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What Saying No Means in Rural Tennessee

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing my pack. I may not be able to foster dogs right now, but I can still help by giving a voice to the voiceless. I hope these stories change a few minds about adopting shelter dogs and most importantly, I hope they help the next Floyd and Sara.

(Floyd and Sara)

(Floyd and Sara, 2009)

(Sara, 2009)

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

 

We were driving home after a four-mile walk with our mutts when we saw the abandoned puppies. Our dogs had their snouts pushed out the station wagon’s windows. They looked like wind-riders, ears flattened against their heads, noses slick and working overtime to investigate the cacophony of scents rushing past. Ancient trees edged both sides of the road. Red, yellow, and orange leaves glimmered like jewels in the sky, some raining downwards from the branch-draped ceiling. It was nine years ago, but I still remember that afternoon because it was a perfect October day, too perfect for seeing two starved dogs ditched on the roadside.

The potholed pavement on our isolated, country road snaked like a slinky, forcing my husband Mason to slow down, so when we passed the puppies crouched at the road’s lip, I got a good, long look. The copper dog caught my attention first. Then I saw the tinier black pup leaning against the red one, as though she didn’t have the strength to sit up on her own. Both dogs wore the confused expression of someone who had been dumped in a foreign country without a dime or a voice to ask for directions.

I didn’t know how long they’d been living on the street, but judging by their physical appearance they wouldn’t last much longer. In our society, canines exist in a strange purgatory, trapped between two cultures, existing somewhere along the continuum of natural instinct and domestication. Dogs’ behaviors can still be very wolf-like. But after living with humans for thousands of years, they are dependent on us for their most basic survival needs, particularly food and shelter. Surviving in the wild is often as difficult for them as it would be for me.

“Did you see?” Mason asked.

“Keep driving,” I said.

It sounds harsh, even now, but the practicality of taking home two sick dogs at that time was nil. We already had a pack of four, plus in seventy-two hours we would be flying to Dallas, Texas for work. And those dogs were obviously ill. They needed to be quarantined or they could spread worms, fleas, or worse to our mutts.

“If we don’t do something, who will?” Mason asked.

That was the crux of the problem. Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in the rural south and agencies like ICHBA were nonexistent in Robertson County nine years ago. Of the nonprofits operating outside our county, many had waiting lists or restrictions on health and breed. The bottom line was if we picked them up, they were our responsibility.

We drove to the Farnival in an uncomfortable silence. Mason brooded, pulled the brim of his Nashville Predators hat over his hazel eyes. Thirty minutes after we got home, he marched inside my office.

“I’m going back to look for them,” he said.

I felt the word no rise in the back of my throat. Push the issue, Melissa. Explain the complications and cost of taking in two sick dogs. Say no. Even with all these perfectly legitimate concerns, the word never left my mouth. I couldn’t shake the image of that pathetic black puppy slumped against her brother. If we did nothing, it would be too late.

Mason returned a few hours later cradling the copper pup, who we later named Floyd. Floyd was six-months-old and emaciated, fifteen pounds stretched over a skeleton that should have held twenty-five. We found Sara two days later. Mace said that when he reached for her, she feebly tried to bite him. That image haunts me still, a tiny mound of bones and mangy fur making one last attempt to survive.

Sara suffered from starvation and mange like her brother. But she also had a broken tail and pelvis, and a black vulture or coyote had attacked her. She wore numerous gashes on her paws and stomach that oozed pus. They tellingly resembled claw and bite marks.

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

Needless to say, Sara had a tougher time recovering than Floyd. He regained his energy after twenty-four hours, but for five days Sara’s survival was questionable. We poured all our energy into nursing Sara back to health. Every achievement, from urinating outside her crate to walking across the yard, felt like a victory. Her integration with our pack was the Super Bowl. When Floyd and Sara regained their health, we talked about finding them homes. A few people were even interested, but we always found a reason for saying no.

The Farnival: Where Dogs Play

DSC_0913(Adriana and Rosie)

Adriana, our four- month- old mutt, must be experiencing the equivalent of a toddler’s terrible twos. Every time I turn around that little freak is up to no good, scrounging through trash cans, running wild with socks, or returning from the mosh pit covered in tree sap and Tennessee red clay.

Our foster dogs Mellie and Rosie, both decent-sized yearlings, fifty and sixty pounds respectively, follow that puppy around like she’s the pack leader. Unfortunately, that means they not only egg on Ade’s mischievous streak, but they often assist in her crimes.

Their latest joy is toilet paper. If either Mason or I use the bathroom and absentmindedly leave the TP on the holder – where it’s supposed to be – we can kiss it goodbye.

