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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Little Black Mare

Some of you may know that my employer graciously enrolled me in a creative writing course to help hone my skills as the resident 'storyteller' at the Houston SPCA. Our final assignment for the class was a piece of non-fiction, and I chose to write about one of the most profound moments I have experienced as an animal welfare professional. It is personal and emotional, and I barely got through writing it without crying. For some reason I felt compelled to share it here, a blog that has been sitting idle for years. Please enjoy.

Little Black Mare

I only ever remember being good with animals. That doesn’t necessarily mean I always was, especially since I have a pretty terrible memory and basically forgot most of my childhood. For all I know, I could have terrorized them from an early age. But my family and friends assure me that animals have always been comfortable in my presence, and vice versa. So no one was surprised when I eventually ended up in a career rescuing them.

I have one of those jobs that almost universally elicits the “I don’t know how you do it” response. The “how do you not adopt all the puppies” spiel. The “I could never do what you do, I’d cry too much” nonsense. Please do not mistake me—I have cried. A lot. But if I broke down every time I saw a broken down animal, I would have run out of tears a long time ago. Rather, I put a piece of every single animal into my heart and let them fortify my resolve to keep working on their behalf.

Sometimes, though, they get to you and there’s no way to stop them. They find a fissure in your aortic wall and wiggle their way through and absolutely transform you in the process. When I first began my foray into the world of animal welfare, I worked as a consultant for the ASPCA’s Field Investigations and Response team. That means that whenever there was an animal-related disaster—natural or manmade—we were deployed to aid in the removal and sheltering of the afflicted animals.

In spring of 2011 the Mississippi jumped her banks and devastated many of the cities in her path. We set up a temporary shelter to house the pets of families who had been displaced and had nowhere to keep their beloved animals. These were pets with owners who cared about them, they were not mistreated or neglected and, for the most part, they were in good shape. I was assigned to the care of the few horses (and one goat) whose owners had nowhere to keep them. When I wasn’t mucking and feeding the horses, I helped out with the other animals.

There was one dog, an elderly shepherd mix, who was friendly and happy as can be, albeit old and arthritic. Her owners left her a special diet and explicit instructions for her care. They obviously loved her very much and hated that she couldn’t stay with them. We took turns walking the dogs, giving them a chance to sniff and stretch and just be dogs when everything else felt out of whack. On this particular day, I took the old girl out for a leisurely walk, and in the midst of our stroll she began to die.

It was not calm or peaceful. She was in organ failure, coughing up blood and struggling to breathe. It happened so suddenly and without warning. I followed protocol, summoned the on-site veterinarians, and stood back, hugging myself and pacing awkwardly. They made her comfortable, called her owners, and encouraged me to say goodbye and then find something else to occupy myself while they waited for permission to end her suffering.

I tried to stay calm. This was my job, after all. But I was embarrassed by how upset I got so I stole away to the temporary paddocks and slid under the fence to hide among the horses. My favorite mare, a gorgeous little black horse who came to the shelter with her foal, pushed through the others and made her way to my side. She sniffed me, nudged me a few times, and then quietly and gently placed her forehead right in the middle of my chest. It was the closest to any other living creature I had ever felt and will likely ever feel. The floodgates opened and I doubled over, racked with sobs.

The nameless mare, a long-abandoned stray that someone had taken to feeding with their own horses, took one step forward, rested her nose on my shoulder, and did not move a muscle, save to scold the other horses for getting too close. There she stood—stock still—for a solid ten minutes while I mourned the sweet old shepherd mix who had faded in front of my eyes.

As I spent my tears, my agony began to mix with a sense of wonder that this horse, a creature I had known only a few days, could be so connected with me and know exactly what I needed from her in that space. Gradually my anguish was replaced by an awed sort of joy that I had experienced such a profound, almost supernatural moment with her. I actually began to laugh. My heart which, just beats before, had felt as though it might split in two, soon felt light and almost whole again.

That feeling of completeness, connection and power is what keeps me going even when it all feels like too much. When I think about the little black horse who felt my pain and allowed me to express it free from judgement and shame, I am reminded why I love what I do and why I will never, ever stop. Even when I, myself, don’t know how I can do it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lazy? Or Responsible...

Today, when I remarked to a friend of mine that I didn't want to own a dog, he called me lazy. My reasoning is that I currently enjoy the freedom that comes with owning a cat who fares pretty well on her own. She has an automatic feeder, and I usually clean her litterbox daily. She can go longer, however, if I can't make it home for whatever reason. Other than that, a little love goes a long way with her. Dogs, on the other hand, require a minimum of three walks every day. Even if they have a feeder like my cat does, you can't skip a dog's walk or he'll have an accident. Or, if he's anything like a client I used to have, he'll hold it until he's nearly exploding and then make himself sick. If you're lucky enough to live where you can have doggie doors, like my parents, don't think that you get off scott-free. Dogs need WAY more daily interaction than the occasional pat on the head. Leaving them home alone all day just isn't a great life for a dog.

