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.



It’s not a shelter; it’s the pound

Shelter… Pound… what’s the difference?
If you fail to understand the distinction between a government-operated Animal Control facility and a true Animal Shelter—one run by individuals, partnerships, a board of concerned citizens, a nonprofit corporation, or other non-government organization—you’re likely to hold unreasonable expectations of AC. Those of you bashing and trashing ACs all across the country and screaming for them to become no-kill shelters are missing the distinction altogether and believing—incorrectly—that AC directors have the freedom to become no-kill leaders, just by saying, “Today, we stop putting animals down!” if only they’d choose to. They do not have that freedom. An instantaneous policy change like that would get them fired and replaced by someone who’d maintain the status quo. Local governments aren’t known for creative thinking or quick lane changes. AC facility vs. shelter: you’re comparing not just apples to oranges, but apples to aardvarks. It makes no sense to attack a pound for being a pound.

By the way, as I climb on to my soapbox for today’s sermon…. For those of you who view no-kill advocacy for companion animals as a calling, and Redemption author Nathan Winograd as the messiah for this cause, please take note: nowhere in Redemption does Winograd espouse either verbally or physically attacking Animal Control directors, officers, staffers, or volunteers. The “attack advocacy” (an oxymoron: advocacy is speaking for, not against a cause) apparently came later as a virulent outgrowth of attaining a following, and it’s the main reason—in addition to his basic false premise, “pet overpopulation is a myth.” and the constant bashing of PETA, the HSUS, the ASPCA, and essentially any other group that won’t acknowledge the absolute truths of his cult—that I don’t support Mr. Winograd’s movement, twisted statistics, tactics, or opinions (which he calls “facts”), or tolerate the verbal abuse  (and sometimes spurious lawsuits) his followers like to dish out to anyone and everyone who disagrees with or questions them. Those of you originating, or jumping on the bandwagons for, screaming, cursing assaults on non-government shelters and government ACs alike on Facebook and via other social media are totally missing the “no-kill” movement’s point; you’ve perverted what began as a peaceable, thoughtful, and progressive-thinking cause into a form of ugly, judgmental advo-terrorism. That is another ten topics altogether, however, and not the focus of this essay.

Those of us who care about homeless cats and dogs, believe their lives have value, promote rescue/adoption and loving, responsible lifelong caregiving of them, and who volunteer for rescue groups, sanctuaries, pet adoption centers, local or regional Humane Societies or Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (note that these last two names are generic: state and local groups calling themselves HS or SPCA have no affiliation with or oversight by the national nonprofit advocacy groups HSUS and ASPCA)… and for the local Animal Care/Animal Control facility, often use the term “shelters” to describe all of these structures and their backing organizations manned by people who are charged with the task of caring for companion animals while they are “locked up” and lack homes. Here’s something to remember, and there’s more involved than mere semantics or nuances of the meaning of the term shelter. Government-run animal control or animal care facilities—and not just the high-volume ones or those here in the South—are not shelters in the sense that we think of as “places of ad infinitum safety or refuge” (like a homeless shelter or a battered women’s shelter). They really are simply impounding and holding facilities. They’re places to storeshort-termunwanted, lost, or stray animals until they are reclaimed, adopted, rescued, until their humans’ court cases are settled, or until they are killed when the facility becomes overcrowded for lack of anywhere else to go. They are warehouses and, as defined by the municipal, county, and state governments charged with overseeing them, their primary mission is not adoption or the preservation of lives at any cost—it’s “animal control,” pure and simple, sad as that may be. You cannot change that fact by wishing, expecting, or ranting.

