ASK THE ANIMALS: What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Me About Life, Love and Faith
Ask the Animals:
What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Me About Life, Love and Faith (narrative
nonfiction, complete at 86,000 words) is a chronicle of my first year as a
volunteer in a busy urban animal shelter. During my eventful initiation, I got stranded in a blizzard with 13 kittens and a critically ill dog while transporting the animals to a partner shelter. A dog escaped from me on a goodwill trip to
the mayor’s office, leading me on a frantic footrace through rush-hour downtown
streets. Volunteering in the shelter's admissions department on a sleety
December day, I witnessed the opening of a soggy box that had been left outside
a thrift store, taped shut and labeled "Stuff (sic) animals." Inside
were three shivering, soaked puppies. I learned about resilience when those
puppies recovered and went on to happy homes. I walked, cuddled, trained and
loved a goofy yellow Lab mix, only to have to let him go when he succumbed to
the stress of long sheltering and had to be euthanized.
The title comes from the verse in the Book of Job that begins: "Ask the animals, and they will teach you." Some of the greatest spiritual lessons of my life I have learned from working with the shelter dogs. Among them: Live in the present; always be curious and eager to learn; trust and love even after being hurt; rejoice in life's ordinary gifts; don't worry about appearances.
My book details the happy adoptions, sad relinquishments, life-and-death decisions, and demonstrations both of abundant kindness and shocking cruelty that are part of day-to-day life in an urban rescue organization like the one I call Northside Animal Shelter. It also describes my discovery, as a 60+ year old woman with my active parenting and working life ended, of a new path toward service, learning and growth in ways I never imagined myself capable of. In addition, there’s practical information about successful animal adoption, optimal pet care, and current issues in animal advocacy. There’s also quite a bit of humor.
As to larger issues of faith, my book searches for answers to such questions as: What is the significance of our fleeting lives, human and animal? Can our fervent prayers change anything? Is there an afterlife, eternity, a blissful realm over the fabled “Rainbow Bridge”? Most pressingly, when you can’t make everything better or save every one, how do you achieve acceptance?
These are the questions I ask the animals in my book, in my blog, aheartforshelterdogs.com, and in my ongoing shelter work. And the examples of my dog friends have taught me how to find peace and joy amid the questions.
Chapter 1: Stranded
This wasn’t what I had planned for Valentine’s Day – driving a car full of animals to a town in northeastern Tennessee, dropping them off at a shelter there and coming back again, at least a six hour round trip. But when I was asked to do this emergency transport by Lee, the director of animal care at the shelter where I volunteer, I couldn’t say no, because a dog’s life was at stake. I was to meet up with a rescue group that collects animals from southern shelters like ours and drives them up north, to facilities that, because of strictly enforced local spay/neuter laws, don’t have enough adoptable pets to meet public demand.
I glanced beside me, into the grate of the animal carrier on the passenger seat, and met the black button eyes of Elmo, a calm dachshund afflicted with heartworm. Our shelter can only afford to treat a certain number of heartworm patients at one time, and we were at our limit. Lee had told me that, had it not been for this rescue group’s willingness to take and treat him, Elmo would have had to be euthanized. I felt a quiet satisfaction at knowing that I was saving his life.
Looking into the rearview mirror I could just catch a glimpse into one of the six crates containing thirteen kittens. The little faces inside were black, heart-shaped, their pink mouths opening now and then in yowls of confusion or protest at the motion and the road noise, showing tiny needle teeth. Those babies were probably only six weeks old.
As I headed toward the Kentucky border, to my surprise I saw that the landscape, which had become very hilly, was snow-covered, and fine flurries were beginning to sift down. The weather in our city some one hundred twenty miles south had been overcast with no threat of precipitation, but as I gained elevation the snow grew heavier, and the highway, which had been straight so far, began to curve up hillsides and to be coated with slush. Solid columns of slow-moving headlights crawled toward me on the southbound side of the highway, and red taillights flashed on and off ahead of me. My hands tightened on the wheel.
Only about thirty miles from my goal, I wasn’t going to turn around and subject the animals to the stress of the long drive back to our shelter. Anyway, it would be closed by the time we arrived, and, if we missed the scheduled transport, Elmo would lose his only chance.
The warm air inside the car had begun to smell of poop as one or more of the kittens couldn’t hold it any longer, and as the car followed the curves Elmo threw up. I cracked the window on my side, grateful when my GPS told me my exit was approaching.
When I left the Interstate I saw with alarm that the roads were much, much worse. Sparse traffic crawled along in slush that came a third of the way up the tires. The air was nearly opaque with blowing heavy flakes.
I drove slowly, feeling my heart beat faster. Through the swirling white I saw that the businesses that lined the road were dark, battened down against the storm. I felt isolated, vulnerable, on the edge of panic at the idea that all these small lives were dependent upon me. It didn’t look like there was anyone else around who could help.
I tried to reassure myself that there were only ten or so miles to the shelter where I would deliver the animals to safety. My GPS instructed me to turn right. The new road was uphill, with a couple of commercial buildings on the right side, and a few small ranch houses on the left. There were no lights or signs of life in any of the buildings. The road was unplowed, untraveled, covered in what I estimated to be about four inches of virgin snow.
My little stick shift Ford Fiesta made it up the hill in first gear, to a street where I was to turn left. But I made the mistake of stopping, to be sure no traffic was approaching.
When I tried to go ahead, my wheels had no traction at all. The rear end of the car drifted to the right as the front tires spun uselessly. And then, to my horror, the car started sliding backwards, downhill, veering sideways toward a steep embankment on the right side. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” I chanted as I worked the wheel, trying to steer away from the eight foot dropoff.
The car came to a stop. I drew a few deep breaths to try to calm myself; then, shifting into first I tried again to go forward. The front tires whined in protest at their inability to gain purchase on the icy pavement, while the back end slid sideways and even closer to the steep slope.
I sat for a moment, heart pounding, wondering what in the world I was going to do. I took out my cell phone. No signal.
I was stranded in a blizzard with fourteen helpless animals.