Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mrs. Fitzgerald Part Three: How Many Times?

This story is Part Three in a series. To read Part One CLICK HERE

“Would you like a shrimp cocktail?” said Mrs. Fitzgerald with a smile as she opened the front door.
            “No thanks,” I replied. I was in the middle of one of my unsuccessful attempts at being a vegetarian. I stepped into the house and watched Mrs. Fitzgerald disappear around the corner into the kitchen. She emerged holding a cracker with a shrimp on it. “See?” she said. “It’s cute, pink, and swims around in the sea.” Wondering what she thought I said, I took the hors douveres from her outstretched hand and popped it in my mouth. It was easier to eat the shrimp than to try and explain. As I chewed, I noticed that there were two other people in the dining room, sitting and talking with Mr. Fitzgerald who was wearing pajamas. His wearing bedclothes at home wasn’t strange, except for the fact that everyone else was dressed-up. Seeing my puzzlement, she took me to the side and explained quietly that her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had notified relatives and friends so they could come and visit one last time.
            “I’m sorry,” I said, and felt lame as soon as the words came out of my mouth. What do you say to someone who is about to lose their husband of 60 years? I picked up the dog leashes, leashed up the girls, and headed out for the walk.
            The next few weeks were a flurry of activity. I didn’t know anyone had that many friends and relatives, let alone that many friends and relatives willing to fly in from out of state to say good-bye. After these visitors came legal advisors to help take care of business, followed by nurses looking for a hospice job. If the situation wasn’t bad enough, Kelly the dog had also been diagnosed with cancer. She had been coughing lately and tiring easily, symptoms we’d chalked up to kennel cough until x-rays revealed cancer in the lungs. She was going downhill and was reaching a point where she needed to be put to sleep.
            “I can’t bear it,” said Mrs. Fitzgerald. “Not with … this,” gesturing with a bony hand towards the bedroom where her husband now spent most of the day. There were tears in her eyes. “I’d just as soon have them do the surgery, and if she dies on the table…”
            “You don’t want to do that to her,” I said gently. Having gone through lung cancer with my own dog just a year before, I knew all about it. “The cancer is all over her lungs and there’s no way to remove it. It wouldn’t be humane. She needs to be put to sleep.” Looking at the sad face of the old woman before me, I added, “I’ll take her.” She nodded and dabbed her eyes, moving towards the bedroom as she heard her husband calling. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.
            She rang me up the next morning to say that the appointment had been made. “You can walk Maggie afterwards,” she said. When I arrived, she looked like she’d been crying a lot. She stroked Kelly’s soft head and looked into the old, cloudy, adoring eyes with her own. “Kelly is my 40th Springer Spaniel,” she said not looking up.
            “Really?” I was 25 at the time and the concept of living long enough to own 40 dogs was foreign to me.
            “Yes!” she said, as if I actually didn’t believe her. “The last two, before these girls, were Susie and May.” With that she walked into the dining room, opened a cabinet, and started rummaging around a pile of what looked like scrap books. She selected one, sat down on the couch, and opened it. The vet appointment was in 20 minutes, but I said nothing, put the leash down, and sat beside her. The book was stuffed with photos, mostly of dogs and puppies. “Look at this,” she handed me an old black-and white photo of Springer puppies in a wire pen. “14 in that litter! Can you believe it? Their mama was very tired.” I smiled and nodded, looking appreciatively at the photo. She flipped through a few more pages before finding what she was looking for, a photo of two smiling dog-faces, those of Susie and May. This was a more recent photo so was in color. The background looked like the room we were sitting in.
            “Aww, look at them,” I said, wondering how so many dogs of the same breed could look completely different. As she closed the book and stood up, another, smaller, photo fell out. She didn’t see it fall, so I bent down and picked it up. It was a black and white photo of a handsome young couple. Their smiles were genuine, in fact they almost appeared to be laughing. I assumed it was Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald in their younger days. “Is this you?” I asked as I handed it to her.
            She looked at the picture and squinted her eyes, as if she had expected to see something else. “My mother,” she said. “I never knew her. She died when I was a baby.”
            Just like me, I thought.
            “My father,” she pointed to the dapper man in the photo. “He died when I was eight.”
            At least I still have him, I thought. Looking at the clock, I realized I had five minutes to get to the vet appointment. I was sure they’d be patient, as the Fitzgeralds were frequent and well-paying clients, but I didn’t want to push it. I clipped the leash on Kelly.
            “Stay with her,” she said as I went out the door, “and make sure they give her a tranquilizer.”
            “I will.”
            At the vet’s office, I stroked Kelly’s face and looked into her eyes as she was given the injection. She slumped to the table, the benevolent expression on her face never changing. I continued to stroke her even after she was gone, lost in my thoughts. The vet, who didn’t have the greatest bedside manner, said, “Um, we need to put the body away now so we can get ready for the next client.” I nodded and left, forgiving him for wanting to get on with his day.