I tend to think of myself as responsible for not getting a dog, despite the joy I know it would bring to my life. It's not fair to me OR the dog if I get one and then don't have the desire to take care of it. Perhaps when I'm more settled in my life, I'll be ready to take on the added 'burden' of a dog, but for now I'm good with my moody feline. All too many people get a dog before fully realizing the time and cost it entails. And then the dog either ends up leading a less-than-satisfactory life of neglect, or she finds herself in a shelter because her owners didn't bother to plan ahead. So while my social life may keep me from having the energy or patience for a dog, I don't necessarily think my selfish decision is a bad one. Instead, I'll just continue to enjoy my friends' dogs, like Jackie, pictured below.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Location, Location, Location

I am a firm believer that where you train a dog is just as important as how you train one, and I believe this for a few reasons. First of all, the fewer distractions, the better. That goes for both human and dog- if you're in a store or populated public area, the task of keeping your attention focused on the training becomes infinitely more difficult. Secondly, if there is a specific behavior that you are looking to correct, it is important to address that behavior first in the location where it happens most frequently. That way, as a trainer, you can see a true representation of the problem, and as an owner, you don't feel like you've taken your car to the mechanic and the problem no longer occurs.

Dogs, as a rule, aren't great at generalizing. You'll notice that even though you've trained your pooch not to jump on your couch at home, if you take him to someplace else with a couch, he will often test his boundaries and see if THIS couch is just as off-limits as the one in your house. The good news is, once he's been trained correctly to listen to your commands, it will probably be a lot easier to keep him from the new couch even though it is in an unfamiliar setting.

Does this mean you should ONLY train a dog in one place? Absolutely not. In fact, once you get basic obedience down, it's very beneficial to practice in many different locations so that your dog knows that he should always look to you for instructions, no matter where you are. However, I do believe in-home training can be advantageous to all involved parties for the reasons I stated above. Just make sure, if you choose to train in your own home, that your dog still gets ample opportunity to socialize with other dogs!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cashing Out

With my time in New York quickly approaching its end, I've been doing a lot of farewells in the past few weeks. First, I said goodbye to my airedale that I walked for 2 years. Then, I bid adieu to my whippet, which was a sad moment. This week is my last with my beloved wirefox terrier, and I don't know how I'll handle our last walk together. He's a special boy. They're all special to me, and I hope I'll get to see them when I come back to New York to visit.

This past Saturday, I went up to Green Chimneys for what may very well be the last time as a volunteer. It was not the best visit I've had; I spent the majority of the time inside the tack room, painting the ceiling. As the day came to a close, I asked my supervisor if I could take the last few minutes to make the rounds and say bye to the horses I'd been helping care for over the past several months. Of course she allowed it, and so I trekked off onto the trail to stop by each pasture.

First, I stopped by the biggest paddock with the two resident driving horses, Unar and Alta, the Norwegian Fjords, and their pathetic pasture-mate, Odessa. I say pathetic because she's the bottom of the herd. We all had a good scratch, and Odessa managed to wipe the mud from her side onto my back. Thanks for that. Next, I simultaneously introduced myself and said goodbye to the two new Norwegian Fjords, Sadie and Zipper. Beautiful mares, but I'm not sure they'll be staying at the farm long.

Then, I followed the path up to Laddie and Jackson, two handsome boys. Jackson is a young guy, and enjoyed when I scratched his mane. The flies were making all the horses crazy, so I did my best to swat them away while I was standing there. I made the last loop around to the farthest pasture where my old friends Cash and Second were hiding in the lean-to, trying to avoid the pesky flies. As soon as I got to them, I felt a wave of sorrow creep up on me. In January, I blogged about this farm and about my first barn buddy, Cash. He is such a special horse, and I can't completely describe why. The few times I got to ride him, we didn't do much, but he was the kindest, most willing horse you can imagine. I love his attitude and I love imagining what he was like in his prime: handsome and agile, eye-catching and lightning-fast.

I made my way up to Second, the other elderly horse, and said a quick goodbye. We hadn't been close, but he got a kiss on the nose anyway. Then I slid over to my main man, Cash. And it hit me. These old boys probably aren't long for this world. They are both in their mid-thirties, which is old for big horses like them. I put my forehead on Cash's, and he stood quietly, with his eyes half-closed, while I started to cry. He didn't move a muscle, or bat an eyelash. I wrapped my arms around his huge muzzle and squeezed, and he still remained motionless. Then I shifted around to his side and buried my face in his neck, crying all the while. I have no idea what came over me, or why it hit me so hard.

Maybe it was the fact that I may never see my sweet Cash again. We hadn't done much together, but he has a good soul, and you don't get to meet many horses like him in a lifetime. Or maybe it was the realization of what this farm grew to mean to me over these months. It was a respite from the city, a place of peace amid a hectic, city life. Being around horses again helped me understand how much I need them in my life, and solidified my resolve to work with them in the future. Being at a place like Green Chimneys also made me realize that I am in absolute awe of the human-animal bond, and I want to be surrounded by it in any way I can. I watched the way the troubled young children brightened up around these gentle beasts, and it made me realize that I want to help animals help people.

