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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.