I volunteer at the animal shelter every Wednesday, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s the highlight of my week. To be more honest–it’s somewhat of an addiction and I find that I’m in greatest need of a fix when the breast cancer demons come a’knockin’.
I started out in the basic, entry-level position of dog walker. For two hours a week I’d work my way down the seemingly endless row of chain-link and cinder-block kennels. Stopping in front of each cell, I’d lift the latch, crack open the door two inches, and squat down to lasso the head that inevitably came pressing through, its owner starved for the sweet taste of freedom. Droopy-eyed basset hounds, yappy terriers, mastiffs as solid as coffee tables, if it had four legs and a tail, I’d walk it.
I loved the job but the title was a bit misleading since it was the rare inmate who behaved well on the end of a lead. A leash-trained dog meant we were both rewarded with a quiet stroll through the woods behind the shelter. Not too fast. Not too slow. Stop. Sniff. Proceed. But most of the dogs had the manners of baby chimps and it was all I could do to steer them into one of the shelter’s small, enclosed play yards. Once inside and untethered, the dogs pinballed around like kindergartners on a sugar high. When I could grab their attention, I lobbed tennis balls and flung Frisbees. When I couldn’t, I scooped poop and laughed at their sideshow antics. Each yard had a hard, white plastic lawn chair. And, on some days, by the end of my shift, when I was tired, or cold, or covered in some mix of shit and mud, I’d give in and sit down. And, if the dog was particularly shy or nervous, he would climb into my lap and we would contentedly hold one another.
In early January, I was promoted to adoption counselor. While I adored walking dogs, I loved my new gig even more because a) Bloomington’s winter weather had turned the play yards into mud-wrestling pits b) I got to see animals leave the shelter, which was a nice twist, and c) adoption counselors were in short supply, meaning I could show up anytime and work. And that’s what I did, especially in those awful, slow-motion days of early February following my diagnosis. Unfit company for humans (meaning Mary), I’d get in my car and drive to the shelter. With dozens of bellies to scratch, ears to ruffle, and sad eyes to gaze into, moping about my tumor was not an option. Nothing chased gloom-and-doom thoughts away faster than the sound of three dozen dogs barking at once, their sharp staccato voices pleading “look at me, look at me.”
One cold Saturday in early February when I was feeling particularly despondent and fragile, I fell in love with a puppy named Crandle. He was white with a few shakes of pepper sprinkled across his back. The size of a small clutch, he was content to snuggle in my arms. I flirted with the idea of calling Mary to come in and meet him. Ever since I started at the shelter, I’d been lobbying hard for a second dog, but I knew that a 10-week-old puppy was a horrible match for our aloof, 7-year-old boxer/lab; plus, with surgery looming, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just for fun, I tried a couple of basic puppy temperament tests on him, holding him aloft in one hand. He passed with flying colors, his droopy little body staying limp, his eyes gazing at me unconcerned. Next I hugged him toward my chest, and gently rolled him over. He started to kick a hind leg in protest, but quickly relinquished his belly. Knowing he would be a great dog–for someone else–I held him, football style, in one arm while going about my business. The next time I arrived at the shelter, he was gone.
He was hardly the first or last dog to steal my heart. I fall in love once a week without fail. After Crandle, I gave my heart to a sad, 110-pound yellow lab named, of course, Marley. Then Franklin, a scrawny black beagle mix who scrambled to occupy any nearby lap. And, one of my favorites, Miner, a golden retriever/shar-pei puppy who bounced along on his front two legs, his haunches atrophied from a birth defect. But love at the shelter is short-lived–the ultimate lesson in nonattachment. The harder you fall for a dog or cat, the more determined you are to find it a good home. And, if you do your job well, chances are you’ll never see that sweet face again. Well, with at least one exception. One day at the shelter, shortly before my surgery, a tabby kitten crawled into my lap and refused to leave. He was so light, so small, so un-chimpanzee-like, I called Mary. The rest is history. But I still think Bindi and Emma would welcome another dog some day, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled…just in case.