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The House That Jack Built

This is a rescue story about a semi-feral puppy, Jack. It is also a story about little things accumulated, and the building of our pack.

A few months ago, I watched a documentary, Dog Man, about Dick Russell, a dog trainer from Louisiana. This man made a huge contribution to the dog training field in the U.S. using a technique known as Large Field Socialization, and trained tens of thousands of dogs (and their owners). Dick’s approach to training resonated deeply with my experiences working with rescue dogs, and what I have learned about dog behavior. Using the natural dynamics of the dog pack to assess and train dogs has been on my mind ever since.

I have also been thinking a lot about the benefits of multi-pet households, and especially of keeping several dogs together, provided there is sufficient time to train and space to do so. The Law of the Jungle is true. The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. Dogs are meant to be together. They are good communicators and are hardwired to regulate each other, even those with a history of neglect or mistreatment. In fact, those dogs with historical trauma, and those who are undersocialized, may especially benefit from being with other dogs. The pack can have a marked influence on an individual dog’s behavior. With rescues, it is amazing to watch how quickly they learn from each other. With 4 dogs currently in my home, at varying levels of training and development, I often wonder why ‘the more the merrier’ is not the rallying cry of rescue groups everywhere.

So I had this frame of mind: Dick Russell style Large Field Socialization, pack work, the Law of the Jungle. And all of this informed by a special bond with a recent rescue, our big-headed, giant-hearted, Harley. After Harley, I promised the Universe that I would not hesitate.

On a Friday in May, a semi-feral puppy walked away from his mom and brother, into a nice gentleman’s yard, where he laid down, dehydrated, exhausted. I went and picked him up, with a healthy dose of hand sanitizer and faith on my side. We were not able to catch the mom or brother, unfortunately.

The little dog did not have much personality. It was clear that he wasn’t feeling well. Carrying him to the car, he just went limp. Very unusual for a 3-4 month old pup—he should have been a squirmy, hyper handful double-tethered to the seatbelt, and not laid out half-asleep on the front seat. A visit to the vet confirmed that he had a bad case of hookworms, and was probably anemic. Flash forward a month: we are currently on the third round of dewormer, so it is a particularly nasty infection.

Carrying the pup inside, I tried to shut down the feelings of affection and tenderness I was having for him. We lost a puppy in 2015 to roundworms, and I know how quickly these infections can turn, even when they are treated and monitored carefully. But the thing about having faith on your side, is that you have opened a door that can never be closed again. The feelings come with that. This is the Law of Love. It takes your whole heart.

We named the little puppy Jack and hoped for the best.

Jack was quickly accepted into our existing pack of three. I had worried a bit about our other male, the very handsome Harley, and how he would take to the little man. I knew deep down that Harley was a gentle soul, and my worries were unfounded. The main reason I worry about Harley is because of the rampant misconceptions about his breed (pit bull). I know the breed, and I know they are not “natural born killers” like the media wants us to believe. But it is my duty in keeping them to prevent any aggressive behavior, to maintain a training and exercise routine, to keep them safe from a culture that has so harshly and superficially judged them.

Jack and Harley became fast friends, chasing each other around the yard and playing hide-and-scare (Harley runs under the shed, waits for Jack to investigate, and bolts out, then vice versa). There was a lot of tail-tucked tearing around, bowing to each other, and lounging in the hammock (once Jack figured out how to jump up there). After a few days of watching the other dogs, Jack learned to sit, to walk on a leash, to go in his crate at feeding time, and to share space and attention with other dogs, cats, and children. He is still cat-curious and will sniff and lick the cats, and sometimes chase them, but this is to be expected with any puppy. He occasionally growled at kids who were pretending to be dogs, and at people he didn’t know. We corrected him gently, but firmly. These behaviors are normal for a puppy who has not been well socialized to people. And they are passing in time, as we build trust.

Our second visit to the vet left me somewhat puzzled. In this time of social distancing, we hand over our dogs at the vet’s door and are not permitted to enter the clinic. For most dogs, this is not a big deal. And I intentionally took our den mother, Rogue, along with Jack to the vet, hoping her presence and example would lessen his anxiety. But once inside the clinic, the dogs were separated.

Staff reported that Jack was extremely fearful, that he cowered and tried to get away. They thought his behavior was abnormal, and suggested we have him trained. “He’s going to be a big dog,” they said. He didn’t growl, bark, or snap at anyone, he was just afraid. I reminded the staff of his origin, and explained his progress over the last month. I held off on scolding them, and did not school them on rescue, though I wanted to. I still wonder what his size has to do with anything, but I will let that go, too.

