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.