Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Sugar at the end of my day

The SPCA ambulance had no air conditioning. And it was HOT. It was like driving a giant, puffing, stinking, diesel-powered furnace. There was no cage in the truck we normally used, and we needed one for this last call of the day. We were on our way to pick up a dog from an owner who could not afford vet care, and this dog desperately needed it. The SPCA’s law enforcement had given the owner several days to get the dog to a vet, but he claimed financial hardship and had agreed that the SPCA should take the dog, see that it had proper care, and put it up for adoption.

We arrived at a row-home so typical of the city. The owner’s grandson motioned us to the alley, which ran along the tiny rear courtyards. This dog had never been out of the man’s backyard. He had never been on a leash. We had no idea whether he was friendly or ferocious. He turned out to be simply scared.

It was almost comical to watch the dog outwit every attempt to catch him in the tiny courtyard, hiding under tables and ducking our leashes. When we finally managed to slip a leash around his neck, I noticed the horrible condition of his coat and skin – barely any fur remained on his body, and open sores were visible on his neck – a secondary skin infection, for sure. But I felt immensely sorry for the owner, an elderly man who stuttered and hobbled with the aid of a cane, and told us the dog was about nine-years-old, and his name was Sugar. There had been a car accident. And bills to pay. I could tell he cared, but there just wasn’t enough money to go around.

Sugar did not, under any circumstances, want to leave that yard. That was the only environment he had ever known. We finally managed, with the help of the elderly man’s grandson, to get the dog into the back of the ambulance. He was docile, but scared to death.

“M-make s-sure you t-tell them that he-he’s a good g-g-guard dog,” the elderly man said sadly, as we prepared to leave. I had a lump in my throat. It didn’t seem fair.

If Sugar was resistant to leaving the yard, he hated that ambulance more. I could hear him barking and crying on the way to the shelter. I knew his fear must have been almost unbearable. He fairly flew out of the holding carrier when we finally arrived, but had absolutely no idea how to walk on a leash. He bit and ground the leash to tatters. The officer and I tried pulling on the leash, but to no avail. Sugar had put on the brakes and that was that. I couldn’t bear the sight of his legs stretched out in adamant refusal, and thought how much it must hurt to have the leash digging into those oozing sores on his neck. We called for a cart, and wheeled him to the shelter hospital.

Frightened and away from the only family he had ever been exposed to, Sugar bravely allowed the vet techs to administer shots and Frontline for his fleas. We scooped him into a cage in the hospital where hopefully he could survey his new surroundings and calm down. I talked to him through the bars of the cage and told him it would be okay.

That night I was sadder than I had been in awhile. I thought about Sugar and his owner on my ride home and wished there had been a different option. I visit Sugar every chance I get now. He is still a resident of the hospital, on medication and recuperating. I try not to think of what will happen – an older dog on the adoption floor, with most people wanting to adopt cute, cuddly puppies. But there are lots of success stories, and that’s what I have to keep in my mind.

The Search Warrant To Get Sherwin

The city police car flew around the corner, the first SPCA law enforcement truck following close behind; the SPCA truck I was riding in followed on its heels. All three vehicles came to an abrupt stop halfway down the street, completely blocking it. Car doors opened and we all got out, making our way up to the row home door like a small army. People on the street stopped in mid-activity and watched with undisguised curiosity, staring at the firearms on everyone’s side and wondering what was to happen. Police on the street could only mean one thing: trouble. When a woman finally opened the door the search warrant was served and we all entered, surveying the scene, looking at everything, flashlights on and eyes adjusting to the dim light.

The warrant itself had taken a long time to write. It needed to be spotless and perfect, or the judge who was asked to sign it could have thrown it out. Probable cause needed to be documented in detail. No elements could be forgotten. As it turned out, it was signed within hours.

The dog we had come to find was supposed to be in the basement, but one of the officers saw a dog in the back courtyard when he looked out the kitchen window. Before the dog could be seized, however, the rest of the house had to be searched.

The basement was dark and damp. No dogs, but make-shift leashes and thick collars gave plenty of evidence that dogs had been there. The first and second floors had very little furniture. It looked like a stash-house: a hiding place for drugs, or dog fighting, or any number of illicit activities. The woman’s clothes were in dresser drawers, clearly disputing her statement that she didn’t live there. No one besides her was in the home. The city police stayed out of our way, but provided a great deal of security in a very bad neighborhood.

Two SPCA officers opened the door in the kitchen that led to the courtyard, yelling, “Get back!” at the dog on the other side, who was clearly trying to shove its way inside. I expected to see an enormous giant of a dog bursting in, but when the officers managed to get the leash around its neck, the small, horribly emaciated pit bull that appeared didn’t in any way resemble the image in my mind.

