Puppies and Mommas

June 2, 2008

I lived in a duplex with a huge live oak tree outside the dining room window when I was in college. One spring, a pair of blue jays nested in that tree. I was thrilled when the eggs hatched and I saw two little blue jays in the nest. One night in their early lives a thunderstorm blew in. One of parents sat on top of them throughout the entire storm with their wings over the nest to protect them. The parents instinctually protected those little ones throughout that storm. The next morning, all birds were safe and soon the babies learned to fly and they all left.

Today at BARC, I came across a number of sweet, exhausted momma dogs with litters of pups. All were doing what they could to keep the little ones warm and safe and fed. Problem is, no matter what those moms do, if a dog foster doesn’t pull the moms and pups, all will be put to sleep within three days of entry into BARC. It’s painful to see the moms work so hard in vain.

If this alone isn’t a testament to spaying and neutering, I don’t know what is.


Visit Houston’s BARC shelter Saturday, August 25, 2007, for the second annual Wags to Whiskers event.  Here’s some info I received by email:

Hello –

This Saturday is the second Wags to Whiskers event at BARC.  If you or any of your friends or family are looking for a new dog or cat BARC is hosting Wags to Whiskers this Saturday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.  Come by and meet the cats and dogs, enter for a door prize, bring donations of towels, blankets, etc. and enjoy the sunshine with free food too!  We will also be celebrating the grand opening of the new cat habitat!  The cats can now run and play while they wait to be adopted.

We are in need of volunteers to help us with dog walking, dog bathing and adoption counseling.  The shifts are 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. or all day 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.  If you are interested in volunteering please e-mail Julie Keeton at juliekeeton5@aol.com

Hope to see you ALL there!

There are so many beautiful, worthy pets at BARC. And unfortunately, not many Houstonians even know about the shelter. Spread the word!

Even if you’re not in the position to adopt, they’re also looking for supplies like blankets, towels, leashes, newspaper, cat litter.

In a previous post, I mentioned BARC Starz. If you’d like to receive BARC Starz, a weekly email about animals available for adoption from Houston’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC), send an email and ask to be added to the BARC Starz email list.

Several weeks ago while volunteering at BARC, I walked a mom dog that was caring for a boatload of puppies. She seemed so happy and had a love of life. But she had the ugliest scar on her forehead. It has completely healed and was covered with hair, but it looked almost like an empty eye socket. I couldn’t even guess what this poor, sweet girl must have gone through to get such a horrendous mark. Each time I’d walk her, I thought she’d probably only be in the shelter until her puppies were weaned and then she’d be euthanized.

Then I received the 3/26/07 issue of the BARC STARZ email newsletter. This weekly newsletter typically features kennel favorites and dogs in need. As soon as I started reading it, I realized they were talking about this mom dog that apparently had also caught the eye of the volunteer coordinator, Barb. This is an excerpt from the newsletter:


What is an “unadoptable” dog? In the animal control/shelter world, it is a changing definition that, frankly, depends on how many good homes come to rescue/adopt a dog. The more homes that come, the looser can be the definition, the less homes that come, and the tighter the definition for which fewer dogs qualify.

And so we return to this person’s dilemma. She spotted a black/white lab/pit female that had spent the last four weeks in the kennels nursing her nine pups (that all got adopted). Her milk bags were heavy, she had a scar above her left eye that distorted her features, she was predominantly black (the least popular color for a dog) and she was a lab/pit mix (a dime a dozen here in Houston). Shoving her emotions aside, she leashed up this momma and started walking the dog over to the vet staff to be reviewed for euthanasia—her intent to was to state that given kennel considerations, this dog was unadoptable.

She walked over with a nice kennel attendant and they chatted briefly. Seeking affirmation, she asked him, “Isn’t this dog ugly? Don’t you think she is unadoptable?” Surprisingly, he smiled a big smile and said, “Look at her wagging her tail!!! She’s happy; after all she’s gone through, and she was a good momma, she is happy!” The emotions started coming for this woman and she stopped, looked at the dog, and noticed the happiness…despite where they were going.

Dilemma time. Kennels were still filling, why put this dog to occupy a kennel that might take MONTHS to find an adopter—thus depriving other dogs of a chance to get adopted? Yet…the woman put the dog in an exercise pen and went to find the kennel manager, a lovely man who has spent decades in animal care and control. She trusted his judgment and asked him what he thought, he came out looked and said, “Look at her wiggle; she’s happy. She’s not ugly.” The woman repeated everything the man knew about scarce space, but he said, “Look at the tail wiggle; she’s happy. Put her back in the kennel and we’ll check her tomorrow. No need to do things in haste. We’ll check her for heartworms and if she is positive, that will be two strikes against her and that will be enough.” That seemed fair.