            As I drove back to the house to walk Maggie, I was lost in thought. By the time you’re old, I wondered, how many times do you have to say good-bye?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My Best Friend, Part Two.

“Two dogs just came in and there's nowhere to put them.”

I didn't look up from my computer. I knew by the loud voice and looming presence in my doorway that it was kennel attendant Joel, who never stopped complaining about how “full” the shelter was. I wondered then, as I would for the rest of my career in animal sheltering, why people who don't like cleaning kennels apply for jobs cleaning kennels.

“The dogs going to surgery tomorrow can move to the barn kennels.” The “barn” kennels were overflow chain link kennels in the parking lot, not great for long-term housing but good enough for those about to go home, or somewhere, soon.

I could feel Joel frowning even though I still didn't look up. The staff didn't like putting dogs in the overflow kennels because they were a pain to clean, but the alternative was putting multiple dogs who don't know each other together in the regular kennels. This was successful more often than not, but when not, had led to some serious injuries and even deaths. Realizing the conversation was over, Joel huffed and walked away. Minutes later, animal control officer Brooks stood in the same spot.

“Morning,” she said. “I just picked up two dogs in a guy's chicken coop. He witnessed one of the dogs actually killing the chickens, but the other dog was just standing there, so he doesn't think that one did any killing. Here's the kennel cards.”

“Thanks,” I said as she handed me the cards. “Any owner info?”

“No, no collars, no chips. The chicken owner says he never saw them before.”

“Thanks. How's your day going?” I asked as I thought of how much I respected Officer Brooks. She was a hard working and truly caring person. The previous summer, when the overcrowded conditions led to an outbreak of ringworm in the cat room, she took 38 shelter cats into her own home and treated them for months until they were healthy, then placed them through several rescue groups because of course by the time they were well every cage in the shelter was full and there was “nowhere to put them.” After a short chat, Brooks headed back to her truck to roll out on the next call and I went back to my email.

A while later, I  felt a little dizzy and realized I needed to eat. Logging off my desktop computer, I stood up and stretched, feeling the blood rush to my head and seeing little spots dance all over the room. I headed for the break room where I had a plate of dinner leftovers waiting to be eaten for lunch. Walking sluggishly through the swinging double doors and down the long aisle of dog kennels, I glanced around, smiled and said hi to the dogs as I always did, extending a hand for those who wanted to sniff or lick. Little Chihuahua-Terriers danced on their hind legs, thrusting their black button noses through the bars of their kennels towards me. An old yellow Lab didn't rise from her bed but looked up with a benevolent white face and thumped her tail on the floor, and in the kennel beside her, two dogs stood and looked around as if they were confused … a white Husky mix and a big  black German Shepherd.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Best Friend, Part One

I stretched and groaned as I surveyed the pile of completed paperwork stacked on the two chairs next to my desk. It had taken at least an hour to pull together what was needed for the weekly trip to the spay and neuter clinic: kennel cards, medical records, microchips. Do all the animals have vaccinations? Are they recorded in the computer? Do all the 15-digit microchip numbers match with the correct animals? It was the kind of detail work that I least favored, but had to do, and as I did it, I also had to swallow my frustration. Year after year, I presented reports to the department showing that having a vet on premises one or two days a week was inadequate, and year after year my request for more hours was denied based on “lack of evidence.” When the pool of animals being sent home unaltered reached the hundreds and adopters started calling to complain about the three-month wait for a spay/neuter appointment, I was then told that I could no longer release animals from the shelter until the surgery was done. With only 20 dog kennels and one small cat room, conditions got even more overcrowded than they were before, and now adopters were complaining about having to wait a week or more to pick up their adopted pet, which by now was sick with kennel cough or upper respiratory infection thanks to the longer stay in the shelter. When I put out a call for help to our nonprofit partners, they responded by offering to do as many surgeries as they could for us on one day a week at cost. This was a godsend, but it was also a lot of work to prepare the paperwork and transport the animals to and from the clinic which was 45 minutes away from our shelter.

