By Debra J. White
Home can be a studio apartment with leaky plumbing, a cracked ceiling and pesky cockroaches or a spacious mansion with a neatly manicured lawn and a four-car garage. For cats and dogs, home can be with an owner who lives in a lakeside cabin or with a senior citizen in a trailer park. What happens when people and pets lose their homes? Here’s my experience with both.
In 1989, I began my animal shelter volunteer career at the MSPCA (Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Boston. Since then, I have volunteered at shelters in other cities and the experiences ran from heartbreaking to exhilarating. I could write a book about all the experiences, good, bad and indifferent. Not long after moving to Phoenix in 1997, I called the Maricopa County animal shelter and was put in touch with the late Barb Westermeyer, a short, wrinkled, wiry, chain smoking older woman who assumed many roles. Most importantly, she was totally devoted to her job. We bonded right away.
By mid-October, the extreme heat tapered off and Barb sprang into action for the off-site adoptions held at various locations around the county. Because the public often hedged at visiting the aging and decrepit shelter, Barb arranged for animals to be brought to the public instead. Everything had to be transported to the off-site adoption events, including office supplies, pet food, bowls, animal crates, folding tables, chairs as well as the dogs and cats. Pulling off these events took massive planning. Barb was a master coordinator and I loved watching her in action.
“Darling,” she called me one day. “I need you this weekend. We have a big event at Cave Creek Park.”
“What time and how do I get there?”
“I need you early,” Barb said. “As for directions, heck I don’t know. I’ve lived in Phoenix my whole life. I’ll ask my husband Kenny and call you back.”
Barb offered a vague set of driving instructions. GPS wasn’t available and neither was MapQuest. The brain injury distorted (from a 94 car accident) what little sense of direction I had. I botched my way to Cave Creek in northeast Phoenix. I lived in Tempe, the southeast section. An hour late, I finally arrived at a gorgeous public park nestled in the sprawling desert.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said as I rolled up in my scooter (result of the accident).
“Don’t worry,” Barb said. “Get ready to work. Ride back to the parking lot and look for the county truck. Pick up the towels in the back. Dogs and cats need something soft to rest on while in the cages.”
I spun around and located the pick-up truck. In the back, there were piles of everything. I grabbed the linens, piled them on my scooter and returned.
Barb treated me like a valued employee. “How’s your selling skills?”
“I guess OK,” I said.
“Good enough,” she said, patting me on the back. “I’ve got an important job for you.”
Barb’s dedication extended beyond her paid employment. In her spare time, she made gift baskets to benefit our unwanted dogs and cats. At off-site events, volunteers like me hawked raffle tickets. She plowed the proceeds into the foster care program so that tiny puppies and kittens born to moms that either died prematurely or had to be put down would find a second chance.
“Sell as many as you can,” Barb said.
Within a short time, I earned a place as one of Barb’s top sales agents. I peddled raffle tickets at adoption events and raked in at least $200 at each one. And I loved it. The special part of the events, however, was the sight of dogs and cats on their way home with responsible loving owners. That made getting lost in unfamiliar neighborhoods, which I often did, worth my while.
The cumbersome process of lugging crates, bowls, office supplies, chairs, tables, food, water, etc. to the adoption events ended in 2000 when PetSmart Charities donated a huge chunk of money for a mobile adoption van. We called it the Scratch and Sniff Mobile. Not only was the brightly painted van (more like the size of a bus) equipped with cages, a bathroom, and ample room for supplies, but it was air-conditioned. What a sight to see tiny Barb driving that big vehicle around. The Scratch and Sniff Mobile cut down on turn-around time to get to and from the adoption events and made transporting the animals a cinch. PetSmart Charities deserved all the credit.
At Christmas time, PetSmart stores partnered with local shelters and rescue groups for a fundraiser called Pet Photos with Santa. PetSmart provided the camera and film then split the proceeds with the rescue groups. At the time, we still used real film. Now, the process is done with digital cameras. The county was among the groups invited to take part. As a regular volunteer, I dealt with thoughtless owners, comforted abused animals, and spent time around employees whose hearts were hardened to animal suffering. I grabbed the chance to volunteer for Pet Photos with Santa. I wanted to surround myself with people whose pets were cherished parts of the family.
Because sitting came easily to me, I wore the Santa suit, also courtesy of PetSmart. What a ball I had, even though the beard and the wig were itchy like a crinoline slip. Most big dogs were terrified of having their pictures taken with Santa. I struggled to hold them next to me. A fuzzball of a dog with curly tail lifted his leg on my shoes and left me with a stinky memento. A fluffy gray cat clawed my beard like it was a scratching post. A freckle faced boy wanted to pose with Santa, even though I was a ‘girl’.
