I have felt virtuous of late. It concerns my love for animals and my decision to save the life of an orphaned puppy.
Almost every Sunday I visit the Loganville, Georgia, PetSmart to stock up on the pet supplies, mostly dog food, cat food, and kitty litter, necessary to keep my animals in good stead.
Each time I enter the store, I wander by the PetSmart cattery. In conjunction with a local non-profit animal rescue organization called Pound Puppies ‘N Kittens (PPNK), PetSmart allows orphaned cats to be housed in the store in the expectation that they will be adopted.
Here is a link to the PPNK website: http://ppnk.org/.
I own more than a few dogs and cats (three of the former and four of the latter), so I do not want to adopt any cats. Actually, that’s not true. I want to adopt them all, but common sense prevails.
Anyway, back in June 2012, I sent an email to the fine folks at PPNK asking if I could volunteer to help care for the cats at the Loganville PetSmart. To say they were delighted with an offer of free labor would be an understatement.
I now spend a few hours on Sunday afternoons cleaning cat cages and litter boxes as well as playing with the attention-starved felines. As my mother would say, such activities keep me humble. If I ever start to feel smug or overly self-satisfied, I can always remember that dirty litter boxes await me on Sundays (aside from the litter boxes I clean at home every day).
Here is a photograph of the cattery, by the way.
I have to take a shower and change clothes immediately after I return home from cattery duty lest my own animals go berserk at the smells that travel with me.
As you can see, I am living the dream.
Anyway, about the orphaned puppy: It happened out of the blue, as these things often do. While I was finishing up my shift on Sunday afternoon, July 15, 2012, a middle-aged man and his pre-adolescent sons marched into the store with a tiny black Labrador retriever puppy. He carried the animal in his arms. They wanted to drop it off at PetSmart for adoption.
A PetSmart worker — the store personnel are called “associates” — informed the gentleman that PetSmart does not allow customers to drop off unwanted animals. Even the PPNK dogs and cats come to the organization through animal shelters and the local animal control office.
“But I called up here and someone told me I could drop off the puppy,” the man insisted. His sons verified this inspired bit of chicanery with vigorous head nodding.
The PetSmart associate was adamant that the man could not simply leave the puppy in the store.
“Look,” the man said with a plaintive wail. “I’m trying to do the right thing here, but I don’t have time to deal with this.”
Naturally, I could not leave well enough alone. As a bleeding-hearted liberal, I had to intervene. “What happened? This puppy looks awfully young.”
The man shrugged. “I don’t know. My boys found the puppy in our yard. There were no other puppies around and we can’t find the mother.”
The sons once again vigorously nodded their heads as though they were a mute Greek chorus in a play by Sophocles.
“Well, you can’t leave it here,” the PetSmart associate assured him again. “We don’t have the resources to care for abandoned animals.”
“It’s a pet store,” he cried.
“But that doesn’t mean we can accept abandoned animals.”
“Well, what do you want me to do with the dog?”
“You’ll have to take the animal with you.”
“And do what with it?”
I was afraid the gentleman might intentionally kill the puppy or abandon it somewhere. I also noticed that the animal was shivering. “Here. Let me hold the pup.”
“Sure thing,” the man said as he handed me the dog. It was his first step toward solving the problem, and he appeared to be relieved.
PetSmart houses a veterinarian, Banfield, inside the store. The first visit is free. Accordingly, I marched back to see if we could find out vital information about the puppy. The man and his sons as well as the PetSmart associate reluctantly trailed behind me.
After waiting for about 10 minutes, we were relieved when the veterinarian assistant ushered the man, his sons, and me into a waiting room. The PetSmart associate and the veterinarian assistant disappeared.
Standing in the waiting room, the man again explained that he could not care for the puppy. I nodded to show my sympathy.
Five minutes later, the vet came in to investigate. “Hello, folks. What have we got here?”
I provided a 45-second version of the tangled tale.
“Well,” the woman told us after performing a short examination. “The dog is a female black Labrador retriever. Her heart and lungs sound fine. I would say she is approximately three weeks old — too young to be weaned from her mother.” She reached behind her and pulled a small blanket from a shelf and wrapped it around the shivering animal. “She’s cold. Puppies this young have a difficult time regulating their body temperature. Normally, they snuggle close to the mother’s body for warmth.”
“We don’t know what happened to the mother,” the man explained.
“Without her mother, this little girl will need to be bottle fed until she’s old enough to be weaned.”
“How long will that take?” I asked.
The vet sighed as she swung a stethoscope around her neck. “Eight weeks for separation from the mother and adoption with a family would be ideal, but under these circumstances, she might be gradually weaned by the beginning of the fifth week.”
“I have to work. I can’t take care of this puppy.”
“Hey, dad — ”
“ — Don’t interrupt,” the man said to his son. “It’s been decided.”
The vet nodded. “We can call Walton County Animal Control. They will take her to the pound.” With that, she turned and left the room.
As the vet’s assistant showed us into the hall, I lifted the puppy and started unwrapping the blanket.
“You can keep it,” the assistant said with a smile.
