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October 30, 2020

Dancing on the Edge of Uncertainty: Saving Wrigley

They were going to kill him. Euthanize him, the shelters prefer to say, but in Greek it means good death, intended to relieve an animal’s suffering. Wrigley, a six-year-old Pittie/Boxer mutt, wasn’t suffering for any reason but eight excruciating months of confinement in a California shelter. He wanted desperately to live.

As with many of these dogs, Wrigley popped up in my awareness and thus my life two days before his deadline in my social media feed. It’s one way I help advocate with others on the plight of at-risk dogs in high-kill shelters, so that a foster-based rescue may pull them out before it’s too late. Nearly always, behavioral is cited as the reason for death. Kennel stressed, not doing well in kennel environment, fearful, anxious, antisocial, the oft-cited reasons born of human construct defining a dog’s behavior, are anything but indicative of a dog’s true nature. When abandoned by their people as owner surrender, they suffer the emotional and psychological effects of loss, grief, abandonment, confusion and betrayal – by and of their people and environment, routines and smells. Couple that with the stressful wails and whines of others similarly situated, they suffer greatly.

After handing the leash over the counter, their people drive off, often detaching from any degree of emotional or psychological bond previously forged and deluding themselves that their once loyal canine companion will get adopted by people with a farm or land on which to roam. The reality being far different, as demonstrated by the high euthanasia rate at California shelters.

Some react to being dumped upon shelter staff by curling up on concrete floors and tucking their heads in protective withdrawal. Others become aggressive with sudden and unfamiliar surroundings.

All the while, shelter staff, overwhelmed with the increasing number of precious cargo dumped upon them like aged inventory, responds by walking them down the hallways, tucking them into kennels and assigning them a kennel identification number. Overburned and under resourced rescues partners with the respective shelters are contacted and if the victim in question is fortunate, may be pulled before an unfortunate outcome.

Others simply wait.

Whether an owner surrender had a couch to call its own before being thrown into strange and stressful surroundings mercilessly preying upon a dog’s sensitive intuitive nature or called the streets their own to roam freely, matters not. Take away all things familiar to any dog otherwise safe and established within the constructs and understanding of their canine mind, and they devolve into traumatized descendants of their wolf ancestors. Even worse, they are isolated from their family – in canine language, their pack. Sometimes, they forget the commands they once knew and associations once made with established routines. All they know is, they want out and they want their people back – and the home in which they once felt safe.

To say the shelter environment is a traumatic one for a homeless dog would be like saying that Trump stretches the truth just a bit.

Wrigley, a fairly common looking mutt to most, is a handsome soul of brown and white patterns. Images of Spanky & Our Gang, Pitties of yesteryear, come to mind. Like most Pittie mutts, he weights in around seventy pounds, which makes an impact when you consider that his way of responding to stress in the shelter environment was by chewing on the bars of his confinement. His stress was exacerbated by the fact that he’d been heavily sedated with a pain medication in an effort to modify his behavior and left to lie in his kennel day after day for fear of injury to his handlers. By the time I’d learned of his plight, the shelter had all but given up.

FINAL DAY, 10/14!!! SOS, NEEDS OUT NOW!!! People said. That, and the oft cited, DETERIORATING FROM KENNEL STRESS!

I had little reason to hope that Wrigley was alive when I called on the sixteenth of October, but I did so anyway. Social media is frequently a cesspool of drama and misinformation, the rescue dog advocacy movement being no exception.

With trepidation and dread growing large in my heart, I dialed the shelter, explaining who I was. Was Wrigley still available? Being the only question in need of answer.

Negative, the clerk said.

Is that because you killed him, or was he adopted?

Don’t know. His answer hit as cold and flat as the concrete kitchen floor on which I stood waiting. You can leave a message for the supervisor.

I waited patiently through the beeps and buzzing until it devolved into the silence. I left enough words conveying the facts and reason for my call, details for the supervisor to call me back. I hung up and went about my Monday, my heart heavy with the loss of yet another victim of a dysfunctional, outdated shelter system run by bureaucrats with little understanding for the nature of a dog. I grind my teeth at the thought of the sheer volume flowing across my social media feed on an unmanageable, minute-by-minute basis. When I first began helping at the start of the pandemic, California dogs, mostly Pittie mutts and German shepherds, were all I saw.

And as Jaron Lanier tells in The Social Dilemma, Instagram has picked up on my love affair with dogs and addiction to saving them. Now, I get posts on everything from dogs tied up on chains in the path of a Louisiana hurricane with captions to contact the sheriff before it’s too late, or starving dogs in Delhi. I have to sift, sort and scroll through the posts to get to the geographically relevant dogs in my home state of Colorado or those embedded in my heart in California and Texas.