We use “shelter” as a term of convenience, but the word implies a level of care, responsibility, and concern that most of these animal control facilities don’t include as part of their mandate. A lot of them don’t focus on adoption or rescue at all, and some don’t permit either. Some AC departments have no physical shelter to accommodate visitors or volunteers. They may have a few cages in the back of the sheriff’s office, or a trailer manned by a single officer who spends much of his time driving the truck that picks up throwaway pets. The AC department may have to house impounds at a local vet clinic, and that clinic may be unable or unwilling to host a stream of daily visitors and/or volunteers, much less to house unpaid boarded animals indefinitely. Understaffing, underfunding, and undersized facilities are real blockades to progress and saving lives. And yes, some AC staffers are quite simply uncooperative, backward-thinking, apathetic, and unconcerned with saving lives…. They ban visitors throughout the facility, especially in the kennel area, do not cooperate with nonprofit rescue groups, allow no volunteers, and don’t adopt animals to the public. Sadly, many staffers are not paid enough to care, and some are even hired because they don’t care. Good attitudes or bad, welcoming or unwelcoming, ritzy or shoddy, ACs are still ACs, not shelters. Sheltering implies caring for an animal—continuously—until he or she finds a good home, foster home, sanctuary/hospice, or other better, more permanent situation. Sheltering, to the semantic purist, does not imply deadlines, mandatory hold periods, kill-after dates or “euthanizing” animals to make room for more animals.

“Euthanasia” or “good death”—there’s a term that’s been co-opted and corrupted by both non-profit animal welfare groups and animal control directors and “kill shelters.” Convenience killing is not mercy killing. Kill shelter is yet another phrase that’s an oxymoron: if it’s killing, it’s not sheltering, so don’t bamboozle people with a meaningless pejorative, designed purely to get people’s hackles up.

Animal Control is just that—a department to control animals that are lost, unwanted or somewhere other than where they’re supposed to be: in control (or better yet, in responsible care) of their families.

“No-Kill” is an admirable, desirable goal for all non-government animal welfare groups.
The no-kill mandate and the goal of saving all healthy, adoptable, unwanted or homeless companion animals’ lives and getting them into forever homes or sanctuaries is the Holy Grail for all of us who love and advocate for cats, dogs, and other “domesticated” creatures. Even those who are not healthy or adoptable at their moment of impound deserve chances at objective evaluation and rehabilitation so they may become healthy and adoptable. But “no-kill” is the province of privately or corporately run SHELTERS, whether for-profit or charitable—Humane Societies, SPCAs, animal leagues, not-for-profit rescue groups, independent or volunteer fosters and adoption specialists, animal hospices, and lifetime sanctuaries. Because they can raise funds through many different channels and—most importantly—may self-govern, these groups can create the means to accommodate and shelter the unwanted animals originally taken in by Animal Control agencies, then released from government custody after their legally mandated hold period at AC is over. Government animal control agencies can preserve lives long-term only by turning over the animals in their facilities to other, non-government agencies. You want to save their lives? Keep them OUT of the pound, and if they’re in there, get them OUT the minute their “hold” is ended. An Animal Control entity can only consider this life-preserving goal—and can only make it a priority—if so sanctioned by the government body that operates it, and if adequately funded by public tax revenues. Try living in a red state—a politically, socially, fiscally conservative area—and convincing anyone that local tax monies should be reallocated or taxes increased so that their local AC pound can keep stray or unwanted pets alive and well-accommodated for months, years, lifetimes, or however long it takes for them to find real homes.

What’s the obstacle for government-run facilities with no private animal care contracts or partnerships?
WE—the citizens—elect our government, right? They’re supposed to do what we want. Yes. But that makes our influence on animal control departments indirect and representative. And, as with government at all levels in this country, at the city/county level there’s tons of bureaucratic red tape and downright smelly bull-manure to wade through, which often seems designed to keep us from using our voices for change efficiently. The general animal-loving public can effect change in government-run animal control through lobbying (for example, letter-writing, e-mail, and calling campaigns, or petitions to city councilmembers and county commissioners and mayors, their state legislators, and their state’s department of agriculture), and also by voting and paying taxes in their particular county or state (see end of previous paragraph regarding convincing conservative citizens to fund pound improvements with more tax dollars). We cannot achieve government shelter reform, for a state that needs it statewide, or a country that needs it at the federal level, by launching personal attacks on AC directors, officers, staffers, or volunteers. None of these individuals have full autonomy to dictate how their facilities are run, and they are often understandably fearful of losing what authority they have. You’ve read Redemption, yes? Remember that Nathan Winograd’s no-kill success examples are non-governmental organizations. They succeeded only by cutting governmental-contract ties and operating independently—in short, by eliminating “animal control” as a mandate.

