I wrote the following in 2003. It was one of those experiences that demanded I document it immediately given the impact it had, and still has, on me. Of all my rescue experiences, this one summarizes the first rule of rescue better than any other, that rule being:
You can’t save them all, but save the ones you can.
Since starting Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue in 1997, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great animal shelters. Some facilities have been well-funded with state-of-the-art components while others have been dirt poor and barely getting by. A few have even been places where it was obvious the people or person running it were there just for a paycheck and had no compassion for the animals in their care. Others, though, have been staffed by amazing people who would do anything to help save an animal. This story revolves around one of the most underfunded, dilapidated facilities I’ve ever seen. My time spent working with so many good shelters didn’t prepare me for the reality check I was about to receive.
It was early October 2003, and I had planned a trip to Salt Lake City from Bozeman on a Monday. The Friday before my trip, I received a call from a small animal shelter in southern Idaho regarding a female Rottweiler. The man reported that the dog was very sweet, but if he couldn’t find a home for her she would be euthanized on Monday. I scrambled to find a foster home for her and to see if anyone was available to evaluate her. I came across roadblocks to my plan, so I made the decision to take a detour while driving down to Salt Lake so that I could evaluate the dog myself. It was about an hour out of my way, but the shelter worker was adamant that this dog was worth looking at. I made the proper arrangements and set out on Monday as planned. It was harvest time in Idaho, and as I drove I watched numerous farmers struggling to harvest the crops before winter set in. Following the directions given me, I made my way through many small towns and turned onto a dirt road behind a high school. I continually kept my eye out for a large building that would house the number of animals that certainly came in from a county as large as this one, but I was startled to arrive at a 12-foot by 24-foot, cinder block building, complete with a very small sign saying “Animal Shelter”. Standing out front was a large man who I figured must be my contact. After introducing myself we walked inside. The front third of the building was an office, a bathroom, and garage area with a closed door. I wondered, but didn’t ask, if it was in the garage area that the dogs were euthanized. I hadn’t seen a smoke stack when I first arrived so I doubted they were cremated on-site but, more than likely, the bodies would be disposed of at the county dump. Before opening the door to the kennel area, the man warned me about the barking as they were at capacity with dogs.
The overpowering sound of barking was nothing compared to the sight I encountered as entered the area all the dogs were kept. Before me was a tight-spaced, dimly lit room filled with cages stacked two high, all full of small to mid-sized dogs with only a narrow walkway. Some cages contained two or three dogs each. Along one wall sat the cages for bigger dogs. To say these were kennels would not be fair as they were barely large enough to hold a dog over eighty pounds. Along the back third of these larger cages was a narrow drainage trench in the concrete floor that ran parallel with the wall. Between that and the diminutive cage size, there was barely any room for the canine occupant to lay down.
The closest pen held a gorgeous German Shepherd, his large body filling the cage with no room to spare. It appeared as though the dog had spilled his food on the filthy floor in order to get to it. I realized that this was the only way he could eat, as the food and water dishes were old coffee cans and his large head couldn’t reach into the bottom of them. His brown eyes pleadingly looked to me and my heart dropped into my stomach. My reality check had just been cashed.
In the last pen was the Rottweiler I was there to look at. I asked if there was a yard to take her into so that I could perform the evaluation, but my fear was confirmed. There was no yard; the dogs were kept in pens 24 hours a day. In fact, staff had to crawl into the pens with the animals to perform cleaning duties, never letting them loose. I attempted to hide my anger, and went to retrieve the dog and hook up a leash. The Rottweiler didn’t have a collar so I made a loop out of my leash and placed it over her head. She didn’t pull hard, and I let her lead me out of the shelter into the sunshine. As I hooked up a prong collar to start the evaluation, I asked how long the dog had been here.
“I think since September 30th, but I would have to check,” the staff man answered.