Sometimes, I let a cat slip in my feed and repost, anyway. I digress. The point is my social media feed, like many of others, has become the technological equivalent of grandmother’s cluttered attic made worse by the addition of just one more box.

***

I went about my Monday with a aching heart for the loss of one more beautiful, healthy young dog who had become one of 800,000 Pitties suffering death at the hands of California’s shelters every year, angry with the system for its glaring inadequacies and failures to appreciate the true nature of a dog out of its element, and feeling discouraged for the helplessness to effect change to save him. He, like so many others, needed understanding and training and at the minimum. Exercise, attention, stability, structure, and ritual would have helped. Sadly, such things are a luxury in a shelter environment, rare and uncommon. And Wrigley suffered for lack of it. All this would be just an unfortunate hiccup in the path of any one dog’s journey, but in the shelter environment, it’s a death sentence.

Monday evening came and I cried myself to sleep. I’d never met Wrigley, but I’d seen his once-smiling brown and white face. The heart of any dog is as familiar to me as my own. Terror wells up in my mind when I think of a beleaguered shelter worker walking Wrigley down that hallway for the final time. Thoughts as these are what propel many of us advocates to toss and turn about all night.

Hatred and anger welled up where sadness lingered for humanity and its obvious failings. I took a deep sigh, descended into the darkness of troubled oblivion for the night, and drifted off to sleep.

I said a prayer for Wrigley.

***

Tuesday morning arrived as any other with the quotidian rituals intrinsic to an animal-rich household: Feeding birds and fish, letting out dogs, feeding cats. Somewhere in between my first and ninth sip of coffee, the phone rang.

Is this Denise?

Yep, you got her.

This is Anna from the shelter, returning your call. I stopped pacing around the concrete floor of our kitchen and glared out the window. Was she about to confirm the details of Wrigley’s death?

I cut her off before she could continue, relaying all the reasons for my call. I paused for the question to which I feared the answer, for the clerk had already uttered the words negative on Monday. I asked anyway.

Is Wrigley still alive? Silence hung in the cerulean blue skies of my horizon. Steller’s jays snatched up peanuts from the flagstone steps while our Gobi engineering fish poked navy-white striped heads from under the rocks in our saltwater tank. Our rescue dogs, Smudges and Charlie, sat staring at me as I leaned against the kitchen sink. I took another sip of coffee.

He is, she said quietly. Leaning over to clutch my knees, coffee sloshed onto the concrete floor. The moment exploded with details and requests, explanations and accountings of Wrigley’s disposition and behavior. I listened. She paged through the shelter’s narrative recounting the gory details of his nightmare confinement, their attempts to mitigate, at the end of which came Anna’s final conclusion.

I’ll give him until the end of the day. She hung up. I’d failed to convince her to give me until the end of the week. He’d been lost in the deluge of at-risk dogs coming into rescue dog feeds and escaped the attention of would-be adopters and overwhelmed rescues. He went in as a stray and over eight months, became the isolated dog no one would handle.

And now he was going to pay the price.

Knowing this, I clung fast to the hope born in the moment. Wrigley needed a life raft and I needed a team to throw him the rope. He was still alive. I had but seven hours to pull together a team to spring him from three states away by all means technological, telephonic, physical and financial. Dashing to my couch, coffee in hand, I reached out to my dog-loving warrior friend Tammy in California. At least she was in the same state where Wrigley was. She’d pulled Charlie just a month before. I knew she could help.

Trying to affect a dog rescue from three states away amongst people in several states takes time, energy, and no small measure of luck. Connections must be made with strangers suddenly turning friends, contacts gathered and communication flying back-and-forth, making leaps and bounds across invisible lines of hope and uncertainty. Pema Chodron writes eloquently and intimately on getting comfortable with this life experience, but in the moment all teachings go out the window and land on the flagstone steps outside for Steller’s jays to pick up along with their peanuts. Flurries of words delivered on wings of hope populate a steel gray sky of all things unknown fast becoming the day ahead.

Looking back, it’s a miracle anything is actually pulled together at all.

But happen, it does. From Tammy in California with all the passionate rescue warrior energy I needed, to her friend Donna in Florida with all the contacts gleaned from years in dog rescue, to Donna’s friend Rita back in California with twenty years of rescue in her treasure chest of experience, all efforts coalesced into the single moment when Rita drove up to the shelter door.

And found it locked for Covid-19.

My phone rang again. I’ve got 10% battery left – I just drove over 150 miles – they need to let us in NOW so I can get to boarding by five…It’s still 100 miles away.

I called my dear friend Anna back at the shelter.

Anna! Rita’s in the parking lot for Wrigley. Can you PLEASE let her in!

