Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

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, 70,000 words) is a chronicle of my volunteer service at a busy urban animal shelter. 

Newly retired from my longtime editorial career and having relocated with my husband from New York to Tennessee, my search for what minister Frederick Buechner describes as "the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet” leads me to begin volunteering to work with homeless dogs at the organization I call Northside Animal Shelter.

The book focuses on my eventful first year at Northside. Among its memorable moments: While transporting a critically-ill dog and thirteen kittens to a partner shelter in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, I get stranded in a blizzard and am rescued by the kindness of good country people. A dog escapes from me on a goodwill trip to the mayor’s office, leading me on a frantic footrace through rush-hour downtown streets. Trying to work with an at-risk dog, I find myself alone and frightened in a deserted play yard as he chomps up the leash toward my hand and flings his eighty-pound weight against me.

The risks aren't only physical, however: I suffer when dogs I love get returned by adopters, sometimes multiple times, and on the rare occasions when a canine friend, unable to handle the stress of long-term sheltering, has to be euthanized. I encounter human cruelty in its appalling variety – as when, helping out in the shelter's admissions department on a sleety December day, I witness the opening of a soggy box that has been left outside a thrift store, taped shut and labeled "Stuff (sic) animals;" inside are three shivering, soaked puppies, near death. But I also see inspiring examples of human kindness in the unsparing efforts of my fellow shelter workers to rehabilitate those puppies and other critically ill or injured animals, and ultimately help them find loving homes.

The book's title comes from the verse in the Book of Job that begins: “Ask the animals, and they will teach you.” Its central theme is how I have learned some of my greatest life lessons from 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. Take every opportunity to play.

Ask the Animals also explores deep spiritual questions, such as: What is the significance of our fleeting lives, human and animal? Can our fervent prayers change anything? Is the suffering of innocent creatures in this world rewarded in another realm of existence in which ultimate justice prevails? Most pressingly, when you can’t make everything better or save every one, how do you achieve acceptance?

The examples of the shelter dogs help me come to a point of peace with these questions.

Woven into the narrative is an abundance of practical information that aims to educate readers about key issues in animal welfare, such as: What makes for a successful pet adoption? Are breed stigmas (pit bull bans being the most currently prevalent) justified? Why should you never buy a puppy from a pet store, and be very cautious about buying from a “ breeder"? What are the pros and cons of the long-distance transports that increasingly ferry adoptable dogs from the oversupplied south to the undersupplied midwest and northeast? What one simple step would improve the lives of companion animals and reduce pet homelessness and euthanasia?

I also strenuously debunk the myths that shelter animals are inferior, problematic, rejects, “ damaged goods." In Ask the Animals readers will meet a cast of lovable, distinctive canine characters who exemplify all the qualities that make dogs more than friends to us – make them, instead, our family members and, often, our cherished soulmates.

The book concludes with the shelter dogs' final gift to me: clarity about the way I can serve them best while fulfilling my life's true purpose – writing their stories, and my own.

Chapter One:  Purple Dogs, Orange Dogs, Green Dogs 

Northside Animal Shelter is located on the road that leads to the city dump and recycling center. This seems fitting, in that the shelter is where unwanted dogs and cats and other animals are dumped, and from it, some lucky creatures are recycled to loving and lasting homes.

On a February day I arrive to take the training class to become a volunteer. Three months earlier, my husband Doug and I moved from New York to this mid-sized Tennessee city, seeking milder winters, a lower cost of living, and a place where, with our son grown and the obligations of full-time work behind us, we could pursue new opportunities in what we hoped would be the long third act of our lives. I wanted some kind of volunteer role that would get me out of my head – a place where, as a writer and freelance editor working from home, I spent far too much time. I was also looking for a new occupation that would allow me to feel I was giving of myself, from a position of lifelong good fortune, to meet some of the world's great need.

As a dog lover, I thought that volunteering at an animal shelter would be something I could put my heart into. We had had large dogs for the past thirty years but had been dog-less since the death of our golden retriever, Rufus, four months before our move.

Caroline Quinn, the shelter’s director of outreach and volunteering, begins by advising our group of six recruits: “Don’t feel sorry for these animals. For many of them, this is the best they ever had it. A safe,  climate-controlled place to sleep, regular food, medical care when they need it, love and attention from staff and volunteers – they’ve got it pretty good here.”

