letting go of an imaginary place

The shelter is dead.

To me, anyway. And I have people to thank. The animals were the easy part.

A few years ago, I walked into a smelly, loud and slightly scary old building filled to the brim with dogs, cats and other critters. I walked up and down the aisles of dog kennels, hearing their barking pleas for release while they pounded their paws against the chain link gates. I had to be aware of my steps because some dogs just couldn’t hold it anymore and had decided to pee on the slippery concrete floor outside of their kennel making mindless walking a hazard. I saw the small dogs in the smaller cages, stacked two high, curled into little balls in the backs of their cages with eyes widened. That smell, you just don’t forget that smell.
The cat room was humid and unseasonably warm, much warmer than the dog areas. Most were sleeping, some woke in a flash as I walked by and started rubbing themselves all over the metal doors of their plastic cubbies. Occasionally a cat would stretch out their arm, and attempt to snag me with a claw as I walked by. Let me out.

I didn’t even know there was a small animal room, because it isn’t visible by any means to the average shelter visitor. I asked if there were rabbits or guinea pigs, they said yes but I couldn’t see them right now. I later came to learn that the room housing small animals is the same room used to euthanize cats. Obviously this isn’t something the general public should have to witness or even be aware of. It haunts you.

In the days, weeks, and years that followed – as I have chronicled on this blog – I tried to imagine and take action on little ways to make the experience of the shelter better, for both animals and people. A foster program, consistent and regularly updated facebook and petfinder listings, new events, networking with new businesses, organizing a shelter open house/festival. It became a place that was full of hope and potential. I didn’t even smell that smell anymore!

The people that worked at the shelter were an eclectic mix. What they all had in common was a shared love of animals, and a desire to give a voice to those who are not heard by many. Some shelter workers smile no matter what, either because they love the animals they work with or because they want to encourage adoption. Some shelter works come off as almost smug because they are so jaded by the human race… this is when a smile from a member of the public, or a verbal assurance of gratitude, goes a long way. I truly valued the time spent trying to get to know each shelter worker, by name, and understanding their mission of shelter work. They make almost no money, but do this work out of love and reaching for  a better tomorrow. That’s someone worth getting to know. I am fortunate to call some of these workers friends, even after my time as a volunteer.

The assistant director was a super star. She opened that shelter up for me, welcomed me, showed me how it works and allowed me to give feedback on things that may not have been fully actualized or utilized. It was through her and her alone that I came to fall in love with Griffin Pond Animal Shelter. I sought out her guidance and insight because it was invaluable. She gave a shit and it showed. She knew every procedure, every protocol, every origin, every animal, every employee, every history and every outcome. There wasn’t a mouse in the rafters that she didn’t already know about. Despite her work load and the great expectations put on her by the board of directors, she still would take the time to evaluate dogs and cats. She took their photos, before I ever got there, and took the time to get to know the animal so adopters could make informed decisions.
She was told her services were no longer required this past weekend. The new direction of the shelter did not include her. She left by way of the moral high ground, fighting for what she believed in which was respect and dignity for all living things… two aspects of reality the board no longer tolerated or supported. This loss, this is a huge one for every person and animal that relies on the shelter.

Then there was the director. At the time I began volunteering, the director was a jolly giant of a man. He wasn’t physically intimidating but you could tell his heart towered over most people. Though he was aged, he was serving the shelter at a time when he could have been enjoying his retirement. Instead of golfing, he was weed whacking. Instead of flying to Florida, he was driving a van to pick up cat litter. Instead of sitting in a hot tub, he was digging an animal grave for a bereaved member of the community. You get the idea – this director was all kinds of awesome. He was kind to his employees, looked out for their best interest while weighing that of the animal residents. He was loved, by animals and people alike.
He was unceremoniously removed from his post this past September on very short notice, because the board of directors were moving in a new direction that did not include him.
The new director, a former police chief, is of course not at all like his predecessor. No one expected he would be but I think people did expect him to be as respectful and as open to ideas of continued progress in animal welfare. Wrong, on both accounts. He is “fixing” what wasn’t broken, and failing to see improvements where they are most needed. Instead of bringing together a stellar staff of dedicated hearts and minds, he is disrespecting them and condescends them. Does this directly effect the adopting public? You bet. The people that are charged with helping adopters navigate the shelter system are now fighting for respect, hanging under a dark cloud like Eeyore. No good can come of that.

