I cursed the man in the parking lot from behind my steering wheel, the one who opened his car door, emptied his trash onto the ground, and then kicked it under his car to hide what he’d done. It’s difficult for me not to extend my contempt to the whole of our species when I see a single one of us taking a shit on the world.
I’m in a foul mood a lot these days. Most of my spare time is split between two volunteer activities: monitoring a Cooper’s hawk nest for a research project, and walking and fostering dogs for the local animal shelter. I’ve let myself become overextended and cranky.
The dog contact has been rejuvenating to my soul, though. I have maintained enough emotional distance to accept that we shelter volunteers will not be able to save every dog and cat, but it’s enough to know that we will find homes for most of them, and that while they are waiting for adoption, I am doing things that make their fear-burdened lives much more bearable.
But there have been some emotional attachments, and I’m not sorry for any of them. I fell in love with one particular dog at first sight. I was walking down the kennel trying to decide which dog to walk first one day, and Gemma stepped forward tentatively and quietly to meet my gaze. She was such a beauty that I drew a sharp breath.
Gemma is a black German shepherd with large tan snowshoes leftover from her recent puppyhood. At first glance, she looks like those magnificent black alpha wolves of Yellowstone Park, but there is a great serenity in her demeanor. Amid all the other barking, eager, lunging dogs, her quietness made her stand out and I slipped the leash around her neck.
I have never walked with a dog of such easy power and grace. Her gait is difficult to describe. It’s almost as if her feet are gripping the ground and sliding it beneath her, as if the world were her treadmill. Her shoulders and hips sway in alternating rhythm around her stationary spine, and the profile of her moving form makes me think not of a wolf, but of a panther. She is all strength and sinew.
She walked so easily and considerately beside me that I was able to walk with my arm hanging by my side, the slack of the leash held loosely. She stopped short at one point and because I had taken her synchronized steps for granted, I kept moving until the slack disappeared and without warning I was pulling the leash taut on her neck. I turned and looked behind me into eyes that looked hurt and confused by my dragging her, and when I saw that her hindquarters were lowered to pee, I apologized to her gently. The confusion in her eyes was replaced by softness, and we finished our walk.
I came back to the shelter the following day and went straight for Gemma’s cage, but it was empty. Oh please, please, please
, I thought, don’t let them have euthanized her. But shortly I ran into Paulette, one of the shelter board members, who told me that Gemma had been placed into foster care to await adoption.
Unfortunately, Gemma possesses traits that are making it difficult for us to place her in a permanent or even a foster home. First, she has a digestive order, EPI, which is common to shepherds. It is easily treatable by adding an enzyme to the dog’s food, and it will not interfere with her having a healthy, normal life span. But any health conditions are obstacles to adoption.
Second, Gemma does not like cats and expresses jealousy of other dogs. This limits our ability to find even a foster home for her, since volunteers who foster almost always have their own pets.
Third, Gemma is a Big Black Dog. Of all dogs in shelters, they are the hardest to find homes for, even more difficult than pit bulls. “Big Black Dog Syndrome,” as it’s called, may ultimately be far more detrimental to Gemma that her digestive disorder.
Three strikes. If it were any other dog, Gemma probably would be gone now, as our shelter group possesses such paltry resources that it can’t invest much in hard-to-place animals. But Gemma has entranced several people as she has me. In particular, she has captured the heart of one board member who is boarding her and supplying her diet supplements at personal expense, at least until her savings run out. Another member had her groomed and photographed. I made a video of her, and the board president decided Gemma is worth an all-out blitz of local media outreach, at least to the best of our limited abilities.
I cannot explain why Gemma is special. Her physical demeanor and size are the outward expression of everything I think of as primal. And yet her internal placidness is such that it calms my soul to be with her. When I look into her eyes, I feel a profound bond of all encompassing trust.
When I consider how five people have come together to do everything they can to help this one dog, I’m able to overcome some of my misanthropic regard for my own kind. I know that despite our efforts, we are running out of time and funds. Gemma’s story could still end in heartbreak for all of us. That was an emotional risk I took on with eyes and heart wide open.
Whatever happens with Gemma, her brief presence in my life has been totally worth it. In addition to many things, she has given me a chance to come to agreement with H.L. Mencken, who wrote that whatever you may think of people, they are often better than you expect them to be.
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