ASK THE ANIMALS: What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Me About Life, Love, and Trust
Ask the Animals: What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Me About Life, Love, and Trust (narrative nonfiction, 72,000 words) begins on Valentine's Day, 2016, when I agree to transport 14 animals—13 kittens and a heartworm-afflicted dog – from the shelter where I volunteer to a partner rescue organization in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee. A half hour from my destination I drive into a whiteout blizzard, skid off the road and sit, stranded, out of cell range and with no one in sight. Fighting rising panic, I look in the rearview mirror at the little heart-shaped kitten faces, and meet the bright black eyes of the dachshund in the carrier in my passenger seat. “Now what?” I ask them, as if it is up to them, and not me, to save us.
The narrative then moves to a February day a year earlier. At that time, newly retired from my longtime editorial career and having relocated 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.
Between the opening scene in the blizzard, and its resolution in the second-to-last chapter, when two kind rescuers deliver me and the animals from the snowdrift, the book chronicles my eventful first year at Northside. Among its highlights: I possibly set a record for the shortest time volunteering before going home with a shelter animal, when I fall in love with and adopt my dog, Ruby, after only 5 hours as a dog walker. Eager to learn and try everything to help the animals, I put myself in some challenging situations: In addition to the blizzard episode, I have a dog escape 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 80-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.
Questions of faith run through the narrative. The book's title comes from the verse in the Book of Job that begins: “Ask the animals, and they will teach you,” and 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; and take every opportunity to play.
Ask the Animals also tackles larger issues of faith from the point of view of an earnest seeker who has rejected the dogma of her Catholic upbringing but who is searching for answers to such questions 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?
These are the issues I explore 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 while living into the questions.
Woven in among the stories is practical information that aims to educate readers about key issues in animal welfare – 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 one simple "fix" 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."
The book ends on a high note, when my contribution to the wellbeing of the animals is recognized in my being chosen as the shelter's Volunteer of the Year.
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 grip 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.