This is a reflective essay about Nellybelle (aka Nellybelly), a Staffordshire Terrier mix we rescued in June 2019. Not knowing an animal’s history is one of the biggest challenges we face in rescue work. But we must cultivate an eye for positive change, and keep hope alive, especially for the animals who are reactive, fearful, ill, or otherwise facing an uphill battle.
I stand with her in the dark. The starlight surrounds us. To my limited and conditioned human senses, all is quiet and peaceful. There is nothing to fear. But I sense something, a coming darkness upon the darkness where we stand together. And I know it is her fear. She is hypervigilant, her ears flicking up and down. Every inch of her weak, emaciated body is tense, trembling. She hears things I can’t, sees things I don’t, fears things I don’t know about.
I speak to her fear softly. I tell her we will care for her forever, that this is a safe place, that she is a good girl. I mean it, but I know it will be long months before she trusts me.
Maybe she never will, or not completely.
I realize how foolish I look, sweet-talking this starving, sick, terrified dog in my front yard at midnight. How foolish it must look to take such a risk bringing this wretched creature of unknown traumas into my home, with my small children and elderly cats. Many folks would think I’m nuts.
In the beginning with Nellybelle, I legitimately worried that our neighbors would report us for cruelty upon sight of her, she was in such an unfortunate state. And I wondered, would I have still rescued her had her ears been clipped, her tail docked? If she were male? But had she been a fighting dog, we wouldn’t have had the chance to meet. She would have been labeled aggressive or dangerous at the shelter and euthanized. That is what happens to many of them, and it also happens to many “bully” breed dogs in general. The worst is often assumed in the name of public safety.
Nellybelle carried a load of issues. I have often speculated about where they came from, but we will never know her history. We know that she was a stray. We know that she was running with two other dogs, both intact males, both Terriers, both in much better shape than she was. We know these dogs were trapped by animal control and taken to the shelter. Her pack mates both quickly found homes. But she languished in the shelter, isolated and ill with coccidiosis and heartworm infection, covered in ticks, and no doubt growing more and more apprehensive of what else these humans might be capable of.
But she is with us. I should mention the remarkable synchronicity of finding Nellybelle the way we did. My mom and I had found a brindle hound mix (now our den mother, Rogue) in a similar condition in the same exact kennel, same shelter, on death row, in 2015. When I walked into the shelter with my oldest daughter and laid eyes on Nellybelle, I knew. She wanted to live, and I had to give her the chance to rise above her circumstances. As it happens, the last five numbers of her microchip ID are my mom’s zip code—a zip code in the far-off land of Texas.
Nellybelle was very fearful for a long time. It took considerable patience just to get her to cross a threshold, and when she finally would, she’d slink through the doorway very low to the ground and cower. She wouldn’t walk on a bare floor—she’d just freeze and tremble. She was head-shy. She’d flinch when you touched her. At the slightest sound, she would scramble away and hide.
But the saddest thing of all was that she didn’t know how to play. We guess she never had enrichment of any kind before she came to be with us, so this was the first big thing we worked on. Every dog needs a job to do, and tennis balls became Nellybelle’s profession. We’ve spent $103 on her tennis balls to date, if that’s any indication of their prominence in her training and exercise routine. And she will fetch without fail, in any weather and for as long as you will play.
Nellybelle is a survivor of the highest order. She has overcome starvation, bite wounds, heartworm and other parasitic infections, death row, and we are fairly certain, losing a litter of puppies and physical abuse by a former owner. Does she have trust issues? Yep. Is she different from other dogs? Yep. But we are here for her. And we know sometimes it really does take six months to learn a command. Especially when you are working through your issues with tennis balls, and the command happens to be “drop it”. 😊
And that is the point of this essay. We must never give up hope, especially when faced with a mountain range of obstacles. Positive change looks different for each individual, and sometimes the act of looking for it makes you able to see it. Much in the same way that a fearful animal will look for the thing they are afraid of, like Nellybelle did at first.
I hope I have opened a window into the philosophy of Finders Keepers Animal Sanctuary. We care deeply about the soundness and quality of life of the animals in our care. Some of them have significant medical or behavioral needs and may require special care and management for the rest of their lives. Our organization exists to preserve life and hope for them. Thank you for reading Nellybelle’s story.