Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"I would like to Trade."

            It has taken me several months to post this.  Something awful happened.   It happened when I first started working at the humane society.  This was before I started asking myself  “What would Hawkeye do?”  Before I realized that some people take a job for a title, not passion.  A transaction that a friend once teased me about us doing that we actually in fact do.  I used to resist and say to my friend, “No, we don’t do things like that.” But after this happened it turns out he was right.  We trade and swap animals for people.  Like cars, or shoes, or any other material item. 

            Several months ago we had a Hispanic couple come in searching for a new dog.  They went on a visit with a very nice dog by the name of Charlie.  When they were done visiting they told me, “Okay we are ready to trade in our dog for this one.” Not batting an eye they just looked at me.  I stared back thinking, “What the fuck?”  But instead I said,  “ You want to trade in the dog? Like a car?”  Their response was, “Yes.” 
            What made the situation even worse was my manager’s response.  Outraged instead of just lying to them and saying we don’t do that like I should of, I took the case to my boss.  I showed him what these people wrote on their surrender form, “There is nothing wrong with our dog, we just like the other one better.  We want to trade.”  I asked if we could please make them wait a day or even a week.  We have no policy that stops people from surrendering and adopting in the same day.

             “No.” he said. “We have to put our emotions aside.  This is the way those type of people think.”

            First of all, besides the racism behind his comment even if this is how a culture views dogs it does not make it right.  One cannot state, “Oh it is my culture.” And then continue to cock or dog fight.  But being open admissions means we are open adoptions.  It was at this response I truly stopped believing in the people I work for.  It was sad, but true.  I think after a certain point people who work here either stop feeling or they never came here for the right reasons in the first place. They came here to get that title: Executive Director, Director of Operations or Shelter Manager.  They aren’t there for the animals.  If they did come for the animals, after a year or so they become broken and cruelty washes over them like a wave. 

            Even though we are open admissions I don’t see why we can’t restrict adoptions.  A simple application would do.  But we don’t, because there are too many dogs and cats.  It’s mind boggling to get 20 cats in on the same day and you have no open kennels.  Some of my new coworkers just don’t get it when they first arrive.  We get the call from someone saying I have 10 cats I want to surrender.  A coworker will look at me and say, “But we have no open kennels.  Can we start doubling up?”  My eyes say it all.  “No.  No room means no life.”  So my bosses believe that open adoptions is the answer.  But I can’t help but see that it is part of the problem.  Adopting out animals to people who aren’t going to take care of them is not a solution.  It is a temporary fix to get animals out of the shelter.  Years past and the animals that went to bad homes either die of neglect or are returned for whatever reasons.  Is being put down better than a shitty owner?  It is the one question I ask myself daily.  On that day for that dog, I would of answered yes.  Owning an animal is not a right it is a privilege.  Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way.  I went to talk to a friend yesterday who has worked there for a couple of years.  He said to me quite profoundly “Don’t you every feel like we are the rats on the sinking ship who refused to jump.  Every one else around us has jumped but we insist that we can make it.  That we can save the ship.  What does that say about us?”

            I am not really sure what it said about me that I have continued to stay.  I have no respect for my boss.  Some day this will cause me to quit.  Ever since this transaction it has caused me to fight a little harder, to break the rules a little more.  I have no backing from my highest superior, so my coworkers and I have, when we can, make our own rules.  I tried bringing it up with the executive director.  They don’t want to see this change.  Why they don’t change this I am not sure.  My only guess is because they don’t see it.  They don’t deal with it.  They don’t know the dog or cat or guinea pig.  They are just animals in some abstract form or number.   How do you change policy you don’t like if your bosses don’t want to hear it?  My answer.  Don’t follow it.  And try your best not get caught.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

What would Hawkeye do?

            When I was a teenager I would often sneak out to the living room late at night sometimes until 2AM to watch MASH.  We only had one T.V. in the house.  I would wait for my parents to go to bed, which was just down the hallway, in order to creep out and carefully switch on the T.V.  My parents probably knew I was up.  But I think recognizing it wasn’t doing me any harm besides losing some sleep, they let me get away with it for they saw it was doing some good to the spirit.