The little dog was splattered with dried red paint. It was smeared on his ears, tail, legs, and back. There were scars and fairly fresh injuries on his face. One officer took him to the truck and loaded him into a cage in the back. The other officer checked the woman’s identification, asked her questions, and obtained a picture of her boyfriend, whom she said lived at the home with her.

Pictures were taken of the yard where the dog was found. It is the pictures of a crime scene and victim that can often make or break a case. The yard was littered with garbage, trash bags, cardboard, and junk. An open paint can that had once held red paint was seen. There was no food or water.

Inside, an officer spoke on the phone with the woman’s boyfriend, while the woman sat on the steps staring at her cell phone. She showed complete disregard for the entire situation. The boyfriend gave multiple stories: the dog was put in the yard by someone else, he didn’t own the home but stayed there sometimes, his cousin, the actual homeowner, was in jail, he couldn’t remember the address of his employer, etc. The officer showed no mercy, telling the boyfriend that if he was not willing to provide the correct information, he would be forced to do so at a later date.

I stood outside on the steps for a bit, watching the people from the block mill about and talk to each other. I heard one woman say that she needed to move, that the block was too “hot”; too much trouble. It was a known drug area. A man across the street sat on his stoop with his pit bull the entire time we were there, as if trying to show us that his dog was fine and he was not part of the problem. Kids ran and played on the street, some petting the man’s pit bull, and in retrospect I wish I had attempted to talk to them and gauge their perspective on how animals should be treated. I am convinced that change in this area must start with educating the children who are so often desensitized to the violence all around them.

An officer told me to keep an eye on the truck, since it was unlocked and running in order to provide air conditioning for the dog. “That’s our evidence in there,” he said, referring to the dog. “You never know what people may do.”

I went to check on the dog, and we eyed each other warily. He stood in his cage, and when I spoke he wagged his tail. No sign of aggression, no overt fear. From the looks of the injuries on his head and face I thought maybe he was used as a bait dog in fights. He let me pet him. He was a beautiful dog and seemed very young.

The woman in the house was given a citation and a copy of the search warrant. The city police waited for us to finish and escorted us off the block. Back at the shelter, pictures were taken to document the dog’s sad condition; getting the “money-shot”, the one showing the extent of his injuries and starvation, was extremely important for court. Staring at the dried paint all over him, we decided to name him Sherwin, after the Sherwin-Williams paint company. He was a happy boy, despite all he’d probably been through, didn’t flinch when given his shots, and devoured the small amount of food he was given. He also didn’t seem to be at all familiar with human attention and affection. He wasn’t aloof or standoffish, but some dogs, especially those starved for attention, will nuzzle or lean into people when being petted; Sherwin acted as if he had never experienced it. I hope with time he will learn what it’s like to have a loving home.

If you are interested in adopting or fostering Sherwin, please contact me by leaving a comment about your interest. He is currently on hold pending forensic evaluation by a veterinarian, but should be released soon.

Tied to the pole

We almost missed him.

We drove around the block twice and saw nothing. Just as we were getting ready to leave, a woman tapped on the rear window of the truck as we paused at a stop sign.

“You lookin’ for that dog on the pole? He’s over there,” she said, pointing to the street corner we had just past.

We thanked her and drove over again. Just as we were turning the corner, I spotted him: a big dog on a short chain cowering near a bush to try to escape the hot sun.

The officer parked the car and we walked over. Multiple calls had come in that morning and all during the previous night about this dog, abandoned at this spot and barking continuously. He was quiet now, probably having barked himself hoarse. When he saw us approaching he got up and squeaked out a raspy warning, as unsure of us as we were of him.

Neighbors came out of their homes and told us about being kept awake all night by the barking dog. One woman had tried to give it water but the dog hadn’t been that interested. Others were afraid to get too close for fear of being bitten. A man brought a fresh bowl of water out and the dog took advantage of it this time. Everyone felt sorry for it. But no one knew whose dog it was, nor had they seen anyone drop it off.

The officer and I talked to the dog and I tried to distract it while the officer untangled the chain. When we finally got the dog off the heavy chain and on a leash, he pulled me clear across the street. Hungry and dehydrated, he was still strong. We realized he was slightly emaciated and suffering from dermatitis; patches of fur were missing from his legs and back. But he was still a handsome gray pit bull or pit bull mix.

“Why would someone do this?” one of the neighbors asked. “Just leave the poor thing tied to a pole on a sidewalk? There are lots of other, less mean options.”

I agreed. Who knows why people do the things they do. I have long given up trying to find explanations.

