Tanya is human. She’s not trash, but for a sister in law who lives all the way in Connecticut she spends a lopsided amount of time being a pain in my ass. She and her dashing firefighter husband Dominic are spending a week with us over the holidays. Dominic isn’t trash either. He’s not even a pain in my ass. He makes up for all the hell Tanya is about to cause us, or at least tries to.
On the short list of things people who used to live in Texas crave when they return to visit the Lone Star State, good Mexican food is numero uno. This is due to the fact good Mexican food doesn’t exist outside of Texas. When visiting other states I must physically restrain myself from laughing in the faces of people who try to defend their local Mexican food establishments. They are not good. Don’t try to argue this with me, you will be wrong. Tanya and Dominic already know they live nine states away from decent Mexican food, so while they’re here, they eat at as many of the “good” restaurants as they can. We met Jack on the way home from such an establishment.
Tanya is driving. We’re only a block from my house when we see him. He’s on the sidewalk moving the same direction we are. Black fur, no collar, kind of resembles a Labrador. Normally, I would keep driving. It’s not that I’ve never picked up a stray and returned it to it’s owner, I just don’t do it with bigger dogs. Anything over fifty pounds and you start getting into the realm of animal that’s capable of breaking your bones with a single bite. I reflect on the wisdom of this approach as Tanya begins to slow down. As she slows down, the dog takes interest. He cautiously follows us until we reach the driveway of my house.
The three of us get out of the car. I expect the dog to either growl at us, or to be suspicious and run away as soon as we approach, but he does neither. Instead, he approaches us carefully with his head down and tail between his legs. Tanya pets him and everything changes. He immediately turns affectionate. His tail begins wagging uncontrollably. Then he surprises all of us by standing up on his hind legs, putting his fore paws on her shoulders and licking her face. Startled, Tanya backs up a little. The dog puts his paws back on the ground then rolls his backside onto her shoes, both trapping her and begging for a belly rub at the same time. This process repeats with Dominic and myself.
I’ve a feeling this may not turn out well, but I can also see that Tanya wants to help this animal. When Tanya wants to help an animal there’s not much anyone can do to talk her out of it, she volunteers for the ASPCA in New York and is currently caring for three special needs dogs. Good luck to anyone who tries to come between her and a pet in need.
Besides, this dog is too clean and healthy looking not to have an owner. It must have accidentally gotten out or something. I recommend taking it to our family vet to see if he’s microchipped so we can track down his family. As Tanya gets the dog to jump into the back seat of her car with no hesitation, I wonder about the timing of all this. What are we going to do if the dog isn’t chipped? Tanya and Dominic are going back to Connecticut in a few days, what if we can’t find it a home by then? Then I close my front door and start a marathon session of Xbox, forgetting about the whole situation.
After the first day Dominic names the dog Jack. We all agree that he looks like a Jack so it’s settled.
Things go downhill quickly from here. Of course, Jack isn’t chipped. We go old school and put up signs in the neighborhood. In the meantime, Tanya’s mom and dad (also my in-laws) aren’t happy. It’s fine that she brought two of her toy sized special needs dogs this visit, but now they have a fifty-plus pound love monster galloping around their living room and jumping up on them to bestow kisses.
To be clear, Jack is well behaved. He doesn’t chew furniture or go potty in the house, but he’s a bit much for my elderly mother and father in law. My wife and I would happily keep him at our house with our three dogs, but I just had spine surgery last week and my restrictions include not getting pounced on by Clifford. Also, it’s almost Christmas so there’s plenty to get done without the added responsibility of a full sized puppy. Again, timing.
Another day goes by and we still can’t find the owners. We’re trying all the websites and social media in existence to help lost pets, but nobody’s biting. Tanya decides our best option is probably to take him to a shelter. His owners might be looking for him there. And so began our first visit to the Harris County Animal Shelter, or as I prefer to call it: Satan’s Church of Perpetual Sadness.
That puppy your kids dreamed about and begged you for until you finally gave in. The one they promised to take care of. Only they didn’t take care of it. After a few weeks they lost interest and stopped playing with it. Then all the responsibility of feeding and cleaning up after it fell to you, because you’re the adult. But you decide that it’s too much hassle to deal with on top of all your other responsibilities. So you drop it off at the shelter where it has about thirty days to win the lottery and get adopted before they end it’s life. Dreams literally die here.
The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the shelter is the smell. It smells like fear. It smells like row upon row of metal cages filled with animals crying and fear shitting themselves because on some level, they sense the finality of the place. It smells exactly like what it is. Hundreds of animals come in, less than half ever get adopted.
You enter via the animal clinic waiting room where the county provides low cost preventative medicine. The place is packed with people who have pets, but are too poor to afford a regular vet. Most are from the surrounding neighborhoods which can fairly be described as “under served”. If you’re here to drop off/abandon an animal, there’s a system which involves entering your name into one of two tablet kiosks firmly bolted to the floor.
Once we enter our names, we’re ushered into the waiting area for drop offs. I call this place The Hallway of Sorrow. The Hallway of Sorrow is just that, a hallway with some chairs in it. There are two doors. One leads to the intake area, the other leads out to the aforementioned rows of cages. In the ninety minutes of sitting in that hallway I experience more negative feelings than my entire dysfunctional adolescence.
