animal care

“Are you ok?”: Giving hope to shelter dogs

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about going with Judy early one morning to transport 10 rescued dogs on a 60 mile segment of their journey to Minneapolis.  A rescue mission that felt good…happy…exciting.  I had held a parvo-surviving puppy.  She was lucky to be alive.  Lucky to be out of the shelter on that sunny day and lucky enough to be healthy and on her way to a rescue.  I felt her little heart beating, felt her tiny breath–felt her sigh as she gave in to a few minutes of sleep.  I was happy and full of hope holding that little dog…so, so full of hope.

Later that day, after the transport was complete, we went to animal control…a place where hope is hard to feel.  This is the place where almost half the dogs who walk in never come out alive*.  This is the place where so many people who love animals have the sad job of collecting unwanted, lost or abused dogs and cats.  This is the place where volunteer doctors and staff work tirelessly to save animals, and yet have to euthanize many healthy and treatable animals simply because there is no more room.  This is also the place where rescuers go to begin their work, where saving a dog begins.  They identify dogs for rescue, posting and sharing snapshots to network the many homeless faces, hoping that just maybe someone somewhere will fall in love and they can pull a dog out of there.  Rescuers go to Animal Control often, especially when they know their fosters have room to squeeze in just one more.

The place is a maze of “pavilions”, rooms separating the animals into those ready for adoption, those being held as “evidence” for court cases, those in medical care, or those simply doing their time in hopes that someone will come looking for them before their 5 days are up.  There are no outside windows in these rooms full of cages.  The rooms can be loud with echos of barking, crying dogs.  Or the rooms can be silent…like the air has been sucked out of the place, like dementors have been there.

Today, we were there to look for a couple of dogs that had been posted online for potential rescue, to temperament test another.  I followed Judy and her scrap of paper with the cage numbers.  All those sad eyes on us.  All the life behind those bars.  Some of the dogs desperate for you to slow down, to look, to touch, to acknowledge that they are alive.  Other dogs cowered in the cages, terrified, trembling, lost and confused, and maybe broken forever.  These dogs seemed not to want anyone to look at them, to see them, matted and dirty, shrinking into the bright orange tile and concrete corners.

It is hard to witness.  I tried to concentrate on photographing Judy with the dogs, on learning what she was looking for when she studied their paperwork.  I followed her–her golden ponytail, her scrap of paper with the cage numbers, her voice.  And I watched her…I watched her muster her spirit, her smile, her hope in this hard place.  I watched her giving hope to each of those shelter dogs.  “Are you ok?” she asked each of them with a smile.  “Are you ok?”  Sometimes it was a question.  Sometimes it was a statement, willing them to be ok when options looked bleak.  Whatever it was, even if she spent only a second with each soul–it mattered.  That little heartbeat of a moment, a smile, a kind voice…It means everything…to the dogs…and to Judy.

It is a cruelly hard job for animal lovers to work in this place, to remain hopeful, to not give up at the sheer magnitude and the never ending streams of needy faces. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the dogs.

"Are you ok?"
“Are you ok?”, Judy asks. Judging from his scars, he may have been used in dog fights.
Reading this dog's kennel card while he waits
Kennel cards tell you a little bit about the dog’s history…maybe a name, maybe a former address or where he was found, maybe a bit about his tolerance of other dogs, cats or children.  The cards also tell you how much time he has left.
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Pearl was scared and angry. Judy waited, talking to her about nothing in particular.
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This smiling baby watched me as I watched Judy…After 30 minutes, Judy was still trying to convince Pearl to come out of her cage. Pearl would eventually get out of her cage for rescue, though this would not be that day.
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One of the aisles of cages, in one of the many pavilions at Chicago’s Animal Care and Control.
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“Unknown” name, found at an “unknown location”. Matted, dirty, terrified. This dog had 2 microchips and was waiting for the owner(s) to be identified and notified.
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Aisles of cages, and always…always…a waiting face.
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Judy noticed this mama had painted nails. “Who polished your nails and then abandoned you here? Where are your babies?”
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“Are you ok?”

*  Most current (2011) Asilomar Accords records from CACC:  “Jan 1 holding 863 dogs.  Thru 2011:  Took in 11,115 dogs.  Adopted out 943, Transferred out to rescues/other organizations 3,407, Returned to owner 1,355.   Euthanized/Died in care:  5,477.  Dec 31 holding 793 dogs.”  (corrected math on records shows 796 dogs remaining.)  Please see www.asilomaraccords.org for more information on shelters in your area.

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