The officer and I took the dog to the Animal Care and Control facility, which is different from the SPCA. The Animal Control team handles abandonment cases. I realized that being sent to their facility meant a high probability of euthanasia because it is constantly filled to capacity, and there is a severe shortage of rescue groups with available space. Instantly sad, I thought of the rotten life this dog had been given. Exposed to nothing but neglect, he now stood a good chance of being put down, simply because there was no room for him. Yes, it’s possible he may be adopted, or sent to another facility, but the odds were against it. He had probably never known kindness. Probably never known fun, or what it is like to sleep on a bed or a blanket, or how it feels to have a child wrap pudgy arms around his neck. And there are thousands just like him. I managed to see him wag his tail by the time we arrived at the animal control shelter. A tentative “happy-tail”. Happy in the face of uncertainty. He didn’t know what his fate held for him. I didn’t either. It was hard not to cry because all I could do was hope – hope for him and hope that someday I won’t ever have to wonder.

The Jungle House

That’s how it was described to me by the officer before we arrived to pick up the six cats supposedly inside. He was right – when we pulled up out front it was easy to identify which one he was referring to. Vines had completely taken over the outside of the home. Plant-life shoved its way in windows and simply covered the ones it couldn’t penetrate. It was hard to see the walkway to the porch. It was as if Mother Nature was reclaiming her own.

The homeowner was in the hospital with no known discharge date. According to his friend, who came to let us inside, the owner was an alcoholic who had tried to detox on his own the week before and ended up collapsing, most-likely from the shock of the withdrawl. The homeowner knew his condition was serious, but he was also worried about the cats in the house that were left to fend for themselves. So he had agreed to let the SPCA come and rescue them.

The outside of the jungle house was NOTHING compared to what we saw on the inside. I noticed an animal skull mounted to the outside of the front door. Before the owner’s friend opened the door for us, he tried to express just how bad it was in the house.

“Listen, it’s horrible,” he said. “There are fleas everywhere. And the cats ain’t used to people, so they’ll most likely run and hide. Least that’s what they did when I came to feed ‘em.”

I didn’t have a clue how bad some people in my city have to live until I saw the inside of that house. When I stepped inside I was slapped across the face by the unmistakable odor of urine and feces. It was as if time had stopped. Cobwebs and layers of dust and animal hair covered everything. It was dark and dreary; the windows were covered by the vines outside, heavy curtains inside, and a film of dirt several layers thick. Clothes that obviously hadn’t been worn in years lay haphazardly across furniture and on the floor. Boxes of magazines and assorted collectibles were stacked in the middle of the front two rooms. The only piece of furniture that was not piled with boxes was a small couch in the living room, which is most-likely where the homeowner slept. Piles of feces were EVERYWHERE. Roaches scurried out of our way. The homeowner’s friend picked up a bag of cat food from a kitchen chair and shook it. I shuddered to think that it was probably infested with insects. I saw one cat on a window ledge, but when he caught a glimpse of us he flew like a bat-out-of-hell past our legs and up the stairs. Another cat scurried out of the kitchen in the same direction. We put the four cat boxes we had brought on a semi-clean area of the living-room floor and headed up the stairs.

It was worse up there. A mattress on the floor of one of the rooms was used as a makeshift litter box. There was no air conditioning, and the heat made the stench even more pervasive. It was impossible to take a step without coming into contact with animal feces. After chasing the cats with flashlights for about five wasted minutes, Jim said to me, “We need to go back to the shelter and get the traps. These cats are completely feral and we’ll never catch them otherwise.”

We trudged downstairs and out into the sunshine and fresh air. Jim called the homeowner in his hospital room to let him know that we were going to set traps and take the cats out. The homeowner was sad but understood. He was aware and embarrassed at the condition of his house, which I took to be a good sign of a dawning recognition of his living situation. He knew he couldn’t care for the cats and he gave permission for his friend to sign for them.

I looked down at the legs of my pants and realized I was COVERED in fleas. After hosing each other down with flea spray Jim and I headed back to the SPCA for traps. I thought about how horrible life for that homeowner must be. I had seen signs of a life before things had gotten bad – yellowed pictures and clippings attached to the refrigerator door. Images of happier times, perhaps? But I thought about how he now battles with addiction every day. No family. Almost no friends, except for the kind soul that we had met. How scary it must have been, pushing a cart of laundry down the street and collapsing. ALONE. The cats were his only life-line. He cared, at least in his mind, more for them than for himself. What would life be like for him after the hospital? He couldn’t possibly be allowed to return to that house. Could he?