This particular clinic is not our preference for rescues, but it’s a shorter drive, and I thought it was more practical with my children along for the ride. It’s really worlds apart from our normal country vet (whose staff are well versed with rescue dogs and fear-free techniques). This particular clinic is in town, in an area of affluence. What they think is normal is just what’s normal for their area. But it really made me think about the assumptions underlying their practice. I won’t be saving the time or gas next time, kids or no kids. 😊

I came to the field of animal welfare by way of social work, and I think the fields complement each other. There are many intersections between the two (which I will have to explore in a future essay!), but there is a saying in social work that absolutely applies to animal rescue: “Meet your clients where they are.” It is meant as a reminder to approach relationships not as some “authority” or “expert”, but with empathy and compassion, with an open mind, and without judgment. This goes for our animals, and also for the community members we work with. The clinic we visited with Jack and Rogue could stand to brush up on this concept, as could most of the medical community in general.

Precisely because you folks are doctors, you should not narrow your view by pathologizing your patients.

But then again, maybe I expect too much thought from purported professionals, and it is I who should be more realistic. Perhaps they do not see many puppies like Jack. Paper plates and peanut butter are not really their style, even though something so simple makes a world of difference to a scared dog.

Read more about Fear-Free techniques here: https://fearfreepets.com/
Watch the documentary about Dick Russell here: https://www.thedogmanmovie.com/

“Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
  –Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, 1894

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.

A Tale of Two Kitties

To all the cat ladies and catmen—you know who you are—this essay goes out to you. As kitten season approaches once again, I am reminded of how a tiny mew can become a lifelong friend and companion.

I confess that I am a cat lady. I come from a long and illustrious line of cat ladies and catmen. From the wild horde of feral cats my grandmother fed in her backyard in Fort Worth, to the working cats of my grandfather’s farm in Jacksonville, cats have always been a part of my life.

We had short-haired cats and long-haired cats, tabbies, torties, calicos, inside cats and outside cats and inside-outside cats. We had cats with perfect lovely meows, and cats who quacked, squeaked, trilled, yowled, and beeped (yes… there is just no other way to describe the sound). I loved them all.

Most of our cats found us—we didn’t seek them out—and this is a common experience among cat folk. My brother, who is an accomplished catman, once surmised that the cats must smell the lingering biological effect of toxoplasmosis from miles away. It’s an interesting theory. Or maybe they can smell kindness.

Back in the early 2000s, a little kitten found me. Or rather, he found my AC unit.

It was a very hot summer evening and I’d been home from work for a couple of hours. I had just started reading Stephen King’s collection of short stories, Everything’s Eventual, and was working on a cup of coffee. Above the roar of road noise and the whirring AC, beyond the captivation of a new book and good coffee, and from inside the house, I heard a tiny mew.

This is another common experience among cat folk. Like a mother’s ear is trained to hear a crying infant at great distance, we hear cats. And we don’t much care how strange we seem at times: roaming neighbors’ yards in pajamas, barefooted, coffee in hand, with an ever-evolving series of puzzled expressions. Standing in the middle of the yard with our eyes closed. Suddenly bee-lining to the side of the house. Staring at the AC unit. Lying in the grass, spooning the AC unit.

But let it be known, we are just hunting a tiny mew. And yes, we do question our grip on reality when we hear a cat in the air conditioner. We know this is not normal.

The tiny mew turned out to be a little brown kitten, who had apparently been in such a rush to hide that he had gotten himself wedged under the AC, between two sections of a poor excuse for a pallet. Naturally the lack of a proper foundation for the AC had escaped my notice prior. It was the most casual of wooden frames, even less organized and less sturdy than a pallet. I could tell that this baby cat was as horrified as I was that this rickety semi-structure was meant to stabilize the AC, likely weighing hundreds of pounds. I was afraid I might bump the thing while reaching for the little cat, and it might collapse, marking the bitter end of him (and my arm, too).

But we cat folk possess more common sense than you might think. We’re smarter than we look, especially in times like this.

