I have given up traditional gift giving — spending lots of cash on things I think someone will enjoy, but doesn’t really need. Instead I will share this story in the hope of giving you something of myself and what I believe is the true spirit of this holiday season — being grateful for what we do have and helping the less fortunate. Here goes …
In 2001, I spotted a little slice of paradise — a deserted farmhouse on 20 acres in a little town called Desert Hot Springs. Built in 1954 (the year I came screaming into this world) and still in its original beauty — concrete floors, knotty pine walls, custom made doors, and crank out windows. No heat and no AC — probably considered luxuries in those days.
It was built by a hardy husband and wife team (transplants from the Midwest) doing most of the work themselves. After finishing the modest one bedroom, one bathroom (tiny shower stall for one and no bathtub!), they started building two large barns that would later house hundreds of chickens — launching their careers as chicken farmers. They were the Zimmerman’s and landed a contract with another new startup — the Colonel from Kentucky.
While I looked up and saw the beauty of open skies surrounded by 360 degree views of mountains and a chance to escape my hectic life on the weekends — my mother, complained about all the repairs the house needed, the depilated barns, and the rodents she called disease carrying rats. Nope — she did not want her adventurous daughter out in the middle of nowhere. Not safe, not smart, and too much work! Disappointed by my mom’s lack of vision, my enthusiasm was tempered long enough to for me to negotiate a bargain price. It would be mine, all mine for only $235,000 — rats, scorpions, broken pipes, tumbleweeds, and all.
After the house became livable, it was not long before I discovered a no-kill shelter called Save-a-Pet about a mile away and two streets over. I probably could have found it without seeing the sign just by following the orchestra of barking dogs I would hear every morning around 6am — feeding time. Knock knock … “Hi, I am a vet and come out here on the weekends.” That brief introduction welcomed me with open arms by the manager I’ll call H. Asking a shelter if they need any help is like inviting a hungry homeless person to dinner.
I was totally out of my comfort zone. These dogs did not have a worried owner at the other end of the leash waiting in one of my exam rooms. There was no one to worry about their health and welfare. No one cared to play with them. No one had valued their companionship. While they waited and hoped for freedom — home was an outside pen during terribly hot summers and freezing cold winters. These castaways fought for attention whenever anyone walked by, desperate to be noticed. I watched in despair with clouded vision, unable to stop the tears when hopeful dogs lunged at the fence and fought amongst themselves for the prime spot near the gate hoping someone was coming for them. These dogs remained at the mercy of a few kind volunteers who paid them some attention when they were not overworked by cleaning out kennels, feeding 100 dogs and cats and answering the phones.
Some, of course, got homes. But others would become full-term lifers — sentenced to live out what time they had left until sickness or advancing age made them too much of a burden. This is the problem with no-kill shelters. Unless there is an action plan in place to work with the dogs (obedience training, socialization, and daily exercise) — they become more and more difficult to adopt since a typical shelter environment is a breeding ground for behavior problems and what has been called, cage crazy.
Why am I telling you all this? I hope that will become obvious as my story unfolds. By a twist of fate — during the Katrina disaster in summer of 2005 — I got an urgent call for help. The billionaire T. Boone Pickens generously charted a private jet to fly rescued canine victims of the hurricane out to southern California and someone with connections routed that transfer to the Palm Springs airport. And you guessed it — H had committed to taking 80 homeless Katrina dogs! “So, Dr T, how many dogs can you put up at your dog ranch? I need to make room at the shelter for the Katrina dogs that are flying in next week.” (I was housing a few stray dogs that had wondered onto the property and the chickens had long ago departed — hence I now had a “dog ranch”).
Plain and simple — I am a bleeding heart for any dog in need. “OK, H, bring me ten of your dogs.” Mayhem broke out as wild, caged up dogs now had a full acre to run in. Some jumped the 4 ft fence while others dug out under the sandy soil — after 2 weeks only a few remained. H was able to round up the escapees, but I could not risk taking the runaways back.
One of the remaining dogs caught my eye and concern. He spent most of his time away from the other dogs (and people, too!), hiding under the large native mesquite bushes. He would not even come to out onto the patio at mealtime and someone always went looking for him to leave a plate of food nearby his campsite. When I mentioned this odd behavior to H, he told about the mystery dog he named Woody. Woody had been dumped at the shelter as a puppy, not yet old enough to be weaned and had to be bottle feed. H remembered the little black puppy fondly as he and Woody were newcomers to the shelter nearly 11 years ago!
Oh My God! — I never even noticed Woody on any of my visits — no one did. He was the generic looking black dog huddled at the back of this prison cell with 6 other inmates. Fat chance someone would want that dog — scared to death and so easily frightened that he would bite. Locked away and forgotten until Katrina handed him a get-out-of-jail card and free pass to my dog ranch.