The board of directors is a set of members of the same communities that rely on the shelter they serve. These are professionals in various sectors: business, medical, animal welfare. There are a few ‘senior’ board members who seem to make a majority of the decisions, because they control the budget. They, therefore, control the direction in which the shelter as a whole moves. If they want to change something, they have the power to do it. Instead of positively changing the world for each animal within the walls of the shelter, they are choosing darker paths where money is supreme and compassion is not worth showing. The individual members of the board would almost be tolerable if the board as a whole made decisions that were transparent, understandable, reliable and responsible in areas that benefited the animals relying on them. This doesn’t even take into account that the new director is the husband of the board president’s office manager. Tricky, very tricky.

It is because of the actions of a dozen removed and unaware individuals that I had to let go of a place I loved. That place where animals were safe, secure, considered above almost all else – that place doesn’t exist anymore. The place that I referred people to with pride and confidence, that place is gone. The one place that I was comfortable spending time, money and energy on… it is now imaginary. It is almost as if it disintegrated ever so slowly in my brain, and now I realize that there is no more hope of going back to that which I wanted to hold on to.

Now, I know what you are probably thinking. Can’t I overlook a few bad apples and continue working with the animals? I suppose I could. I could train myself to overlook unnecessary or excessive euthanasia. I could work harder to ignore the dictatorial actions of a few people who don’t believe in respecting others. I do so love the animals, and I really do respect the staff that is charged with caring for them. I cannot align myself with an organization that refuses to listen, refuses to value life, and refuses to work with people instead of against them. It takes a lot out of me to volunteer on a good day, when everything is as it should be, I truly cannot imagine what would happen in the new, negative environment of the shelter. I’m not strong enough.

Sheba: what a difference a few days make

This is Sheba on Tuesday when I picked her up from the shelter. In a matter of 10 days she’d been treated for fleas, spayed at 15yrs old, had five rotted teeth extracted and found herself in a new and strange environment.
009The shelter said she was sweet, liked cats and dogs, was housebroken and all the staff members loved her.
I evaluated her about two weeks ago and found all that to be true – before she was spayed.
Once in my house, she immediately claimed her stake in the crate we set up for her, and guarded her food adamantly.  Her demeanor changed a bit once in the home environment, and it wasn’t positive changes.
009I did a few basic temperament tests with her, like what her limits are around food. She gives plenty of warning before biting.

She was leery of us petting her except on her shoulders, which was different from when I evaluated her.  She also looked petrified of just about everything, panting and howling a lot. She wouldn’t calm down and just sleep (plus she has pretty serious looking allergies) so I started giving her benadryl to calm her down and control the itching. She growled at our dogs every chance she could get, so we covered her view of them with a sheet (over a gate).

We made a vet appointment for her to be seen by our vet to get her sutures removed, and though we were hesitant how she would act towards the vet, we were pleasantly surprised at how easy she was for the vet to handle! He did a thorough exam and revealed the major reason for her grouchiness: she had staples, not stitches! Well that explained a lot. She also has strong evidence of a long neglected flea bite dermatitis situation, as well as a history of having been hit (she winces and flinches when you go to pet her head). So Queen Sheba was given a regimen of rimadyl and benadryl for the next two weeks to see how that helps improve her physical and mental condition.

After only 12 hours, she started to become the dog I had met two weeks ago.

She didn’t look nearly as miserable, was accepting of petting and other handling, and her tail was up! You see, Shiba Inu’s have a very telling sign of displeasure or fear when their curly tail unravels and hangs awkwardly. Typically, a shiba with a curled up tail is a content shiba. Queen Sheba’s tail came back up, and even wagged when I gave her treats!


Part of her personality remained consistent though – such as the sassy bossy pants habit of howling at me when she wanted something… like when I don’t open the door fast enough, or when I don’t give her enough treats.
006More than all that though, Sheba proved that in a home environment she can thrive. Thriving also means revealing parts of herself that are less desirable (such as her food aggression, dog reactivity and crate protection behaviors). She can relax in a home, as well, and she can learn to trust and find joy in interactions with people. Perhaps she’ll eventually seek out the attention and affection of her human servants.
She even played along with my making her sit for her treats, even though she was barking directives at me (give it now! you are too slow!)

While she may be a dog that has a more narrow compatibility set (no other dogs, no kids, someone willing to manage her food/crate/dog issues) she has a lot to offer the right home. She can live with cats, she is a petite shiba who is easy to manage due to her size, she loves her crate space and  she has a nice energy level that is even surprisingly super charged for her age (15)!

Queen Sheba is lucky to be a part of the NYC Shiba Rescue family now.

So here she is, exactly four days after leaving the shelter and two days of being staple free! She smiled in the sunlight while we waited to meet her new foster mom. Queen Sheba, best of luck to you my dear. I’m so glad I met you – it only gets better from here.