After her dog’s picture was done, one woman said, “I should’ve brought my horse. Maybe I’ll come back.”
I also posed with pet rats, birds, rabbits, and a chinchilla. I went home feeling good after each pet photo session.
Among the network of animal rescue people I met over the years was a woman named Julie Brown. Julie liked Dachshunds, especially old, forlorn weenies (their nickname) without a chance for adoption. Sometimes, she brought them home, placed them or prodded a rescue to accept them. Now and then, she kept them herself.
One week, I bumped into Julie at the shelter. Two haggard looking Dachshunds were impounded as strays. They also reeked, probably without proper bathing for months or even longer. Like most strays, the old gals came in without ID tags. What set one of the dogs apart was a huge tumor, about the size of a tennis ball, that hung from her neck nearly reaching the floor. Looking at the size of the tumor, it must’ve grown for a long time. Didn’t the owners notice? Without extensive testing, there was no way to diagnose it. The county’s clinic only did spay/neuter operations and minor medical treatments.
“I feel bad for those dogs,” Julie said, as she stared at the two old weenies. “They had to be someone’s pets.”
“All of these cats and dogs belong to somebody,” I said.
“Maybe I can get someone to take them.”
“That’s a tall order, especially the one with the tumor,” I said. “Tell someone in receiving that you’re trying to help so they’re not euthanized when their time is up.”
Julie contacted Coast to Coast Dachshund Rescue, a non-profit group that rescues Dachshunds from shelters or other unsafe situations. When possible, they arrange for transport across the country to either a foster home or a permanent arrangement. Some kind soul took in the old weenies. One lived about six months and the other for around eight. I’ll always remember how Julie went out of her way to help those two senior gals. We’ve since become good friends.
A tail wagging German Shepherd mix with a lot of spunk came down with kennel cough, common in congregate care facilities like shelters. The big girl ended up on the euthanasia list because kennel cough is contagious and spreads to other dogs. With little or no resources to treat the animals and no isolation unit, David the manager placed the dog on the euthanasia list. He glanced at Jared, a kennel worker, as he stood outside the back room holding the doomed dog with a leash.
“Someone call Caron. See if she can take this dog,” David said, throwing his big arms into the air.
Caron had been involved with rescue since the mid-1990s. She took dogs off the E-list and brought them for adoption at PetSmart or at off-site events. There, she screened applicants and sent the dogs and sometimes cats to new homes.
“Put the dog back in the cage,” David said. “Wait till the end of the day.”
Jared returned the dog. By the time I left that day, Caron hadn’t called. I feared the dog would be euthanized.
“Caron came after work,” Jared said the next week when I came back. “That dog was within inches of losing her life.”
“That was the closest I ever saw a dog get to the back room and get saved.”
I preferred not knowing their fate so I usually never asked. I made an exception this time. At the next available chance, I asked David why he persisted in saving this dog while so many others were euthanized.
“I can’t say,” David said. “Maybe I was just sick of killing dogs and cats that day. I just had to save one. That dog was it.”
I hope the dog had a good life.
To combat pet overpopulation, the county raised private funds to offer free spay/neuter operations to the public. The first 100 people were served. Some people lined up at midnight and waited hours to have their pets altered. That was commitment.
I don’t know how the shelter managed to spay/neuter 100 animals in that cramped clinic. Conditions were like those in the Third World. There were only two operating tables. Cats recovered on long tables in the hallway outside the front office. Little dogs were put inside clinic cages. Bigger dogs came out of the anesthesia on the floor, resting on blankets. For a change, there were lots of volunteers around. The washing machine and dryer churned out towels, linens and surgical drapes all day long. So many people clogged the small space it was amazing no one stepped on any of the animals. Yet four times a year the county went through this ordeal and altered at least 100 dogs and cats for the public, for free. Reducing pet overpopulation was worth all the aggravation of working in such tight quarters. We worked together even if we bumped into each other now and then.
I’ve volunteered in animal shelters since 1989. There’s so much more to say yet there’s not enough space to cover all my experiences. My heart was broken dozens of times by cruel, thoughtless owners who surrendered dogs and cats for trivial reasons. Watching dogs and cats try to cope from behind bars always choked me up. To them, it was like prison yet they had committed no crimes. A part of me will always cling to anger at people who gave up their old dogs and cats because it was too inconvenient to move with them. I wondered what they told their kids about the pets no longer at home. Shelter workers have feelings and are often distraught by the abuse and neglect cases. I was sorry I couldn’t do more.