Crap. No autonomy—REALLY? That sucks. As an example, I’ll cite the Athens-Clarke Co., Georgia Animal Control facility where I’ve volunteered for several years. In their job definitions, AC staff are not engaged to find new, better, permanent homes for dogs, or to run an adoption center, daycare, spa, or sanctuary. They are not sanctioned on the job to educate the public by evangelizing for better pet care, spay/neuter, and refraining from backyard breeding for profit (although they can and do answer the public’s questions about these matters, and do make available in the facility’s lobby numerous flyers, business cards, and educational literature from private advocacy groups that cover all these topic; I seem to be the only person who reads these items). By state and local law, the AC staff, who are government employees, may not fundraise for their employer, a government organization. The exchange of money between a member of the public and a public servant constitutes corruption, bribery, an attempt to buy influence. The staff are paid for animal-related public safety and health: to get unwanted, lost, stray injured, nuisance, or otherwise homeless pets (and wildlife, to some extent) off the streets and away from other places they aren’t supposed to be, to get them out of dangerous situations (like cruel and abusive homes or the filthy hands of dogfighters, perverts, and puppy mills), to help report and control communicable animal diseases, and to investigate and enforce animal ordinances for the city and county (the requirements under Georgia’s animal welfare laws for adequate food, water, and shelter, the city/county’s no-chaining law, the statewide mandate for rabies vaccs, and the compliance with the state of Georgia’s sadly puny animal cruelty laws). Like many government pounds in Georgia, my AC is not allocated funding for emergency impound medical care, full vaccinations, heartworm testing, spay/neuter… or even basics like petfood, litter, treats, bedding and toys. All of that must come from community business partnerships,  private donors, and volunteers. The staff and director of the average county or municipal AC have NO autonomy or authority to change their own mandate or to redefine their own job descriptions—that has to be done by a chain of command including the mayor, county/city commission, and the head of whichever department includes AC. Here in Athens it’s the director of Central Services who is the AC director’s boss; in many Georgia counties, AC falls as a division of the city police or county sheriff’s office or “public safety” department, or it may be an entirely separate department; this is not the case in Athens. The AC director is hired by someone – the Central Services director, or perhaps by the Sheriff – who’s an elected official. The Central Services director is hired (or appointed in some places) by the city council or county commission (in the case of Athens, city and county combined their governments in 1990 and became known as Athens-Clarke Co., or ACC). The ACC government bigwigs overseeing the whole show are the mayor and the commission. And to whom are the mayor and commission accountable? The local citizens: voters and taxpayers. To get though all these levels of bureaucracy, concerned community members have to lobby, vote, and be willing to pay taxes in order to influence the AC’s policy, and by going through the three bureaucratic authorities mentioned above. Change to a government entity cannot be enacted by complaining and cursing the individuals employed therein on social media sites, by nasty phone calls or e-mails, by death threats and bullying the AC staff, by protesting outside the pound’s front door, or by pressure and harassment from militant, loud-mouthed activists outside that particular county’s or city’s jurisdiction. It is local residents—registered voters and taxpayers—who make the call for change, and only then by jumping through the proper bureaucratic hoops.

Some government-run facilities do a pretty good job at saving the lives of unwanted companion animals by cooperating with rescues and encouraging the community to come in and adopt and/or volunteer. Many are proactive at trying to return lost pets to their owners (microchips and rabies or ID tags help this goal; it’s unfortunate than in a high percentage of cases, the owners don’t want their pet back, and this is not the AC’s fault). Both statistically and in my personal experience, Athens-Clarke County Animal Control is one of the best in Georgia, because the staff are proactive and cooperative. The “save” rate at ACCAC has held steady at 90% or better for five years. ACCAC staff work to return lost animals and make unclaimed ones available for adoption or rescue transfer. They beg for volunteers and open on weekends for visitors. But we need to remember in the end that any government pound is a far cry from a private or nonprofit animal shelter in the true sense. If we think of county or municipal ACs (such as some of the ones that online animal advocates complain about, like Floyd, Robeson, Cobb, Mahoning, Miami-Dade, Downey or Lancaster, NYACC, and far too many others that have at one time or another come under the armchair quarterbacks’ microscope on Facebook) as shelters, we’re expecting far more of them than they were contracted, built, staffed, and funded to be… and certainly more than they expect of themselves. We’re giving them credit and responsibility for being something they’re not. You know what’s really sad? The thousands of AC facilities around the country who do try and do work hard to get their impounds out on a leash are seldom recognized. The crummy ones get all the attention, and that often-hysterical hue and cry over the bad ones makes people assume that all ACs suck. Labeling all officers, workers and volunteers at AC pounds “killers” or “kill-apologists” is bigotry, no different than saying. “all women/Southerners/gay people/people of color/people of a particular religion are ______ (insert slur here).”