After we left the examination room, the PetSmart associate reappeared. She had already called Animal Control.
“So they’ll come get her?” the man asked. His tone was pleading.
“Yes,” the associate assured him. “They can be here in half an hour.”
The man smiled. “Well, then. Problem solved.”
The associate wasn’t quite finished with her report. “They are so crowded at the moment that she won’t have much of a chance.” The woman pointed at the puppy. She was asleep in my arms, her small head barely visible from beneath the blanket. “Is she on Esbilac?”
The man wrinkled his brow. “What now?”
“A puppy that small is too young to be weaned from her mother. She has to be bottle fed.”
The man nodded. “That’s what the vet said.”
“Esbilac is the major brand of powdered bottle formula. You just add water.”
The gentleman tossed his hands in the air. “I don’t have time for this!”
Once again, I intervened. “What did you mean when you said the puppy wouldn’t have much of a chance?”
“A puppy that has to be bottle fed requires a level of care that the overcrowded animal shelter can’t provide.”
I gulped. “So what does that mean?”
“According to the person I spoke with, the animal shelter will have to put down the puppy as soon as they take her in. There is no waiting period.” With this awful news, the associate grimaced.
I felt myself becoming distraught. “But there’s nothing wrong with the puppy other than the fact that her mother has disappeared. I thought they had to wait seven days or something before they destroyed the animals.”
The woman shrugged. “I thought so, too, but I’m only telling you what they told me.”
I turned to the man. “You can’t let the pound kill this dog, sir.”
“Hey, dad — ” one of his sons said.
“Okay, okay, okay.” I could see the frustration etched onto the man’s face. “Gimme the damn dog!”
I handed him the tiny sleeping object. I was still worried he would do something hasty or rash, such as deliberately choking her or leaving her abandoned by the side of the road. His sons must have shared this fear because they began talking at once. They both promised to canvas the neighborhood for the pup’s mother or perhaps find her a suitable home. I was somewhat relieved by their reactions. I believed they would serve as a check on any egregious behavior their father might consider.
“Let’s just go home,” he hissed as he turned and marched toward the door. His boys scurried on his heels.
“Well,” the PetSmart associate said as she turned to get back to work. “That was certainly different.”
“Do people often try to drop off unwanted animals here?” I asked.
“I’ve never had anyone come inside and ask about it,” she told me. “But we occasionally find strays in the parking lot. I suspect people just put them out and assume we’ll handle it.”
“And what do you do in those cases?”
“We call Walton County Animal Control. What else can we do?”
I frowned. It seemed to be such a heartbreaking, broken system.
I went back to cleaning cages in the cattery and tried to put my fears for the fate of the little puppy out of mind.
About 30 minutes later, as I was sweeping the floor and preparing to leave the building, the associate knocked on the glass of the cattery to get my attention.
I dropped the broom, reached forward, and unlatched the door.
“You won’t believe what happened,” she announced. Her eyes were wide. I saw a familiar blanket in her arms.
“Is that the puppy?” I was incredulous.
She jerked her thumb toward her shoulder as she cradled the animal in one arm. “Another associate just went into the parking lot to bring the buggies back inside and found her curled up under a tree next to the handicapped parking spot.”
“Son of a bitch!”
I stepped out of the cattery and gently pulled the door shut so it would not lock and yet no cats could escape. “So what are you going to do?”
“I guess I’ll call the lady at Animal Control and tell her to come over here after all.”
“But they’ll put the little girl down.”
She nodded with a sad expression plastered on her face. “I know, but what else can I do? I already have too many dogs and cats to take her home. You can’t save them all.” She sighed.
And at that moment, I made a decision. It was an instantaneous thing, without planning and forethought. I knew what I had to do.
Reaching out, I took the puppy from her hands. “Give her to me. Don’t call Animal Control. I’ll take her.”
“Hey, c’mon. Are you sure?”
“No, but let’s do it before I change my mind.”
“You know, bottle-feeding an orphaned puppy is not easy.”
“I know. I know. Just show me the — what was it? You know — the formula.”
“Okay. Show me where we keep it. I was just leaving the cattery, anyway.”
That is how I came to nurse a three-week-old puppy.
In addition to the Esbilac, I purchased a starter kit for newborns. It consisted of a plastic bottle with measurements recorded on the side and a series of rubbery nipples. The plan was to mix up the formula to make nutritional milk for the puppy and feed the little girl through whichever nipple she was most comfortable using. The instructions explained that getting the pup to accept a nipple could be challenging.
Oh, shit, I thought. What have I gotten myself into?
When we arrived at my house, the current dogs and cats who live there gathered to sniff and express their discontent with the newest resident. The pup was still curled up in her Banfield blanket, sleeping peacefully.
“I know. I know. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s temporary,” I assured my animals. If it is possible for dogs and cats to look skeptical, they did.
At least I hope it’s temporary.
I had to awaken the puppy and get her to accept the proper nipple so she could get nourishment. This proved to be no small feat. She was cold, in an unfamiliar place, and cuddled by someone or something other than her mother. The little girl was not happy. She whined incessantly, which sent my dogs and cats into paroxysms of barking, meowing, and frenetic pacing.