On a scorching summer day in 2001 I stopped at the now closed Phoenix Bone Appetit dog bakery to buy snacks for my old scraggly hounds. As a shelter volunteer a steady stream of decrepit dogs found refuge in my home. Tasty treats perked them up. Then again, what dog didn’t like a treat? A newspaper clipping behind the checkout counter about a doggie beach party caught my eye. What was this? We’re surrounded by the sprawling Sonoran desert.
“Who had the beach party?” I asked.
The bakery owner Helen Gootblatt smiled. “We hosted Gabriel’s Angels first fundraiser. They’re a new therapy dog group that works with abused kids.” Volunteers spent all morning filling up kiddie pools with water and opening up beach umbrellas. Real sand scattered around the parking lot hinted at an ocean feeling. “You should talk to Pam Gaber (now Burns), the founder.”
I grabbed Gaber’s business card. Over coffee about a week later, Gaber sold me on Gabriel’s Angels. In 1998, I adopted a wiry-haired mutt named Luke from an animal shelter. He showed potential for therapy work. I wanted to share his special gifts with homeless children because my former dogs, Judy and Maxine, were instrumental in my long recovery from a serious car accident in 1994.
We were assigned to a homeless shelter in Mesa. Homeless children had their lives torn apart by poverty, parental unemployment, domestic violence, or divorce. Left behind were their friends, community connections, classmates, extended family, neighbors, and pets. Luke and I would follow Gabriel’s Angels’ philosophy and spread kindness, respect, dignity, and compassion to all living beings. Children who absorb humane messages are less likely to be shackled by the ugliness of domestic violence.
On our first visit to the shelter, about a dozen children from the age of six to twelve circled around me and stroked my adopted dog Luke.
“What’s your dog’s name?” a 7-year-old boy asked.
“Can I feed him?” a blond girl with pig-tails asked as she giggled when Luke tried to kiss
“When does he sleep?” the girl’s older brother asked.
“Does Luke watch the Animal Planet?” another boy asked.
That began my seven-year journey with Gabriel’s Angels, a group dedicated to freeing Arizona’s abused, at risk and abandoned children from the shackles of violence through healing pet therapy.
A wheelchair bound boy named Kevin, perhaps 9 years old, grabbed my attention on my first day. What a place for a disabled kid to end up. Workers said he couldn’t talk. His movements were spastic. I assumed cerebral palsy. Kevin grinned when he rolled into the youth center and always tried to pet Luke. I guided his hand along Luke’s curly fur. In spite of the staff’s assurance that Kevin couldn’t talk, I heard words like “Luke” and “the dog.” Kevin wasn’t there on my visit one week. So I asked Vaughn, the staff worker, about his absence.
“Where’s the boy with CP?” I asked.
Vaughn frowned. “Kevin doesn’t have CP. His mother’s boyfriend beat him up when he was a baby.”
Tears swelled in my eyes. “How could he?”
“The boyfriend got enraged when Kevin cried and he kicked him around. Kevin was hurt badly with brain trauma. He’ll be in this chair for life. Not sure where Kevin is today.”
Memory loss is one of the residual effects from my brain injury but I’ll never forget Kevin, the affable, sandy haired boy in the wheelchair who smiled every time he saw Luke.
I entered the youth center with Luke. Ruth, a girl perhaps twelve years old, flew out of her seat and hugged my dog.
“A dog. It’s really a dog. I’m so happy.” Luke returned the affection with generous slobber to the girl’s cheek.
“Hi Ruth, I’m Debbie. This is Luke. We visit on Tuesday afternoon.”
“I miss having a dog,” Ruth said. “I’ll love your dog. That’s OK?”
“Luke likes everyone.”
Through bits and pieces of our interactions, Ruth’s damaged psyche became apparent. Her easygoing behavior suddenly turned harsh. Some children avoided her, even mocked her. I wasn’t trained in child psychology but I managed to hold the group together when Ruth acted out. The children didn’t understand her emotional anguish. Imprisoned for child abuse, Mom also killed the family dog. Ruth received psychotherapy but the scars penetrated deep into her soul. Luke helped her heal if only for a short time each week. She often asked if Luke could spend the night. For three months, Ruth and her dad lived at the shelter. We brought a small shred of comfort to a bruised and battered young girl.
I brought Beanie Baby dolls to play a pretend game of compassion to animals. Instead, a group of children played violent games with the stuffed animals, beating them and slamming them against the table.