I don't know what my future holds beyond the next few weeks. I do know that I am going to do everything I can to ensure that my future is one that involves horses. I also know that while I may not miss the city of New York, I will miss the animals I met, and worked with, and loved. And I can only hope that my future takes me more places like Green Chimneys, so that I can meet more special souls like Cash.

Farewell, handsome boy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's Me Again...

Wow. My apologies. It's been far too long since I posted on this blog! I would try and defend myself with all sorts of excuses (thesis, other blogs, moving) but the fact is, I lost interest for a bit. Well, I guess the excuses do hold some water... I have been super busy with all three of those things, but I should have found a way to fit this blog in. After all, there's no need to write an epic every time I post- even a few words will do. The purpose of this post is to inform the 3 of you that read it regularly that I hope to pick up the writing again soon. I am winding down my time here in New York (thank GAWD) and getting ready for Move Part 1 to Northern Virginia. That comes sometime in the last two weeks of July, after my vacation to San Diego.

That being said: if any of you know of someone who lives in the Virginia/Maryland/DC area who has dogs that require some sort of training, I'm thinking that's how I'll make my money while I'm home for a while. I already have one 'client' lined up when I get back, and would love to get the word out that I'll be in the area training dogs. I'm excited to be home for a little bit. Lord knows I could use some home cooked meals, and that king-sized bed is just screaming my name. Plus, I'll be living with my two pups and kitties, and bringing my own Fiona home to add to the gang. It's going to be a very long, very slow introduction process. She'll likely spend the first several weeks confined to my room so they can all smell each other under the door. I have no idea how Fiona acts around other cats, so this should be interesting.

Anyway, I hope you all are doing well and enjoying the summer thus far. I'll drop in periodically, but in the meantime, if you enjoy basketball, you should look at my other two blogs: MavsMoneyball.com, the site I manage for the Dallas Mavericks, and SwishAppeal.com, the site I contribute for as a writer about women's basketball.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Pollution Woes?

With the way my dogs were walking today, you'd think that actual acid was raining down from the sky. The whippet cringed, as if in agony, each time a raindrop came in contact with his skin. The airedale put on the breaks and stood, staring at me, as if to say "I REFUSE." What is it with these silly dogs? They also don't realize that the sooner they do their business, the sooner I'll bring them inside. I don't like the rain either, you silly pups! *sigh*, if only they spoke English.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Perks of the Job

Sometimes things happen that give you a brand new perspective on your life. They can be good or bad, but when they occur, you feel a shift, and it changes something in you. One such thing happened over the past 24 hours to me. I received a phone message from one of the first clients I got on my own after starting my business. They are related to a close family friend of mine, and they are a wonderful family that has managed to avoid New York's tendency to make people obnoxious. Yes, they are VERY well off, and live in an incredible apartment in the heart of TriBeCa. No, they are not stuck up or pretentious. I've walked their dog (an Airedale) since she was a tiny, 3-month old pup. She'll be 2 this May. They have 3 daughters; one only a few years younger than me, one in middle school, and the youngest is 9. I recently signed on to pick her up from school during my second walk with the dog every day. They are a warm family, and they involve me in their lives more than you typically would a dog walker.

The phone message I received yesterday was from the mom, sounding a bit frantic and distracted, asking me to return her call ASAP. I did, to no answer. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that was confirmed this morning: her husband's mother had died and they had to rush upstate, bringing the dog with them. She was apologizing for having to cancel the walks last-minute, and concerned that I had already left for work (the dog is my first walk every day). It was touching that she was so concerned about me despite the family's personal tragedy. It was also startling how upset I was over the fact that she had died. I've never even met the woman, nor do I see the husband as often as I see everyone else in the family. But still, I felt their deep sense of loss, and my immediate thought was that I needed to send flowers or a gift basket. (Mind you, I don't make a whole lot of money.)

It occurred to me that as a dog walker, I get a little sneak peek into people's lives that not many other professions get. I come into these people's homes every day, and because most of my clients tend to work from home (I'm not entirely sure why that is...) I get to chat with them while they're going on about their lives. Maybe it's because I care for their dogs, who are extensions of their families, or maybe it's just the kind of person that I am, but I feel like my clients open up to me more than they do with other people. I've found myself occasionally complaining to friends that I wish my clients had normal 9 - 5 jobs so I didn't have to stand around and make small talk with them, but I'm starting to realize that I'm fortunate to be able to share in these moments. When they are excited about new job prospects, they include me in their excitement. When they are concerned about their children, they ask me for advice (which is silly, since I'm the same age as some of their kids). These people are not my "friends", because we don't hang out or grab dinner, or talk on the phone about the latest gossip. Our interactions are limited to the context of my job, but our relationships go much deeper. It's as if they are paying me to walk their dogs, and I'm throwing in therapy for free. And somewhere along the way, I've started to like that feeling of being able to help them with more than the occasional extra walk.