I listen intently, wanting to be sure I take in all the important information.

“People may ask you,” Caroline says, “and in fact you yourselves may wonder, is this a no-kill shelter? No, we are not. Shelters that call themselves no-kill are in fact highly selective; they turn away any animals that are unadoptable. In a sense they just pass on the dirty work, so to speak, of performing euthanasia to open-admission shelters like ours.”

She goes on to explain that Northside has contracted with the city to accept any domestic animal, whether they are too sick to be helped or too dangerous to be adopted out. “It’s sad, but we do have to euthanize animals,” she concludes. “You can say to the public in truth, though, that we never euthanize just to make space in the shelter, and we don’t euthanize adoptable animals. And you should know that when we have to do it, we do it humanely.”

She then divides us according to our interests: dogs, cats, or both as well as other kinds of animals. I put myself firmly in the dog camp, and our group of three goes off with a veteran volunteer, an outgoing, heavy-set blond woman, for a quick tour of the facility followed by instruction in dog handling.

When we enter the ward where some twenty-four dogs are housed, the noise level requires our guide to semaphore and us to lip-read. My first impression of the unit is that it is clean, comfortably warm, with no unpleasant smells. Each dog has a raised bed, a water bowl, a blanket and some toys (or, in a few kennels, tufts of polyfill and shreds of colorful cloth or plastic, the remains of toys that have been "loved to death"). Classical music, audible between the barks, plays from a boombox on a shelf near a sink in the center of the ward. A butterscotch scent wafts from a diffuser on the counter in the center of the ward.

The dogs are a mix of young and old, predominantly pit bull and hound types, with a few shepherds and terriers. Most of them are up on their hind legs, loudly demanding – as it seems to me – “Pay attention to me! Me! Me!”

So many dogs! And this is just one of the four wards. How will I choose who to take out? How can I neglect the others?

Our leader goes to the kennel of a large fawn-colored pit bull and lifts the latch, blocking the opening with her leg as she leans over. She hands the dog a treat then loops the leash over the unresisting animal’s neck, pulls the slack to tighten the loop, and leads the dog out of the ward as we follow her.

“This is Rosy,” she says when we're outside and can hear her again. “She’s a good girl. A purple dog, one of the easier ones.” As she explains the color-coding system used to indicate animals’ temperaments -- green for high-energy; orange for middle-of-the-road; purple for laid back -- Rosy sits and we all pat her. Then our guide, leading the placid animal, shows us the various walking areas and explains all the rules: keep all dogs six feet apart; no dogs off leash except in two small play yards; no off-leash romps at all for dogs being treated for heartworm; no puppies under four months old on the grass ... and more. My head spins; I wonder if I will remember it all.

I have the chance to put my knowledge to the test the next morning when I arrive at eight thirty for my first solo dog-walking session. In the Volunteer Lounge -- actually just a walk-in closet with a desk, a bulletin board for our name tags, a wooden coat tree draped with leashes, and a shelf with boxes of peanut Cap’n Crunch, which is the only treat we are allowed to give the dogs – I select a yellow slip lead made of floppy thin nylon webbing, tuck some nuggets of Cap’n Crunch into my belt pack, and set off for Apple and Birch Wards, where the adoptable animals are housed.

After the previous day's brief orientation, I am apparently on my own, free to take out any dog. This is intimidating. First of all, I am insecure about opening the kennel gate of an excited animal and making sure he or she doesn’t escape. Then there is the vulnerable position of getting right down at a face level to put the slip-lead around a strange dog's neck. Finally, there is the challenge of controlling a strong, unpredictable canine.

I stopped by a hardware store after yesterday's training session and bought earplugs suitable for a road worker operating a jackhammer; I screw those into my ear canals now, and open the door to Apple Ward.

This early, the kennels haven't yet been cleaned and the atmosphere is pungent. Most of the dogs have pooped and peed in their kennels overnight, and several have tracked feces all over the floor of their enclosures. Understandably eager to get out, they set up a clamor as I walk up and down between the two rows of kennels, appraising each occupant. Who looks easygoing, friendly, not like a puller or jumper? Who is relatively clean so I won't get jumped on with dirty paws?

I speak to each, holding out my hand for a sniff. Most of the dogs are up on their hind legs, barking or thrusting their noses through the bars and licking my hand. A few cower, some growl, and I walk on by.