Turning away from the pile and back to my computer, I opened the internet browser and went to Craigslist. I tried to check the Lost and Found and Pets sections at least a few times a week, as people would often post there but not come to our shelter. We had made several reunions of pet and owner thanks to these listings, and I was always hoping for more. I scrolled down, down, down, not seeing anything familiar in the text or photos. I clicked onto the second page of listings and noticed that one described a missing dog in our jurisdiction. I clicked on the link and suddenly the room spun.

“I am missing my dog King. I just returned from a trip out of the country and found out that he escaped from my Father-in-Law's property. He is a male, five years old. I miss him very much and will do anything to find out where he is. He's my best friend.”

I looked into the eyes of the dog in the attached photo, a big black German Shepherd with a great smiling mouth and big pointy ears, and felt a wave of nausea come over me. I swallowed and pushed my chair back from the computer screen. I knew exactly where King was.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas at the Emergency Vet

Something went wrong every Christmas.
            As a pet sitter, I was used to not celebrating holidays; after all, that is our busiest work season. With everyone out of town visiting family between December and January, the need for pet care is so great that I was usually booked solid by September. Normally, I did four-eight pet sitting visits a day; during the holidays, it was more like 10-14. The days were a flurry of dog walking, cat box scooping, medication giving, and food bowl filling, with little to no margin for error; still, every year something happened to send my well-oiled machine grinding to a halt. This year, it was a cat called Snowball.
            Snowball was a beautiful, pure white male cat. The owners had found him as a kitten several years earlier, and raised him into a sleek, friendly creature. Because he was all white and at great risk for sunburn-induced skin cancer, he was kept 100% indoors; despite that, the owners were having some flea problems. They lived in a wooded area with no shortage of flea-carrying critters like raccoons and rabbits, and the parasites seemed to be marching in a line into their home. At this time, topical flea products like Advantage and Frontline were new, and many people weren’t using them yet. Instead, this family was using a flea collar on their cat. I’ve never been a fan of cat collars, since cats seem to either remove them immediately or get them hung up on something while trying to remove them. I especially disliked flea-repellant ones, since they were soaked in chemicals which, despite their toxicity, did nothing to repel fleas.
            So it was that I trudged up the stairs to the front door of Snowball’s house and put the key in the lock. It had been a busy but good day; I had already completed eight visits and my car was filled with cards, gifts, and sweets from clients. I was looking forward to finishing a little early, going home and relaxing. “Hi Snowball, how are-“ I was cut short by the sight of his face as I opened the front door. His white head was swollen to the size of a softball. His lower jaw seemed to be sticking out. With a sickening feeling in my stomach, I realized what had happened: he had been grooming himself, and when he licked his neck and chest area, his jaw hooked around the flea collar and was stuck. I immediately dropped to my knees and, with some difficulty, removed the collar. Snowball opened and closed his mouth again and again and swallowed. How long had he been like this? Did he ingest the flea-repelling poison? It was clear he had to go to the emergency hospital. Ditching my ideas of a relaxing evening at home, I picked up the phone and called the emergency to let them know I was on my way.
            Sitting in the emergency hospital waiting room, I entertained myself by guessing the thoughts of the other people in the lobby. That one looks worried, that one is bored, that one is angry and frustrated at having to wait so long. Since all other local vets are closed on Christmas Day, the emergency was even more of a crowded nightmare than usual. A wait of two hours was expected if your pet was not at death’s door; still, there were always loud complaints about the wait, and why one animal was seen before the other. At this moment, the door flew open and a hysterical woman ran in.”Please help!” she said, “My dog has been attacked!” The hospital staff, who probably dealt with this sort of scene every day, remained calm and asked what happened. The woman explained that she owned a four-month-old puppy, and she was pet sitting for her friend’s adult dog. She had fed the dogs together in the same room, and when the puppy toddled over to the adult’s bowl to help herself, she was attacked. When asked what kind of dog attacked hers, she replied, “Pit bull.” The two techs at the desk looked at each other, them immediately grabbed blankets and ran outside to the woman’s car to help her bring the puppy in. I only saw the poor thing for a few seconds, but that was enough. She was a fawn pit bull, or at least I could see spots of fawn where she wasn’t covered in blood. There were puncture wounds everywhere. Her head was partially crushed. My stomach turned and my eyes teared up as I thought of those scenes in war movies where they run by with the man on a gurney. The pup was rushed into the back, and the room fell silent. No one complained. The man who had been pacing sat down. The puppy’s owner looked around at us with frantic eyes. “It’s not my fault,” she kept saying, as if we were judging her. “I didn’t know that would happen, I didn’t know!” People started reassuring her, saying things like, “It’s okay, you didn’t know, these things happen.”I got comfortable in my chair, figuring the poor pup would increase my wait at least another hour, but I was wrong. After ten minutes the techs called the woman into the back, and when I heard a great shriek I knew they were telling her that her dog was already dead.
            It was dark when I returned Snowball to his home. He was looking much better already; the swelling had started to go down as soon as I had removed the collar. I placed the vet bill and a color flyer for Advantage flea control on the dining table, stroked his white head, and headed out to finish my day.
            When his owners Greg and Sue returned, I met with them and explained what happened. I told them they would have to pay an extra visit charge for the transport to the vet which, amazingly, some people were reluctant to pay. Sue pulled out her check book and said, “How much was that?”
“Twenty dollars,” I said. She smiled as she handed me the check, and when I looked at it, it said $100!

