Ask the Animals: What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Me About Life, Love, and Faith
Chapter One: Stranded
This isn’t what I planned for Valentine’s Day – driving a car full of animals to a small town in northeastern Tennessee, at least a six-hour round trip. But when the director of animal care at the shelter where I volunteer asked me to do this emergency transport, I couldn’t say no, because a dog’s life is at stake.
Elmo, my only canine passenger on this trip, is a calm dachshund afflicted with heartworm. Our shelter can only afford to treat a certain number of heartworm patients at one time, and we are at our limit. The animal care director told me that, if it were not for this rescue group’s willingness to take and treat him, Elmo would have to be euthanized.
I’m also transporting thirteen kittens. The organization I am meeting collects animals from southern shelters like ours and drives them to the north or Midwest, to facilities that, because of strictly enforced local spay/neuter laws, don’t have enough adoptable pets to meet public demand.
Staff at the shelter help to pack the back of my little compact car with crates containing the kittens. Elmo rides in a carrier on the passenger seat, next to me. I set off in the early afternoon. Now and then I glance beside me and meet Elmo’s black button eyes behind the grate of his carrier. I feel a quiet satisfaction, knowing that I am helping to save his life.
Looking into the rearview mirror I catch a glimpse into one of the kitten crates. The little faces inside are 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 are probably only six weeks old.
As I head toward the Kentucky border, to my surprise I see that the landscape, which has become very hilly, is snow-covered, and fine flurries are beginning to sift down. The weather in our city some one hundred twenty miles south was overcast with no threat of precipitation, and even, in the past week, has given some teasing hints of spring. But now, as I gain elevation, the snow grows heavier, and the highway, which has been straight so far, begins to curve up the hillsides, and is coated with slush. Solid columns of slow-moving headlights crawl toward me on the southbound side of the highway, and red taillights flash on and off ahead. My hands tighten on the wheel. Under the best of circumstances I’m nervous driving in strange places, tense and easily confused, fearful of getting lost. With the added challenge of this freakish storm, little spikes of anxiety are shooting up in my chest.
Only about thirty miles from my goal, I'm not about 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 miss the scheduled transport, Elmo will lose his only chance.
The warm air inside the car has begun to smell of poop, and as the car follows the curves I hear the unmistakable, churning-washing-machine sound of Elmo throwing up. I crack the window on my side, grateful when my GPS tells me my exit is approaching.
When I leave the Interstate I see with alarm that the roads are much worse. Sparse traffic snails along in slush that comes a third of the way up the tires. The air is nearly opaque with blowing heavy flakes.
I drive slowly, my heart beating faster and my breathing shallow. Through the swirling white I see that the businesses that line the road are dark, battened down against the storm. Even the fast food restaurants are closed. At the idea that all these small lives are dependent upon me, I feel isolated, vulnerable, anxious. It doesn’t look like there is anyone else around who could help.
I reassure myself that there are only ten miles or so to the shelter where I will deliver the animals to safety. My GPS instructs me to turn right. The new road is uphill, with a couple of commercial buildings on the right side, and a few small houses on the left. There are no lights or signs of life in any of the buildings. The road is unplowed, untraveled, covered in what I estimate to be about four inches of virgin snow.
My little stick shift car makes it up the hill in first gear, to a cross street where I am to turn left. But I make the mistake of stopping at a stop sign, although I can't see any approaching traffic through the scrim of flurries.
When I try to go ahead, the rear end of the car drifts to the right as the front tires spin uselessly. And then, to my horror, the car starts sliding backwards, downhill, veering sideways toward a steep embankment on the right. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” I chant as I work the wheel, trying to steer away from the eight-foot drop-off.
The car comes to a stop. I draw a few deep breaths to try to calm myself; then, shifting into first I try again to go forward. The front tires whine in protest, unable to get a grip on the icy pavement, while the back end slides sideways and even closer to the steep slope.
I brake and the car stops. I sit for a moment, paralyzed, then I take out my cell phone. At the recognition that there is no signal, the panic I have been trying to suppress floods through me, whiting out my rational faculties like the snow curtain obscuring the landscape around me.
The only thing clear to me is that I am stranded in a blizzard with fourteen animals.