Several weeks went by before Woody began to venture out. As I pulled up one late Saturday afternoon around dusk, the dogs ran out to greet me and I was pleased to see Woody out on the patio. Next comes the moment I will never forget. One of my ranch dogs (a friendly stray we called BW simply because he was black and white and easily ID’d by the reference) eagerly approached me with a Frisbee. As I casually sent it flying, Woody trotted after it. No sooner did I get the words out of my mouth — “Oh, how cute! Look at Woody, he wants to play!” — seconds later I was a witness to a crime scene. But unlike most bystanders, I flew into action when BW effortlessly nailed Woody to the ground, tearing into his neck full force. Woody let out cry I had never heard before — and I knew in that moment if I didn’t get BW off him (and 3 other dogs that had joined the gang fight) I was going to be an eye witness for the prosecution — murder one!
I needed to buy time until my screams for help would alert the caretaker. I did what most people would never do — but for me there was no other option. Because I knew Woody had beaten the odds (orphaned pup in a shelter exposed to deadly viruses like parvo and distemper) surviving puppyhood only to suffer the neglect of an adult shelter dog that no one wanted — he sure as hell was not going to die like this on my watch! I jumped on top of Woody using my body as a shield until help finally did come. That stunt got me a ride to the emergency room where I was treated for multiple bite wounds, a severe laceration to my left arm (compliments of BW), and shock. Woody underwent surgery to repair a deep wound to his neck — which by the grace of God — spared injury to major blood vessels, keeping him from suffering a fatal hemorrhage that night.
Fortunately, in time, I regained full use of my left arm. But the emotional scars of that night remain and the why of the attack by a dog that had never attacked another dog in the three years he was with me (but did later attack a second dog) cannot be answered. At least not by me.
Over the years, I have witnessed many dog fights — most are just that. Few dogs attack with the intent to kill. They usually just make their point and move on. I am embarrassed to say I had never made that distinction. Lesson painfully learned and passed on. But wait a minute! This is not where the story ends … life was just beginning for Woody.
After a few months of rehab, Woody made it clear that he simply was not going to trust anyone but me. He did not want to be adopted — he was home. I simply agreed. He deserved his forever home and lived the happy life for his remaining years. In those three years he ate real food, explored the world on daily walks, loved to take car rides, and had his very own bed — one in my office and one at the foot of my bed. Yep, he was my dog and Rose graciously shared me.
This year Woody celebrated the ripe age of 14 years. Sadly, he had only really lived the last 3 of those years—the ones we shared together. It was my first experience to have earned the grateful loving devotion of a dog who knew he had been rescued not once, but twice. In 2007, Woody was diagnosed with cancer and was not expected to live more than a few months. We faced a new battle this time, but Woody’s strong spirit told me he wanted to fight, and so we did. He beat the odds again and lived another year! My War on Cancer is dedicated to Woody and all dogs battling this illness.
On December 8, 2008 I kissed by beloved warrior goodbye. PLEASE do not send your condolences — for I am comforted by the experience of giving life to a dog that was in a hopeless situation. Had Woody not been the benefactor of a tragic twist of fate, he would have remained at that shelter indefinitely — alone and afraid, with no one to grieve his passing. Instead, he had a hurricane to thank and a dog that nearly killed him, leading him to a new life.
In honor of Woody and the thousands of dogs (and cats) that have become castoffs by a society that does not yet fully accept its obligation to provide a safe haven for our adoptable pets — I pledge stronger efforts in the New Year and I, too will push for promised Change in this country:
- I question the individual “rights” and “freedoms” of breeders and ask them to respond: Why continue to breed when we are warehousing (and killing) thousands of adoptable pets each day in animal shelters?
- I will continue to encourage my clients NOT to buy from pet stores! Puppy mills are for-profit-only businesses that care nothing about animal welfare or breeding quality.
- I fully support and will continue to work with responsible rescue groups who have reasonable adoption programs.
- I ask that dog lovers get over their pure-bred mania mindset. If your heart is set on one particular breed, please work with a rescue group committed to that breed. Just Google your favorite breed and add the word rescue — you will be amazed at your selection.
- I will remind you that a dog is a dog and I have met the best — mutts! Mutts also tend to live longer and have fewer health problems — just ask any vet. I am in favor of starting Adopt a Homeless Mutt Month!
Please support the efforts of those who work tirelessly to rescue our unwanted pets. To truly understand the dedication by animal advocates and their rewarding accomplishments, I hope you will treat yourself and your friends to this inspirational book, Pieces of My Heart by Jim Willis.
Thank you, Woody, for showing me what truly matters. And thank you, Jim, for putting it all onto paper for us to remember and enjoy.