every week when i go to the shelter, i fall in love with a dog. Yes it's love, and yes, it's usually just one. and that level of love differs from dog to dog. When i get home, Tim asks me "who did you meet today?" and i go on and on about all the cute dogs i saw; and this little mama; and that cute little guy; and the sad eyes of this one; and the sweet snuggles from that one. and then he asks "is there anyone you want to bring home?" The first time i said yes, he called our landlord, who told him we weren't allowed to get another dog.. I've still answered yes 3 more times.
Each Sunday we receive a list of dogs to photograph from the shelter staff. Far too often there is the notation, "fearful," next to a dog's ID. This notation can mean a dog is merely shy or it can mean a dog is feral and human contact is both alien and unwelcome. Mostly it means that a dog has been abused and has come to dread human contact. Today, I finished my shooting and was helping the other photographers by wrangling dogs for them. I often handle fearful dogs because I trust dogs and can handle large dogs, although I am always cautious when they are in a strange and stressful environment like the shelter.
I went to retrieve the last dog on our list, WD47-A244076, a dog that had this notation. The dog lay immobile while its cage mate, an adopted dog awaiting its humans, jumped about with unbounded excitement. WD47 would not leave the cage voluntarily and would not walk on a leash, meaning I had to carry him the length of the shelter. Once outside, he lay at my feet, unwilling to change position, unwilling to accept any of the treats placed by his nose, unwilling to look around at his surroundings. The dog I saw was a handsome boy, with a cheap camouflaged collar with no tags, but he was undernourished and severely chewed up. He appeared to have been a bait dog, with bite marks all over his head and body. As one of the other volunteers put it, he had given up. He was unwilling to do anything but be, awaiting his fate with a resolute passivity that might have made Gandhi nod in understanding.
When it came time to photograph him, Tricia carried him to our backdrop and we positioned him as best we could to make him look relaxed. He favored us with a direct and unyielding look. After his photos were taken and we started to break down our equipment and clean up, I invited our shooter, a first-time volunteer named Lauren, and her wrangler friend, Allison, along with Ashley, a regular and very competent and caring - if young - wrangler, to spend as much time with WD47 as they wished. They took him back to the yard and sat with him, petting and talking to him, as it rained intermittently. Within a short time I returned to find WD47 sitting up. His ragged eyes were closed and he sat still and trance-like, absorbing the strokes, pats and pets of the three patient ladies. As if their gentle hands stroking him were fertilizer and the rain were a catalyst, I saw this dog bloom like a desert flower. He was soaking up something he had never experienced before, something very elemental, something that caused a profound transformation to occur in this dog right before my eyes. I was in awe at the resilience of this dog and the ability of caring humans to bring a dog back from the brink of nothingness to the world of the living in no time flat. Soon he was eating all manner of treats from any hand that offered.
That is the special bond between people and dogs. That is the power we hold for them. We are their gardeners and they are our willing crop. We can take a beaten husk and transform it into a vibrant and balanced companion in a breathtakingly short time. What is not so obvious, at least to us, is the affect that this transformation has on the gardener. It creates a desire to replicate the experience over and over again. To save a life with a touch and a whisper.
Thanks to Lauren, Allison and Ashley, and of course to Tricia and Joan, without whom no miracle would have happened today. Please see all of Lauren's photos of WD47 here: http://shelterphotos.zenfolio.com/p1055084604 and please give this great dog a home, or contact anyone you know who can. You - or they - will receive a wonderful and attentive friend in return.
Recently the Orlando Sentinel did a multimedia story about Pawsitive Shelter Photography, which can be viewed at this link:
Please check it out. And if you wish to assist us in helping shelter animals find homes, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am convinced that the best physical model for how the universe operates is the game of billiards. Each ball hitting other balls sets off chain reactions careening in random directions, toward unknowable results. Sometimes the balls even find their intended targets.
As it happened, a short while ago I ran into an acquaintance who told me a story about a mutual friend who recently found a stray dog. That dog was turned into OCAS and, as it happened, because of our friend's position in life the dog was accorded treatment different than most animals receive at OCAS, including a longer time to be adopted.
That was fine with me until a dog I photographed last Sunday was put on the euthanasia list on Tuesday, meaning the dog's photos ran for just one day before they were taken down in preparation for the dog being destroyed on Wednesday morning. But as it happened, I had an Orange County Animal Services Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday evening and this gave me an opportunity to raise the unfairness of the situation with the OCAS decisionmakers. To my surprise and without hesitation or argument, I was granted a two week reprieve for this dog, named Lexi. I was elated, but unsure how I would proceed to get Lexi rescued or adopted. I contacted everyone I could think of who might be able to help or who might have their own ideas about how to proceed.