That night the volunteer emailed another volunteer who knew the dogs and described her dilemma. The other volunteer emailed back, “I saw her today. I have bad news. I think we tested her a couple weekends ago and she was +. I took her out. She was so happy. Don’t we have some immiticide? She’s not ugly.”

Next day was Saturday and more volunteers were there. The woman volunteer brought out momma again, seeking help in the decision that was clearly not an easy one to make…She was assaulted by all the volunteers, “No, she’s not ugly!  You can’t call her Scar Face…look at her tail! She’s happy!” Alfonzo the vet tech perked up and said, “Her name is Scar-let!” Everyone laughed and announced Scarlet would be this dog’s name and the attending vet said, “Work her up; she is too nice and was a good momma. She will be in the adoptable ward.”

Just then, Charlotte of Scout’s Honor Rescue Group came to BARC to pick up some pups. The volunteer showed her Scarlet and asked, “Is she adoptable?” Charlotte replied, “Barbara, every dog is adoptable if you just keep trying. Let me take her picture and see if we can help.”

Miss Scar-let!

Momma Scarlet now sits in South Kennel 1—the adoptable ward and is being looked after by Jerome, a marvelously kind and astute kennel attendant and Barbara.

Why tell this story? Because this is BARC life—bittersweet. Remarkable to those of us who know BARC is the kind compassion shown to this dog and this volunteer by staff and volunteers alike. Every single one of these responders knew by the way the woman was walking and talking that she felt rotten about the life/death decisions that happen daily at BARC…they felt rotten, too, and while no one can save all the dogs, sometimes there just has to be an Alamo decision—THIS DOG IS NOT GOING DOWN!!!!!!!! Smart? Level headed? Maybe not, but it was an amazing thing to see so many necessarily-hardened individuals rallying to what can only be called an ugly dog’s defense. Why Scarlet? Why not; sometimes the killing just has to stop.


It seems that at BARC, it’s the volunteers’ responsibility to get dogs moved from the “hold” area to the “adopt” area. Apparently, if left up to BARC staff, this really wouldn’t happen and all dogs would be euthanized. To add insult to injury, getting from hold to adopt is a painful process that involves less than willing staff that don’t share the same priorities as the volunteers.

Of the four adoptable wards at the shelter, two are almost empty. This is not good. This means a lot of dogs aren’t being given a chance. The volunteer coordinator asked if I wanted to help get dogs moved over to adoption or if I wanted to walk dogs. Honestly, I wanted to stay in my sheltered little world of walking dogs. They’re happy, I’m happy, life is good. Something beyond my control made me tell her I’d move dogs.

I don’t like being involved in making the choice of which dogs are considered adoptable and which ones should die. But I followed the volunteer coordinator’s husband, Randy, into the North Ward. The entire walk, I had to convince myself I could do this. It’s about the dogs and not about my fear or trepidation and that I wasn’t going to cry.

On “death row,” there are three wards, each with about 20-30 dogs. I took a deep breath and walked into the first ward. I was taken aback by how dark it was. I don’t know if that was on purpose to keep the dogs calm or because some sick tortured soul designed it that way. It was damp. Each kennel was maybe 3′ x 4′ with an orange metal grate for the floor and a small shelf where smaller dogs could jump up and sit. Most of the kennels had chewed up plastic water bowls. I thought I saw a rat run by.

The first dog I saw was a big ole Rottweiler. This was painful because one of my own dogs is a Rottie and I have a soft spot for all Rotties. I went down one side of the ward and up the other. Kennels were full of pits and pit mixes (another type of dog I have an affinity for). Most were shy, some growled, some were covered with scars.

We pulled four dogs out of that ward. I waited in line at the vet tech’s office while Randy checked out the other wards. He identified two more candidates. So the process began. Dogs were weighed, heartworm tested, vaccinated, and wormed. I wish the process had been just that fast, but it wasn’t. I’ve had speedier service at the DMV.

As each dog was cleared, I transported it to the adoptable side of the shelter. Me and each one of the pardoned dogs took a nice trot out in the sun before I assigned them to their new kennel, a palace compared to where they’d been. Two of the dogs made a particular impression on me. One was a fat mama who was maybe a Bull Terrier mix. She’s a sweetheart with silky soft fur. The other was described as a Golden Retriever mix. I don’t know where that game from. She’s hard to describe–mid-sized, reddish, super sweet. I’ll be keeping an eye on these two.

I volunteer on Sundays. I never sleep well on Sunday nights. I do manage to go to sleep around 11:00 p.m., but always wake up at about 3:00 a.m. and stay awake for the  rest of the night. Weird thing is that so far, I’ve never considered *not* volunteering–even though I know it’s the reason for my sleepless nights.

