I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
On the last Saturday in October 2012, Thom and I were driving down Fairfax in Los Angeles. I don’t remember where we were headed, but I know we never got there. Instead, we pulled in to the Petco on 2nd Street. The dog rescue organization we volunteered for held its weekly adoption events there, but we had taken a break and it had many many months since we’d been involved. I said, “It’s almost noon and they’ll be setting up. Let’s swing in and see if they need an extra hand.” They always needed an extra hand.
As we entered the store it was more of a madhouse than usual. It was the Saturday before Halloween, so time for Petco’s annual human/animal costume contest. The problem for the rescue adoption was that our usual spot between the leashes and treats was being used as the “runway” for the costume event. We had to squeeze all the crates with the dogs and cats into a far smaller area just inside the entrance to the store and next to the checkout. But, you make do. So we helped them sort things out and get set up.
Just as we were about to make our exit and resume our previously scheduled Saturday morning, a woman arrived – with eight dogs in tow. She spoke only Spanish, and had brought her friend’s grandson to translate. Her name was Maria, and she was there to ask for help in saving her dogs. She was vague on the reasons why (a) she had eight dogs and (b) couldn’t keep them. But she made it clear that they were in imminent danger of being taken to a city shelter. Because she was from Compton – a troubled community in South LA known for being overrun with strays – these dogs would not have a happy or a long life in the shelter.
While it was not unusual for someone to come to the pet store during an adoption event to surrender a dog they could no longer keep, it was never eight at a time! We set about finding collars and leashes for these newcomers. Turns out they had free run of Maria’s house and large dirt lot in Compton. In other words, they were not used to wearing collars or being on leashes. And some of them were none too thrilled with the new accessories. They were mostly smaller breeds, Chi-mixes and terriers. Charlie stood out for being a bit larger than his compatriots, and so handsome. He was also clearly very special to Maria.
Part of the volunteer gig at a rescue doggy adoption event is to walk the dogs around the neighborhood, let them do their business, get out of the crate, stretch their legs, and have a little one-on-one attention. It also gives the rescue a chance to evaluate a new dog’s personality and temperament. How are they on leash? What is their behavior with other dogs and people you meet along the sidewalk? Do they have an awareness of traffic? Et cetera. Charlie looked unhappy and apprehensive in the crate with his fellow inmates. I thought a walk would do him good. He didn’t love the getting strapped into the harness, and it took me quite a while just to get him to walk with me out the door and into the parking lot.
And then all hell broke loose. Charlie went one way around a railing post, I went the other way, the leash got caught up – and he freaked out! Before I could untangle the leash and calm him down, he had shimmied out of his harness and took off running – right into traffic on 2nd Street. Fortunately, there was a red light, and what cars there were came to a stop. People were great, getting out of their cars, trying to corral Charlie. But to no avail. Luckily, instead of running out into the much busier traffic on Fairfax, Charlie looped back into the parking lot.
For fifteen minutes (which seemed like fifteen hours), we played hide-and-seek with Charlie, around, between and under cars in the lot. There were probably a dozen people, total strangers, who enlisted for the cause. But Charlie was not even a little bit interested in being captured. He was terrified. We finally had him trapped under a car and surrounded, but no one could reach him; and even if we did, he didn’t have a harness or collar, so there was nothing to grab hold of.
And then, I saw him being dragged away from me by an unseen hand, from the other side of the car. Maria had come out of the store and made a beeline for Charlie. And the drama was over as quickly as it had begun. We brought him back inside to settle down. People were drawn to Charlie, but he just cowered in the back of the crate.
Amazingly, by the end of the day, seven of Maria’s eight dogs had been either adopted or placed with fosters. The odd man out? Charlie. I don’t remember us needing much discussion about it, if any. Thom and I would foster Charlie until he found his forever people. We brought him home that night, and he was just so confused and frightened. We went to the condo’s dog run before taking him inside, and I snapped this picture of him, just cowering in the grass. I knew life would get better for him. But at this point, we were his kidnappers.
Thom and I were as charming as we knew how to be with our new charge, though he wasn’t buying much of it. He did a lot of hiding behind furniture. But, you know, when people are filling your food dish day after day… maybe they’re not so bad after all. We brought Charlie home on Saturday the 27th of October. The second photo I have of him is dated four days later: Halloween 2012. And I’m not in the habit of giving my photographs titles, but I do call this one “Trust”. It took quite a bit of patience on Thom’s part, but Charlie sat on the sofa with him that night… and finally… he gave Thom a kiss.
It’s hard to imagine that this is the same dog who will now try to lick your tonsils upon meeting you. But we don’t know what his life was really like in Compton, or before that. Hectic, at best. He had certainly had a misery of a transition that first afternoon at Petco. It also occurred to us, at some point in those early weeks, that Charlie very likely knew only Spanish! Our West Hollywood condo offered far more comforts for this creature than he was used to – but the poor little guy didn’t understand a word we were saying. And he must have been missing his mamacita, Maria.
Little did we know then, that first encounter with Maria and her menagerie was a much more involved drama that would unfold over the next four months. She didn’t have eight dogs. She had 40 dogs. And 60 cats. Maria was a hoarder. With a heart of gold. But muy loco. Unlike most hoarding situations, Maria (somehow) managed to take very good care of her animals. They were all spayed/neutered, vaccinated and well nourished. They also had very few behavioral issues, beyond the normal jitters.