“Stop that, please,” I said. “I brought these dolls so you kids could have something fuzzy to cuddle and learn about compassion. Please don’t act out games that hurt.”
A few children continued to act mean despite my pleas to behave gently. Finally, I said, “That’s it. I want them back. I come here to spread kindness and compassion.”
No one said a word as I collected the dolls. On my way out, children not involved in violent games asked me if they could have the dolls back. I said yes but only if they played with them nicely. No more violence.
A few years into my assignment, all volunteers received stethoscopes, compliments of a generous donor. We invited children to listen to my dog’s beating heart.
“He feels pain like you do,” I said, watching children line up for a chance to listen. “If someone hits Luke he hurts. Like you hurt if you’re beaten.”
“Hitting a dog is bad,” a boy said.
“All violence is bad,” I said.
I brought the stethoscope every few weeks. Some children lived at the shelter for the maximum four month stay so I didn’t want to lose their attention with the same activity. I mixed up activities that taught empathy and kindness. Gabriel’s Angels upgraded their material so we had the latest guidelines to help with sessions. The stethoscope, however, was always popular.
Children formed strong bonds with Luke. Over the years they groomed him, read stories with his paw cradled in their laps, and confided in him as if he was a mentor. They always remembered Luke’s name but often called me the dog lady. That tickled me. Although some children were maltreated, they often came up with clever ways to help beat up and cast aside animals. Take the helpless kitten found clawing her way out of a bush tucked behind the shelter. Jessie, a fifth grader, greeted me at the door with “big news.” Cool, sunny weather permitted supervised outside play. Desperate meows caught Jessie’s attention. She followed the squeaky voice until she found a kitten stuck inside a leafy bush. Remembering what I said about animals in need, Jessie called Margie the supervisor.
“You said to get an adult for an animal in need,” Jessie said.
“You remembered,” I said.
“Margie picked the kitten from the bushes and brought her inside. We all helped clean her up.” Animal lover Margie had room for one more animal in her multi-pet household. The children were so proud of themselves.
Teaching compassion extended beyond animals. A brawl erupted between two pig-tailed third graders while the other children assembled an animal-related jigsaw puzzle. I separated the kids and said, “Ladies, please stop fighting. Tell me what all this is about.”
“She said my mother was a pig,” Veronica said, jabbing her finger at Tracy.
“Did not,” Tracy said, lunging at Veronica’s throat.
“Did too,” Veronica said.
I pressed myself in between the feuding girls.
“I want someone to apologize.”
Faces gnarled, the two girls wrapped their arms around their bony chests and huffed.
“Veronica? Tracy?,” I said.
There was nothing but silence so I picked up Luke’s leash and headed towards the door.
“Where’re you going?” wide-eyed Veronica asked. “Is Luke leaving too?”
“Luke doesn’t like it when you children fuss and fight.”
Veronica and Tracy quickly made up with a hug. Although I earned a master’s in social work, I lacked training in early childhood development. I wasn’t sure what to do but my idea seemed to work, at least for the moment. Children gathered around the table and we finished the jigsaw puzzle.
Due to the vagaries of shelter life, homeless children often lagged behind in school. Large families may be cramped into one or two small rooms, depriving children of quiet time for studies. With Luke as the focus, I once brought flash cards to bolster their learning. No sooner had I whipped out the math cards when Stevie, a twelve-year-old, started to cry. Surely, it couldn’t be the math so I asked, “What’s wrong?”
In between sniffles, Stevie said, “My brother and I got beat up on the school bus today.”
Down with the flash cards; math would wait. “What happened?”
A group of rowdy girls egged the brothers on because they lived at a homeless shelter. Stevie and his freckle-face brother Michael were both shy, slightly built boys. So when the female warriors pounced on them, the boys didn’t fight back. None of the other students intervened either. The bus driver, according to the boys, said nothing.
Vaughn, the worker, called the school principal. I led a discussion among the children present about bullying. Why did it happen? How can it be prevented? What to do if you are a victim?
On my way out, Luke sidled up next to puffy-eyed Stevie. He rested his paw in the boy’s lap. I hugged him and said I was sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.
Every Christmas, a friend volunteered with a non-profit organization that collected toys for needy children. After completing an intake form, my friend supplied us with toys, books and games for kids at the shelter. I wrapped each child’s gift in holiday paper and a bow. Their excitement was priceless as they ripped open the presents and treated them as if they were gold. As an added bonus, I borrowed Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke added his own canine crooning by howling at various parts of the songs. That made the children crack up. Christmas at a homeless shelter instead of your own home was a sobering experience. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible.