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your taking such good care of him, especially on a holiday when you’d rather be doing other things.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ghost Mirror

            Dorothy and I had known each other for ten years. We met at the Peninsula Humane Society in the 1990’s when I was working in customer service and she was working as a dispatcher. When I left to start my pet sitting business, we stayed in touch, and two years later I hired her as a part-time sitter. Being petite and not very strong, she was not comfortable walking dogs, but she was great with the cats. She helped me out on weekends and on her days off, and we often talked on the phone and met for lunch.
            Dorothy was one of those amazing people who, by the age of 25, had saved enough money to buy her own condo. During the booming economy of the mid-90’s, she was able to sell it for more than twice what she bought it for and move up to a cute house in San Mateo. She wanted to rent out her extra bedroom, and invited me to move in with her. At the time, I was still living with Bill, so I declined, but when we broke up a year later, she was the first one I called.
            “Still got that room for rent?”
            “Yeah, you want it?”
            “How soon can I come down?”
            She laughed. “How about next week?”

            A few days later, we were sitting in Sushi Sam’s, a very popular place in downtown San Mateo, enjoying dinner and discussing my moving in. Laughing, I popped another California roll into my mouth. “How is it,” I asked as I chewed, “That you’re Chinese, but I’m the one eating with chopsticks?”
            Making a mess of her roll while attempting to spear it onto the end of a fork, Dorothy replied, “I don’t know, we just never used them.”
            Finally getting the roll into her mouth and eaten, Dorothy continued, “My parents wanted us to be totally American. They thought we wouldn’t get ahead if we acted Chinese. They only allowed us to speak English.”
            What a shame, I thought. This phenomenon is not uncommon in immigrant populations. Fearing that their children will experience the same prejudice and lack of opportunity that they did in the U.S., parents suppress their ethnicity in an attempt to make their families “totally American.” Culture and history become something to be ashamed of and are lost, sometimes never to be regained. As Dorothy could attest to, learning Cantonese as an adult – as she attempted to do at the community college – is damn near impossible.
            Finishing our dinner, we agreed on how much I would pay for the room and when I would move in. I left feeling a great sense of relief.