             I loved MASH for several reasons. One, the male leads were, quite frankly, hot.  Real men.  Not like those stupid boys MTV kept trying to make me have crushes on.  The second reason was because I admired Hawkeye.  He didn’t care when he broke the rules.  He just did what was right.  The army tried to punish him, he would piss off his commander, and Frank Burns was always there to challenge him.  He didn’t care.  He wasn’t apart of the bureaucracy.  He just followed his conscience.  While many T.V. shows and movies try to illustrate the high notion that one should damn all consequences to follow their ethics, none did it more inspirational or believable as Hawkeye, Trapper, and B.J.

            I find myself at work almost daily stuck in a dilemma that pits me against what my conscience tells me I should do and what my work tells me I have to do.  It usually takes places in transactions that should be straightforward.  For instance, the other day I was doing a typical surrender/return.  This woman and her family had taken home a cat that did not get along with their dogs or children.  They had a very busy household.  We told them this cat was not a good fit for them.  They insisted on adopting anyways because they liked the color of the cat.  A week later they came back to return the cat and adopt another one in the same day.  Before I had time to even stop the words from coming out of my mouth, I heard myself saying, “Oh sorry. We don’t do surrenders and adoptions in the same day.” A blatant and utter lie.  I didn’t care and I didn’t correct myself.  I let them walk out; hoping that they wouldn’t come back and they wouldn’t talk to a supervisor about the situation.

            Many of my coworkers have taken similar stances on issues they feel as passionate about.  We recently have started to charge for people to view their animal after it has been euthanized.  Disgusting.  We are now charging for people to say one final goodbye.  As of yet, not one coworker on the frontline has actually accepted payment for this service.  We simply refuse due to principle.

            “What would Hawkeye do?” I find myself asking.  Sometimes rules need to be broken.  Rules and policies don’t always make for the right course of action.  My coworkers and I see horrible careless decisions being made regarding the life of so many animals.  So we lie, coil, twist, and bend to follow our morals.  We do it not because we are righteous, but because we see animals degrade into depression, insanity, and finally death.  Some people would argue that this is wrong.  Our work’s policies are there for a reason.  That stepping in is not our place due to the fact that it’s not our decisions to make.  They just might be right.  But that is not what Hawkeye taught me.

            Last week, I was dealing with a difficult situation regarding a woman adopting a chinchilla.  She had just surrendered a guinea pig because it was too much to deal with.  I told my lead that we should probably stop this because a chinchilla is significantly more work.  It would not be successful for the chinchilla or the girl.  My lead told me to ignore it; to stop thinking about it and just keep going on with the visit and the adoption.  We couldn’t stop it, she said.  Instead of listening to her, I interfered and opened my mouth.  I found another supervisor who was as outraged as me.  She broke the rules and told them they couldn’t adopt.  She plucked that chinchilla out of their hands and found her own inner Hawkeye.  Her and I risked getting into trouble.  It was worth it. 

       We’re not saving lives in Korea or in a war zone.  The risks are much lower.  But I have to believe that Hawkeye existed.  That there are people out there that say no when their stomach turns on them.  Ideals need to be fought for.  If one cannot find the inner strength to stand up in situations so seemly so small, Hawkeye, Trapper and B.J. will always just continue to exist within the T.V.  And that just isn’t good enough for me.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Singularly Human

            The smell is the worst part of death.  There is something primal that rises up within you, that tells you, “This is bad.”  If you don’t think about the philosophical implications of death, the notion that something is gone forever, no one can escape that corrupt ancient feeling when you smell death.  When you smell something decaying your entire body is revolted by it.  You instantly back up.  You pause.  Some people want to throw up.  The collective memory of our species tells us this is something you should avoid at all cost.  Perhaps those who didn’t got exposed to more diseases.  Perhaps it is the reptilian portion of our brains telling us to stay alive because death is permanent.  Maybe we are repulsed because we don’t quite understand it and that is terrifying.  Whatever the reason, I know when the freezer gets full and makes the last half of our building smell, it makes our skin crawl. Everyone avoids it.  It’s a silent fear that creeps within.  Like the animals’ spirits are crawling out of their bodies haunting us.  Not only for the biohazardious reasons, but more so for the peace of our own subconscious minds, we call to dispose of the animals immediately.  It is the unconscious mind that is truly nauseated by being so near to death, by the actual discomposing of a body. 

