Out with the old; in with the unknown

Another year ends, according to the Gregorian calendar. A little blue-green-brown speck completes another full circuit around a minor star.

If you’re reading this, you made it.

This has been a not-good year for me, so I’ve mostly refrained from spouting off in this blog. No one wants to read a whine. I didn’t even want to write a whine.

I still find it interesting which of my old posts folks read and share. Thank you for that, though I get a little discouraged that the snarky writing is the most popular. The greater part of me is kind, empathetic, compassionate, intellectual, objective, non-snarky. Thus — I guess — boring as hell.

My 12-year-old shelter-rescued treeing walker coonhound, Amos, has late-stage metastatic lung cancer. Pulmonary carcinoma is one of those cancers in elderly dogs that’s essentially symptomless until it’s well advanced. Early symptoms look like normal signs of aging. Twelve is geriatric for a large-breed coonhound. By the time he started coughing frequently enough, at the end of September, for concern and a diagnostic vet visit, a large malignant tumor in his right accessory lung lobe was pressing on his heart and cancer had invaded the lymph nodes surrounding and attached to his heart, lungs, and major thoracic arteries.

Amos had surgery on 19 October [month corrected] to excise the affected lobe and biopsy the tumor and one accessible lymph node, and is now close to finishing an eight-round course of vinorelbine chemotherapy. The surgery and recovery from surgery were rough on him, but he’s tolerated the chemo like champ. He won’t be cured; we’re buying him quality time. He’s doing really well right now. I’m grateful for every day that he gets to enjoy his home-made food, his walks with my 83-year-old-dad, his massages, his “hunting” adventures baying at wildlife in the back yard. He’s LOVED. He knows it, and loves us back.

So we take things a day at a time, and savor the days.


The one unqualified bright point of 2017, for me, was cataract surgery in mid-September. We tend to think of cataracts as a disease of old age, but younger people can develop lens opacity. I’ve had significant eye defects and impaired vision all my life. Coke-bottle glasses. Ever-changing contact lens prescriptions. Legal blindness without corrective lenses. I had the right cataracted lens removed and replaced with a corrective implant in 2012. The left one’s now got a toric lens implant that corrects my lifelong myopia and astigmatism. For the first time in my 54 years, I have 20/20 reading and distance vision. SEEING clearly is a new joy that I never tire of or take for granted. Every day, there’s something new to observe, especially in the world of nature.

Those two bright spots — good eyesight, and a companion dog who despite a terminal diagnosis is still alive today and enjoying life — make 2017 worthwhile. They’ve cost me the equivalent of a year’s pay, but that is what it is. Worthwhile things can sometimes be expensive things.

The rest of 2017 unequivocally sucked and I’m glad to kick it into the gutter of history. A new year of possibilities and 365 new opportunities to fuck things up rolls in.

I’m not making resolutions, nor do I wish anyone anything for the new year. There is no “normal” anymore. “Hope is the thing with feathers…” that men with firearms destroy with impunity, laughing as they kill.

I’m seeing out the year with a good, peaty single-malt on the rocks and no year-in-review highlights or nostalgia whatsoever.

But I hope you can snag or create some joy of your own in 2018. Don’t forget to remind your loved ones that you love them.



No, thanks; I gave at the shelter

“When you sit face to face with a shelter dog you’ve helped rescue—stroke his cheek, smell his scent, breathe his breath, look into his eyes and see hope there, as his tail thumps slowly—you’ll understand for the first time why you were born.” — Ellen Graben, 9/8/2011

“One person abandoning a companion animal diminishes all of us. Cruelty, neglect, apathy, indifference… every time we turn away to avoid seeing, to keep from getting involved, a piece of our soul dies and can’t be resurrected. It hurts to care, but please don’t stop caring.” — ibid., 11/11/2011