            “Okay, so we’ll meet tomorrow at 3 o’clock? Great, see you then!” I hung up the phone and jotted some notes on a piece of paper. I was sitting at Dorothy’s kitchen table clearing out my business voicemail while she sat in the living room watching TV. She was so petite that when she sat on the huge pink couch she disappeared into it. Her eyes were glued to the screen as they had been for several hours. She was hooked on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, and since she worked when the program was aired, and taped it during the week and watched them all, like a marathon, on the weekend.
            Looking up at her, I said, “How do you feel about a Cockatiel?” There was a delay as she peeled her eyes from the screen and swallowed the potato chip she’d just put in her mouth. “Do I have to let it out of the cage?”
            “No, just clean and feed through the cage. Once a day.”
            She considered for a moment, ate another chip. “Yeah, I can do that. Initial meeting is tomorrow?”
            “Mm-hm,” I nodded, looking again at my notes and smiling, “But there’s just one thing.”
            “What’s that?”
            “Don’t wear stripes.”

              Driving to the new client’s house, I wondered at the idiosyncrasies of people, and of their animals. According to Tweety the Cockatiel’s owner, he was a friendly bird as long as you weren’t wearing stripes. Evidently the wearing of such a pattern would cause him to respond very aggressively. Since I’d never worn stripes in my life, there was no danger of that occurring. Glancing at my notes, I made a left turn, then a right onto the cul-de-sac where Tweety resided. June was the name of the lady I was supposed to meet. Lucia, the owner, would be at work so her partner/roommate June would give me all the info and the key.
              “Hi! It’s the pet sitter!” I could hear someone walking around inside, and a bird chirping, but no one was answering the door. I heard a loud voice talking inside, to whom I wasn’t sure. “Hello?” I called out again, and finally the footsteps approached the door and it was opened. Before me stood a rather large woman with short-cropped dark hair, wearing what was either a large T-shirt or a small nightgown and yellow underpants. Her big white legs stuck out from under the shirt, and since she had no bra on her large breasts hung down to her waist. I was trying to be polite but it was impossible not to stare. Fortunately she didn’t notice; in fact, she just turned around, walked back into the house, and resumed talking to the bird.
            “Tweety, here’s your friend! This is your friend, Tweety! Here she is!” Her voice was loud and kind of strange, as if she was hearing-impaired. Tweety, a mostly-white bird with orange cheeks and a yellow head, raised the feathers on his crown and eyed me suspiciously. Birds, I had learned from my time pet sitting, tend to like the familiar and to distrust strangers. I had a few over the years who warmed up to me, even some of the big guys like Cockatoos and Amazons, but overall I left them alone unless they clearly wanted to be touched.
              Without looking at me, June launched into the care instructions. Bird seed, water, newspapers to line the cage... “Please take in the mail,” she said, pulling a small key out of a silver-plated decorative tea pot and heading for the door. I watched in amazement – and followed her, somewhat embarrassed – as she marched right out the door in her underpants and bare feet across the parking area to the group mail box for the town home community. She showed me their box and how to open it, then walked back in and returned the key to the tea pot. Glancing over my shoulder, I wondered if anyone saw her walking around like that. Oh well, I thought, she probably does it all the time.
            “Put the mail here.” She placed today’s mail on top of a rather large stack on the dining table. “And remember, don’t wear stripes!”

              “Underpants, and a T-shirt?” Dorothy couldn’t stop giggling. “For real?”

            “Yes, for real, in living color!” We laughed again.
            “Oh, um, would you mind…” Dorothy started, looking at the floor. It was her way of speaking when she needed a favor.
            “What?” I asked.
            “Could you fix the mirror? It’s turned around again.”
            “Sure.” I got up and went out the front door to where the ghost mirror was hanging. It was a windy Spring and a few good gusts would flip the thing around so that the mirror part was facing the wall instead of the street. For trying to make her a white-bread American, Dorothy’s parents had passed along a whole lot of Chinese superstitions; among other things, she believed in ghosts, signs, and the zodiac. The ghost mirror, an octagonal piece of wood with symbols painted in each of the eight sections and a round convex mirror in the middle, is an important tool for repelling bad spirits. Good spirits, who may want to help you, can enter the home freely, but those with bad intentions will look in the mirror and be bounced back by their own reflection. At the time I thought it was silly, but later, when my life got more difficult, I found myself embracing the wisdom and buying one for myself.