            I am not grossed out by anatomy, but rotting turns my stomach.  I once opened a freezer bag with a dead dog in it only to have its guts drop on my foot.  That only made me change my cloths, not want to throw up.  It simply was not as upsetting as when I opened a bag with a dead cat in it that had been decaying for days in the sun.  When I broke open this bag maggots came spilling out onto the floor and counter.  They hadn’t frozen yet.  Like rice pellets they fell onto the floor.  Too fresh to complete my processing of the animal.  It’s not the maggots that made me sick, but the smell.  It threw me back into a state that is singularly human.  Wrapping up the cat, I put it back down into the freezer to wait for it to be completely frozen.  I could deal with it then, perhaps.

            I don’t think many people think about the actual decaying process of a body. Most people when we think of death, we think of the soul.  We ponder where the conscious has gone.  While theses conversations need to be had, there is something about actually seeing decomposition that brings a person back to a time when there was no religion to comfort us.  Rotting is something man and beast share alike.  Biologically we share the same fate.  And it is disgusting.  Maybe that is why ancient man started burring their dead, to avoid the smell.  All I know is that I will not be able to eat rice for a very long time.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Liars

            There is nothing more infuriating than being lied to face to face.  It enrages me.  To think that people believe they can’t tell that we know they are full of it.  To think that they are just oh so clever.  On occasion we have a person come in and drop off a “stray”.  From their demeanor we can tell that this animal is theirs.  It is found in the way they look at the animal, hold it, and are reluctant when we take it out of their arms.  They don’t want to attempt it is theirs because that would mean they would have to go through the surrender process.  Taking responsibility is too much for them.  What people often forget, at least with cats and dogs, is the microchip.  If you are going to give up your pet as a “stray,” one should really remember that when we trace the microchip we are going to discover it was your pet and we will call you out on it.

            This lack of courage is found not only with the owners of cats and dogs.  This past week, I had an 18-year-old girl come in with a huge rat cage saying that she found the rats as strays.  When I asked her about it she said, “My friend dropped them off in a box by my house.  He was very drunk.”  I asked for the friend’s name.  “I don’t know.”  She said.  I asked for a phone number or any information on this person.  She couldn’t come up with any.  I asked if they were at least Facebook friends.  “No.”  She said.  Although I didn’t say it I thought, “But he knows where you live?”  Taking the rats back as she filled out the stray impound card, I was livid.  How dare this little cheeky twat think she could lie to me.   

            Venting to a coworker, I only grew angrier.  We aren’t supposed to say anything negative to the customer.  We aren’t supposed to question what people tell us.  We are supposed to just smile and say okay.  But I had had it.  I returned to the front, calm and collected.  Upon entering the lobby I was horrified to learn that she was visiting with a cat.  I turned to her and asked, “Don’t you need that big rat cage back for your rats?”  She hesitated.  Her eyes darted for just a moment and I knew with all certainty that she was lying.  “Oh.  No.  I just had that one hanging around from an old ferret.”  She stammered.  “With a water bottle, a rat wheel, and aspen hay in it?”  I asked.  “Um yes.”  I turned away disgusted. 

            There was no way she was taking home this cat.  I got one of my better supervisors who I knew would be as outraged as I was.  My supervisor going in to talk to her told her we needed the name of the friend.  Until then she could not visit with any other animals.  Going out to her car she called several people for 20 minutes.  Returning she gave us someone’s first name but not the last name.  We allowed her to go back on the visit.  In the meantime, my supervisor called this person and found out it was her sister.  After 15 minutes of double-talk, the sister confessed it was really both of their rats.  Going back into the visitation room with my supervisor I picked up the cat and gave this little girl a hard fixed stare.  My supervisor informed her that we would not be adopting out to her because of her dishonesty.  With that we walked out without another word, cat and all.  The cat merely meowed, having no clue as to his fate or odds. 

