Aimee in 2007
Get your dog fix and your dog fixed.
I started volunteering at Animal Haven, a shelter in Lower Manhattan’s SoHo, a few months after our Yellow Lab, Aimee, died of kidney failure.
I figured I could get my “dog fix” without the full-time responsibility, without the drudgery of early morning and late night walks, without waiting for an elevator to ride down 18 floors and back up again three or more times a day. Kinda like getting the milk without having to buy the cow, or so I thought.
I got my dog fix, all right. But I also began to really understand the plight of shelter animals. Did you know that . . . ?
- An estimated 6-8 million dogs and cats enter US animal shelters each year
- Of these, approximately 3-4 million are euthanized
- Only 15-20% of lost dogs are returned to their owners
- 21% of owned dogs were adopted from shelters and rescues
- 25% of dogs that enter local shelters are purebred
- 78% of owned dogs are spayed or neutered
- Only 10% of dogs received by shelters have been spayed or neutered
Think about that. Twenty-two per cent of dogs are NOT spayed or neutered. Therefore, 90% of the dogs received by shelters come from the pool of 22% unaltered dogs.
Three million euthanized animals is a huge number. But effective spaying and neutering campaigns and programs have reduced the number and percentage of killed animals considerably. Since animal cruelty organizations and animal shelters are not regulated at a national level, available stats are estimates that range widely, but the trend remains.
At Animal Haven, the small dogs, the sick dogs, and the new dogs stay upstairs in the Intake room. The larger dogs live downstairs in cement corrals. The downstairs dogs remind me of prisoners running their tin cups across the iron bars of a jail cell with their howling, their barking, and their sadness.
It breaks my heart to be only able to take care of one dog at a time. Even with all the cleaning and the washing and the walking, it never seems to be enough.
Few of the dogs are housebroken. Shelter life untrains those few pretty quickly. Walks are irregular. The cutest dogs probably get 15 walks a day, since most volunteers work two-hour shifts and walks are not logged. So the dogs sit in their corrals with their poop and their food and their Kuranda cots. Blankets and toys are not allowed in the corrals, for good reason.
Someone told me that Animal Haven is a boutique shelter—it is like the Hilton compared to Animal Control. Wow, I thought. I know the entire staff at Animal Haven has the best interests of the dogs at heart, but they can only do so much. What is the city pound like?
How long do you think it took to walk out of Animal Haven with a dog?
Ready for the Storm
A mandatory evacuation of our neighborhood sent me, my husband and our dog Shadow scrambling to the home of our friends Heather and George in Murray Hill. They extended an invitation that included said dog, despite their pint-sized NYC apartment and a jungle of plants brought in from the patio.
Irene’s wrath bypassed both Murray Hill and Battery Park City, so we fared better than many. Only slightly soggy, we found a restaurant open for lunch and another one open for dinner. Not much to choose from, so we were lucky to find Resto offshoot, Cannibal, open for lunch and Les Halles, open and waiting for dinner.
Our nights out with friends usually end after dinner, but on this rainy night, we continued the party at the apartment. Two more brave souls, Amy and Laurence, found a taxi to gouge them and bring them over.
The six of us had fun in a way we seldom do these days. And as a result, we ended up bonding closer.
What About the Animals?
I worried about the dogs and cats at Animal Haven as Irene threatened the city. Being evacuees, I was in no position to foster an animal. But Animal Haven managed to find foster homes for every last one of their animals.
Apparently, a lot of bonding was going on in those hunkered-down homes last weekend.
At my volunteer shift Friday, I find Animal Haven eerily quiet. Only two little guys are bedding down in the Intake Room and many corrals downstairs sit empty.
Many of the emergency fosters turned into adoptions and the dogs and cats never returned to the shelter. Once you’ve gone through a hurricane together, things change, I guess.
My heart-stealer Leo is among the adopted. I am happy that skinny boy found his home.
Despite the open berths, the Animal Haven staff are busy. They are prepping for the next wave of animals coming in—another reminder that there is never a shortage of animals that need rescue and need a home.
Returned to volunteer at Animal Haven after skipping a week and the shelter is swarming with puppies. I walked five pups, one after the other. I was never quite sure who was on the end of my leash. Later, I figured my guys must have been Alan Stuart, Montauk, Hampton I think, Moses and one sweet fellow who I can’t find on the Animal Have website.
The puppy room is full; corrals are doubled-up with puppies and the big sometimes-puppy room-sometimes I-need-to-be-alone room is now a dormitory with puppies and smaller adult dogs.
Between customers, puppies and clean-ups, I didn’t have a chance to give my latest favorite, Leo, a squeeze. Sweet Leo looks so forlorn. Before my shift is over, someone had wrapped his neck in a squishy blue cone. What ailment are you suffering, Leo?
I want to snatch him up and take him home, but that is for someone else to do.
Cha Cha Gets Adopted
For every crooked pot, there’s a crooked lid, my mother used to tell me. In what context did my mother impart that wisdom? Was I not invited to a grade-school dance? I don’t remember the situation but I always remember the words.
A few crooked canine pots pass through Animal Haven’s doors. Thankfully, their crooked lids usually show up in the store sooner rather than later.
But no dog waited longer for her matching lid than Cha Cha.
Okay, Cha Cha is huge and New York apartments are small. Okay, Cha Cha can destruct the indestructible. But what about the love, man? Staff and volunteers remained mystified, as month after month the gentle giant continued to be passed over.
I sensed a growing feeling at the shelter that Cha Cha would just remain senior-dog-in-residence forever. Even after she was featured in NY1′s In the Papers segment, no takers appeared. I was sure that the publicity would incite a wave of adoption applications.