I was stunned that the dog had been there for over three weeks, but the man had said she was a nice dog and he obviously wanted to try and save her. The Rottie, who I had begun to call Sweetie, was fascinated by the American flag waving in the wind above the shelter roof. As I observed her fascination, I realized that it must have been three weeks since she had been outside in the sun. Her coat was gray and dusty and in desperate need of both a brushing and bath. Her muscular body pulled me around as I let her explore, and all the while I watched her body language as I put her through the paces. She was beautiful, and, judging from her teeth, about two to three years old. I spent about twenty minutes working with her, discovering what issues she had. Other than some minor dominance concerns, something I expected from a Rottie, she was sweet as could be. Once finished, I told the man that I would be back Wednesday to pick her up and put her into foster care. He said he would make sure she’d be ready. Reluctantly, I led her back to the kennel. She desperately didn’t want return to the confined space, and I had to force her in. After closing the pen, she tried to nibble her food, but, like the German Shepard, her head was too large and prevented her from reaching the food that remained in the bottom of the coffee can. My heart was torn up. I tried not to look at the other dogs, but I couldn’t help but return my gaze to the German Shepherd in his too-small pen.
“I don’t suppose you could take that Shepherd with you when you pick up the Rott?” The man had obviously seen me admiring the dog.
“Sorry, I only have room for one.”
“Yeah, I would take him home myself but my wife would kill me. Sucks because they are all going to be put down tomorrow.”
I didn’t look at the man. I didn’t want to. His words were clear enough. Tomorrow every dog there, except the Rott, would be euthanized. I thought of that beautiful German Shepherd who could barely fit in his pen. I shook my head and again told the man that I would be there early morning on Wednesday, and he, likewise, reassured me Sweetie would be ready. As I pulled away, the images of all those dogs inundated my thoughts, their time expired with no one trying to claim them. The eyes of the Shepherd hurt me deeply as they flashed through my mind. The memory of the dog’s eyes along with the sounds of the scared barking that echoed in the cinderblock room all caused my chest to ache. As I hit the highway I set the cruise control and felt the first hint of a tear form in my eye. It had been a while since I had allowed emotions surrounding a dog to affect me. My walls, which had been built up, and enforced by the safety of working with a no-kill shelter, had just come crumbling down. I called a friend on my cell to vent. It helped a little but not much. Slowly, as I drove, I tried to focus on arriving at my destination and picking Sweetie up on Wednesday, not on all the other dogs at that shelter, especially the German Shepherd.
Tuesday was spent taking care of business in Salt Lake City, but even given the distractions of my trip, my thoughts rarely strayed from the dogs I had seen. I talked with foster families, wondering if there was any way to save the German Shepherd, or any of the other dogs, but we were full and already pushing limits with the Rottie. It was one of those terrible but necessary decisions I had made when I had started Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue: the Rotties had to come first. I was also limited by the fact that the car I was driving was one I had borrowed for the trip and really only had room for one large dog. Still, my heart was heavy with what I knew was going to transpire. To drive back to the shelter, walk in, and only see the Rottie was more than I cared to ponder. Still, to save one is what it is all about, as one person can never save them all. It just isn’t possible.
That night I came down with a stomach virus. Not able to sleep, I was forced to relive the time I had spent at the shelter --the sounds and the looks in the dogs’ eyes as I walked by were as real as ever. By 5:30 am I was tired of trying to sleep and decided to hit the road. It was only 45 minutes earlier than I had planned, but I am glad left early since my illness had intensified as I drove, and I found myself making numerous stops to deal with its symptoms. Finally, at one truck stop, I wised up and bought some medication, praying that it would get me through the long stretches of the remaining drive. (The sparse population of northern Utah and southern Idaho made for long distances between rest stops.) Thankfully, the weather was nice and the clear blue skies made the drive enjoyable. In my mind I ran through how I was going to handle Sweetie and deal with any of the possible situations that might develop with her. I didn’t have a crate to put her in so I had prepared the back seat to be as comfortable as possible. I had bought some sheets and a collar, as she hadn’t had one when I’d performed the evaluation. I had even purchased her a chew toy in hope that she would be more interested in playing with it than trying to help me drive. There is nothing worse than a Rottweiler trying to play co-pilot while you are doing seventy-five miles per hour on the interstate.