She has to make an appointment. Next one’s at three. I’ve got three appointments in front of her –

PLEASE! I interrupted – She HAS to get to San Bernardino by five – or all this is for naught – she has EIGHT DOGS of her own – Wrigley cannot stay with her. Tears came amidst the pleading, all hope for resolution through methods of persuasion flew out the window. Desperation sent me pacing about the concrete kitchen floor again, arms flailing and gesticulating.

I’m sorry, she’ll just have to wait. She hung up.

All the while, Wrigley waited quietly inside, the fate of his rescue unfolding moment by moment. He sat unaware, while I paced in my kitchen, mired down in details and saturated in stress, crumbling from exhaustion.

I waited. And then, Rita called an hour later.

I’ve got him, she said, he’s in the back of my car. Paperwork’s done and we’re on our way.

Boy, does the supervisor NOT like you, she began – said you called her ALL day long. She bent my ear for twenty minutes about how we had no business pulling this dog, the liability he is, made me sign a waiver about his behavior. Made him sound like his track record was the canine equivalent of a convicted death row felon. Are you sure he’s not aggressive?

He’ll be fine, I sighed, now he’ll be on probation and check in with his officer weekly.

Sadly, shelters are renown for mislabeling a dog’s behavior based on what they see on the inside. More often than not, dogs are an entirely differently animal once freed from their confinement.

Can you still get him into boarding by five?

Not going to happen, Rita replied. He’ll go to my friend Kathy’s – she knows the breed — he’ll be fine. We hung up. The rhythm that was my Tuesday continued, with updates and assistance, support and communication, from all involved across state lines and radio frequencies. Tammy and Donna celebrated the success of Rita’s arrival and easeful rescue of Wrigley, and the New England rescue waiting for him whooped with joy. I waited for pictures to share of his freedom ride with our group.

It was four o’clock. Wrigley had been given until five.

***

The following morning, Tammy pulled up in her pickup truck at Kathy’s house to bring Wrigley to boarding. He walked out next to Kathy’s five-year old daughter. She patted his head and hugged him goodbye. For ninety-six hours, Tammy and I checked back-and-forth on Wrigley’s behavior at boarding.

Is he being good with other dogs?

Indeed, he is.

Are they having any trouble handling him?

Indeed, not at all. He seems to love his people, she shared.

Such has been the word on the street of which Wrigley once roamed: A perfect gentleman, great with people, wonderful with children.

***

This week, Wrigley is on the final leg of his adventure cross-country. A professional transporter, Cindy, is driving him from San Bernardino in her van (along with a Hawaiian rescue dog), courtesy of the rescue dog warrior women loving him, to the rescue in New England. He’s warming his gray toes on the tiled floors of motel rooms and sniffing around truck stop green grass, shivering for sudden Colorado snowstorms and smelling the fresh, cool air of the Midwest.

While before he’d been nestled in between all the moments of bustling hustle and stress that was my Tuesday and his scheduled last day, he lives now in a cocoon of warm love for dogs enveloping his world that knows no boundaries nor comprehension of geographical distance.

Soon he’ll arrive in Maine and meet his new foster-trainer Elizabeth, who will remind him that once upon a time, before he was a stray roaming around the streets of Los Angeles, he was someone’s good dog. And with all the karma that Wrigley has in his little heart, will be forever and ever, again. I wonder if he will remember his past of chewing the bars of his confinement or shudder to recall the slim edge of his existence.

It’s doubtful, for dogs live in the moment. But for me, Tammy, Donna, Rita, Kathy, Cindy, and the New England rescue waiting to receive him, his paw prints will leave an indelible mark on the tissues of our hearts.

That is, until the next one comes up in our social media feed.

Namaste, and thank you for reading.

(The names have been changed, to protect the innocent.)

What you can do:

  • Support your local foster-based rescues. From fostering to donating, volunteering or adopting, you can help create change one dog at a time. Most are 501(c)(3) nonprofits, which allow for tax-deductible donations.
  • Know a backyard breeder? JUST SAY NO! Advocate, educate and promote the cessation of backyard breeding practices in your area. Dogs are exploited for financial gains, then often violently discarded like leftovers.
  • Spay or neuter your own animal, encourage a friend to do the same. Remember: Your dog’s gonads are not your own, dude!
  • Support pre-surrender counseling at your local shelter. Better yet — SUPPORT THE NO KILL MOVEMENT. Curious? According to Activist Nathan Winograd, the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats is death by shelter. See https://www.nokilladvocacycenter.org 
  • Follow @The_Love_Trail on Instagram for stories, educational articles and essays on current topics concerning the lives of rescue dogs and how they unfold.
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