Friday, December 28, 2012

on the healing power of dogs

[Editor’s note: my brother the animal control officer has hijacked my blog again.]

Today I spent a couple hours trying to track down a homeless guy with a dog I had impounded 2 weeks ago, since his girlfriend threw herself in front of a car last week and killed herself.  I gave him a 50-pound bag of dog food to keep him thinking about giving me the dog to find a new home for it, since a greasy tarp next to the rail-road tracks isn’t the best place to live.  For him or the dog. I got a thank you voicemail from him x-mas day, which was cool.

I was thinking about other dogs related to homeless people I know, and this story came to mind.  I forget if I told you about Petunia.  I was minding my own business watching TV at like 8 p.m. two years ago, and since I was on-call I had to keep my work phone on and it rang, and it was the Sheriffs, and I had to drive down to the parking lot on front of Costco, across the street from the trailer park where all the bad stuff happens.  This guy was watching a stray dog that had been wandering around in the road near the freeway on-ramp, and he didn’t want it to get hit.  So I get there 30 minutes later and he still has her hanging near him, no leash, no collar, just chilling.  She is a pit bull, no surprise.  Very light brown, brindle, and dirty, a little smelly, muscular, and scared.  Her teats were well engorged; she had recently whelped a litter and was probably wondering where her pups were.  She let me put a leash on her and run my hands over her looking for any injuries, but she was shy.  There was no way I was going to lift her into a kennel in my truck, that is the moment most animal control officers get bit, so I let her jump into the passenger seat and ride shotgun. She was panting a lot, avoiding eye contact with me, but watching my hands.  This girl got dumped by a fight dog breeder. No questions.  But clearly she liked being in the passenger seat of a car.

So I sat there with her in the front seat of my truck as I wrote stuff on my clipboard and tried to get her interested in beef jerky. She let me pet her and licked my hands but she was definitely shy, scared, and sketchy.  And I noticed across the street next to the trailer park there was a black dog running loose, and it disappeared behind the Donut World shack.  So I drove across the street and into the lot and behind Donut World, where there were a bunch of homeless guys drinking and hanging out.  One of them quickly grabbed up the black dog I had seen, leashed it and called out an apology.  I pulled up next to him and said no worries, I told him I was wondering if maybe his dog and the dog in my passenger seat belonged together.  Then some other transient gets interested and comes up to my window, and looks at my impound and says, “I know that dog, she belongs to my friend. Give me that dog, and I will give it back to my friend.”

Now a lot of sketchy people are gathering around my truck.  Mind you, I am well trained for this; I am issued handcuffs.  One pair.  Not seven pairs, and I think there are seven transients interested in my truck, and I’m barely qualified to operate these handcuffs in the bedroom, let alone in the field against seven crack heads.  I explain to the guy, no, it doesn’t work that way.  Tell me who your friend is and I will give the dog to him.  He says, no, man, I will prove it to you, the dog loves me.  And he starts walking around the front of my truck to go to the passenger window where the dog is, while another knucklehead begins jerking on the door handle to my truck. 

My television-training instinct kicks in at this point, and I push the button to start rolling up the passenger window.  The guy gets to the passenger window, tries to put his head inside the truck, and this dog I just picked up, who is still a little undecided about me, but must know that I am good, since I am giving her shelter and beef jerky, comes completely unglued and tries to eat the homeless guy who is coming through the half-rolled up window.  The other idiots on my side of the truck back way off, saying words that rhyme with “holy fucking shit, did you see how that fucker almost took so-and-so’s face off?! and the clown who thought the dog was his friend’s dog says something like “oh, must be a different dog,” and I drove away with my new best friend, “Petunia.”

Anyway, that was two years ago.  Petunia was great with me, for a while.  But you put a dog in a kennel, and keep her there for a year, or a year and a half, or two, with minimal socializing, and things change. Petunia was a red-lock dog from the get-go.  Only experienced volunteers and staff could handle her. She required a lot of vet visits too, developing a bad case of demodex, a skin parasite that is hard to kill and even harder to control in a kennel environment.  Petunia found herself in a chainlink world exactly the same size as a small prison cell, with an itchy skin condition that needed hands-on treatment, and only a few people in her world she trusted who could help her with her medication. Petunia didn’t like or trust all of our officers, nor all of our volunteers.  She was very fearful. For months her appointments were scheduled on days that I worked and could take her.  Eventually, Petunia was even fearful of me at her kennel gate, and soon she no longer would warm up to my efforts to coax her out of her enclosure. One day she showed me a level of fear aggression that I realized I could not overcome, and I passed her on to the few who could work with her.

Over time I admit I didn’t think about Petunia as much.  We had a lot of long-term stays at our shelter, and I was happy I could help socialize those who trusted me.  Some were dogs I had brought in, some were brought in by other officers, some came in over the counter, and all of them needed as much attention and affection as they could get and we could give.  Many were adopted out to new families, some were transferred to second chance rescue groups.  I don’t remember them all, as new ones came in every week.  I recall at some point Petunia was on a list with a few other kennel-aggressive pits to be shipped to a forever-rescue operation out-of-state, where she would have a large dog house and dog run to live her life out in, forever to be labeled an “unadoptable dog.”

And then a few months ago I pulled my truck into the sally port behind the shelter and saw some guy I didn’t recognize inside one of our secured dog runs throwing a ball with a light brindle pit.  A big, scary guy, and a big scary pit. Petunia.  Next weekend, he was there again.  And then, it seemed like every other day, this guy was inside the secured dog run, playing, cuddling, napping, reading, nuzzling, and just hanging out with Petunia. 

I asked him and he told me.  He wanted to be there, at the animal shelter, with Petunia.  He didn’t want to be anywhere else.  He had been deployed to the Middle East as a Marine, he was still living on base, where they didn’t allow mastiff breeds as pets.  He had something like 8 or 6 or 4 weeks left until they would discharge him, and the minute he got his papers, he was going to bring Petunia back to his family home, far away from California, far away from here, far away from where he had been.  And as I talked to this Marine through the chain-link, Petunia wagged her tail and licked my hand through the fence, barked once at me, and nuzzled the guy like, quit talking, and throw the ball some more for me!  And he turned away from me and went back to playing with his girl. 

Three weeks ago, after living in a cage for two years, Petunia jumped into a sweet orange Challenger and helped her new dad escape his cage to start their new life.  Sometimes I think about looking up the guy’s number to check in on him and Petunia.  But frankly, I don’t think either of them need to look back.

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  1. That was a great story. I wish everyone would help animals.

  2. This is why I get up in the morning-this kind of inspiration.