We returned from the SPCA with two large traps and cans of cat food for bait. We set them in the living room and kitchen and hoped they would work. Unfortunately, we had run out of flea spray and had to resort to picking the second round off of ourselves by hand. Thanking the owner’s friend for his time, patience, and caring, we said we’d be back the following day to check the traps and bring more. Driving away from the jungle house I realized that the SPCA is not just teaching me about animal laws and behavior, but also about human nature and humility. This isn’t just the stuff of movies. It’s reality. Not everyone lives a comfortable life. People AND animals struggle with the basics EVERY MINUTE of EVERY DAY. They don’t struggle with which new car or gadget to buy. They struggle to find food, water, shelter. They struggle to get out of bed. They struggle to find someone, anyone, who will not scream at them, hit them, or otherwise disregard them. They HOPE to find someone who will listen. Someone to care.

I swear on my life…

“My stalls have never looked this bad. Ever, I swear on my life,” the man professed to Jim and I. Repeatedly.

Really? And just how much is your life worth, buddy? I thought, as I walked through the dilapidated stable, staring into the horses’ stalls. Almost all of them, numbering around 25 or so, were filthy. No, filthy is too kind a word. Atrocious. Repulsive. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The stable was in falling-down condition. Flies were everywhere. The cobwebs in the eaves and beams of the ceiling (and rapidly encroaching on the stalls) were as thick as blankets, made ever more visible by the thick coating of dust that covered them. Food buckets were empty. Water buckets were filled with slimy fluid. There was almost no light. Hardly any fans to circulate the stifling heat. And the worst were the floors. In most of the stalls the horses stood on inches of feces. Not a piece of straw in sight. They looked at us with interest, some demanding attention by nuzzling, others just staring from darkened corners.

One of the horse owners led us through. He lived in a tiny trailer on the property. He must have been the one who called us to report the conditions, although I couldn’t be sure. He told us the horses’ names, and who their owners were. He said, “When you guys came out before, the owners cleaned up, but the day after, everything went right back to the way it always is.” And the SPCA knew this place well.

It was a boarding-only facility. The horses’ owners were responsible for everything. All care. All cleaning. Even refilling water buckets. Fans had to be provided by the owners. In short, the woman who owned the stable merely collected rent money. And nothing else. There was no one there to care for the animals if the owners didn’t do it themselves, aside from the man showing us around, who would do the minimum if he saw a horse suffering. The stable owner showed up shortly after our arrival, as did some of the horse owners, as soon as word of our presence spread through the grapevine.

Excuses and stories of life’s hardships and why they couldn’t possibly get to the stable to take care of their horses made my head ache. Seemed everyone had relationship issues, time conflicts, and money woes, but frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. Simply put if it’s too hard, don’t own a horse. Horses are time- and money-consuming animals. They require lots of care, and owning one can be immensely rewarding, but sacrifices of time and a large amount of effort is required to keep them healthy and happy. Neglect is a form of abuse, and these people were neglectful. I could tell that Jim didn’t want to hear the tales of woe either; he walked slowly through the stable taking lots of pictures and notes; he tried to appear understanding but only to a point.

And then there was the “I swear on my life” guy. Over and over he said it. Along with: “I promise, tonight I’m going to clean them up.” Why not stop following us around, crossing your heart and hoping to die, and do it now? I thought. As if to show us he meant business, he led a beautiful stallion out of the stable and into the barely half-acre-sized field. I wondered how long it had been since that horse had seen the field; he ran with ears pointed forward and tail high, back and forth, snorting and puffing with endless energy. He looked so happy. But just because the horse was out of the stall didn’t mean the guy was cleaning it. No. He continued to stand there and try to convince us of his and the other owners’ innocence and good intentions.

But the SPCA’s file on this stable was thick and patience was wearing thin. Jim didn’t mince words when he told the stable owner that if she couldn’t or wouldn’t enforce the rules with the horse owners (most of which were SPCA requirements) she needed to hire someone to provide for the animals. He effectively shot down every argument she gave, including those regarding a lack of funds to pay someone.
“Look, pay them minimum wage. I don’t care. But at the very least these horses need clean water and food multiple times a day, and they need clean stalls. Every day. And exercise. And vet care. End of story,” he told her. “And PLEASE, get some working light bulbs in there.”

I left feeling exhausted, seeing the horses’ imploring and plaintive stares in my mind. They seemed beaten down and so sad. I was angry once again, and that hollow in my stomach was ever-present. I knew how hard it would be to enforce any rules with those people. They were like so many others who just don’t care.

The next day a citation was issued and the stable owner was fined. I wondered if it would make any difference for the lives of those horses. I swear on MY life, I will fight for better conditions for them and so many like them.