The Making of an Animal Shelter Volunteer

The Making of an Animal Shelter Volunteer
I inherited Penny after my father died and just like that I had a special needs dog. She changed my life forever.

I had about had it with everything and everyone when I started volunteering at the animal shelter.

For most of my 40's, I was immersed in a world of caring and caregiving that stretched, molded and reshaped me in ways that left me feeling very much apart from the rest of the world rather than a part of it. I had stood alongside a dear friend as his body succumbed to the ravages of 35 years of quadriplegia while we were both watching his father live out his days increasingly confused in a nursing home.

In between those visits, I was travelling to Indiana to care for my father who was growing increasingly emaciated and weak for reasons no one ever did discover.

My father, about 3 months before he passed.

Caring for him also meant caring for his two dogs, who were in an increasingly precarious situation. As my father declined, they became de facto hospice workers, keeping him company while their own care (and we suspect regular feeding) was becoming harder to count on.

The week before my father died, he asked me to take his oldest dog to be euthanized. I was relieved by his request. Angel's hip dysplasia and falls had become very difficult to watch but all my pleas to that point were met with "Not yet, she's got to much heart." But that day was different. I suspect my father knew his own time was growing short and that if he didn't make the decision for her, I would soon have to.

One week later, my father died at home. The only one with him was his remaining dog, Penny.

Three months later, my best friend died.

This guy...how I never got arrested when I was with him, I will never know.

This guy...how I never got arrested when I was with him, I will never know.

As for Penny, I was able to take her in because only a few short months before my father died, my husband and I lost our 19 y.o. cat to cancer. By that time, I could see the writing on the wall. I knew I was about to inherit a chow mix rescue dog that was so aloof I still felt I barely knew her even though she was nearly nine years old. The only indication that she might bond with me was the day the stress of being trapped in a death vigil with my father led her to bury her head in my arm.

Her first night at my home, we had a crashing thunderstorm, the first of many that week. I remembered my father saying once, almost in passing, that thunder terrified her, a fact confirmed by the high pitched whine she was emitting as she stood by my side of the bed. I grabbed my pillow and she and I headed to the basement so I could sleep on the couch with her (she would have to get used to not sharing a bed with her humans now).

No sooner did I lay on the couch than she stood her forty pound body on my chest, smashing her forehead against mine and panted into my face. A chow chow mix, her impossibly thick hair made her seem like a terrified stuffed animal to me.

What girl wouldn't melt when faced with a terrified stuffed animal?

The deal was sealed. I had myself a dog. And my, oh my, did she have me.

My father's passing required that I continue to travel to Gary to sell my childhood home. Penny had to make the trip as well, although she hated the car nearly as much as she hated thunder. Chows have an impressive range of vocalizations (I've often wondered if this is because they are among the closest relatives to wolves among our domestic dogs). I think I was able to hear every one of them on every trip to Gary.

As it happened, Penny was one part terrified stuffed animal, one part warrior goddess killing machine. I had heard about her dispatching raccoons (not so easy), possums (they weren't just playing), moles and...a beaver (really not easy...Dad got involved with that one). Dad lived on a river and had a fenced yard with several koi ponds. He was a devout animal lover so I was astonished that he seemed proud of her accomplishments. How could he think her huntress side was good? Didn't we raise dogs and ducklings together as a kid? Didn't we all suspect for years that he was St. Francis returned?

That was before I saw her in action.

It is hard not to be mesmerized by an animal so primal. She was the most fascinating, enigmatic, captivating animal I had ever known.

She was also past her fighting prime.

The second raccoon she attempted to dispatch after becoming mine was one she actually leapt up and pulled out of a tree as I stood helplessly watching from the other side of the koi pond. Since the house was vacant, the raccoons were making regular visits to fish for koi. It never occured to us to walk Penny in a fenced yard on a leash. She'd never even had a leash on before she came to live with me. The back yard was her domain and she was queen of it. And with all the animal patrolling and chasing, she got plenty of exercise.

As for this particular raccoon, it got away but the energy of the fight led us to another discovery when three days later Penny was back in my home and could not open her eyes.

She had glaucoma. Her pressures were through the roof. Just like that, she was blind in one eye.

I say "just like that" but her second summer with me entailed numerous trips to the veterinary opthamologist (as expensive as you would imagine) in an attempt to save her eyeball, even though her vision was gone. Ultimately she had to undergo chemical ablation in the worse of the two eyes. It was either that, or remove it outright.

One year later, her 'good' eye met the same fate.

Penny resting after her second chemical ablation, which left her completely blind.

Penny resting after her second chemical ablation, which left her completely blind.

Penny was blind. Completely and irreparably. We were now bonded like never before.

It was not to last long, though, as just one year later, three years after we brought her home, at the age of twelve and with a growing list of maladies, we had to make the decision to end her suffering.

Thus ended nearly a decade of caregiving.

You might think that would have felt like a relief on some level, despite the grief I was experiencing after those losses. The thing is, I had become so intimately familiar with disability and death that I had a very hard time relating to people who just seemed to treat life rather frivolously (imho). I had seen things and lived through situations that I knew most of my friends would likely never go through.

Saying goodbye to Michael.

Saying goodbye to Michael.

I cherished what I thought others took for granted. I had seen first hand how fragile life is and I just didn't know how to relate to those who didn't seem to appreciate its precious, fleeting nature.

And, because you have to toughen up when you are that deeply involved with that much death, I had a little warrior thing in me, too. Penny and I had a lot in common, half crying weeny, half fearless warrior.

In short, in my state of alienation and emotional fatigue, I became a bit of a hermit with a tendency toward curmudgeon.

But I still loved animals.

What to do, what to do...

I filled in my application and one month later I was an animal shelter volunteer.

To be continued...

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