On the weekend we met Meadow, our friends Jason and Nora were visiting from Charlotte. We were supposed to be listening to live music at honky-tonks on 2nd Avenue in Nashville. Instead, we were driving through rural Tennessee to pick up our next foster dog.
Even with our change of plans, the mood in Jason’s Jeep was light-hearted. We laughed about drinking too much wine the night before and eating pizza bites at midnight. None of us knew what we were about to see.
Mason and I had independently rescued dogs for ten years before we decided to make our work official. We started volunteering for a local non-profit during the fall of 2013. I had told the nonprofit’s head honcho Joan* we could only foster one dog at a time on the day we signed up. I wouldn’t budge on that.
A fine line exists between helping animals and hoarding them. At that point, if Mason and I had kept every abused and abandoned dog we found on the roadside, we’d have 32 dogs living at the Farnival. An ironic but inescapable fact about humanitarian work: it requires emotional limits.
The sky was gray, wind keen for early October. A cold front had descended late the night before. The mood in the Jeep quieted when we turned down a dirt road running through a trailer park. The degree of wear was the only difference between mobile homes. A fence surrounded some but most didn’t have one. Every trailer had at least two, sometimes three dogs lounging by their porch steps. I guessed that none were spayed or neutered.
We pulled into the driveway of a singlewide trailer with a mowed yard and two impossibly bright purple mums potted next to the front door. Joan, seventy-something with short white hair and a musical southern accent, was talking to a neighbor.
The neighbor had been feeding the two dogs across the street for a week because the landlord had evicted the family, an eighteen-year-old mother, her boyfriend, and their three toddlers. The family loaded up everything they could fit in their truck and left everything else behind, including their dogs. She said they weren’t cruel, just poor.
Over the next couple of years I’d hear the same story over and over. The details were different, but poverty was always the theme. In most cases, people wanted to take care of their animals, but they couldn’t afford it. Even getting animals fixed at a low-cost clinic would break monthly budgets. So, in these rural communities, places where leash and fence laws aren’t enforced, dogs just keep breeding, creating more and more unwanted mutts who nobody can afford.
We all decided Mason and I would foster one dog. Joan would buy the neighbor food so she could feed the other until space opened up with another foster family. We walked down a gravel driveway leading to a beat-down mobile home that overlooked piles and piles of junk.
The trailer sat tilted on cinderblocks and looked like someone had tipped it over and emptied it. Ductwork, insulation, empty Marlboro cartons, Big K plastic bottles, children’s toys, high-heeled shoes, kitchen utensils, and a mattress were just a few of the things littering the property. A chainlink fence surrounded all of it.
A red and black rooster suddenly appeared at the fence’s corner. For several seconds, I couldn’t take my eyes off the bird. I had the bizarre thought he shouldn’t be there because he might dig at the insulation. The dogs noticed the chicken too because they moved, and that’s when we saw them.
I gasped. I heard Nora gasp behind me. We weren’t shocked because the dogs were abused or emaciated. We gasped because they were so beautiful that they looked completely out of place, like a queen and a princess from a different era, or maybe a different planet, who accidentally ended up in a trash pile in a rural trailer park.
The neighbor said the Great Pyrenees was the smaller one’s mother. The Pyrenees wore long hair that looked impossibly white in that mud pit. She had a square jaw, regal stance, swooping tail. She stood four-feet high, weighed maybe 80 pounds. The younger dog had her mother’s long hair but it was shaded blond and tan. She weighed ten pounds less, stood a foot shorter, and wore a German’s shepherd’s signature snout.
The neighbor had pushed plywood and bricks against a busted gate so the dogs didn’t run away. Mason and Jason wormed their way through it. The animals definitely weren’t aggressive but they were timid and ran away. Finally, the guys cornered the younger one. Mason lifted her into his arms and carried her to a crate in Joan’s van. She didn’t fight but she trembled the whole way. Mason just held her tighter.
Nora, Joan, and I stayed rooted, staring at the mother, who had no interest in the three strangers outside the gate. Instead, she fixated on my husband’s receding form. Suddenly, she threw back her snout and howled. She only cried once, but loss filled every second of it. In some ways, hearing her cry was harder than seeing an abused dog. It was such clear proof of her feelings. And at that moment her heart was breaking.
I thought about our one-foster-dog-at-a-time rule. I really did. But, I’d be lying if I said logic mattered after I heard that dog’s howl.
“She can sleep in the basement, right? I mean we have an entire basement,” I said. Was I was trying to convince Joan or myself?
Joan smiled, but caught my eye. “So much for one dog at a time.”
Of course Joan was happy the Great Pyrenees had a foster home, but she didn’t forget to remind me about my boundaries either. Careful, Melissa. Careful.
As we drove out of that trailer park, I looked behind me. Two, three, then four dogs ran into the dusty road and watched us drive away.
6 months later
We named the Pyrenees Carmela and her daughter Meadow. Both were adopted within a month. Carmela moved to a Nashville suburb and spent most of her days lounging in a king-size bed. Meadow also moved into a beautiful home with another kind family, but things didn’t work out so well.
When Meadow had lived with us, she acted like a great dog. That wasn’t the case in her new home. She chewed up shoes, furniture, and toys. She panted excessively, pooling drool all over their carpet. Every time she rode in their car, she puked on the seats. The family tried to work with Meadow for six months, but she never got any better.
In retrospect, I realize Meadow’s anxious behavior was her way of saying she wanted to live at the Farnival. When the family tearfully returned her to us, Mason said he couldn’t give her up a second time. After all, he was the one who carried that princess out of a trash pile.
*Many times when rescue organizations get too much publicity, they also get tons of calls for help. So in order to alleviate this concern, I changed Joan’s name.