The last time I set foot in the southern shelters, I was stunned.
We wandered through the kennels, head spinning and heart-aching, helpless to do anything except offer a few bags of dog food, a box of cat litter, and a promise to share what we saw. This time…
Traveling with a team of eight feels more substantial. We are here to do work. Not to just gasp and dream. We are here to share all we can, to join in the real work, if only for a day.
It was maybe a little awkward driving south in the van full of people I barely knew. We shared dog stories and lengthy silences, everyone likely as worried as I about what we would see, do, eat, and certainly whether or not we’d get any sleep. I’ve been to a few of the shelters we will visit, but not all. I am anxious about what is coming, being the leader of this team and hoping to set the precedent for more road trips to follow, I want it to go well.
Since the last time I was here, some of these shelters have been ravaged by flooding, some have new buildings, new staff, they all have new dogs, new stories, and yet it is the same. Six months has not changed the situation. Dogs are still dying, shelter workers are still overwhelmed, the public is still dumping dogs, filling the kennels with dogs they have no time, money, or love for.
At Lenoir County SPCA, it is good to see familiar faces – Helen, the rescue coordinator/miracle-worker and Sherry, the shelter director/magician I met last fall hug me when we arrive. Helen has taken the day off from her job as a court reporter (Helen is a volunteer who finds more hours in a day than most of us do in a week) to be here with us.
We meet Debbie, the vice-president of the board responsible for hands-on help at the shelter. She has also taken the day off from her work to be here with us. Her quick smile and positive attitude are contagious. We meet Laura, the assistant shelter director who does much of the dog assessments has a huge heart and an easy laugh. She seems to be a fan of every dog she brings out to meet us.
Everyone we meet at Lenoir is friendly, helpful, and generous. If our invasion of their space irritates them in any way, they give no hint of it. I’m anxious for us to be helpful, and not simply be in the way of the work they must do.
When we arrive, the kennels are already clean and the place is bustling. We’ve just finished our tour and begun work on our separate projects when a government inspector shows up for a surprise inspection. I groan inwardly. Of all the days.
I can only imagine the stress level for Sherry is about a gazillion times the level I feel when the dog warden shows up at my house for an inspection. I have anywhere from two to ten dogs/puppies and the warden wants proof of rabies, copies of health certificates, and to know where I keep my fire extinguisher. Sherry has more than fifty dogs (plus a dozen or more cats), thousands of records, a staff, a facility that has to meet certain codes, and today, eight strangers here to get in the way.
We get to work. A few of us walk dogs and then help pose them for photographs, while another team works huddle with Helen and their laptops around a plastic table in the chilly sunshine to polish dog bios and add them to Petfinder. Matt, our engineer, works on a project of Debbie’s – building a roof for the small concrete puppy play area recently added to the shelter so the puppies can get outside even when it’s raining or the sun is blazing.
Jennifer, one of our team who knows sign language (both her parents are deaf), learns that one of the dogs who has been lingering at Lenoir in search of a home, is deaf. She spends time with Casper trying to teach him the sign for sit, and getting to know him so that she can promote him to the deaf community for adoption.
With the help of Laura and Debbie, we wrangle dog after dog and walk endless laps of the short service road beside the shelter that takes you past enormous powerlines to the water tower, before bringing each back for its photo shoot. Nancy and Leslie have set up a photo studio in a little space on the side of the parking lot beside the screened-in cat gazebo (for meeting cats) and a large steel shipping container (for supplies – there is no storage in the overloaded shelter) with the swampy-forest that surrounds the shelter as a backdrop. We attempt to pose the dogs who are distracted by the traffic in the parking lot, the unfamiliar people, the change of routine, and the smells of the dogs before them who all marked the territory.