“Okay, everyone. Cool it!”
I found a pet carrier in my garage and lined it with the Banfield blanket as well as a Delta Air Lines blanket I found stuffed in the back of my closet.
Thus began my 20 days as a surrogate mother for an orphaned pup.
With each new day, I noticed marked improvement and growth in the girl. She soon found the nipple and attacked the baby bottle with relish. Each day she grew stronger and more robust. Each day (and night) she cried — “howled” might be a more appropriate description — to be released from the confines of her carrier so she could wreak havoc on my house.
And wreak havoc she did. She became a perpetual urine-producing machine. I would take her outside for 30 minutes while she explored my front lawn. The moment we walked back inside, she would squat on the floor and leave a puddle. The puddles grew in circumference as she grew in size. One day it was a dime-shaped puddle. The next day it was quarter-shaped. Soon it grew to the size of a coaster. I could not wait until it was as large as a hubcap. In any case, I followed behind with a spray can of carpet deodorizer/stain remover and a roll of paper towels.
As I said earlier, I was living the dream.
She was a loving dog, frisky, energetic, enthusiastic, and brimming with an enviable joie de vivre. I never for a moment regretted rescuing her from an almost certain death at the animal shelter.
Yet at the same time, I hated what my life had become. She never slept more than three or four hours at a time, so I placed her pet carrier next to my bed. At all hours of the day and night I found myself mixing up puppy formula and heating water for the bottle. If I wasn’t feeding her or cleaning up her messes, I was playing with her. She was the center of my life whether I liked it or not.
I did not like it. I still had to work and earn a living. I was writing one book and editing another. I was preparing syllabi and PowerPoint slides for my fall classes. It was all I could do to keep body and soul together, and yet still I had this living, breathing, writhing, prancing, jumping, eating, whining, howling, growling, peeing, pooping machine in my life. As much as I loved the little girl, I knew I could not care for her indefinitely. I even resisted naming her so I would not inadvertently grow too attached.
What if I ended up with her permanently when all was said and done?
I remember one night watching the 2012 Olympic Games on television. The athletes were living up to their full potential, demonstrating the heights to which a human being can ascend. As for me, I was down on my hands and knees wiping diarrhea off my living room carpet.
The contrast submerged me under a tidal wave of depression. I am no Olympian, to be sure, but I hope my life always has more texture and purpose than cleaning up a puppy’s bodily fluids.
I turned to my ex-wife, Paula, for assistance. She is far more connected on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networking sites than I. Accordingly, I asked her to let the word go forth that the puppy needed a good home.
It paid off. Thank you, Paula! Thank you, Facebook!
Paula posted a notice saying that a black Lab puppy was available free of charge to a good home. She included a photograph.
Ah, Serendipity, thou art a lovely mistress!
It turns out that a woman living in Mableton, Georgia, had promised her 12-year-old son that they could get a dog when they got settled into their new home. After a year of living there, her son kept pestering her to fulfill the promise. On the very day that Paula posted the notice for me, the lady from Mableton began searching social-networking sites for puppies.
Soon enough, she found the photograph and my telephone number. She called me on a Saturday afternoon and asked about the pup. Initially, she was worried that a Labrador retriever can grow into a behemoth — upwards of 60 pounds, in some cases — so I quickly moved to assuage her concerns and close the deal.
“Why don’t I bring the pup over to your house and she can spend the night with you? Then you can decide tomorrow about whether to keep her.”
The woman was astonished. “That’s very generous,” she said.
“It’s no problem,” I told her. Mableton was an hour’s drive from me, but I did not mind one bit. I knew intuitively that if someone wanted a puppy and she met this little girl, she would fall in love. Who could resist this face?
The lady said that a trial run sounded like a good idea.
Thanks to MapQuest, I found her house with no problem. She and her son met me at the door. I looked at his face and knew the boy would adore this animal. He was already prepared to forge an unbreakable bond.
For her part, the pup hesitated to return the affection. It was all so new and scary. After she explored the yard and ate her dinner, however, she returned to her normal, exuberant self.
The boy, Marcellus, said he was thinking about naming her Sporty. I knew that naming an animal is the first step toward claiming permanent ownership.
I left their house with a heavy heart. Despite everything, I would miss the little dog. Yet I was confident she would bond with the new family. It would all work out.
The next morning, I sent a text to the lady. “Did everything go okay last night? Can we assume Sporty (or whatever name you decide on) has a permanent home?”
Her reply was heartening. “Yes, it went well,” she said. “My son changed his mind…her name is Nike…he says cuz she’s the best. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “I’m glad it had a happy ending for everyone. Best of luck with Nike. I know she will be a wonderful companion for you and Marcellus.”
Ah, yes, I love a happy ending. I love feeling virtuous. I love the idea that an orphaned puppy who was on her way to be put down found a new home with a family who really wanted her. Life is seldom as rewarding as this.
Good luck, Nike. I will miss you. Marcellus is right — you are the best. I wish you a long and happy life, little girl. Despite all the aggravation and inconvenience, I was honored and privileged and humbled to start you on your journey.