Summing up the AC-vs-shelter comparison
So all this information is for newcomers to the companion animal advocacy stage, and a refresher for you strident, rabble-rousing disciples of groups like No-Kill Nation, No Kill Coalition, No Kill Advocacy Center, and the various other groups who capitalize “No Kill” in their names as if it were a brand name or a religion. Those who love staging verbal assaults, screaming and cursing IN ALL CAPS on social media sites and under other writers’ editorials, targeting government-run Animal Control facilities (particularly in Georgia, since that’s where I am and where I have to field attacks on the staff of the better-than-average facility where I volunteer) and thinking these hateful tactics designed to turn people against ACs are not just warranted, but helpful and effective. Who exactly are you “helping” by slamming those who don’t buy your beliefs lock, stock, and barrel? How many animal lives are you saving by encouraging adopters and rescues to avoid and boycott “kill shelters”? If you think you’re going to eventually turn all government-run pounds into no-kill shelters: this is only going to happen by changing state laws and individual county/city laws regarding the roles and goals of Animal Control—with lobbying, votes and tax revenues—not by you cursing, denouncing, and abusing these facilities and their staff (or volunteers, like me).

Think before you rant. “Animal Control” is exactly that—it’s not a “shelter” in the sense that animal lovers define the term: “a structure that provides privacy and protection from danger (implicitly without deadlines).” Independent, non-governmental shelter directors and staff can choose to take the lead in pursuing a no-kill mandate… and should do so! Mr. Winograd is absolutely right that those who run private, non-profit animal shelters should be proactive community leaders in promoting the saving of lives rather than killing for convenience. But government-operated ACs cannot do so without public lobby, votes and tax dollars, without approval from their overseeing governmental authority, and, most of all, without HELP—that is h-e-l-p, not hindrance and public crucifixion—from the community as a whole.

Want to reform your local animal control or improve their “save” numbers? Lobby your local officials, and keep lobbying even when they ignore you. Recruit as many local companion-animal lovers as you can to help. especially those with influential voices. Ask your public officials to make animal control open and accessible for visitors, volunteers, rescues, and adoptions. Insist that all healthy and adoptable “out-of-time” animals be made available for transfer. Volunteer yourself, and do it with an agreeable, respectful demeanor and the intent to help, not impede the staff’s jobs or undermine their limited authority. Donate pet food and supplies. Don’t ask for or expect services that will cost taxpayers more money or take a bigger bite out of the city/county budget. In today’s economy, that ain’t gonna happen. If you want every homeless animal at AC to be held and cared for until they find homes—as long as that takes—then build your own private or incorporated nonprofit shelter nearby, and make sure it’s open-intake: you take in each and every AC impound who hasn’t found a home by the time that pet’s hold date ends. YOU are responsible for saving lives and finding good homes for displaced and unwanted pets. The pound is only the pound. It’s not and never will be a sanctuary.

An unwanted soul who DID get a second chance. Photo: Ellen Graben

An unwanted soul who DID get a second chance. Photo: Ellen Graben

Footnote: I am not an apologist for a broken nationwide “Animal Control” system that condones and perpetuates killing homeless animals for mere convenience. Convenience killing is obviously a screwed-up and morally wrong mindset. I’m not telling you how things should be…. That’s a no-brainer: there should be no killing of healthy, adoptable pets, period. I’m telling you how things actually ARE in a practical, realistic context. Reforming a broken system and a disposal-centered mindset are essential. Expecting county and city pounds to take the lead in reform is irrational. True “no-kill” is the province of the private sector and of the people who bring dogs and cats into the world, not those charged with “dealing with the surplus,” at the local government level.

You are certainly free to disagree with each and every point I make here. But bear in mind, I have a no-bashing rule. My blog is not the op-ed page of the Times. Telling me I’m stupid and cussing me out or calling me names will not help save the life of one single homeless dog or cat. Trashing me under a blog post I originated because you disagree will get you blocked. Write your own blog and say what you wish.

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