I fished around for something I could use for leverage, if needed. Something to encourage the kitten to crawl out. I came up with a derelict piece of wood, probably in worse shape than the flimsy pallet, but it was the best I could do. I inched the piece of wood up under the AC with my foot on one side, ready to scoop the kitten up on the other side, all the while baby-talking the little thing, who was having none of it. Of course in my infinite cat folk wisdom I had neglected to turn the AC off, so the little cat probably couldn’t hear me anyway. But as luck would have it, the AC switched off. In that moment, the tiny mew found his courage and allowed a cat lady to whisk him to safety.

Some time later as I bathed the tiny, filthy, wiggly, flea-infested thing, I discovered that he was not in fact a brown cat at all. He was orange and white. I named him Lucky. He was skinny and his color wasn’t great, but he didn’t seem to be injured. So I stashed him in my downstairs bathroom and went door-knocking.

I figured out where Lucky had come from, which turned out to be only three doors down from my house. I also discovered that I was in surprisingly close proximity to a volatile domestic situation. And I returned home shortly with a lady’s blessing, as well as Lucky’s brother and solitary littermate, a little grey and white polydactyl who I named Vincent. Two princes and heirs to the kingdom, who could all too easily have been abandoned on that busy road had my ear not been trained on a little mew.­­­­

I couldn’t have known at the time what this trifling pair of wild cats would mean in my life, and in the lives of those close to me. I couldn’t have known that they would see me through two cross-country moves, and through college, and through the birth of my children. One can never know how far-reaching a simple act of kindness or compassion can be. These things are very literally spiritual. They make their own course, through us and around us, and like water they know no barrier.

We have a tendency in our culture to notice and focus on immediate, tangible, measurable things, and we often lose sight of the long game. In the realm of animal rescue, the current name of the game is numbers: intakes, save rates, placement rates, per-animal expenditures. But the long game does not lend itself to these mortal methodologies. Because the value of a soul and the potential contained therein are immeasurable.

I kept Lucky and Vincent for the better part of two decades. But as we cat folk know, the little alien motorheads really keep us. They keep our attention in the present with their affection, spazziness, and deranged kitty antics. They keep us employed with their dependence on us for care and housing, and by the smell of their cat breath in our faces as they perch on our chests, meowing, on those mornings when we have not adequately responded to the alarm clock. They keep us company in good times and comfort us in hard times. They keep us real with their utter intolerance for pretense. They keep us quick and nimble with their ambush attacks and purring, squeaking figure eights around our feet. They encourage us to read, in their way, by sprawling on our books, and suggest we hurry up and finish our essays by lying in our laps until our legs fall asleep.

So if you hear that little mew, don’t hesitate. Take the journey. If you are one of us cat folk, you know it is but a question of when—you will hear it. If you are not yet a cat lady or catman, there is still time. The huddled masses await you in the care of your local shelter or rescue.  

In loving memory of my boys, Lucky (aka Tucky, Tony, Fat Max, Wooly Bully) and Vincent (aka Tiny, Top Shelf, Top Hat, Winnence).

Fear, hope, and tennis balls

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.

The Little Black Hen

This is the story of Fluffy (aka MC Fluff ‘n Stuff, aka The Flusterclucker), a permanent resident of Finders Keepers Animal Sanctuary.

Fluffy came to us as a young chick with symptoms of lameness in one leg, which rapidly progressed to severe tremors and intermittent paralysis in both legs. We suspected a virus, either Marek’s disease or avian encephalomyelitis (epidemic tremor). She became very weak, extremely uncoordinated, and several times had to be suspended in a sling to prevent her from injuring herself as her tiny body fought for life. We did not expect her to survive. These types of neurological syndromes are not treatable.

We resigned ourselves to loving her, keeping her company, and hand-feeding her whatever she would eat. If she didn’t make it, at least she would have some measure of dignity and would not be trampled or pecked by other birds, or become easy prey for a predator.

Fluffy taught us a lot about perseverance over the following months, as she recovered and relapsed several times. She never gave up, and we followed her lead. She never complained or freaked out about the random unfairness of her struggle. She endured it, gracing all who came near her with goodwill. She always greeted us with curious little tweets and trills, and later, proper clucks. We sang the Beatles’ song “Blackbird” to her. We held her a lot. We gave her vitamins and warm baths and carried her around in a basket. And ever so slowly, she improved.

Fluffy has been with us just over a year now. She still has a bit of a wobble from time to time, but for the most part, she gets around like a normal hen and does normal hen things: flapping, hopping, scratching, squawking, cackling, and even running! She loves blueberries and cat treats. She converses freely with children, adults, dogs, other birds, and even cats.

She may have some lasting neurological damage to her body, but her spirit is flawless.