Well, I have to start somewhere. I pause before the kennel of an appealing-looking young black dog, tall and skinny, like an adolescent Labrador Retriever. His run is relatively clean. I look at the tag on his gate. Six months old. Buddy, a nice friendly name. He is classified as an orange dog, which means a mix of energetic and calm, if I remember right. I should be able to handle Buddy.

I lift the latch and crack his gate open. As I fumble to form a head loop in the limp yellow webbing of the lead, he ducks, then bolts past me and runs up and down the aisle, triggering a chorus of frenzied barking and howling.

A kennel attendant, a young woman, is hosing down a run. Seeing Buddy streak past her she shuts off the water, catches him and holds him while, apologizing, I leash him.

Outside, managing Buddy is like playing a hooked marlin. He flails and thrashes, darts in front of me, brakes hard to sniff or relieve himself, then unexpectedly lunges ahead. I quickly learn to keep my arm tense, even when he is still, to avoid having it jerked out of its socket when he springs back into action. When he walks he pulls so strongly that the leash constricts around his neck and makes him choke.

Once around the large exercise yard is all of Buddy’s antics I can take, so we head back to the ward. He lags behind me a little on the return trip, a welcome relief from pulling.

Then all of a sudden I feel the leash in my hand go slack, and its frayed end swings down to the sidewalk. Buddy has chewed through the thin fabric. He is free.

He begins dancing up and down the sidewalk in front of the outdoor pens, taunting the other dogs. “Buddy, treat!” I yell as I bolt after him. We run around the building, six-month-old dog pursued by sixty-three-year-old woman. It is no contest.

Fortunately the entire facility is enclosed by a tall fence, so Buddy can't escape onto the road or into the woods. But he leads me a merry chase to an audience of dogs in their outside runs, barking excitedly. At last a staff member, no doubt wondering about the commotion, comes out of Cedar Ward, steps into Buddy’s path and grabs his collar. “Sorry, sorry,” I say, gasping for breath, and show him the leash. “He chewed right through it.”

“They’ll do that,” the young guy says as Buddy thrashes in his grasp. My savior has a pierced lip and tattoos covering both arms. He speaks with a thick Tennessee accent. “Where’s he go?” he asks me.

“Back to Apple Ward.”

“I’ll help you.” He takes the short leash from me and passes it under Buddy’s collar, and on this 10-inch tether, muscles Buddy back to his ward.

“It’s my first day,” I say. “Bet you couldn’t tell.”

“You’re fine,” he says, which I am coming to recognize as a sort of all-purpose gracious response in this part of the country to an apology or request to be excused for something. He opens Buddy’s kennel and forcefully shoves the rascal in.

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.”

I am still trying to get used to “ma’am” – it makes me feel old. Which is undoubtedly how the twenty-somethings who make up the majority of the shelter’s staff perceive me.

Leaving the ward I look back at Buddy. Panting rapidly, with his mouth open and his lips stretched way back, that dog looks for all the world like he is laughing.

* * *

I walk several more dogs on this first day. Leashing them continues to be a challenge; they are so excited by the prospect of a break from their cramped kennels that they jump on me, or wriggle past me. Although the ward caregivers maintain an impassive demeanor as they help me deal with the escapees, I worry that they will tell the volunteer coordinator that I am causing them extra trouble and she will tactfully suggest that I find another way to serve the shelter – maybe cleaning cat cages, or stuffing envelopes.

Once outside, the animals pull relentlessly. It is surprising how much force a 35-pound dog can exert, to say nothing of a 75-pound one. I am beginning to wonder if my confidence in handling big dogs has been misplaced; wrangling these powerful, untrained animals is nothing like walking the family pet.

Some of my canine partners decide that seizing the leash and playing tug-o'-war is a great game. I don’t know how to stop this, and imagine the drivers on the busy road nearby laughing at the spectacle of a dog getting the better of a clueless handler.

At the end of my first two-hour shift I have walked six dogs. Only six, out of around sixty adoptable animals, all whom need regular outings to maintain their sanity, to get a break from the stress of confinement in the shelter, and to build, or rebuild, their trust in humans. I'm the only volunteer working this morning, but I am at my limit. Hips aching, legs leaden, clothes filthy, smelling like a dog myself, I limp to my car.

I sit a moment, too tired even to turn the ignition on, wondering if, after all, I have what it takes to be an animal shelter volunteer.