Thursday, January 16, 2014

It's a puppy!

The winter of 2012-13 was a tough one for my family. Within a six month period, we lost all three of our pets. The first was Cantus, an 18 year old cat. As much as we loved him, we knew it was time to let him go. He had numerous health problems and keeping him alive any longer would have been selfish. It was tough, because we'd adopted Cantus from the shelter as a kitten. For my three children, he had always been a part of their lives. I took him to the vet on a warm autumn day and I stayed there to see him off. It was a difficult and surprisingly spiritual experience. Later that day, I had to tell the kids. They were predictably heartbroken.

Not long after this, our 8 year old German shepherd developed leukemia. There wasn't anything we could do for her, except try to keep her comfortable. I ordered some herbal treatments for her -remedies supposedly known for slowing or stopping the spread of cancer- but they were fairly expensive, and they were delivered to the wrong address. They never arrived. I was never reimbursed, and during that two weeks, Anuk's condition deteriorated enough that I didn't bother trying a second time. Instead, we focused on keeping her comfortable and showing her all the love we could while she was still around, which wasn't long. From diagnosis to death was about six weeks. 

Approximately one month later, our second cat disappeared. Jet had only been in our home for about two years, having been adopted from a friend who could no longer keep him. He was a fantastic pet; surprisingly dog-like for a cat. So much so that we nicknamed him catdog. I did some research and reached the conclusion that Jet was a Siberian, a breed well known for their dog-like personalities. Unfortunately, Jet appears to have been the victim of a car accident. When I learned what had happened to him, I couldn't bring myself to tell the kids. To them, he simply remains missing. 

Okay, that's all of the sad stories I have today. I promise to make up for it. 

The rest of 2013 passed quietly. My children grieved and eventually accepted their loss. Eventually, my wife and I decided it was time to consider getting another pet. We thought it would be best to start with a cat. That way, if we ever did get another dog, the cat would already be established in the home and less likely to be fearful. As it turned out, the local shelter had a sale on cats at the end of November, and we found a great one year-old cat named Sheba. We were looking for another cat like Jet. We couldn't find the same breed, but we definitely got a very extroverted feline. Sheba not only follows my daughter around like a puppy dog, she also chases her around the cul-de-sac and plays with the neighborhood kids. The two are practically inseparable at play time, and when my wife calls my daughter in for dinner, Sheba is right at her heels.

We also began searching for a puppy, looking into our options but not overly eager to find something right away. Our shepherd had been a smart and loyal dog, but we were looking for something smaller and with a slightly different personality. As a kid growing up in Montana, I was surrounded by heelers - also known as Australian cattle dogs. In my late teens, I had a red heeler that was probably the best dog I've ever owned. He was my shadow, and he was frighteningly smart. Sometimes I thought that dog could read my mind. When I wrote The Tinkerer's Daughter, I gave my hero a very similar pet as an homage.

My wife and I had discussed our options and had agreed that we'd like to find another heeler, preferably female, and if possible, red. Little did I realize how much had changed in the world of pet adoption. When I was growing up, heelers were the kind of dogs people gave away on the side of the road or outside the pet store. Not anymore. Now they're a coveted breed. Here in NorCal, heeler pups go for upwards of $1,000. Even heelers of more questionable breeding cost hundreds of dollars. My wife and I managed to locate a few cattle dog rescue shelters, but the pups were always gone fast, before we even had a chance, and they're not particularly cheap. In the end, after several months of looking, we were still empty-handed. 

Then we came across an ad from a nearby animal shelter. They had puppies; a heeler/boxer mix. Cool. We didn't necessarily need a purebred, and we both like boxers, so we were all over it. We emailed and called the shelter, and found out that they would only let us -and everyone else- view the pups on Sunday. They already had more than twenty applications for the pups, and the price was $250 each. Gulp. Interviews would be first come, first served.

It's not that $250 is completely unaffordable. I understand a shelter has bills to pay. But aren't these nonprofit organizations? And aren't they funded in part by our tax dollars? It almost seemed extortionate for a shelter to charge that much money for a puppy that twenty years ago someone would have been begging us to take. There's the rub, of course. These are puppies we're talking about. Everybody wants a puppy. And with these pups being a cross between two very popular breeds, I could see why they'd want to wring every penny out of the opportunity. And the process... good Lord, you have to fill out an application, describe your home and your family, damn near everything short of a credit check. When I learned all of this I didn't even want to go to the shelter, simply because of the principle of the matter. It just didn't seem right, paying that much to a shelter for a mixed-breed pup, much less having to go wait in line and take a number with dozens of other people just for a chance to see the puppies.

Unfortunately, principles are a fairly abstract concept, especially when you're trying to explain them to your 7 year old daughter. Needless to say, the rest of the family didn't think much of my principles, and when Sunday morning came around, you can guess where I was.  I still didn't think we'd have a chance. Not with so many people waiting in line for those puppies. One by one, they called in the families (we were all waiting outside the shelter). One by one, the puppies got adopted. I got a spark of hope when I saw some people leaving without a puppy, but then I realized that the shelter was only approving the adoption, not finalizing it. The puppies couldn't be released until they had their final shots later in the week. 

My wife and I had arrived fifteen minutes before the shelter opened (we left the kids home in case we had to leave empty-handed), and then waited around outside for an hour. I was sure we would go home with nothing. I was quite frustrated with the whole situation. Then, at last, they called our names. To my surprise, they had one pup left. Not only was this one female, she was also the only one out of the litter to have the markings of a heeler - And yes, she's also red.  Turns out her mother was a full-blood red heeler.

I'm sure you already know how this story ends, so there's no need to describe our meeting with the pup. We were sold from the moment they brought her into the room. It was just a matter of waiting until the day we could pick her up. We brought her home yesterday afternoon:

Lots to explore in the backyard!

This is way better than all those toys we actually paid for.

Nothing like a big bowl of chow after a hard day's play!

And then for some much-needed rest...

Don't ask me how this can possibly be comfortable, but I guess it was.

And so this very long story does have a happy ending after all. But there's a moral to it as well. See, I learned a bit of a lesson. After meeting the shelter's manager, I realized that not only does the shelter take care of all the pup's vaccinations, they also spay or neuter, free of charge. Obviously, this isn't a cheap operation. In Sonoma County, that service alone would take up most of the adoption fee. All of that on top of the fact that they feed, shelter, and groom all of these animals. Now I actually feel a little guilty -and humbled- about prejudging the shelter the way I did. I still think the adoption process itself could use some work, but I believe I'll send a donation to help out with their overhead in the near future. Iif anyone else out there is looking for a pet, I would encourage you to start with local shelters. They put heart and soul into taking care of these animals, many of whom they know will never find a home, and it's tragic that so many good pets have to end up without a family to love.