            Lying is a disgusting act that only cowards resort to.  When my coworkers and I sense the dishonesty the passion rises up in us.  Anger is the appropriate response.  It steers us into action.  Although we may turn off our apathy towards some people, I have never seen anyone be able to turn off their anger.  Thank God. With anger we become brave.  We stand up and teeter the line of getting in trouble because we were rude to a customer.  We force people to confront their horrible acts and neglect towards the animals.  You cannot drop off an animal and replace it with another unfortunate creature.  The rage within us won’t allow it.  We don’t always catch the people who try and do this.  This girl may have just gone somewhere else to get a cat.  But one cat’s odds where changed.  I hope for the better.  When I left that night he was still in his kennel, sleeping, flicking his tail as cats will do.  His dice had been cast and he hadn’t had a word on the outcome.  Still, he didn’t seem too bothered by the day’s events.  And the fact that he wasn’t, made all the difference, at least to me.   

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sometimes death is a gift.

            How do you know when to put your animal down?  This is without a doubt, the hardest decision a pet owner will have to make.  As much as it pains me to see a person euthanize their pet, there are some people who cannot make this decision.  Contrary to what one may think, this often leads my coworkers and I to judge that person even harsher than if they had gone through with the euthanasia.  This may sound counterintuitive.  How can euthanasia to an animal lover be the right course of action?  However, at the humane society, we often see that this is the better course of action.  People surrender animals we know will not pass our evaluations.  We tell this to the customer but they do not listen. 

            I once had a 13-year-old cat that was emaciated, incontinent, and simply put, ready to die.  Her owner could not come to terms with it.  I told her this animal would not pass our evaluations.  It would be more painful for the cat to have her sit in the kennel for several days before our evaluation team could assess her than to put her down now.  The merciful action was to euthanize her.  Or, perhaps even better, let her go home and die in her own time.  Yet, the person in front of me did not hear these words.  The owner could not comprehend it.  This family had too much sadness already.  They had a couple of family members fall ill and as a result had some financial troubles.  The consequence of people having poor lives is that the animals suffer even more.  Still, although my heart went out to them, as one of my coworkers stated, “Take a moment, deal with your shit, and get it together.”  

            Hard decisions surround anyone who lives.  The fact that you have to kill a creature you love very much is just too unbearable for many to deal with.  This is responsible pet ownership though: knowing when you have offered them the best possible life and now it is time to let them give up the ghost.  You can either let them pass in their own time or you can end their suffering with a fatal injection.  That is much better of an action than surrendering them to a humane society.  The word euthanasia in Greek means “good death.”  No person I have ever met would want to go to prison for several days away from everything they have ever known, separated from their family, get led into a dark small room that smells of death, get injected with fatal plus, and then buried with the other carcasses in the landfill.  If the outcome is still the same, why put your animal through the first horrifying part of it?  Many people who surrender their pets believe we can heal them.  But when the front desk clerk tells you there is no hope for your pet because he is simply too old, too aggressive, or beyond care, then you as the owner must take that burden on.  Do not pass it off to someone else.

            When my dog got sick this past year, we asked the vet for an estimation on the cost for our different options.  On the list was euthanasia.  If I could not heal him, I would certainly put him out of his suffering.  Wrong?  No.  Sometimes death is a gift.  When the right time to give this gift is, however, is something that no one will ever be able to tell you.  People who cannot make this decision, I find, lack courage.  That statement is full of judgment.  Yet I see sick and dangerous animals sit in kennels for several days and I know what their outcome will be.  They sit there scared, hurt, and wanting nothing more than to go home.  But they will not get another home.  Their owners did not give them a quiet end.  Instead they chose to have their animal wait; to simply sit and have false hope of walking out. Confused. Wanting love.  Not understanding what is going on around them.  It is not fair to the animal.  It's not fair to the people who work there.  These owners pass off their guilt onto another person, not having the gull to face the decision.  'Coward' just doesn't seem like a big enough word.  