I didn’t sign up for this when I volunteered at BARC. However, after a couple of visits, I realized my measly four or five hours per week of volunteer time is really needed. I feel like it’s making some kind of difference, even if that different is only saving 6 dogs out of 70. That’s better than zero dogs out of 70.

It may drive me crazy. It may drive my husband crazy. I’ll keep going there. I plan to spend my lunch hour there tomorrow.

Trading Up

February 28, 2007

Two young girls said something to me this weekend that left me completely shocked and saddened. It made me realize the uphill battle shelters and animal advocates face.

Sunday at BARC, I brought a Shar Pei mix out of his kennel and into an outdoor run so he could be photographed. While standing there with the dog and another volunteer, two young girls came running up screaming “Brownie, Brownie, look, it’s Brownie!” At first, I was elated–they’d come to reclaim their lost dog. Then, the shock.

I asked the girls if this was their dog. They said yes, but they turned him in to BARC because he was too big. They said they wanted a smaller dog. They pointed down to another run where their parents were visiting with a Chihuahua. I could tell by their tone that they saw nothing wrong with this.

It’s not often I’m left speechless. This was one of those times.

I wanted to scream and yell and stomp around then walk down and slap the girls’ parents. Instead, I just stood there mute; shocked as hell that people–young girls–perceived this behavior as perfectly acceptable.

The fact that Brownie was alive and up for adoption was a miracle. Eighty-some-odd percent of animals coming into BARC never make it out. But by seeing Brownie, those girls’ view of dog recycling was reinforced. Hey, you don’t like your dog, you trade it in, the dog will get another home, you get the smaller dog you want–kind of like trading in a car. I don’t blame the girls. I blame their parents (hence the reference to the slap).

The need for humane education really hit home for me at that moment. It was just a few days before that I’d met with a Friends of BARC volunteer about helping with a poster contest to educate kids during Be Kind to Animals Week. I’m even more all over that now.

Abby Goes Home, Finally

February 26, 2007

It was a rough several days for Abby, the BARC dog I deemed as the first “one” I would try to save. She was adopted through a Petsmart adoption then returned because she appeared sick.

I was pissed that the adopters returned her. To me, adopting a dog means adopting it with the commitment to caring for it, too–even if you’d just brought her home. You don’t return a dog to the shelter like you’d a damaged item to a store. Anyway, Abby was back in the shelter and in the ward where the volunteers keep dogs who need extra care. The volunteer coordinator and I took turns visiting her during the week, trying to get her to eat, giving her meds.

The first day I saw her, I didn’t think she was going to make it. She was weak and had a far away look in her eyes. She didn’t want to eat or drink. I managed to get her to eat some canned food downed in chicken broth, but not enough food to keep her going. But gradually, she came around with the help of TLC, drugs, chicken soup, and McDonald’s hamburgers. She put on some weight and looked great.


I learned that the adopters planned to kennel her with their other dog while they went on vacation for a week. Well, since Abby appeared sick, the kennel wouldn’t take her and it was Sunday and they weren’t able to get her to the vet before they left on vacation. Apparently, the adopters had a long discussion with the head vet and wanted Abby as soon as they got back.  While BARC doesn’t hold dogs, this was a special case. The adopters were coming Sunday to pick her up.

On my way to BARC Sunday, I stopped by McD’s for sausage biscuits–a little going away present to Abby from me. I took her out of her kennel and we went on a long walk. She then snacked on the sausage biscuit while I brushed her. I had a cute dog bandanna that I put on her. She looked so happy!

Shortly after that, the adopters showed up. They were very excited to see her and take her home. While I’d initially negatively judged these folks, I instantly felt good about them. Abby seemed to feel pretty good about them, too.

Save them one at a time. This was a tough one, but it worked!

I’ve chosen my next “one.” She’s Clover, a cute little mix, maybe a Boxer. I’ve seen her every week that I’ve volunteered and every week I’m shocked she’s still there.

Miss Clover Being Silly

Everyday, I read horrible, depressing stories about how people treat animals. Over time, it has made me lose faith in people.  But then some days, I’m pleasantly surprised. Saturday was one of those days.

My neighborhood association chose BARC as their charity to support this quarter. I contacted the coordinator to see how I could help–set up, transport stuff, whatever she needed. She seemed happy to have my help.

So the day came. I feared a low turnout. I showed up at the collection spot with a bunch of donations–I wanted to stage them so it appeared to be a good turnout no matter what. I discovered that my expectations were set too low.

