Flashback

Courtesy of The Girlfriend just recently came a much-needed reminder, that the things that motivate us shouldn’t be shallow or related to money. And it brought back a memory of something I’m particularly proud of. This isn’t bragging (I don’t think), but a success story that I try to remember when I’m not feeling too hot.

Many years back, I worked for a fairly progressive humane society contracted to provide the animal shelter services for the county I lived in. And yes, we euthanized unwanted animals – I won’t go off on a rant here, but so-called “No Kill” shelters are a myth. Feel free to argue this point, but come loaded for bear, because I’ve done my homework. As for the shelter, we tried our best not only to place the animals, but to ensure that the adopters were good, solid homes for life, prepared for responsible pet-ownership. We aimed for good fits, and discouraged impulsiveness and treating pets as disposable. And at this time, I also worked as an animal cruelty investigator.

Right at closing time one evening, I think going on into autumn, a police officer brought in a dog with a backstory. The dog had been found chained in the woods near an apartment complex, wearing a leather muzzle and with bowls of old food nearby. According to the officer, the dog had belonged to an occupant of the complex who had been evicted about two weeks previously, and apparently the dog had been chained in the woods since then. It was unclear how often the dog had been cared for. Bearing that image in mind, and with the thought we might be seeing dehydration and malnutrition issues, we went to the kennel-bin of the animal control vehicle and opened it to see our charge.

The dog was a handsome white shepherd mix, blotched with chestnut brown patches. He was very obviously spooked, to the point of being dangerous – what we called a “fear-biter.” He was thin but not dehydrated, so apparently he was getting enough water. And he still wore the muzzle, food-stained from having to plunge his nose into the bowl to get small mouthfuls through the little opening at the front. The muzzle was obviously to prevent the dog from barking and attracting attention. Another staffmember and I muttered unkind (and highly appropriate) things about the dog’s former owner, and the officer assured us they were ready to press charges if they located the person responsible. And with that, we took the dog, whose name we learned was “Marius,” into the shelter and got him ensconced in a kennel.

Once we had some food and water set up, and gave him a quick exam to ensure we weren’t dealing with any serious health issues, I sat and talked to him for a bit before attempting to take the muzzle off. He was clearly distrustful, wide-eyed and twitchy, and I couldn’t say that I blamed him. He needed time to relax, and we could then evaluate him to see if he was able to be put out for public display. By both county law and our operating policy, we had to hold him for seven days as a “stray” to allow an owner to come claim him before he could be adopted – though if someone showed up claiming to be an owner, they would have quite an interrogation beforehand. While this might sound too mild in light of his treatment (“interrogation,” ooohh, scary!) we had a couple of things to consider. First of all, we could file charges in court, but lacked any direct citation or arrest authority ourselves. Second, investigations never took place based on hearsay, even from a police officer – we determined what evidence existed to qualify as animal cruelty in all cases.

I removed the muzzle without incident, which Marius appeared to treat as a point in my favor, but not enough of one to drop his guard. I left him alone for the evening and went home.

Over the course of the next week, I watched his condition. He slowly relaxed, but wasn’t friendly, and was very shy about contact. He would allow his ears to be scratched or his ruff tickled, but too much familiarity caused him to back off. Still, he was alert and inquisitive, and watched my actions with more curiosity than fear. I, for my part, took it slow and played the submissive role. I would talk to him quietly, but in an upbeat and playful manner. I would lie on my back in his kennel and wheedle to him (to dogs, this is a submissive posture that implies no threat.) And of course, I brought him treats.

Around day six, when we had to consider whether to continue holding him or not, I got a positive response. I would snake my hand towards his foot and tag it, withdrawing it quickly, as a game. Up until then, he had viewed this as curious, sometimes drawing away, sometimes simply cocking his head. This time, he lifted his paw and tagged me back, a playful jab. Yes! I was careful not to overdo it, but we had a quick game of tag, and it was heartening to see the tail wagging steadily throughout.

From that point on, I stopped treating him with kid gloves, and he soon became a normal, alert and friendly dog, and we moved him into the public wings for adoption. We had procured no leads on the owner’s location, and had too little evidence to try and open a case (though we still would have been after it had anyone showed up to claim him.) I was psyched, however, that Marius was showing almost complete recovery and appeared to be a well-adjusted dog ready for a new home.

The days went by, however, and he wasn’t attracting adopters. In a small college town, people have a tendency to look for smaller, indoor dogs, and Marius was a 65 lb high-energy model. I knew the routine, and I knew why we made our decisions within a shelter, having made enough of them myself. But I was still practically ill when I came in one morning to see that his cage card was turned face-in. This was the flag that he was scheduled for euthanasia that morning.

I appealed to the shelter manager, who wasn’t sympathetic – we needed cage space and he wasn’t garnering interest. And this was perfectly legitimate, but I still felt he needed special consideration, and I went over the manager’s head to the director, something I rarely (if ever) did. She, thankfully, agreed with my assessment and granted a reprieve for a few days. I knew this was only a temporary stay – dogs still came in every day and space was always needed, so Marius needed a home quickly.

I think it was that same day, or perhaps the next, when someone came in who needed a companion for her own dog, a chow-chow who had a big yard to play in but too little to do. She wanted a dog big enough to hold his own in some energetic games, but still a family dog. Naturally, I took her back to see Marius and relayed his background as I did so. And he played his part perfectly, laughing with his clown-painted face and playing tag with her. I left them alone and returned to my position at the front desk. And some twenty minutes later she came back out, all smiles, to start the adoption process. Two days afterwards, I performed the adoption myself, something I rarely had time to do, and said goodbye to my friend, comfortable with his new home. His past seemed completely behind him now.

I want to stress here, my position was administrative, and I usually had little contact with the animals. We had plenty of other staffmembers that handled this very well. But, having seen him come in, and having a soft spot for shepherds (and most especially his big brown patch over one side of his face,) I made Marius kind of my personal project dog. My time with him was on breaks, and while others treated him very well, he really did seem to need the extra time and attention I gave him, something that’s hard to do for several dozen to perhaps 200 animals in the shelter at any one time. His success story was just one of thousands we saw, but it had its own unique circumstances, and he came so close to having any one of several much poorer futures.

mariusSome months later, I got the chance to actually visit Marius in his new home (this wasn’t a common practice, but I was writing a story on him for our newsletter.) He barked at me protectively from within the fence of his new digs, then abruptly recognized me, and we had a nice reunion. Then I got to sit down on the back patio and watch him and his new buddy, the chow-chow named Sebastian, as they played tug-of-war with some thick rope around the yard. The game mostly consisted of Sebastian being dragged around by Marius, despite being nearly the same weight, but Sebastian seemed quite happy with this arrangement. And so was I.

Shelter work was long hours, poor pay, and emotionally demanding, and while we knew that pet overpopulation was (and is) a huge problem with no easy answers, we all still got eaten away by the number of animals that died at our hands – and yes, even as an administrator, I did euthanasia rotations with everyone else. Burnout was common – people generally didn’t last longer than three years, many didn’t make six months. But on occasion, you get to see something unfold that tells you that your efforts make a real difference sometimes. Marius is mine. That’s him right there, in the yard of his new home, laughing into my face as if I could ever have doubted the outcome. That… is why we did it.

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