Photo: May 2011, Ellen Graben

Photo: May 2011, Ellen Graben

I think everyone who’s ever volunteered at a shelter or AC has a photo and a memory like this one. This photo, blurry and poor-quality as it is, says just about everything I need to say about why I volunteer at the county pound. I took this one day in May, 2011, on my lunch-break visit with the dogs. The dog is Copper, a beautiful little three-year old Pitbull boy who had no chance in hell of getting out of the pound alive—he was an intact male Pitbull and he barked at other dogs. On his kennel card was a small note stating, “may be dog-aggressive.” That’s a death sentence for an unreclaimed stray. Copper had only been impounded a few hours when I met him, but was already desperate to get out, and eager for a loving human’s help. He gripped my arm with both paws and squeezed his muzzle through the gap by the gate, resting it on my hand, looking into my eyes with his—almond-shaped, golden, pleading. You can see the red marks on my forearm that his claws left—he was that lonesome and in need of a friend to comfort him. He accepted some yummy treats and kissed my face when I put it to the fence for him to smell.

On June 1—this was so predictable it was virtually guaranteed, but is still painful—Copper was put down because the pound was packed full (there was no room to house new intakes), and he was one of the “least adoptable” of the dogs whose five-day required stray hold was over.

This is why I chose to volunteer at a kill shelter, and to share information about the unwanted dogs of  my local AC in Athens, Georgia  on Facebook. This is where my 40+ years of living with dogs—plus my slight abilities as an observer/reporter/analyst of the things that happen around me, my writing, and my compassion—can have the most impact. I want people to see what it’s really like in the pound—good and bad-—and I hope that together we can make changes to keep dogs from ending up in this situation, and to get these innocent inmates out alive and into situations where they are wanted, cherished and properly cared for.

This is also the reason that I have to take breaks from time to time—breaks from sharing all the urgent pound dogs and networking with rescues, transporters, fosters, adopters; breaks from visiting AC as a volunteer. My tank is empty. My wallet and bank account are completely empty. Over a four-year period, I spent a good chunk of my life savings sponsoring shelter dogs’ vetting needs for rescue and making long transport runs. A smart thing to do? No, of course not. But it saved over 60 innocent lives. My own employment has been in limbo since the end of October of last year—not because of my participation in rescue and volunteerism, but because my small, specialized company is teetering on the brink of becoming another casualty of outsourcing to cheap labor in developing countries and to our own crummy economy. Print publishing of scholarly books is a moribund field, made obsolete by eBooks and online publishing… and the sad fact that no one wants to read anything substantive or longer than two paragraphs. Writing online content does not pay enough to justify the time a writer invests in it. In essence, my career is dying. On top of that, I’ve suffered some medical issues that have affected my vision, and perfect eyesight is a requirement of my job. So on October 31, I was placed on indefinite medical leave until—and unless—my vision can be improved with surgery. I’ve joined the ranks of the non-employed. My disability insurance is pending; I have no income at all. I won’t be able to find another job in my field or a related one locally, so am faced with needing to retrain for something else, or to relocate. These aren’t easy tasks in middle age. My own small pack of dogs misses me, too. I spend way too much time at the computer. Their behavior and quality of life have deteriorated because I don’t spend enough one-on-one time with them. Most of my personal relationships that aren’t centered on animal advocacy have decayed or disappeared.

Most discouraging of all, I’ve grown pretty fed up and burned out with the Facebook “rescue community” and “advocates” over time. Because of all the heinous cruelty and neglect cases and horrific photos in the FB news feed, the killing for space, or for no logical reason whatsoever other than convenience, compounded and made immeasurably worse by the verbal attacks—often unwarranted and based on mean-spirited gossip rather than fact—on individuals, rescues, sanctuaries, shelters, ACs, and other entities who are supposedly in “our” camp, I’m starting to really dislike this supposed rescue community as much as I do the rest of humanity. Especially grating of late are the relentless attacks by “No-Kill” supporters (the ones who focus only on shelters as the root of all evil) on anyone who disagrees with or questions the practicality of their principles or their divisive, polarizing tactics. Hateful, vindictive, judgmental people jeopardize the whole advocacy movement.