I pulled into the shelter at 8:30 and saw the truck of the man I had talked with two days before. As I entered the front door I was greeted with the joyous sounds of barking. My heart leapt, even if only for a moment, as it meant that not all the dogs had been euthanized. I walked down the hallway and opened the thick metal door to the kennel area, seeing the man I had met on my first visit. He was standing there, his arms deep in a sink of soapy water, cleaning coffee cans for that day’s feeding. The barking was intense, and upon first glance it looked as if all the dogs were there, including the German Shepherd. I said hi to the worker and he told me to help myself to the Rottie. I nodded, and as I walked back to her pen the German Shepherd stood there looking at me, his bushy tail moving back and forth against the cage, hopeful I was coming to his pen. I steeled myself and focused on Sweetie as I walked past the German Shepherd’s cage. Along the bottom of all the cages was dog food, fecal matter, and urine. Upon arriving at Sweetie’s cage, I saw that her pen was no different. Still, she had managed not to step in the large piles of soft stool and wiggled excitedly upon seeing me. I opened Sweetie’s pen and looped the leash around her neck. The other dogs grew more excited as I walked her out of the room. I forced myself to avert my eyes because I knew that if I truly looked at any of them I would lose focus of my mission. Once outside, I put the new collar on Sweetie and tried to brush out some of her coat, minimizing the amount of shedding that would occur during the drive. The worker came out from the back of the shelter. We chatted briefly. and I had him fill out a release form for our group, giving us custody of the dog. I started to pull out cash to pay him the adoption fee but he declined. He just wanted her saved. I asked about the others. He simply shook his head in reply and mentioned that today or tomorrow was their last day. I could tell he didn’t enjoy the task the lay ahead but had no choice. Still, I wondered if anyone in the county knew of the conditions there and how easy it would be to help to change the shelter conditions as well as the opinions of those overseeing it. Yet, it wasn’t my problem, not now. My role was simply to transport Sweetie to her new foster home. I did thank the man for at least making the effort to contact me about Sweetie. His eyes told me that he did not enjoy what he had to work with but that he was glad to see at least one dog being saved.
Initially it took a lot of effort to get the ninety-five pound Rottie into the car. She was scared and I couldn’t blame her. The last time she was in a vehicle she had ended up in the shelter. After a quick stop at a local veterinary office to get a health certificate and rabies shot, I headed out of town. Once on the road, Sweetie laid down, sprawled across the entire seat, and she didn’t move unless I stopped and got out myself. I wondered if she was okay as I was used to Rotties being very aware of everything as I drove. It was only after an hour or so that the realization hit me: given the conditions she had come from and the size of her cage she probably hadn’t been able to lay down for more than a few hours a day. Even if she had been able to lay down it wouldn’t have been lengthwise but curled up in a ball on the cold concrete floor. With that epiphany I reached behind my seat and ran my fingers along her dirty, dry fur. I felt her lick my hand softly as I told her that she was safe now. I turned off the radio and hoped that the silence and the soft back seat would allow her to finally sleep deeply. Sweetie dozed off here and there but mostly just stared out the window of the back door. We made several rest stops along the way, and I hoped that the more I handled her the more she would relax. It worked and, while heading for Monida Pass, she fell fast asleep. Her heavy breathing was, perhaps, the nicest sound I had heard during my trip. For the moment my thoughts were only on the dog in back. The barking and pleading looks from the dogs that I had left behind were momentarily subdued.
|Sweetie and I shortly after I brought her back from Idaho|
Sweetie was adopted a few months after being rescued and lived eight wonderful years with her human, Julie. For me, Sweetie is a dog I will always be glad I was able to save, yet to this day, I’m still haunted by the eyes of the German Shepherd. His look captured the plea of every animal that is awaiting its death in countless shelters around the country. For that reason alone, I will never purchase a puppy but will always adopt. I ask, no I beg, that you do the same. I close with a Karen Davison quote that captures the reality and hope of rescue:
“Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.”
For more information about Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue, go to www.bigskyrottrescue.org. If you want to know more about my efforts as a writer, be sure to check out my Facebook and Twitter pages. You can also learn more about me at my website www.troykechely.com There you can also purchase my first novel, Stranger’s Dance.