At times I felt so inadequate. So many troubled children passed through with emotional anguish that stretched beyond my position as a pet therapist. Even my training as a social worker didn’t always give me an advantage. I relied on Luke to soothe their wounded souls. But there were times even my dog couldn’t help.
A single mother Linda and her eight children arrived after an eviction. Rage and bitterness swirled around Linda nearly every time she opened her mouth. She didn’t speak; she bellowed. The oldest, Angela who was about 12, served as a surrogate parent to her large brood. Nearly all her children acted out by fighting with others, refusing to obey rules. Some of them related to Luke but whenever I was around, I spent most of my time breaking up spats. Talks about non-violence and harmony sailed over their heads. The staff worker shared a few tidbits about Linda. At 12, she gave birth to Angela, the result of incest. Since then, she’s been pregnant nearly every other year. Few if any of the children’s fathers were in their lives. She has trouble holding a job. In fact, the day we spoke, the shelter delivered another blow. In 10 days, Linda had to be out for failure to comply with the rules. The shelter gave Linda several warnings but Linda ignored them all. Despite the odds against finding a place for her large brood, Linda pulled off a miracle. I never saw the family again.
On December 26, 2004 tragedy struck halfway around the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Thousands of people died while the monster storm left millions without homes. Wrecked commerce left millions without jobs. Southeast Asia was devastated.
Moved by the frightful situation, I shared my thoughts with the children. Despite being homeless, their hearts were full of empathy for the lives shattered by the tsunami. With little help from me, they wrote letters to ambassadors of the most severely impacted countries. I added cover letters explaining who we were and mailed them to the United Nations. A few weeks later, a migraine pounded inside my head. As I rested in bed, the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer. The ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to thank me for the kind and thoughtful notes the children sent. As soon as the country recovered from the massive devastation, she’d read our letters to schools across the country. I felt so honored. I returned the next week with the good news. A few children who signed the letters had moved. Too bad they weren’t around to hear the personal message from Sri Lanka.
Every summer the shelter asked me to extend my weekly visits from half an hour to one hour. I always said yes. I looked for interesting and educational opportunities. I prodded the owner of a local yoga parlor to offer free yoga lessons for the kids, which he gladly did. I arranged a visit to Whole Foods, a natural grocery store. A worker guided us through the huge facility, explaining tidbits about natural foods. At the end of our visit each child received a gift bag filled with wholesome snacks. We toured a ranch for abused and unwanted horses. The kids related to horses were kicked out of their homes for eating too much. I invited speakers from the Sierra Club to talk about our natural environment and how they could be kinder to Mother Nature. A woman who raised guide dogs for the blind showed us how the dogs were trained. A Sheriff’s deputy from Maricopa County talked about animal abuse. The Arizona Puppet Theatre put on a fabulous, entertaining performance every year that made the kids laugh, smile and giggle. The Mesa Fire Department hosted us and gave the children a tour of their facility, letting the children sit on one of the fire engines. They left with handouts about fire and water safety. Every year sadly too many children die in pool accidents.
At the end of 2008, Luke and I retired as a therapy team. During sessions kids would ask me, “Why does Luke sleep so much?” One boy laughed at Luke’s snoring.
Age crept up on Luke. My dog had to be at least twelve years old. His spirits were as sunny as ever but he had slowed down. He was more interested in curling up for a good snooze than interacting with the kids.
Seven years as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels changed my life. I experienced the hardships of homelessness and how they ruptured family ties. I sensed the children’s pain as they talked of loss, so much loss. Homelessness involves leaving behind good friends, familiar neighborhoods, beloved pets, and comfortable schools. Maybe a child had to leave a basketball team, debate team or other school club. There was also shame and embarrassment at wearing the same clothes over and over and having the school bus drop them off at a shelter. Living among strangers was also scary for some of the shy, quiet children. Talk of family violence unsettled me. Some but not all of the children experienced violence at home. I taught children negotiating skills to get along in the world without repeating the same patterns of violence. I hope it helped. Luke cuddled with them. He kissed a few cheeks. He rested his paw on kids who sat alone. Wherever the children ended up, I hope they remember our messages about kindness, compassion and love. For a dog considered worthless and unwanted, Luke developed into a champion. He never strutted around the show ring at the prestigious Westminster dog show but he was always my best boy. He truly was top dog. All those homeless kids molded me into a better person. For that I will always be grateful.
P.S. Luke died on January 23, 2010 from massive seizures. I still miss him all these years later. During his short time on this planet, a discarded shelter dog brought hope, kindness and compassion to hundreds of lives, especially mine.