            The visits with Tweety went smoothly. Dorothy reported that she found everything okay and that the little bird seemed well. I did the visit on the last day, as Dorothy had to work at her other job. I walked in the front door and chuckled at the mental image of June in her unusual outfit. I approached Tweety’s cage and was surprised to see him wide-eyed and agitated. His cage was reasonably clean, and his food and water dishes were full, so I had no reason to believe that Dorothy hadn’t properly cared for him, or that anything else was wrong. Maybe he was just reacting to me as a stranger, since he hadn’t seen me since the initial visit. He eyed me suspiciously as I change the newspaper at the bottom of his cage, then removed his food and water dishes, refilled and replaced them. Shaking my head, I retrieved the mail box key from the silver tea pot and walked outside to get the mail. When I walked back in, I was startled by the sight of a person standing in the living room! Almost dropping the mail, I looked up and saw a small Hispanic woman holding a broom and dust pan. Oh yeah, Cecilia, the house keeper, I remembered. She comes on Fridays. Seeing me, she smiled and raised her hand. Tweety, already big-eyed, launched himself at her side of the cage and screeched like a banshee.
            “Hola!” said the Cecilia. “Pajaro loco, eh?” Crazy bird!
            Getting a closer look at the petite lady, I suddenly noticed what she was wearing. Old Navy was having a sale that week – I’d seen their Spring collection just the previous day, when I was shopping for pants. Evidently Cecilia had been to the same sale, and had purchased the v-neck t-shirt completely covered in dark pink and white stripes. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mrs. Fitzgerald Part Two: Taking the Girls to Arby's

This story is part two in a series. Read Part One here.

Mrs. Fitzgerald loved catalog shopping.

She must have received 100 different catalogs, everything from ladies' clothes to whimsical pet gifts to fancy candies. I could see the mail man groaning as he approached her house each day with a mountain of parcels and even more catalogs. Every day was like Christmas as she opened each box and inspected its contents, then just as often decided she didn't like the items or they were the wrong size, and sent them back.

“My niece Mary will love this,” she said to me, holding up a pretty stationary set with parchment-looking paper and old fashioned pen.

“Is it her birthday?” I asked, admiring the items.

“No, this is for Christmas.”

It was March, never too soon to start shopping for Christmas. By the time the actual day arrived, she’d have an enormous stockpile of gifts and a ledger with a long list of who received what that would baffle an accountant. After walking the dogs, I helped her stash away the items in a cabinet then made for the door.

“You hungry?” she asked as my hand touched the door knob. Of course I was hungry, so I nodded. She smiled. “Let’s take the girls down to Arby’s.” At the word “Arby’s,” the dogs faces lit up and they started getting excited. Maggie bounced up and down like a spring and Kelly rubbed against Mrs. Fitzgerald’s legs like a cat. “I’ll just get my purse,” she said. 15 minutes later she had a purse, matching shoes and hat, and the huge old green Buick was pulled out of its place in the garage. As it turned out, Arby’s was one of her favorite places to go, and the dogs were always taken along for the ride and given a half sandwich each. I sat in the passenger seat and had to laugh as they went back and forth, back and forth, in the back seat. They’d look out one window, then urgently have to look out the other window, and this went on for the duration of the ride. We were driving none too swiftly, so more than once an angry young person in a sporty car would ride our tail, honk, then finally pass.


“I’ll have two barbecue sandwiches and a large fries.”

The man working behind the Arby’s counter gave Mrs. Fitzgerald a blank look and pointed to something in front of the cash register. Thinking he hadn’t heard her, she repeated her order much louder, "I say I'll have two barbecue sandwiches and a large fried!" but she got the same response. “What’s wrong with this dummy?” she said, just as loudly, to me. I looked down and realized that, since the last time she’d been here, the restaurant had installed a touch-screen ordering system. It appeared that you had to push the pictures of the items you wanted, and the guy behind the counter was just there to take your money.

“Here,” I said, “You push what you want to order on this screen.” I pointed to the image of the barbecue sandwich.

Her face was all confusion, and annoyance. “But I told him what I wanted. What’s the problem?” she asked me. Seeing the line of grumbling people growing behind us, I quickly selected our items on the touch-screen menu and told her the total amount due. She handed the attendant the cash and wondered how I knew the price. I showed her on the screen and she shook her head. As we walked out of the restaurant with our bag of goodies, a few customers looked askance as she said, “I swear, the quality of people working in these places today!”