People–my neighbors–came in droves with piles of newspapers, paper towels, old bath towels, pet shampoo, canned food, cash, everything you could think of. Two women pulled up in a pick-up and the entire bed was full of donations. At one point, there was a line of people waiting to drop off donations.

What topped off this perfect morning was that people asked how they could do more. If I wasn’t so busy sorting, stacking, greeting, and thanking, I think I would have cried.

Maybe people aren’t that bad after all.

The Star Thrower

February 13, 2007

Sunday at BARC was rough. One of the first rules they teach you as a volunteer is not to try to break up a dog fight. Well, I managed to put two small dogs, one of unknown heritage and and one terrier mix, together for socialization. That backfired miserably. They were both aggressors and I managed to get a nick on my thumb and a big pinch on my thigh. I don’t know which dog grabbed me on the leg, but it didn’t get through my jeans. The spot just looks like a big blood blister surrounded by a bruise. Very attractive. A more experienced volunteer helped me separate them. Luckily, all of these dogs have their shots.

I also completed my first adoption. While I want to see as many dogs as possible get placed, I think I may be the wrong person to deal with potential adopters. It’s difficult for me because I want all dogs to have the life my dogs have. Anyway, the family I interviewed seemed like they were on the up and up, but I just got a bad feeling about it after the fact. It kept me up most of last night.

There was also a lot of political drama going on at BARC–as there is in any organization. What makes this drama more difficult is that it deals with the lives of dogs who need people to help them.

As I was wrapping up for the day, I was chatting to another volunteer and told her that I felt very overwhelmed that afternoon and was starting to wonder if I was making any difference at all. She asked me if I’d ever heard the story about the girl and the starfish. I hadn’t. After she told me the story, it was all I could do to hold back tears. It did help me realize that I had made a difference in the lives of some of the shelter dogs that day. That thought will help me to keep going back to volunteer at BARC.

Some background on the story–it is adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.

My first day as a volunteer dog walker at BARC was a little overwhelming to say the least. I’ve volunteered at shelters before, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for this.

Apparently three members of the City staff who clean cages had called in sick. The smell was awful. There are four wards in the south kennel. Most of the dogs in this area have been deemed adoptable. There were so many dogs all dying to get out of their pens to potty or play or to just get out.

After a brief tour and an overview of the guidelines, Barb, the volunteer-volunteer coordinator hooked me up with a special needs dog. Heidi was in a small portable pen out in the grass in the sun. She was maybe a Springer mix–liver and white and some tan coloring. Heidi had a neurological problem of some kind–possibly caused by distemper. Barb wanted me to spend some time with her and see how she reacted. I lifted Heidi out of her pen and put her on all fours. She immediately tipped over. I tried a few more times then she finally stood, a little wobbly, but she was on her feet. Once I got her going, she did pretty well. It was a joy to walk all around the campus with her. She seemed so happy. I spent about an hour with her–she walked, rested, drank, ate, and received a lot of love and praise from me. Afterward, I returned her to an area of the shelter for special cases.

The rest of my time was spent walking dogs, big and small, but mostly big. When their walk was over, I had to carry the majority of them back over the shelter threshold. They knew where they were going and they weren’t happy about it. Neither was I.

I left BARC that day covered with mud and hair and poop and whatever else. I was sad and felt overwhelmed–how can I help so many dogs?! How can anyone help so many dogs?!

I remembered something a woman I met at a UAN training course told me when I asked her how she coped volunteering at an animal shelter. She said “remember: one at a time.” She said if you look at the whole, it may appear impossible. That made perfect sense to me now. One person can save one dog. When that dog has been saved, go on to the next one. Don’t get overwhelmed by the situation.

I was excited to get back to BARC to volunteer the next weekend. I emailed Barb to let her know I was coming. I also asked about the “wobbly” dog, Heidi. I felt like Heidi was maybe my first “one.” I received an email back from Barb saying Heidi’s condition hadn’t improved and the very gentle, kind head vet had put her to sleep the day before. What a blow.

Despite the bad news, I was back at BARC the next weekend. I picked a whole row of dogs in the B ward to walk. It was fun. The runs were a little muddy and I ended up getting covered.  What a bunch of cool dogs! But there was one stand out. She was listed as a four year old Chow mix, but I’d guess she was a one or two year old Collie or Golden Retreiver mix. She was calm and sweet and a big snuggler. I called her Abby–at least that’s what I called her when Barb said give her a name–she’s going to be featured in the BARC Stars mass email. This is a photo of Abby.

Abby, another “one” I’m trying to save

I plan to go back to BARC to volunteer this weekend. I hope I don’t see Abby there. I hope she’s laying on a sofa snacking on treats and making someone very happy. Then I’ll have to help the next “one.”