There is no better teacher of how unexpectedly your life can turn around than a rescue dog.
A year ago on New Year’s day, I volunteered at KC Pet Project’s grand opening as new operators of the Kansas City Missouri animal shelter. Volunteers were everywhere, walking dogs, feeding treats, helping customers. I went to the back row of the shelter, looking for a dog eager to stretch its legs. A skinny, black dog named Vivian sniffed at the kennel door. I knelt down and noticed that I could see every bone in her rib cage. Her hip bones jutted sharply. Her neck was raw from having had an embedded collar.
I glanced at Vivian’s cage card and saw that she had been seized by animal control for cruelty. Most likely, she was tied up in a yard and forgotten for months, even years. Yet when I took Vivian outside on a leash, she was as sweet as could be. I have seen much worse cases of emaciation while volunteering at the shelter, but my heart went out to this chow/terrier mix of about 25 pounds. The longer I walked her, the worse I felt. I couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering any more, ever again. I had to get her out.
I called my friend Sam Gooch, who made a space for Vivian at Winding River Kennel, where we sometimes kept dogs while we searched for rescue. The next day, I picked Vivian up and took her to Winding River. Vivian settled right in, acting like she’d been given a posh room at the Ritz Carlton, even though her new digs consisted of only a concrete floor, an old blanket and a ready supply of food and water.
I found Vivian a foster home, where she stayed for a few months while undergoing heartworm treatment, which was paid for by KC Pet Project. Her new foster mom, Susan, renamed her Frida and fattened her up by hand-feeding her salmon and chicken. The little dog who only a month earlier lay chained in a back yard, hopeless, starving and lonely, finally had someone to take care of her, perhaps for the first time in her life.
Frida’s rescue journey was only beginning, though. In May, a rescue group, TARA, transferred her into their program, got her spayed, and I found her another foster home with a family that taught Frida better manners. All summer, I took Frida, whom the new foster family renamed Kiki, to adoption events. I bought a pink child’s tank top at a thrift store and ironed on “Adopt Me” in black letters so she could wear the shirt while I took her out for walks.
KC Pet Project’s volunteer photographer, Kimberly Beer, took some great pictures of Kiki, and I plastered “Adopt Me” flyers, 80 of them, all over town and fielded 20 calls about Kiki, but none was the right fit. Eventually, a nice couple with a one-year-old Labrador Retriever adopted Kiki. Their dog loved her, the two played great together, and I thought that was the end of Kiki’s search. However, the couple returned her two weeks later.
“She barks when people walk past the house,” they told me. “And she sticks her head really far out the window in the car.” I picked Kiki up and let her hop into my car. Her adopter leaned toward the window. “Bye, Kiki,” she told her. But Kiki just turned away.
My new problem was that Kiki had now lost her foster home, which had already taken another dog. When her first fosters boarded her for a week once, Kiki was so anxious that the kennel had to separate her from the other dogs, so boarding was out of the question. I had no choice but to keep her in my basement, apart from my four dogs, seemingly the only dogs in the world that Kiki despised.
It was rough at first. Kiki went ballistic every time she heard my dogs’ toenails clicking on the floor above us. I worked with her to calm her down, though, and eventually, my dog-juggling act became routine. I put Kiki in the crate when my dogs went out the back door. I let her out in the basement when they came back in.
I bought Kiki a dog bed (her former adopters didn’t get one for her) and hung out with her late at night while I tapped away at my laptop, nervously smoking the occasional cigarette. Would I have this dog forever? Was I becoming an animal hoarder? What would I do with five dogs?
Melody Kelso, an excellent animal behaviorist at The Pet Connection in Olathe, Kansas, let me bring Kiki to adoption events and a free dog training session at their facility. Kiki had a bad habit of rearing up and acting aggressive when she saw other dogs when she was on-leash, even though she was great at the dog park and loved to play with other dogs. At the training session, Kiki romped and played with the other dog with no problems. I continued to worry. Who would adopt a “leash-aggressive” dog? Was Kiki stigmatized, now that she had been returned?
“Maybe you should just let go of worrying for a few days,” my friend Allie advised me when I told her that no one had called for a few weeks. “Sometimes, that helps to get things going again.” I took her advice and went about my life, walking my five dogs a day and losing two pants sizes from all the exercise. Then it happened. Kiki’s life changed.
On a rainy Tuesday in September, a man named Larry called. He had recently seen a flyer I posted at the old House of Hezekiah, an herb and tea place in Westport, back in May. We met him at a park, and Kiki loved him. Even better, he loved her. His last dog, which he rescued long ago from a drunken man who was beating her regularly, had died a year ago at 17 years old. I liked Larry right away. A week later, I took Kiki to Junction City, Kansas, to her new home.
Larry called me two weeks ago to tell me how great Kiki (who he renamed Kako) is doing at her new home. He says she acts like she’s lived there forever, rides great in the car and is very protective of her house. In fact, Larry likes it that she wakes him sometimes in the middle of the night, barking, when she suspects something is amiss in the back yard. Larry even amended his will to ensure that Kako is taken care of in case of his untimely demise.
So, little Kako’s life sure has changed a lot in a year. She went from no one loving her on last New Year’s Day to now being treated like the precious, barking individual that she is. She went from being totally alone to having so many people she didn’t even know existed step up to help her have a better life.
I know I will think about Vivian/Frida/Kiki/Kako whenever my life may take me to a place of despair and loneliness. Whenever it seems that there is no hope that things will get better. Because this dog taught me that we don’t ever know who is out there for us, to offer a hand when we least expect. We don’t know what the year will hold or the unlikely friends we will make. She taught me to hope and to keep trying, no matter how bad things seem. She taught me that sometimes good things can take a long time to happen but the really good ones are worth the wait.
Kako reminded me that even though I know I can’t save them all, I can at least save one, even if only animal one at a time. And to that one dog, that’s all that matters. To Kako, I and the other people who helped her were everything. Now, Kako’s life is finally good. And to me, that’s all that matters.