Here’s a legitimate question, by the way: Why is OK for advocates, crossposters, and amateur rescuers to beg, scream, cuss in ALL CAPS, and constantly bombard licensed rescue groups, rehab/training facilities, adoption centers, and sanctuaries with messages and calls pleading for them to take thousands of animals from all over the country, to prevent their killing, and then to attack those same groups when they fail because they can’t say “no,” and take on far more animals than they have time, space, volunteers, or funds to care for? Constant pressure to save more exerted by the Facebook rescue “community” is a huge factor in these groups’ collapse. Those same folks begging a small group, “PLEEEEEEASE save this dog!!!!! She dies TOMORROW!” will turn on that group like a pack of slobbering hyenas and rip it to shreds verbally because the group has ended up with way too many animals and debts to handle. Those attacks, made by the very enablers who pushed the group to overextend, ruin reputations and lives and do nothing for the animals.

The godawful reality—what’s really happening to animals—and what’s fabricated and woven into urban legend by the drama department leave me more and more sad, angry, bitter, disillusioned as the days pass, and yes, sometimes I get irrational and lash out, even though I dislike myself when I do so. These are all things that I need to avoid being and doing, because I’m no help to anyone when the majority of my feelings are negative.  It reaches a point where I stay angry all the time, and anger alone is an unstable fuel.

So it’s past time for me to break from hands-on volunteering, rescue support that I have no physical or emotional resources to invest in, and much of the Facebook madness for a while…. Not all of it, just the stuff I can’t cope with at this moment. The emotional stress, the financial obligations, and the human hyenas.

I’m going to focus on replenishing my own resources so that I may give again. Finding a stable job. Relocating. Regaining my health—physical and mental. Simplifying my daily life. Enjoying my own dog companions. Writing when I can. Just don’t ask me to save the world or contribute to your fundraiser, please. I have nothing left to give, and I’ve earned a sabbatical.

Heart animals and angels flying too close to the ground

written July 18, 2011

If you had not fallen
Then I would not have found you,
Angel flying too close to the ground,
And I patched up your broken wing
And hung around a while;
Tried to keep your spirits up
And your fever down.
I knew someday that you would fly away
For love’s the greatest healer to be found.
So leave me if you need to—
I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground.

Fly on, fly on past the speed of sound.
I’d rather see you up
Than see you down.
So leave me if you need to—
I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground.

(Willie Nelson, Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack, 1980)

Here’s a couple of things I’ve observed during my brief time advocating for homeless dogs in my community and since joining the advocates’ community on Facebook.

A lot of us animal lovers who devote (pretty much every free moment of) our free time to advocacy, rescue, shelter reform, and other animal-centric pursuits often have experienced ourselves what it’s like to suffer at some point in our lives. We’ve lived through a serious crisis, or trauma, or loss, or have lived with (and may still be living with) depression and its relatives. We love and care about these homeless animals facing death in pounds and shelters because we know how it feels to be cast off, unwanted, unloved—and sometimes unlovable—misunderstood, perhaps used or abused emotionally or physically… and to have the control of our destiny seem completely out of our hands. We understand the loneliness and the estrangement of the outsider.

Here’s a second thing most of us have in common: we’ve all had in our lifetimes at least one “heart” animal—a dog, cat, bird, horse… the species doesn’t matter—who was there for us, and accepted and loved us unconditionally, at the point in our lives when the humans all around us let us down, judged us, abandoned us, back-stabbed us, dismissed our pain. That heart animal didn’t care if our jeans made us look fat, if our bad hair day turned into a bad hair, face, body, and attitude week, or if we felt too damn sad and hopeless to bother taking a shower for days (they still loved us stinky!), or if we stayed home from work in bed half the day because we couldn’t cope. They wanted to be with us anyway. They accepted us exactly as we were right then, and loved us anyway. Who does that? Only a heart animal.