Yesterday, Adriana streaked past my office door with a whole roll clamped in her little maw, white banner streaming behind her like she just finished a fifty-yard dash. Her two buddies, Mellie and Rosie, tromped behind, wearing goofy ecstatic expressions.

All three of those hellions know that ripping up TP isn’t Farnival approved, but if anything that knowledge seems to incense their gusto. Now, the game has become shredding the roll into as many pieces as possible before they get busted. I’ve come upon white cottony scraps clumped in the wet grass, scattered across the living room floor, stuffed between the couches, hidden under the bed, and even drowning in the water bowl.

Every time I catch them, I reprimand and they act shamed, three pairs of ears tucked low, but in their defense, my voice probably doesn’t resonate with firmness. To be frank, it’s hard to appear strict when my heart is really doing cartwheels. For me, playing animals equal happy dogs.

During the past year, I’ve come to understand that playing, even among puppies, is a privilege for homeless animals; the majority of abandoned dogs have to learn how to have fun, as though it’s a luxury. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applied to animals: dogs will only play when the basics like food, water, shelter, and safety are regular ingredients.

Just off the top of my head, I can picture several foster mutts that initially treated having fun – meaning romping with other dogs, by themselves, or with toys – like a foreign concept; remember Frida living under the Honda for 24 hours, Pippi camping by the gate, Jim Bob obsessively running in circles with a clacking jaw or Bentley greeting every dog he met by attacking anything within biting range? It took these poor curs weeks and sometimes months to learn the thrill of playing.

Joyfully, the energy from our current pack is nothing like any of the mutts mentioned above. In fact, at this exact moment (a moment I’m going to savor for as long as possible), the opposite is true; from the second Ade, Mellie, and Rosie got together, they’ve acted downright impish.

I’m not saying I’m thrilled about cleaning up toilet paper confetti every other day, but it feels damn good giving a few animals a place to play.

Rosie Trusts Me

DSC_0855(Rosie, 9-month-old St. Bernard mutt)

Last Thursday, two hours after taking off from Nashville, Southwest flight 296 landed in Philadelphia. It was 10 PM, tar black sky, city lights muted by low-lying clouds.

Mason waited for me in baggage claim. He had flown into Philly the night before, and we would both return home on Monday.

It was the last trip of four back-to-back NHRA drag races, meaning sixteen days of working in different cities, but the end was close. Soon, we would both be home for three weeks.

As the tires jarred against the runway, I turned my phone off airplane mode, and it started vibrating almost immediately, signaling an onslaught of text messages. Nothing good comes from that many messages in two hours.

My eyes snagged the first one from Jeremy, Rosie’s primary caregiver, saying if we couldn’t pick her up before next week – as we had originally planned – then he’d have to leave her at a shelter. His landlord threatened eviction.

Sitting on that jetway, ninety-six hours and nine hundred miles away from home, one of ICHBA’s animals on the verge of getting ditched for the second time in less than a year, oddly enough, I didn’t want to do anything except talk to a dog.

Not only did I want to ask Rosie what went down, but I also wanted to assure her that we wouldn’t let her end up in a shelter or on the street. Most importantly, I wanted to tell her that I was sorry for making such a bad choice.

Five months ago, Jeremy, a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, and his parents had adopted Rosie, a four-month-old St. Bernard mutt.

Donna, ICHBA’s head honcho, doesn’t normally adopt dogs out to people as young as Jeremy, but she had interviewed him three times, and I had interviewed him once. I had even visited his family’s clean, colorful home and spoke with his parents, who said if Jeremy couldn’t take care of Rosie because of school and work, they would pick up the slack.

They had fooled all of us.

Mason drove to our hotel through a pitch-black Philly night while I delivered the bad news to Donna. All of ICHBA’s foster families were already filled to capacity with homeless dogs, but we hatched an alternative plan: ask Jeremy to keep Rosie overnight, and in the morning, we would find somewhere near Murfreesboro to board her, have the boy drop her off, and Mason would pick her up when we landed four days later. ICHBA would foot the bill.

***

I heard Mason’s tires crunch on the gravel driveway and stepped onto our deck, anxious to see the dog we fostered five months prior. Mace and I had returned to Nashville around 9 am Monday morning, and as planned, Mason left straight from the airport, driving a couple hours south on Interstate 24 to retrieve Rosie.

Mason had called to warn me she was big, but it still took a few moments to recognize the puppy I had known inside the large beast that plodded all clumsy and herky-jerky-like down our stone walk. Even with my pack yapping at the new arrival, Rosie wore a happy expression, tail swooshing back and forth, like maybe she remembered the Farnival.

