Memoir: 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 chronicles my four dramatic, transformative years serving as a volunteer in an animal shelter that, each year, takes in over 6,000 dogs and cats, many of them abandoned or abused.
The title comes from the verse in the Book of Job that begins: "Ask the animals, and they will teach you." The book’s major theme is how my work with the shelter dogs has helped me become braver, more open-minded and open-hearted, and how the dogs themselves – curious, resilient, accepting, forgiving, loyal, loving -- have taught me how to be a better human.
Newly retired from a 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 with homeless dogs at the organization I call Northside Animal Shelter.
Among the memorable moments of my shelter service: While transporting a critically ill dog and thirteen kittens to a partner organization 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 a troubled dog, I find myself alone and frightened in a deserted play yard as his big teeth chomp up the leash toward my hand and he 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 found 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.
My love and concern for the dogs empower me to overcome some deep-rooted inhibitions. Having grown up in a home rocked by my parents’ frequent, explosive fights, I developed an aversion to any hint of conflict – but, now, when I see a dog being hurt or neglected, I muster the courage to confront the person causing the suffering. An introvert whose instinctive reaction to many new situations is wariness and, often, fear, I am motivated to push past my anxieties to help the dogs – handling large, strong, unpredictable animals; driving a huge van full of dogs and cats long distances, to places where they will have a better shot at finding a forever home.
Ask the Animals also explores deep spiritual questions, such as: What is the significance of our fleeting lives, human and animal? Can our prayers and intentions change anything? Is there another realm beyond this world, where suffering is redeemed and losses are restored?
Ultimately, witnessing the cruel brevity of the lives of so many animals makes me conscious of my own uncertain lifespan, and moves me to commit myself fully to my lifelong ambition: writing.
Although Ask the Animals is story-driven, woven into the narrative is 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?
The book also refutes the misconception 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, our cherished soulmates, and even our healers and teachers.
(Click here to read the first chapter.)