So, Thom and I were suddenly plunged back into weekly volunteering with the rescue, while we were fostering Charlie. Every Saturday, we’d caravan down to Compton (about a 30-minute drive from the middle of LA) with several other vehicles and scoop up as many of Maria’s dogs as we could take to adoptions. (The cats were handled by another group of volunteers, with great success.) Every week we’d find fosters or adoptive parents for some of the dogs. But we’d have to return to Compton with whatever dogs were unspoken for at the end of each Saturday. That was difficult.
When Charlie had been with us for a month, he went out to the desert with us to spend Thanksgiving with our friends Chris and Fred in Rancho Mirage. They spoiled him (and us), and Charlie’s natural charm was emerging… perfect houseguest. We were all invited back. I don’t remember the exact moment Thom and I became foster failures, but it was right around then. He had found his forever family, and it was us.
Two weeks later, mid-December, another trip to Compton, another successful Saturday of adoptions and fosters. But at the end of the day, there were two critters left. One was a Chihuahua-Dachsund mix with a bit of a personality disorder (he hated being crated and was just nasty about it). The other was a skinny little Italian Greyhound/ something mix who was afraid of his own shadow. We had been led to believe that this was it for the dogs from Compton. There was no going back, but there was no one to take them, especially with the holidays upon us. And that is how Tiger and Bernardo came to join our club. Again, as fosters – who were destined to stay put with us. So these three amigos from Compton were reunited in our little apartment in West Hollywood. (The photo above is our first outing to the local dog park. Charlie was raring to go. Bernardo was thinking What fresh hell is this? And Tiger is closing his eyes and pretending he’s not there. The dog park has never been his favorite spot, as he tends to get run over by the big dogs.)
At first, of course, Charlie was horrified at the arrival of these interlopers. It was a week or so of Mine! Mine! Mine! That’s MY food bowl! MY sofa! MY ottoman! MY people! But then I think he liked the company, and decided maybe they weren’t so bad after all. They could stay. In HIS house. That was almost 15 months ago, and what a ride it’s been! They have wildly different personalities and they’ve all come fully into their own. They’re a little competitive with each other. They’re boys. They roughhouse. Charlie has to play the Alpha card. Tiger will threaten to kill anyone who accidentally crowds him. And St. Bernardo will snarl at anyone getting more attention than he is – until you look at him and then he resumes his sweetness-and-light persona. They are clowns and comedians who make us laugh, every day. And they are world-class snugglers, with us and with each other. If only the world could take snuggling and kissing and tail-wagging lessons from them.
And that’s how this brood came to be. I reversed the “birth” order in the telling on this blog, starting with Tiger and Bernardo. Somehow it is fitting to have saved Charlie for last. He really inspired us to become parents again. And I don’t think I’ve ever known a sweeter canine soul. Dont’ tell the others I said that. But Charlie can just break your heart with one look of those brown eyes of his. In fact, I was well into tonight’s planned post on my favorite California artist, Richard Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park series. Because a little culture won’t kill you, people. But Charlie plunked himself down on the bed next to me and started giving soft little whimpers. The most pathetic sound, really. Translates roughly as Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy won’t you plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay with meeeeeeeee?!! I looked at him and just laughed, took a few snapshots, and realized that the halfway point of this “happy” series was the perfect spot to tell you more about Charlie. But first, I let him win and played with him before blogging.
If you are considering becoming a foster for animals in transition from rescue to adoption – please do not let this story dissuade you! You most likely will NOT end up with three dogs (or cats, or rabbits, or horses, etc) becoming a permanent part of you family! Thom and I fostered quite a few dogs in the 18 months of our involvement with the rescue org, prior to Charlie changing everything.
Fosters are the mostly unsung heroes of pet rescue and adoption – and there is always great need for one more foster person or foster family. You can start off slowly. Offer yourself to a rescue organization as a respite foster. Especially around holidays, people have to travel and can’t take their fostered animals with them. And it’s a crisis. You can’t imagine what a gift it is to all involved – especially the animal – if you are able to take an animal into your home for a night or a weekend or a few days. Is it a slippery slope? It can be. But it doesn’t have to lead to more than you want to take on. Is it difficult to foster an animal and then let it go to a forever home? Sure, it can be bittersweet. Have I cried over watching a fur baby go off with someone else? Gallons. But unless they’re ALL going to come live with you, then you quickly see how happy the dog or cat is with his new person, or her new family. And how happy they are with their new companion animal. It’s a win-win-win.
So, if you’re reading this, think about how easy it is to help save a rescued animal. If you can’t adopt, maybe you can foster. If you can’t foster, maybe you can volunteer some time or talents to a rescue organization. And if you can’t adopt or foster or volunteer, perhaps you can donate some money to help defray the costs of food and veterinary care. An easy way to find the animal rescue and adoption organizations in your area is to go to Petfinder.com and put in your zip code. Et voila! If you love animals, there’s nothing you can do that will put a bigger smile on your face than getting involved in rescue! And if you’re single, there’s no better way to bump into other genuinely nice single people. Now fetch!
Charlie. Prince Charles. Charles Nelson Reilly. Charlie Brown. Day 050. #100happydays