A Champagne Toast to Bubbles
Compared to Cha Cha, Bubbles sailed in and out of the shelter. But I worried that the Bubbly might wait awhile for a prospective adopter to see the good deep-down.
Bubbles wore her heart on her sleeve when she should have played a little hard to get. Her separation anxiety manifested itself into ceaseless barking and her bunkmates surely got an earful.
I can image their advice to her:
—Just act coy, Bubbles!
—Live up to your name, Bubbles. More effusiveness, less desperation!
—Just put on a little lipstick!
Cheers to the folks who took these girls in their hearts and gave them a home.
Yankee, Before Grooming
—Your mother wants that?
I am holding Abagail who looks fragile and frightened. Pink skinned, almost hairless after a serious grooming, the little poodle has a sad-sack aura about her. Red tear stains cover most of her face and her paws.
But the comment by a tactless neighbor stings and I feel defensive.
I explain to the woman that Abagail was rescued from a puppy mill. My mother adopted her and I would be bringing Abagail to Maryland to meet her new parents.
Of course my mother wants that. She kept us kids didn’t she? She never made us feel ugly or pathetic even around age 11 or 12 when I may not have been ugly, but certainly awkward and pathetic.
A Smidgen of Doubt
It’s the night before our four-hour drive from New York to Maryland. Gene and I are coping with Abby’s nervous energy. She pees on the rug twice before we put her in a crate. She alternates between cowering in the crate and running in circles through the apartment. She is low to the ground and runs with a rat-like furtiveness.
I have a pang of doubt.
Abagail exhibits the behaviors typical of a puppy-mill dog who has spent her life neglected and cooped up. She will need a lotta love to get over her nervousness. Gene has been playing Neil Young’s version of Lotta Love the last few days and the song is stuck in my head.
A Good Sign
In the morning, I walk Shadow, my newly adopted dog, along South End Avenue. We run into the girl who recognized Shadow from the Animal Haven website the moment Shadow and I stepped out of the car together two months ago. I took the girl’s recognition as the first sign that Shadow belonged to us.
I take running into that girl again for the first time since then as a good omen for Abagail’s future.
On the hottest two days of the century, we are working out the logistics of picking up and loading up rental car, who is going to sit where and how we will keep the dogs safe and hydrated. But finally, we are on the road.
Was there any reason to doubt?
—Where’s my dog? are my mother’s first words after we pull up to my parents’ house.
We make a few attempts to dissuade her from rechristening the dog Yankee Poodle. I suggest Fuji, because it is an apple and represents Japan where we grew up. My brother John suggest Cubbie, because he is a Chicago Cubs fan. Gene suggests Yanko The Dentist after an obscure early 20th Century comic strip called Sherlocko The Monk. This idea is immediately dismissed. Yankee she will be. Yankee’s crate is in the center of the living room and Shadow lies beside her.
The conversation is dog, dog, dog—a fun night for dog people. A trip to Petsmart in the morning and my parents are ready to get on with the business of helping Yankee adapt to her forever home.
Shadow At Home
Exactly how long did I think it would be before I brought some sweet pup home from the shelter?
It was thirty days exactly.
I intended to foster a few dogs, to feel the warm fuzzies of canine companionship in short spurts while giving a few animals a comfortable, loving rest stop on the way to their permanent homes.
I knew Shadow would be the first beneficiary of our care and affection the first time I walked her at the shelter. Big yet graceful, Shadow makes walking beside the stalled Soho traffic and its honking horns as mellow as a walk in the ‘burbs. She is mostly deaf so it makes sense that she is unfazed by the noise.
She is house-trained and her house-training is deeply ingrained. Gene and I have experience un-house training and want to avoid the difficulty of re-house training. In this respect, Shadow is perfect.
June 6—D-Day—Shadow and I pull up to our apartment with her riding like a pro beside me in the back seat. I see Gene’s heart melt a bit when he first lays eyes on her. He claims indigestion. We step onto the curb and a woman calls out, “Is that Shadow?” What, a sign? Already?
We walk Shadow in her “Adopt Me” vest for about a week. The vest’s blaze orange draws attention but no takers. Soon it becomes too much of a pain to put the vest on. She likes long strolls through the neighborhood and I find it no trouble to set my morning alarm 45 minutes early.
We discuss adopting her ourselves, but we worry because she is seven at least, and flatulent. How long would we have her? But slowly, we realize she is not the only beneficiary in this deal.
Today I let the shelter know our intention. They knew all along, or were hoping anyway. Though the deal is not yet sealed, I go right to my Orvis bookmark and order the top-of-the-line memory foam bed I picked out last week. That’s commitment.
Nick: The Cutest Boy on the Block
A pattern emerges.
The animal shelter population is always shifting. This time, Lona and the last two Billy Joel puppies are gone. Tammy, the little girl missing an eye is gone too. She never appeared on the adoption website. The staff is busy and I don’t ask where she is.
But mellow Myrtle, the black Chihuahua is still around and on display in the store window today.
Nick, the soft Yellow Lab puppy, still calls the animal shelter home.
—Why are you still here?
Nick walks like a little gentleman-in-training while every other puppy walks like its the first time they have seen SoHo on a leash. The puppies—in front of your feet, doing a circle around you.
—I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to step on your paw, but you put it right in front of my moving foot.
The young ones run ahead and look back at you to say, aren’t you coming?
People on the street react to lush Nick like they spotted a celebrity. Two sets of people don’t just admire him; they want to adopt him. The shelter is just around the corner, I tell them.
Nick stops in front of a gold reflective door to gaze at his own image, and why shouldn’t he?