For these two reasons, we often remark we like animals better than we like people. Animals don’t screw us over; they only break our hearts when they die. So if we’ve known that kind of acceptance (and in some cases had our lives saved by it), we want to give back to others of their species in need. We feel we could devote an entire lifetime to caring for animals and still be unable to repay the debt we incurred with that one heart animal who saw us through the darkness.

Two major reasons we care as much as we do, and two major motivations for giving back: empathy (knowing first-hand how an unwanted being feels) and gratitude (for being the recipient of unconditional acceptance during our toughest times).

Jake Angel  by Galen Hazelhofer

Jake Angel
by Galen Hazelhofer

I’m not suggesting that all “hard-core” animal lovers, rescuers, advocates and the like, are dysfunctional wrecks. I wouldn’t insult you like that, especially without knowing you! A lot of you really have your act together, and make great role models! I’m speaking for myself here; I’ve been a dysfunctional wreck off and on since my teens and am just now getting a handle on life, nearly five decades along. But I’d bet most of you, as you read this essay, can celebrate and remember an animal friend who saw you though your hardest times when two-legged people weren’t there for you. And I’ll bet most of you have experienced at least one bout of alienation from the rest of the world that makes you relate to the plight of unwanted companion creatures. I don’t know that either of these experiences makes us special or superior in any way, but it makes us different.

These two common experiences bring us animal-loving, sometimes maladjusted, broken-but-healing humans together, too, and give us a bond no matter how diverse our backgrounds, beliefs and life experiences. I really, really appreciate that. A small group of people I’ve met via volunteering at my local AC facility, via advocacy, rescue support, and shared threads of humorous, serious, and heartfelt conversation on Facebook over several years have helped remind me that there are some good folks in the world. I’m glad to have met you. I’m glad to know the animals have you. I sure couldn’t do what I’m doing—what I still want to do—for them by myself.

So who’s really the angel flying too close to the ground? You and I. Saved—sometimes once, sometimes daily—from crashing to earth by our heart animals.

The stray, homeless, thrown-away dogs, cats, and other animal friends who are lost without one or many people to care for them… they’re wayward angels too. And if your heart animal was (or is) a rescue or a stray or a shelter dog or cat, the cycle of angels lifting angels has no beginning and no end. We lift them; they lift us so we can lift them again…. and this goes on.

I knew someday that you would fly away, For love’s the greatest healer to be found. So leave me if you need to—I will still remember, angel flying too close to the ground.

They have to leave us eventually; they don’t live as long as we do. If we rescue and rehome, they leave us for a forever home here, before they leave earth. They keep spreading their unconditional love along their way. And we remember, and we keep repaying our debt. There’s a quote I’ve held in my mind for years and years, though I can’t find its source, so maybe it sprang fully formed from my own thoughts (though I doubt it):

Dogs [companion animals] are God’s way of teaching us to love, to let go, and to love again.

Dogs Need Angels by Judy Mackey

Dogs Need Angels
by Judy Mackey

I believe they give more to us than we can ever hope to give back.

It is incredibly sad how little dogs and other companion animals need, and how greatly we humans can fail them. I will do my best for the rest of my life to keep offering shelter dogs and strays good lives and second chances. I can never repay them for the times they’ve saved me and the ways they’ve enriched my life.

This essay and my mission are  in memory of my heart dog, Hoover, a cast-off hunting dog who wandered out of the woods, starving, shot, and unwanted, found me and started me on a journey in 1986. He disappeared during a thunderstorm in Fall 1991, but he’s still with me.

about the illustrations:

Jake Angel by Galen Hazelhofer. Available as a print and in other formats: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/jake-angel-galen-hazelhofer.html

Dogs Need Angels by Judy Mackey. Available as a print and in other formats :http://fineartamerica.com/products/dogs-need-angels-judy-mackey-poster.html