To read Part Three of this story CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dog Catching

Pet sitters, whether they know it or not, are defacto dog catchers. Our experience enables us to safely catch loose dogs, and our already trashed cars and pickups are ideal for their transport. After a few years I lost track of how many dogs I'd safely delivered. Some had ID tags with addresses; in these cases I simply brought them home. Some had only phone numbers, which I called then often waited for the owners to pick them up. If they had a collar only, or nothing at all, I took them to the humane society where they would be scanned for a microchip ID. Sometimes the dogs just came to me, like the time I opened the door of my car right outside my San Mateo apartment, stepped away for a moment, then got in to find a Rottweiler sitting in the passenger seat.

In one of the most amusing cases, I assisted the police in rounding up two dogs. I was driving down Ralston Avenue in Belmont sipping my morning coffee when I spotted four officers running in four different directions, holding leashes. Two large dogs, an Akita and a black Lab, were running in traffic and doing a good job of avoiding the officers. Noting the general direction in which they were traveling, I drove past them and pulled over. I got out of my truck, opened the back -- in my experience many dogs would simply jump in -- and grabbed two leashes. The Akita was the first to arrive; with lolling tongue, the big brindle ran right up to me and it was easy to put on the leash. The Lab wasn't entirely sure of me, but he saw that I had his buddy, so he submitted to the leash. I waited a few minutes for the tired officers to catch up, then handed them the dogs when they did. I got kind of annoyed while they talked amongst themselves and ignored me, so I said, "Can I have my leashes back?"

"Oh, these are not your dogs?" they replied.

"No," I said, "It just looked like you guys needed a little help!"

I seldom got any thanks, in fact many people said not a word as they reclaimed their dogs who had narrowly escaped death in traffic. Some people, embarrassed perhaps, would say that their dog was stupid for always getting out, the dumb mutt. There was one owner, however, who gave me a thanks I won't forget.

The Changs didn't have a dog, so I was quite surprised to hear growling as I approached the door of their Woodside home. I was scheduled to take care of their two indoor cats, and I began to wonder if they'd acquired a dog and not told me (this did sometimes happen). I paused for a moment to take out my cell phone and check voicemail ... no new messages. Another step forward, and the growling resumed. I looked around, confused, and spotted a very frightened-looking yellow dog about the size of a coyote cowering behind a large decorative pot. Ah, another lost soul. I wasn't about to get too close, but neither could I leave the poor creature out to starve or to be hit by a car on Sand Hill Road, where speeds often exceeded 60mph. I remembered the days when Rusty would help me round up lost dogs; I'd let him out of the truck, he'd go and make friends with the strange dog, then jump back in the truck, usually followed by his new friend. I wondered if my grumpy three-legged mutt Cassie, who happened to be riding along with me that day, would be willing to do the same. I let her out of the truck and she didn’t disappoint; coaxing the lost dog out from behind the pot and sniffing her curiously; she kept her distracted long enough for me to slip a large noose around her neck. Realizing that she was trapped, the yellow dog struggled for a second, then gave up. I spoke softly to her and walked to my truck, encouraging her to jump in, which she did. She was less nervous now, and I was able to locate ID tags on the furry neck. I dialed one of the numbers, and a woman answered. "Hi," I said, "Are you missing a dog?"

She gasped, then said, "Yes, it's my son's dog! Please give me your number, I'll have him call you right away."

I gave her my cell number, and minutes later I was on the line with an excited young man who said he would come right out. A small truck was soon coming up the long driveway, and the man jumped out of it as soon as he stopped. "Is this your dog?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "that's my ... that's my ..." then at this moment he flung his arms around the yellow neck and burst into tears. His face turned all red and he sobbed as the dog's tail wagged. When he was able to breathe again, he thanked me over and over, saying that the dog, Ginny, had become spooked and gone missing during a hike in the woods over the weekend. Since it was now Wednesday, that meant that Ginny had been missing for three days, and they were beginning to think she was dead. "She's shy," he explained, "No one else can handle her except me and my family. We knew she wouldn't approach anyone. I don't know how you got her. Thank you." I watched with a smile and patted Cassie's head as the truck drove away, a wagging yellow tail just visible through the back window.