            How can death ever be the answer?  But all life must die.  Man is not God and yet we find ourselves with the opportunity to play that role.  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair that life must end.  But it does.  And someone a lot wiser than me once said, “And that’s what makes it beautiful.” 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Unmasking a Man's Character

            Every now and then I do a transaction that makes my heart burst with joy.  It is so rare, I can really only remember two, maybe, three times it has happened.  It catches me by stock and surprise when it happens, truly leaving me speechless.  At work, I am ready to argue.  I am ready to be yelled at.  What I’m not ready for is gratitude.  True appreciation that comes from the heart.  People who know what is at stake. Who realize they messed up and are dreading the consequences of their actions.  People who understand if something has happened to their lost pet, they will feel very guilty whether it was truly their fault or not.

            The other day I had a women come in 10 minutes to closing.  She came bursting in, frantic looking for her ancient lost beagle.  Hearing that she was coming in, I knew which dog was probably hers.  He had to be at least 15 years old.  Blind, deaf, thin and worn, if no owner was going to come for this dog, he would be euthanized.  The old dogs make me the saddest.  If they are dropped off here and no one comes to reclaim, they don’t get a second chance, even if physically they could probably live for a year or two more.  When they are surrendered the outcome is almost always the same.  For the old strays some are dumped because the owners don’t want to pay for the increase in cost as their pet has gotten older.  Other old dogs just wonder off, confused in their old age and their owners never come looking.

            For this old beagle, he did have an owner who loved him very much.  She came in crying.  As cold as it sounds, after a while you stop letting tears affect you. Compassion fatigue runs deep with us.  As a result, if you want to make it here longer than a month when people start crying, our emotions turn off.  Especially when we know that same person who is crying once they hear that there are fees to get their animal out, suddenly isn’t so grateful, but instead starts screaming at us.  They are no longer happy to have found their lost pet.  They are outraged at the system.  They are hollering at the injustice.  How dare they pay for someone to have picked up their pet, feed it, given it medical attention, and made sure it was safe?

            Asking to see a picture of the dog before we headed back, she stumbled on her phone.  Flipping to one, she showed me the same tired old beagle that had yelped when I tried to vaccinate him.  “Okay,” I said and lead her back.  Showing her the beagle she burst into even more tears.  And then without any warning she turned around and gave me a huge hug.  My heart warmed and turned into a gabbing smile.  “Was she really that grateful?” I thought.

            Yes.  Yes she was.  Even after telling her she would have to pay $96 to get her dog back, she tossed me her credit card and said “I don’t care.  Just charge it.  I guess I just won’t be going out to eat for the next couple of months.”  I stared at her. Stocked.  Smiling.  Giddy almost.  Finally someone who all they truly cared about was getting their beloved old friend back.  For this woman, her dog was not just any old dog.  It was Tanner.  Tanner was a beagle that she got 15 years ago.  Tanner had been hiking with her, seen her kids born, and had a funny howl when he wanted to go for a walk.  Tanner was irreplaceable.  This dog was not a possession but a living member of her family.  This remarkable woman understood that if Tanner was not here, the risk of death increased exponentially for an older dog.  Death she saw would have been final.  Never to be recovered from.  Never being able to see this one dog again she recognized was much worse than paying $96.

            When the paperwork was signed, and the money paid, I went back to the kennel to get Tanner.  He stared up howling.  “What a lucky pup.”  I thought.  I lead him back to his owner.  Joyfully he jumped directly into her arms.  They walked out happily together.  Thanking me several more times before they left, I rejoiced in the fact that our purpose was acknowledge.  We had saved a life and more than that we had reunited a family.

            Often at the shelter, we see so many appalling owners.  We forget that out in our community there are fantastic pet owners.  Our perspective is skewed because those people don’t let their animals get out.  They are responsible and know how to keep their animals in their backyard.  Gates will always fly open because of the wind. A lab will always be able to jump a fence.  A border collie will always get bored and wonder off the range.  But this is the risk of being a dog owner.  How people value their animals when it comes time to reclaim is always reflective of that person’s character.   

