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Shelter Shock: No Kill Turns Into a Life Sentence for a Couple of Old Coonhounds

I can’t stop thinking about Penny and Frosty, a couple of 14-year-old, Coonhound/Labrador Retriever mixes who have lived their entire lives at the Humane Society of Branch County, a no-kill shelter in Quincy, Michigan.

Penny’s Puppy Days are Over

These old old-timers started popping up on my facebook news feed last week. At their age, Penny and Frosty should be curled on a plush bed by the fireside on cold Michigan nights, not spending their final days at the shelter where they arrived in of a litter of puppies fourteen years ago.

Now those puppies have grown into a couple of old ladies. Penny was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and is hanging in there. Frosty is on thyroid meds.

News of the pair online sparked plenty of questions. People were haunted by Penny’s gray muzzle and Frosty’s sad, cloudy eyes. These old girls have never known a home for long. They were adopted twice but returned, according to Humane Society of Branch County’s facebook page.

A couple of young volunteers recently put the word out on these two, states a facebook post by Humane Society of Branch County in response to questions about Penny and Frosty. The dogs don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

“[Penny and Frosty] really are not able to travel a long distance,” states the rescue’s post about potential homes. “Anyone that would have the heart to adopt these sisters probably has other dogs, and these dogs need to be the only dogs in the family. They are not housebroken, either.”

My first reaction to hearing about Penny and Frosty was that this rescue let these girls down a long time ago. When did someone — or several people — at this organization decide that keeping dogs in a shelter/boarding environment interminably was acceptable?

Frosty Grew Old With No One Person to Call Her Own.

Maybe those “young volunteers” who recently spread the word on these dogs are still innocent enough to believe that when they notice something wrong, it is their duty to make it right. I wonder how many other people who witnessed these dogs living in a kennel all this time felt the same way but just kept quiet and let the rescuers do their jobs. Meanwhile, Penny and Frosty’s lives passed them by.

In the Humane Society of Branch County’s defense, Quincy is just a teeny town in Southern Michigan with a population of only 1,700 people. Quincy is surrounded by mostly small towns, and the nearest big city is Detroit, 100 miles away. So, it’s not like this group has a wealth of resources available when it comes to animal rescue.

The shelter is small and run by volunteers who devote their lives to saving animals. These people do the heartbreaking and difficult work of helping homeless animals, which is something most people don’t do, because it makes them “too sad.”

The shelter may be small, but plenty of people want to know about the old dogs. The hundred or so facebook comments about Penny and Frosty on Humane Society of Branch County’s page covered a wide range of opinions:

“Many shelters provide a more fulfilling and enriching life than a kennel in a [run] for hours on end or a chain in a backyard.” wrote one woman. “This shelter took these dogs back when adoptions failed and didn’t rush them to the needle when they presented with costly medical conditions. If you don’t know anything about the dogs or the shelter, then quit making assumptions and running off at the mouth.”

“The shelter staff are these dogs’ family,” wrote another. “It might be more stressful and upsetting to move them somewhere else at this stage. They could feel the same abandonment that most dogs would feel when dumped at a shelter by their family….It sounds like they are loved and well cared for right where they are. Kudos to you for being their family all these years!”

Others weren’t so forgiving: “Maybe this is why you kept Penny and Frosty for 14 years -to use as fundraisers. To not be able to find loving homes in 14 long years is shameful. Not finding loving homes, and not socializing these dogs and not housebreaking them is NOT compassion and good care. They could have had such a better life than lifelong at a shelter with no special person to call their own. You failed these dogs.”

It’s true that Penny and Frosty have had better lives than the thousands of dogs out there starving on chains or wandering the streets. Then again, if they’ve been well-loved and cared for, why didn’t anyone take time to housetrain them? Wouldn’t that have made them more adoptable? Apparently, the two are dog aggressive, but was there really no home where they could be the only dogs?  Why did no one call in a dog trainer? I have to wonder how hard anyone really tried, in 14 years, to find these girls a home, or at least a foster home.

Before anyone bashes the Humane Society of Branch County’s current group of volunteers, though, keep in mind that most of these people probably weren’t the ones who initially failed these dogs. That group likely burned out long ago. If you want to know what this little rescue is up against, a facebook post from one of its workers, who has been there for only a year, sums up how most people in animal rescue spend their time and how much they care:

“We are a small shelter in the middle of nowhere and receive no funding….. I work at this shelter for basically nothing. Every cent of my money is used in making vet runs with my own car and gas…..I have donated money upon money to the shelter…I am working at that shelter six days a week and sometimes even on Sunday. Many times I work into the night…..I have shed tears when they come in and when they get adopted, when they are sick and when they don’t get chosen.

