuts was curled up with his favorite toy.

Then Jon’s roommate came home and told us about the Boston Marathon.

We turned off the show. The humor had left us.

We scanned social media until we knew our friends were all safe. That all the Animal Rescue League of Boston runners were safe. That Amy, an ARL volunteer who is also a nurse and was volunteering in medical tent A was safe.

We turned on the news. Then we turned it off.

I went to work the next day. And the day after. And the day after. And then the day after that, I woke up to a lock down and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. It was an unexpected day off work.

Watertown is several miles away, but we could hear the helicopters on their way. The occasional siren rushed by. Peanuts, being a dog—and in particular, a puppy—still needed to go out every few hours to relieve himself. Less than two miles away, an apartment was being searched.

We walked around the block. It was the same block I walked every day to go to work. The same block where children shouted on the playground, basketballs pounded the court, and cars revved up the hill. But now, everything was eerily silent. It felt different. I passed by a family who were also walking their dog and after the dogs met and we parted, I said “take care.” And the words felt heavy and serious.

Peanuts and I spent most of the day curled up on the sofa, switching between episodes of Arrested Development, and an Internet stream of someone’s police scanner. Bacardi occasionally came over and the animals gave each other a tentative sniff. Having Bacardi sleep in the same room as Peanuts (though confined from each other) was making a difference. He was no longer as suspicious of Peanuts, and they could be in the same room as each other once more. Smirnoff, not having those hours of rest in the dog’s company, still hissed when they got too close.

During all those hours of uncertainty, Peanuts never left my side. He never slept anywhere other than my bed, his body shoved as close to mine as possible. Sometimes with a paw across my chest. He was warm. He didn’t know the terrible things that had happened, but I knew he had kept me far away from them.

There’s no point in what-ifs, of course.

* * *
The next day, when Friday evening’s successful capture had lifted some anxiety; when my own anxiety from animals not getting along was finally settling; when I knew Peanuts would be back with his regular foster mom soon, I went to the ARL for my usual adoption shift.

Amy was there. I was at the shelter early. She asked if I would go for a walk with her, and we spent the next ten minutes figuring out which dogs to take with us and laughing as we tried to put oversized jackets on these two small, pudgy dogs.

Copley

We walked along Berkeley Street with Max and Lassie trotting ahead. We didn’t say much, but I knew where we were headed. When we reached Boylston Street, a crowd stood along the barrier. On our side, the sidewalks shuffled like usual. On the other side, it was empty. Turned over trash cans hadn’t been picked up. The road that is usually one of the busiest in the city, one that I had walked down hundreds of times as a college student and after, both sober and drunk, both happy and sad, both while in a hurry and at my leisure, had nothing. No one was there except the occasional figure in a white plastic suit.

Amy and I paused at the gate. In front of the dozens of sneakers and flags and posters stood three white crosses with three names written. There were therapy dogs there, and people stopped to pet Max and Lassie. The dogs were a welcome sight, and they stood there calm and friendly even in a crowd.

It all felt different, yet the same. The past nine days, my life had been a jumble of things; nothing in its rightful place. But everything was tied together: the dogs, the city, the people surrounding us. And just as I’d experienced so many times at the animal shelter, this moment held a realization that human beings are capable of both so much hate and so much love. And that moments of love and hate are often found together.

* * *
That same day, Peanuts was adopted. I found out when I got home from the shelter. His new mom was coming to my apartment to pick him up that evening, a day before the foster was supposed to end. Suddenly, I was collecting Peanuts’ things, collapsing his crate, taking him out for one final walk around the block.

The adopters came upstairs, and attached the leash they had brought to Peanuts’ collar. Seeing the couple and Peanuts together, they seemed like the perfect fit. They were from the suburbs but had a very down-to-earth feel. They had a Massachusetts accent. I told them that other than a little separation anxiety, he was the perfect dog. The husband, who hadn’t met Peanuts yet, seemed pleased.

“He loves to go for long walks, but doesn’t demand it,” I said. “He’ll walk as long or as short as you want to.”

I handed them his toys in a bag, and the remainder of his food.

I gave him one last pet and showed them out.

* * *
And just like that, it was over. The alcohol cats settled back into their usual routine.

That was that.

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