Later in the day, I watch as Nancy attempts to photograph dogs playing with some of the enrichment toys that Debbie has brought. The idea is to catch photos of them interacting with the toys to encourage donations of more enrichment toys. The dogs are excited to be in the play area for a bit – they usually only come in here while their kennels are being cleaned each morning. It’s just a fenced in concrete area, but today there is a Kong wobbler, a bubble machine, tennis balls, food puzzles, and a giant ball to play with. They search for food, mark the corners, give me a sniffover for treats and buzz by Nancy and her camera. They are not cooperative models, but we get a few shots.
As we are finishing up, a pick-up truck pulls up outside the shelter with two dogs in the back. The man has come to surrender his pets. He got a new job and no longer wants the dogs which he adopted from another county. Sherry tells him they are full and he should surrender the dogs to the county where he got them. She knows this man, these are not the first dogs he’s surrendered. She asks him why he adopted them in the first place. He leaves and I watch Sherry swallow her fury and move on to the next task. Another car pulls in with a kitten to surrender. Maybe the first of the kitten season.
At five minutes before closing, a couple arrives with a toddler in tow. The father wants to adopt two dogs- a male and female, but he’ll be happy if he can get the ‘gray female.’ He announces this in the parking lot loudly. I wonder who he is speaking to and how he knows about the gray pitbull mama and her tiny puppy who is still nursing. It’s too late in the day for an adoption, but they let him look around. All of us wonder on his insistence about a male and female. His daughter is frightened by the barking and cries at the loud noise in the shelter.
It’s just another day at Lenoir. A day that makes me marvel at Sherry, Helen, Laura, and Debbie. How is it they aren’t beaten down by the relentless onslaught of ignorance and apathy they battle? Maybe it’s the love they have for these animals. They all deserve a happy forever home. Every. Single. One. I guess it’s that knowledge that makes these women work so hard.
The dogs are easy to love—we fall in love over and over again and wonder how many we can convince our rescue to pull. What is not easy is finding homes for them.
We are just beginning our journey and already my heart questions and my soul aches. I amble up the road to the water tower slowly with Bruno, an older boxer mix with scars covering his body, head to toe, his ribs and backbone protruding.
Bruno isn’t in a hurry and has an air about him that tells me he’s seen more than his share of cruelty; he seems defeated. We have five more shelters to see.
Yesterday we visited a tiny shelter in Essex County, Virginia and met another remarkable shelter director saving dogs through sheer will and resourcefulness. Ellen is a former college professor who took over a shelter with a high kill rate and turned it around.
They no longer euthanize adoptable dogs at Tappanhannock-Essex County Animal Shelter, but Ellen’s words followed me to Lenoir, “For every five we send out, we take in six more.”
I saw the same worry etched on Helen’s face. Two years ago, Lenoir was euthanizing over 50% of their dogs. They have come so far, but today, when we visit, they are already full and it’s only April first. They are holding their own at Lenoir, but that could all change next week—one hoarding case, one emergency, one violation from the inspector, and they are back where they started.
I want to be hopeful. We are making progress, it’s just that the progress seems tentative, fragile, the thinnest of fabric that could easily tear. It’s a toehold on better but a long way from good. We still have so far to go.
Thank goodness we have women like Ellen at TECAS, and Helen, Sherry, Laura, and Debbie at Lenoir. They are leading the way, teaching all of us about what it really means to rescue.
If you’d like to help Lenore or TECAS or any of the shelters we visit this week, you can find links on the OPH Rescue Road Trip facebook page. You’ll also see more pictures and stories of our experiences in the shelters.
Thanks for reading!
If you’d like to know more about the book, Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs, visit AnotherGoodDog.org, where you can find more pictures of the dogs from the book (and some of their happily-ever-after stories), information on fostering, the schedule of signings, and what you can do right now to help shelter animals! You can also purchase a signed copy or several other items whose profits benefit shelter dogs!
If you’d like to know how you can volunteer, foster, adopt or donate with OPH, click here. And if you’d like more pictures and videos of my foster dogs past and present, be sure to join the Another Good Dog Facebook group.
Released August 2018 from Pegasus Books and available now