And as it also happened, Pawsitive Shelter Photography ("PSP") had photographers and wranglers at OCAS on Wednesday for our second day of weekly shooting at OCAS, and one of our photographers, Barbara Sheridan, saw a person looking at Lexi. Barbara talked up Lexi to this person and a short time later Lexi - instead of lying dead in a landfill somewhere - had a new home and life to look forward to. Great story, with random events and connections leading to a satisfying ending, except that ....
As it happened, when I got home from work that Wednesday evening I received an email from someone seeking help from PSP to save a dog. As it happened that dog was named Lexie. Lexie was scheduled to be euthanized at OCAS on Thursday morning. Of course I responded, thinking it was probably too late to reach anyone and I didn't hold out much hope that I could get an extension. But since there was at least one person out there highly motivated to save this dog, I knew that all was not yet lost. So I sent off an email to OCAS, essentially offering double or nothing on my recent good luck. Then I waited.
To my surprise, on Thursday morning I was notified that OCAS had agreed to extend Lexie until the following Tuesday. I exchanged email with Lexie's champion and the same people I had previously contacted about Lexi. Not more than three hours later I was stunned to learn that Lexie too had just been adopted, also cheating the landfill in favor of a home, a life and an opportunity to be a companion.
If I were a gambling man, I might have thought about Vegas, Atlantic City, or at least a Powerball ticket. But there was no need, because I had already won something far more valuable than anything cards or dice could offer. Counting the adoption of a beautiful dog by a friend, co-worker and fellow PSP volunteer, last week three dogs and three families had favorably touched each other, and nothing could beat that, not even a royal flush. Sometimes it just works out that way.
Still flushed with news of the early morning departure of little Braxton on his rescue flight from St. Augustine to Philadelphia, I arrived at OCAS to set up for our weekly Sunday morning shoot. Today would be busy, with 27 dogs on our list. These are dogs that are deemed by the shelter staff to be in need of adoption assistance, i.e. not cute puppies, and yet represent only a few days of available dogs. I am fortunate to have photographic help today, or I would be working until late into the night instead of early evening.
The volunteers arrive one-by-one. Some will wrangle dogs, some will shoot and wrangle, helping to walk and dress them and keep them attentive during the shoot. Because the shelter is closed to the public on Sundays, each arriving volunteer needs to be let in by someone who has already arrived.
Karen texted me that she was at the front door. When I opened the door, she was several feet away looking at a spot between the main entrance door and the door to the adjacent clinic, about twenty feet away. The space between the doors is filled with hard white stone and a single, spindly bush that always appears to be on the knife's edge of survival. A closer look revealed a small dog, its leash attached to the bush, along with a bed, some toys, a note and a bowl. Someone had abandoned the dog outside the door of this closed facility. The arriving volunteer and another woman were crouched, examining the dog.
Such irresponsible conduct is by no means rare. The shelter closed its after-hours pavilion some time ago, due to the overwhelming number of animals that were being abandoned there. But tales of people who still drive up and toss unwanted animals over the gates are legion. Do we really need an IQ test for pet owners? The answer is yes. License people, not pets. That a mandatory spay and neutering program is necessary is a closed question. What remains open for debate, however, is which population of mammals it should be applied to, the two legged or the four legged variety.
I left to summon the shelter staff who have authority to accept the abandoned animal. A man came and swept up dog and its belongings and re-entered the building. As he departed, Karen and I turned to the other woman who was standing there, waiting - she said - to pick up her own dog at the SPCA across the street. We quickly asked her about her interest in this dog, and when we discovered that she had some, albeit reluctant interest, I called to stop the shelter attendant, who returned with the stray. My humanitarian entreaties didn't seem to work, but on a purely economic argument she accepted the logic of taking the dog. If she was interested and it didn't work out she could always surrender the dog, nothing lost. But once the dog was admitted, it would cost her $50 to adopt the dog. She had nothing to lose. This bit of high speed hucksterism worked and she left with the dog, who was spared the sicknesses and bad odds of survival that are endemic inside the walls of the public shelter.
Karen and I put aside our slick evangelism/salesmanship and went about trying convince the public to adopt more shelter animals. As happy as I was to have helped this poor little dog, I also felt ashamed of the people who had abandoned this dog with hardly a second thought. I do not understand how or when the idea of personal responsibility left our society. To me the very definition of failure would be to abandon a dog I had adopted. It is something I could not bring myself to do. Perhaps I am naive and underestimate the degree of suffering and deprivation that people must endure in 21st century America. Maybe. But I know that when called upon to take a stand on any issue, it is this: I will never abandon my family, and my dogs are members of my family. If I ask a dog to give up part of its canine nature and adapt to living as a quasi-human, in return I promise to be responsible for caring for the dog for as long as it lives. Bargain made, bargain kept.