            When I was recently on vacation, my husband had the idea of checking out a local humane society.  We ended up not going just because our time got cut short. But he said something to me that took me back.  He said someone once said, “The only true measure of a man’s greatness is how he treats his animals.”  My husband’s point was that while this place seemed wonderful, only their local humane society would unmask the character of the people who lived there.  This measure indicates compassion, empathy, dignity, and to some degree wealth.  Although you don’t have to be rich to be kind, you do have to have some means to care for an animal.  If you can’t afford to pay for an animal, you should admit it is not your right to own that animal.  There are good people out there, who treat their animals not like disposable waste.  The other day, my heart sung with joy to witness this in my community.  There have been other people who are grateful, but nothing compares to this one woman.  Transactions like this stick to my heart like glue.  It gives me courage to keep showing up each day just waiting for the next time I can sing with elation.  

Just a Tired Old Beagle

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Saying Goodbye to You

            Someone really wise once said, “Great friends are made when you go through war with them.”  I know it’s not war, but on a lot of days it feels like triage, at the least.  I am very grateful for the friends I have made in the time working at the humane society.  We see a lot of shit together.  Together we loose our faith in humanity.  We keep clinging on together hoping that the ship still has a chance.  On most days I hear my coworkers say, “What the fuck?”  On other days I see them cry.   On really hard days we go out, get drunk, and scream to the heavens.  Sometimes it is really something quite simple that makes us turn our heads. Yesterday my coworker was filing a lost report.  When she asked the gentlemen what the color of his dog was, he paused, looked at her, and said, “I don’t know.”  How do you not know the color of our own dog?

            People who work at shelters are different.  A lot of them have a fantastic sense of humor.  It’s ironic.  People who deal with such sadness all day you would think would be pretty depressed.  But for the most part we are a happy lot.  Many of us come there trying to figure out our course in life.  Some trying to find their careers, a couple that just need a job, others searching for the best possible way for them to achieve some good.  Despite why staff members come, what they walk out with is so much more.  Some would call it cynicism but I see it differently.  Innocence is lost in place of a new wisdom.  We are not blind to what people are capable of.  Cruelty is a reality we live in.  Still, it makes us shine that much brighter when we see good done in the world.  Seeing death and sadness weaves some good into a person’s soul.  It makes us inexplicitly happy when someone brings us cupcakes, it makes us sing out loud when a good song comes on the radio, it makes us dance at closing time, and it makes us high five one another when the sun comes out.  It makes us calm when there is a moment of peace and nothing is happening.

            A while back I read a book about the way dogs live.  The author of the book simply followed her pet dog around and observed him.  Her conclusion was that all dogs want is to lay on the side of a hill in the warm sun and have nothing happening.  They love to explore and go on walks, sure, but they aren’t restless like a lot of people can become on a quiet afternoon.  They just appreciate the silence for what it is.  I used to think that conclusion was silly.  Who wouldn’t love a grand adventure?   Yet, now, I see my dog across the living room floor, sleeping in the sun, and I know he is at peace because there is so much worse that could be happening.  This understanding brings dogs that have good homes tranquility much like the author noted in her book.

             After working at the humane society, my coworkers and I see what life is like for the animals.  Witnessing this turmoil builds within us that same respect for simple uninterrupted quiet.  I have seen way too many people leave this job. Good people.  It can be very hard to say goodbye to someone who has wrapped up a dead dog or cat with you.  Who has fought beside you to argue with your boss why certain people shouldn’t take home a specific animal.  Who have risked getting written up because we are following our sense of what is right.  We see terrible decisions regarding the outcome of so many animals and share that same sense of helplessness. 

            When my coworkers now leave this job, I can’t help but think they are merely the old dogs in the book purely yearning for a sunny hillside.  A life filled with the absence of chaos.  They know it’s still there somewhere out in the world.  They have seen it.  They return home from their long journey never to truly be the same.  Yet, they can now simply lie in the grass peacefully having learned just a little wisdom from our friends the animals.