Love Letter to a Death Row Dog

This is Harley’s story.

At first, I didn’t realize he was so underweight. At 40 lbs, he looked okay, if a little thin, but definitely in much better shape than others we have taken in. His head was huge. Still is. He’s approaching 50 lbs now, and I’ve realized he just has a massive skull. And the jowls… one of the most endearing qualities of the “bully” breeds… I love the nasty, drooling, floppy jowls.

Harley stood out from the others in the shelter. Even in that unbearably loud, unstable, stressful environment, he had a zen quality about him. He wasn’t barking or jumping or trying to get attention in any way. He wasn’t hiding, chewing, licking, circling, pacing or any of the other behaviors you normally see in confined dogs. He was simply standing there, alert and observant of all that was going on around him.

The stress of being captured and sentenced to death did not appear to affect him. This was hard to witness, much harder than seeing a snarling “bite dog” in quarantine or a terrified, sick kitten separated from its litter. When the reasons are clear, there is less of an emotional toll. At least for me. I have seen a lot of suffering. This does not mean that it doesn’t affect me—it does for every animal, every time. But I always set aside time for reflection and spiritual inventory, and this helps me carry it without breaking down or raging out. Or at least, it helps me translate those powerful feelings into advocacy and direct them toward something positive.

In Harley’s case, I wrote letters. I wrote to every county commissioner, candidate for county commissioner, and legislator for the district, and to the dean of a nearby veterinary college. Harley’s case affected me greatly. And I felt it was important to tell these animals’ stories, to advocate for better standards of care, and to offer ideas for improvements. If you should undertake a similar project, I encourage you to approach it with realistic expectations. Change will not happen overnight. It takes time. There are many stakeholders. But when enough like-minded individuals come together, their voices become amplified.

I was not the first to speak out about this particular shelter. In fact, I was probably the last. The shelter had been the subject of some bad press a few months earlier, after several former employees and volunteers went on the record with their concerns. They spoke about arbitrary euthanasia, lack of treatment for the sick and injured, poor sanitation practices, and little if any outdoor time for the animals. Others attended the commissioners’ meetings and made comments, kept a close eye on animals at risk, and stepped in as they were able and rescued or sponsored animals. And this community effort led to significant changes at the shelter, including additional staff, more public hours, and greater voluntarism. Yes, hundreds of animals are still killed there every year, and there is no veterinarian on staff. But we have saved lives and relieved suffering for some. Like the handsome, well-mannered piglet, Harley.

The only thing bigger than his head is his heart. He wants to love and be loved. He is not a fighter, but he is no stranger to fighting. Probably out of necessity, not by choice. Our veterinarian showed me some wicked scars inside his mouth, that I hadn’t noticed for all the other scars on his face and legs. But he has a gentle nature. He is known to snuggle with small children and cats. His favorite thing in the world is taking naps in the hammock. And most heartbreaking of all, he was trained by someone. He came with nearly perfect leash manners. We were so convinced that he belonged to someone, we posted him on lost pet sites. The posts are still up to this day.

Although Harley was calm in the shelter, he looked rough. His appearance was a barrier to adoption, as was his age. It’s hard for older dogs to get a second chance. Through no fault of his own, he was also that dreaded (if nonspecific) “breed”, pit bull. And most unfortunate for him, he was not evaluated by a veterinarian. Shelter staff believed he had a contagious skin condition. They made a decision based on the welfare of the other animals in the shelter and what limited information they had about him.

When I crouched down in front of his kennel to talk to him, he wagged his tail just slightly and rested his giant head against my hand. I didn’t worry about mange, ringworm, any number of other potential health issues. I saw a sweet dog that wanted human contact. This was a mature creature who had calmly accepted what was happening to him. He could not verbally articulate his experience, but his body language said, “It’s okay.” It was not okay. It is not okay for an animal’s life to be taken so quickly, without great care and consideration.

I had rushed to the shelter after speaking with one of the staff. Her voice broke over the phone when she told me she did not know if he would be there at noon, when the shelter opened. I was angry that day, and heartbroken. I want to believe that our animal control system can do the best thing for each animal in its care (and maybe some shelters are able to), but all too often this is not the case, especially in rural areas. It was certainly not the case for Harley.

Too many animals like him are needlessly killed in a cold, sanitized, government-sanctioned process and then disposed of as if they were garbage. I am not naïve. I recognize that euthanasia can be a humane option for some animals, but it is too common and we don’t even speak about what it really is. We use words like euthanize, not kill or murder. We speak in a lot of categories—“stray”, “feral”, “surrendered”, “available”, “rescue only”, and my least favorites, “live outcome” and “other outcome”—but we say little about the individuals. We are all complicit, from the language we use to the taxes we pay.

I have seen shelter staff overcome with grief for the lives lost. A receptionist, the first person you see when you walk in, tearful and desperately trying to keep it together. An animal care tech so hurt and withdrawn she found no joy in the adoption process. The peripheral effects of killing animals are untold.   

But I can tell Harley’s story. It’s important that we remember that these are living beings, each with a unique inner life and thoughts and feelings. They are all capable of change, and of love, and of learning. Harley is a deceptively simple creature, with his gross drooling jowls and flapping pig ears and grunting head-bumps. But he has dreams and deep feelings just like any of us. I know he has deep feelings about squirrels and often dreams of catching one, and I expect one fine day he will.

In just a few short months, my life has been greatly enriched by knowing him. He has been a blessing during a time of great uncertainty, and we are finding our way through the weirdness of this quarantine together.

Coming to know Harley during the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic has made me think about what it means to be alive, to exist, what existence is, with all its clouds and bright rays. Being alive is a miracle. To live and think and feel and play and create is the greatest gift any of us will ever know. It is not a random thing. It does not just happen. For each individual and their unique form of life, intricate dramas have unfolded and continue to unfold, from the play of molecules to the invisible fingerprints of environmental and social interactions, then exponentially constructed over time. We form and are formed by this beautiful universal process of growth and change.

I think we all know the weight and wonder of life at our deepest levels, but it does not always surface in our daily lives. Sometimes it creeps in when we don’t expect it and disrupts the habits and routines that keep it at bay. I’m a big fan of these creeping awakenings. I find them in nature, among animals and trees and water; in works of art, music, literature. Maybe an otherworldly quiet moment, a stillness, stirs it up. Or a cool breeze washes over you as you’re walking, or a melody calls it to mind. Maybe it is the expression of profound faithfulness in a rescued dog’s eyes. It is a sense of something utterly incorruptible. Something beyond us, greater than us.

It is that something that leads us rescuers. To all the death row dogs out there, we’re coming for you.

3 thoughts on “Love Letter to a Death Row Dog

  1. Harley is a sweet boy who has been through hell in his life. All he needed was for someone to care about him, show him unconditional love, connect with him emotionally, and then fight for his right to live. He deserved that. So do all of God’s precious creatures. Including all of us.


  2. Such a great, well written story! Lucky animals and people that know you! Maybe you should compile some of your experiences into book form 😉


  3. I’ve met Harley, he’s a sweet dog with no issues with kids. He’s friendly enough towards most folks. He is a little reserved around me but ok with me for the most part. I’m glad he found a second chance at life. T… W 😁😷😁


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