Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Shelter Me.

Her name was Nomi, and she while she wasn’t the last dog I would have picked at the shelter, she was certainly in the bottom ten. I had taken Daughter to the shelter the previous day to do a little reconnaissance work and settle on the dog to show Consort; I imagined a cheerful, eternally smiling dog of such raffish ancestry that the only sure thing would be that both parents had been some kind of dog.

Let me tell you a little bit about this shelter. If you are a dog or cat alone in this world, you pray to be picked up by these people. It’s a no-kill shelter with shaded outdoor kennels; in the summer, the workers mist the floors of the kennels for coolness. And there’s no such thing as impetuous pet-adopting there. Before you even meet a dog, you fill out an application detailing your previous pet experience, your current housing situation, your expectations for this pet; I only wish someone could have made me conduct such a thorough examination of my soul before I picked certain boyfriends.

I finished my application, and explained to the volunteer that I had a six month-old bundle of love, gesturing toward my daughter in her car seat, who was mesmerized by a kennel full of chickens, and a fairly densely-packed life. I wanted an easy, un-dramatic, adult dog who wouldn’t bother our cat. The volunteer said thoughtfully, “I think Nomi’s the right dog for you”.

If one can be said to skip while carrying an infant car seat, I fairly skipped behind this woman toward the kennel. We passed darling Lab puppies with paws like dinner plates; exuberant small dogs prancing in circles, desperate for our attention; seasoned older dogs, pushing their noses at the bars for a scratch. What wondrous dog had she planned for us?

We got to the last cage. On the ground, lying curled up in a ball was a dog of a variety known for freakish amounts of energy and very little sense. This, however, was more like an area rug.

The volunteer called, “Nomi?”, and was rewarded with a sigh.

A depressed area rug.

She unlocked the cage, and Nomi looked up. Once she realized she had visitors, she got to her feet, her entire body exuding indifference. The volunteer snapped on the leash to take all of us to the meeting area, and explained a bit of Nomi’s story as we walked. She was somewhere between four and six and had been owned by an older person who died, and the dead person’s relatives had brought her in on New Year’s Day. I was there on February 1st.

“She’s been here a month?”

“Yeah. She doesn’t show very well.”

This was putting it mildly. I sat down on the bench in the meeting area, and Nomi stood in the corner, staring at the ground. When called by me, she walked over and gazed at me neutrally. Her entire body fairly sang “You’ll forgive me, but I’ve done this about a hundred times already, and you’re not going to take me, so I don’t really feel like faking it. Also, I just want to go home.”

The volunteer scratched her ears and said worriedly, “She’s a lovely girl; she just misses her owner so much that no one gets to see how sweet she is. She loves cats, she gets along with everyone, she’s crate-trained and house-broken and she’s been here so long…”

Nomi sighed and put her head on the bench next to my leg, and slowly, I started to feel the most dangerous and ill-advised of all of my emotional states:

I can fix this one.

Which is how Consort and I ended up at the shelter the next day, looking down at a depressed area rug being snapped onto a leash; if she remembered me at all, it wasn’t lifting her mood any.

The first meeting as a family didn’t exactly inspire “Your best friend can be found at your local shelter” anecdotes. I threw a ball; Nomi stared at it and sighed. Consort called her to him, she feigned deafness. But there were moments; unbidden, Nomi came up to me and sniffed at Daughter in my lap. Consort scratched her back and she leaned against him. For one shining second, she played with a bug she found under a plant. There was a dog in there, and it was a dog with another emotion besides terrible sadness.

I looked up from Daughter and Nomi and looked hard at Consort. He was dazed, and it wasn’t just jet lag. I took pity on him and suggested we leave for an hour or so, go get some lunch and talk it through.

Nomi was dropped off at her kennel and before she fell into her usual stupor, her eyes followed us down the corridor.

At the restaurant, we talked about everything but Nomi, and I started to feel terrible guilt. Consort didn’t want a dog; if Consort had wanted a dog in his life, he would have had one, and he had never chosen to have a dog in his entire adult life. I didn’t need a guard dog; I could just sleep with a Maglight under the pillow when he was out of town. I didn’t need another pet, I just wanted one, and Consort loved me enough to want whatever I wanted that badly.

“Honey,” I said without preamble, “let’s not get a dog right now. She seems sweet, but we’ve got a cat and an infant and it’s enough.”

If he looked even slightly relieved, I would let him off the hook.

He looked startled.

“But who else is going to take our dog?”

Because I am not the only one in the house who hears the siren call of I can fix this one.

She has been our dog for several years; she knows us, and I think likes us, but I am not entirely certain she loves us. I think she had room for one person in her heart, and it was the person who died (I suspect it was an older woman, due to the disproportionate joy she has always taken in my mother’s nearness). For our loud and complicated house, she has the polite puzzlement of a foreign exchange student with no working knowledge of the host’s language or culture.

For the first time in my life, I view the pet in my house as an animal, and not a family member. This comes back to what I was talking about in the first part of this; your pet is as much a reflection of you at the time of the pet’s life as it is the pet’s personality. The dog came into a house where I already had a small person who I adored and who needed constant care.

This isn’t to say we have slacked in our responsibilities; her shots have been keep current, her teeth are pretty much intact, and when she choose to eat an entire stomach’s worth of the indigestible or get bitten by a rattlesnake, one of us ran her to the canine ER.

But she’s growing old, and I am looking at the end of her life with a lack of the stress I usually have over losing a pet. We will make sure she lives comfortably, and when that comfort isn’t there any more, we will make the only kind choice. And on that day I will whisper to her about the winter afternoon we took her to the beach in Montecito, where dogs are allowed. The dog spent hours chasing seagulls with a glee that was only matched by the seagulls’ glee in teasing her.

I will whisper to her of that while she shuts her eyes, and I will hope she knows I loved her, if not as much as I have loved some dogs, as much as I was capable of loving any dog right now. And I will hope that was enough.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sit here with tears in my eyes as my old friend is beside my desk. His day is coming soon and it breaks my heart. We have had many dogs/cats over the years and have loved all of them, but there is only one special one in a lifetime-ours is Tucker.Even if you were just a substitute for your dogs elderly love, I know in my heart that the dog has loved that you tried. Christine

5:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We lost our alpha dog, Tinker, to cancer this past January. She was his dog, then our dog and the pack leader of our other dogs (and us).

We knew she was ill, we knew the surgery had given her more time, but the cancer had come back. On January 18th, we talked about when to put her down. On January 19th, my consort settled on his (unreasonable) criteria for when she would be put to sleep. "When she can't stand anymore", he said. That was unfair, I thought. The vet said the cancer would spread to her lungs and she would be in pain, but never cautioned us about her ability to stand or walk. I feared he wanted to hang on to her past the time she would be comfortable.

We went to work the next day as usual. When we got home (as God as my witness), Tinker couldn't stand. We arranged to have her put to sleep the next day, January 20th.

That sweet little dog knew what her "Daddy" needed and she provided it. She let us know it was okay. It was hard watching her that last day, but it was awe-inspiring to experience her dignity and love for us.

We speak of her often and think of her more. We love our other dogs, but not the same as her. We still get sad, but more often that not, we laugh at the things she did and smile at the joy she gave us. We know she was one of a kind and we know, too, that she's still with us.

Take a look at

6:34 AM  

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