“I often bring them home to give them a break from the shelter or to nurse them when they are sick. I would never, never exploit any of these dogs. Perhaps I have failed…..I often think the same thing….All I can say is we are doing the very best we can do for Penny and Frosty and for every dog that comes to this shelter.”

I left a message this afternoon on Humane Society of Branch County’s voice mail, inquiring about Penny and Frosty’s future. I haven’t heard back yet but I don’t hold that against anyone. If this small shelter is like most, it has a croaking answering machine on a table in some drafty corner that gets checked only when someone is there to check it. Hopefully, I will hear back and have an update soon.

For now, it looks like Penny and Frosty will live out the rest of their days at the only home they’ve known, a shelter where those entrusted with their care do actually seem to love them. And the dogs do get to go outside daily, when weather permits.

I guess only the people running Humane Society of Branch County know for sure how hard anybody tried over 14 years to place these girls in a home. Honestly, there is no one person to blame, and what good would blame do at this point? It’s just sad that as staff and volunteers came and went, over all those years, somehow, one year turned into two, and two into four, and four into eight for Penny and Frosty.

Now these dogs’ lives are nearly done. I can’t help thinking that someone, somewhere along the way, could have tried a just little bit harder.


Helping Animals is Helping People

It's a Dog's Life (Poem: To My Human Who Is No...

It’s a Dog’s Life (Poem: To My Human Who Is Now Taking My Picture) (Photo credit: faith goble)

“Why aren’t you out there helping people instead of animals?”

I see this sentiment expressed sometimes, usually in some online comment section, where the person writing it revels in snarkiness, almost always under the cloak of anonymity.

While I usually dismiss these sourpusses as your basic animal and people haters, their question always makes me think about how easy it is to view these two groups – animals and people — as being separate when it comes to animal rescue. Of course, we know that the animals we find homes for are going to live with people. However, because our objective is saving animals, it’s mainly the animals on which we focus.

A lot of that focus is simple practicality. This is how rescuing a dog often goes: “I have to fatten up this starved dog I got out of the pound. Then I’ve got to get her treated for heartworms, and then I’ve got to get her spayed and housetrained and socialized with other dogs. Meanwhile, I have to find a rescue group, a foster home, a boarding facility or let her live in my own home until I find her a great home. Oh, wait…I have no idea how she is with cats.”

It’s natural to get so zoned in on making sure that the animal finds a home where it is loved and safe and appreciated that we lose sight of the bigger picture, the effect the pet has on the people who give it a forever home. Sure, we follow up and make sure things are going well, that the dog gets along with the family’s kids or that the cat is thriving in its new environment. But what we don’t know or see is what goes on in the years that follow.

The dog you place in a home with an eight-year-old boy who tosses him a ball in the back yard today may feel like his only friend six years later, when that boy is a teenager nursing his first broken heart, sitting on the back porch with his best buddy licking the tears off his cheek. That once-stray cat now purring in a woman’s lap may be the only comfort that woman finds, the little bit of love that keeps her going when she is grieving the loss of her mother, years down the road.

For someone who is depressed, just knowing they have to get out of bed and walk the dog may be the only thing that gets that person out of the house, gets their body moving and makes their mind just a little bit clearer to get them through whatever hard thing is weighing them down. Having that dog’s unconditional love may even be the one thing that keeps that person from taking their own life.

Dog nurse VI

What a lot of people don’t understand is that helping animals is helping people. When you place a dog in a home with a family, you’re giving those kids the memory of their childhood pet, a picture framed in their mind for their entire lives. And who knows how many people have found love, whether with a new friend or an intimate partner, from striking up a conversation with another animal lover while walking their dog?

Animals remind us that life isn’t just about work and obligation. Sometimes, it’s about being silly enough to crawl around on the floor “barking” at your dog or letting your cat chase you from room to room while you dangle a feather behind. Animals remind us to play, and sometimes, playing and laughing – at your pets and at yourself – are the only things that can keep you going until your life’s road turns to better times.

People who rescue animals can get bogged down in the despair of it all, the images of neglected cats and dogs they can’t forget, the heartlessness of people who dump their pet at a shelter and then walk away laughing with their friend about where they should go for  lunch. But be sure to make room in your mind for those other images, the ones of a dog you saved or comforted at the shelter, currently snoozing in front of a cozy fireplace or that matted cat now happily stretched out in a patch of sunlight in her new home.