As the week has progressed, I’ve studied Rosie’s temperament, behavior, and habits, waiting for her to bite a cat, destroy furniture, pee on the floor, anything that would prove she wasn’t lovable, but there’s not a single clue as to why her family didn’t want her anymore; in fact, all I’ve seen is a lovable oaf that wears a perpetual grin and snuggles like a pro.

When I decided to work full-time in animal rescue, I never even considered how much my inability to talk with animals would factor into the process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not underestimating nonverbal communication. There are times when we, woman and dog, are totally dialed into each other, and understanding dawns with such clarity that I practically hear unspoken mongrel “words.” But then there are the more complex ideas – like wanting them to know I’m sorry for making a bad choice or simply finding out what happened– that I’ll never be able to convey or discover.

The thing that complicates working with homeless animals even more is the fact that I’m making decisions for creatures that I ultimately don’t understand and never will; these uninformed decisions affect a dog’s entire life and, worst case scenario, can cause their death.

I’ve asked Rosie a million times since she returned where I went wrong. What clue did I miss? But she just cocks her big goofy head, pink tongue dangling from the side of her square maw, staring at me with a patent look of unwavering trust.

Do Dogs Have Souls?

collage(Mellie at twelve weeks; Mellie at ten months)

Seven months ago Mason and I left Mellie at her new home; it was February, a cold, cloudless day with unfiltered sunshine glaring off car hoods, roofs, and windows. I’d like to blame the blaring sun on my bad choice that day, but I know better. It was an old wives’ tale, a long-held but untrue belief that got in the way of clarity.

Mellie had been twelve-weeks-old, a black, brown, and white border-collie mix with a perpetually happy disposition that we had fostered and trained for several weeks. She still had puppy breath, only a whiff, but it was there.

I distinctly recall the family: a pretty, youngish mom with four untamed toddlers springing off the couch like it was a trampoline, quiet dad, bible verses stenciled on walls.

I’d seen the home before, not exactly, but a similar house with similar characteristics. It had been over a year before at Laura’s, the woman that had adopted Bentley when he was a six-week-old adorable puppy and didn’t socialize him, calling me eight months later when her husband’s job couldn’t pay the bills, saying they couldn’t keep Bentley and had to move in with her mother.

By the time Bentley had returned to the Farnival, he was an un-socialized and aggressive fifty-pound pit-lab mix that tried to take a chunk out of my thigh every time he saw another animal and sometimes people, particularly if skateboards or bicycles were involved. Thankfully, in the end, we found Bentley a home with a dog trainer, but there had been a few excruciating weeks when we thought we’d have to euthanize him.

Laura had only had one out-of-control daughter instead of four, but she had the same stenciled bible quotes, same quiet husband. On both occasions, it was the male family figure that had the final say about adopting the dog. The wife, playing the submissive role the bible recommends, always deferred to her husband’s decision – even though she was the one responsible for the animal’s care.

As Mason and I rode back to the Farnival, I compared Bentley’s situation to Mellie’s, and all the fibers in my gut started to constrict like wool in water. For a while, I wrangled with my unease, telling myself that my instincts were wrong. I was just upset because I had to say goodbye to a puppy. Bentley had been a fluke. Religious people did the right thing. I recited these arguments like a vocabulary list, until the list became a clattering chant, and I couldn’t keep quiet a second longer.

“Those kids were out of control, Mason,” I said.

“They had a puppy in the house,” he answered.

“They also had John 3:16 painted on their walls,” I countered.

 ***

Autumn has arrived in Cedar Hill, Tennessee, cool evenings with even cooler mornings that reveal more and more color: like nightly someone takes out their paint gun and randomly shoots tree limbs and bushes with blotches of purple, yellow, brown, and red, color bombs among walls of greenery.

Right now, as I type, Mellie is wrestling with Meadow in the Mosh Pit under a sky as blue and clear as that day in February when I left her behind. She came back to us several weeks ago. Four-month-old Adriana tries to keep up with her buddies, but Mead and Mellie are as sleek and fast as racecars. Ade is still a bumbling puppy.

At the Farnival, surrounded by her foster pack, Mellie acts happy. Nothing like the dog her family described.

Seven months after I had said my goodbye, Mellie’s family called us, claiming she’d bit the children, nipped at a gardening neighbor through their chain link fence, and terrified an entire community after she’d gotten loose. When I inquired how often they took Mellie off the property, they had answered “maybe once a week.”