Most of all, leave a space for the unknown. You may never know the ripple effects of your small – or large – acts of kindness. Whether you helped a stranger at the shelter select a dog that is going to comfort him when his life is lonely or you fostered a cat that went on to sleep curled beside the head of a woman struggling through divorce, your actions have meaning. You did something kind. You made a difference in a world where most people don’t.

You helped an animal and a person.


What’s Your Rescue Style?

Whether you’re a jaded veteran or an idealistic newbie in the field of animal rescue, take this revealing quiz to discover your unique rescue style!

I spent last Saturday:

A. Searching a cemetery in a bad part of town for a lost Doberman, last seen trotting through headstones at sundown.

B. Readying a blind Pit mix, an emaciated German Shepherd and an obese Min Pin for an all-day adoption event.

C. Petting puppies at Wayside Waifs.

D. Ironing my KC Pet Project sweatshirt before I go to the shelter to put in 20 minutes of dog walking.

E. Enjoying a spa day with an old friend while we laughed and laughed.

If I saw a dog trying to cross four lanes of traffic on a busy highway to get to a McDonald’s bag, I would:

A. Veer off the road, slam on the brakes and hang out the driver’s window to lasso the dog with a leash – all while calling friends to meet me for a drink later to celebrate saving that dog’s life.

B. Pull over right away and call two friends: One to direct traffic while I try to catch the dog and another to videotape the entire episode for submission to Godvine.

C. Get on Facebook as soon as I got home, pleading with everyone on the rescue pages for someone to please go help that poor dog!

D. Feel bad about it for the rest of the day.

E. Crave a Big Mac and a vanilla shake.

If I had a tail, it would be:

A High and tightly arched over my back, with just the tip jerking quickly back and forth.

B. Wagging constantly.

C. Chased in circles.

D. All puffed up.

E. Docked.

My worst shelter-related injury would have to be:

A. Being dragged down a hill while clutching the leash of a German Shepherd in heat.

B. Frostbite from walking dogs in a sleet storm.

C. A fractured rib from getting into a fist fight with the shelter director.

D. Breaking my fingernail at the gas pump on my way to a gala fundraiser.

E.  Slipping on dog poop while texting.

If I am upset with another person in the rescue community, I work through my issues by:

A. Working even later into the night saving animals.

B. Seeing a skilled therapist.

C. Telling my cat what a bitch that person is while we’re watching Pitbulls and Parolees.

D. Announcing that I am leaving rescue forever.

E. Buying a brand new car and shoes to match.

Now total up your points and find your rescue personality below!

A=10 points; B=8 points; C=6 points; D=5 points; E=1 point

Angry Webcomics

40-50 Points: Bold and Bawdy! You are fearless, fearsome and all-around awesome —  but seriously misunderstood. Rescue Recommendation: Add a feral cat to your pack and seek a deeper understanding of the inner you with a yoga mindfulness meditation class.

30-40 Points: Cocktail Couture! You have credit card debt from too many foster dogs and mysterious stains all over your car seats. Yet you remain hopeful that better days lie ahead. Rescue Recommendation: Get only short-term foster dogs, crack open a bottle of wine and take a hot bath with soothing lavender pillows placed over your eyes.

20-30 Points: Fabulously Forgetful! You have a huge heart but a short memory. Pulling dogs off the urgent list, you get them into rescue or boarding and then forget about paying the veterinary bills or finding them homes. Rescue Recommendation: Forgive yourself, gulp down some Gingko Biloba and start training for a 5K walk or run to sharpen your focus.

10-20 Points: Shelter Chic! Naturally photogenic, you are often glimpsed in the background on television news stories about adoption events. You enjoy expressing controversial opinions on social network pages. Rescue Recommendation: Get on the news to find homes for Fabulously Forgetful’s boarding dogs. Reward yourself with a massage and a pampering pedicure.

Dog fashion show

0-10 Points: Pet Store Petite! Just because you’re not cut out to work in the trenches doesn’t mean you can’t still help animals. Rescue Recommendation: Take a karate class to boost your confidence and organize a group of your spa friends to put on a doggie fashion show to benefit your local animal shelter.

Now that you’ve discovered your true rescue style, get out there into the glamorous world of animal rescue and save some animals while there are still a few left!