If I had listened to my intuition on that other clear afternoon many months ago, I wouldn’t have left Mellie behind. I wouldn’t have made a decision that has cost a handful of people, children, and an animal a whole lot of heartache, but I didn’t.

What got in the way of clarity was a superstition, an old wives’ tale, a belief that families who follow Jesus will be the kindest, most devoted families.

News flash: They aren’t.

It’s counter-intuitive and ironic, but over the past year of rescuing animals, I’ve come to realize that the most devout families – meaning people who follow a literal interpretation of the bible – nettle my unease more than any other person that adopts one of ICHBA’s dogs, which makes rescuing animals in rural Tennessee so unique.

I’m aware that people abuse animals in every part of the world, but I live smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s a place where gargantuan churches dominate landscapes, businesses close on Wednesday evenings for worship, and literal interpretations of the bible are as common as pulled pork, but it’s also where authorities respond to the animal overpopulation problem by massacring homeless dogs with shotguns and families surrender their abused or neglected animals right after handing over their church’s business cards.

It’s the kind of place where people believe animals don’t have souls.

Since Mellie came back to us, I’ve been thinking about the link between biblical diehards and animal abuse. Is it because they think being soulless devalues worth? Does it make an animal undeserving of time and commitment? I ask because I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me.

So, how will I know if it’s the right fit next time I take Mellie to another home? How will I know when to tell an interested family no? That’s another mystery, but I can make one promise: If the next house Mellie and I walk into has bible quotes stenciled on the wall, we’re doing an about-face.

DSC_0087

Socializing an Intelligent Dog: A Mellie Update

DSC_0287(Mellie)

Before I get started, I’ll admit I have no idea what I’m trying to say in this post. So many thoughts and memories and frustrations have been rambling through my mind since Miss Mellie returned to the Farnival that I can’t seem to put them in any coherent order, so please bear with me.

Since ICHBA’s inception in 2012, Donna, the head honcho, and her foster network have homed 200 plus dogs.

Mostly because of aggressive or destructive behavior, ten out of those 200 dogs have been returned, and out of those ten returns, eight had been adopted out when they were puppies, meaning 12 weeks or younger, and given back four to six months later.

I’d say that ten out of 200 was a great record, except that when Donna and I are wrong about a family’s potential to raise an animal, then worse case scenario: it can cost the dog their life, especially if the animal’s frustration – for whatever reason – morphs into aggression.

Best case scenario: the dog can be socialized, trained, and re-re-homed to a family willing to work with an animal that has been abandoned twice and carries emotional baggage. And honestly, there are a lot of people out there that WANT to tackle the challenge of taming an un-socialized or abused animal, so right on for that little piece of hope.

The consistencies between these returned pups are too numerous to ignore. Families fall in love with the irresistible charm of a pup, welcome them into their homes and hearts, but fail to socialize the animal, thinking all dogs automatically become Lassie or Benji, an idealized movie star dog that behaves perfectly and looks good on a Christmas card.

What people who adopt smart dogs fail to understand is that socializing an animal is hard work. It’s an everyday commitment. It’s literally a lifestyle.

I admit not all un-socialized dogs turn fear-aggressive, but after rescuing forty-five dogs in thirteen years, I’ve noticed a pattern or maybe more appropriately a link between intelligence and aggression.

An intelligent animal must be socialized, and not once a week, but on a daily basis, meaning it’s essential that smart dogs are exposed to as much stimulus as possible from the time they are pups until they grow too old to care – particularly if the dog is also a large animal. If a big, smart dog isn’t socialized, then frankly, it’s irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

Thank the universe, Mellie, who is both smart and big, falls under the best-case scenario category.

I’ll write more about her over the weekend, but Miss Mellie is going to be just fine. I haven’t seen one ounce of aggression out of her. She’s just extraordinarily energetic and inquisitive. It’s almost like at some point Miss Mellie stopping mentally developing because she behaves like a puppy trapped in the body of a fifty-pound, long-legged, intelligent, hyper, ten-month-old dog.

Needless to say, Meadow is no longer bored 🙂

Catching Dawn Returns!!!

Dawn(Dawn, three months ago)

It’s on!

Tonight, we’re going to try to catch Dawn. We got a green light from Bernice. Seems like over the Labor Day weekend Miss Dawn moved back up Smith Street… to the right side of the ghetto.

Bernice, the woman that’s been feeding our clever feral dog, said a few days ago Dawn walked down the road with a kitten in her mouth and dropped it on her front porch. That poor dog is determined to be a mother.

If we catch her, she’ll stay in a pen in our basement until morning when we’ll have her vetted and most importantly spayed.