Fortunately, it’s not a crowded hallway. The four of us (my wife has joined us at this point) share the room with only a man and his daughter. The guy is Caucasian, with facial hair that borders on hipster. Unfortunately, the cool “hipster” vibe ends at his neck. The rest of his outfit makes me hope it’s yard work day, or that all of his other clothes recently burned in a fire. I file this character under “Lame Hipster” in my head. The girl is about ten. She’s holding a gorgeous brown and white Pomeranian.
When we first enter the shelter, Jack reacts fiercely to the smell. We have to drag him inside with the leash as he desperately plants his front paws on the dirty tile floor. Now that he’s inside the hallway with us, he’s clearly nervous and more clingy than usual. The four of us are unhappy with the situation and it’s written on everyone’s faces. In contrast, the man and his daughter seem happy, cheerful even. It’s as if the smells and the sounds of wailing animals can’t penetrate their bubble of obliviousness. The Pom looks nervous. It needn’t be.
A Pomeranian is likely to be adopted quickly. Small, cute, and fluffy, it’s exactly the kind of dog people fall in love with at first site. I’m not worried about him, but I look at the Pom, then back at the people in my party and see that we’re all thinking the same thing. Why would anyone leave a purebred Pomeranian at a shelter? We all find out together when a shelter employee comes out to ask him if he’s there to surrender or adopt.
“Ya, I’m surrendering him. We can’t get him to stop peeing in the house.” Says the poorly dressed hipster.
I was feeling sad and nervous just from walking into the shelter with Jack, now we can add appalled to the list. I want to scream at him “You’re a MAN” then point at his dog and scream “It’s a POM, not a Mastiff. He’s not bigger or smarter than you. You can train him!” Also, why did he bring his daughter with him? I’ve been a parent for twenty one years and lord knows I’ve made mistakes, but what’s the lesson here? That it’s ok to abandon an animal because it’s too much trouble to train him?
I’m still reeling from the from the hipster/Pomeranian situation when a new person enters the hallway. She’s Hispanic, late forty’s, and is carrying a large bin with the words “U.S. Postal Service” printed on the side. Maybe her husband works at the Post Office? I name her Post Office Patty. The bin is filled with puppies. Crying puppies. I overhear her tell a shelter employee in Spanish that her dog just showed up at home pregnant one day. Anger begins seeping into my soul, overtaking my other negative feelings.
Everyone knows that dogs don’t just show up pregnant one day. That is of course unless you just let your dog roam about the neighborhood which is both irresponsible and illegal in Harris County. If Post Office Patty continues to allow this, then she’ll be bringing a box of puppies to the shelter about twice a year for the life of her pet. I could tell her this. I could tell her in Spanish even, but everything seems pointless to me right now.
All of a sudden, the hallway feels crowded.
Moments later we are joined by a gangster. A real gangster, not some wannabe punk from the suburbs. The gangster, I’ll call him Nacho because he looks like someone who would answer to Nacho, is covered up to his chin in prison tats. He bursts into the hallway half dragging, half being dragged himself by two giant dogs; one Pit Bull, and one Bulldog. The Bulldog takes a giant piss on the floor.
Everything about Nacho, from the tats to the muscles to the dogs, is meant to convey that he is not to be fucked with. Having coached boxing in the Third Ward of Houston for several years, I’ve known plenty of dudes like Nacho. In his line of work, he can’t afford to look weak. He will never back down from a fight because his biggest fear is other people knowing that he is afraid. Had he grown up in the suburbs, he would be the type of guy who collects fire arms and gets worked up over far away threats announced on Fox News. Admittedly, Nacho’s fears are more valid and immediate, but he is no less ruled by them. Everything is a front.
Sensing the aggressiveness of the newcomers, Jack begins to growl protectively. We’ve known Jack for forty-eight hours and already he’s willing to risk his life to protect us from two dogs who would surely tear him apart. The irony is not lost on me that Jack is displaying extreme loyalty in a room made for humans without a trace of it. My heart is breaking.
The Pit Bull and the Bulldog are as good as dead. Hardly anyone adopts giant aggressive looking dogs from shelters. They were dead the moment they walked through the shelter door. Nacho seems unaware of this fact as he’s scolding them for climbing on chairs and pulling against their leashes. “This is why you guys are here” he says to them.
My anger and frustration finally gets to the point where I can feel it coursing through my veins. I’m angry at the county for making me wait in this stupid hallway. I’m angry at who ever was responsible for Jack before he came into our lives. I’m angry with everyone of these tragic people who would abandon their dogs so easily, and I’m angry with Tanya for making me co-mingle with these people who I’m silently judging in my head. I want to wheel on the gangster and tell him that he’s outsourcing the murder of his dogs to the county because he’s too much a coward to do it himself. I know it will lead to violence, but right now I’m craving violence.
The feeling passes once I remember that I’m forty-one years old and only two weeks out of spine surgery. Violence is not an option, nor should it ever be. Plus I haven’t seen the inside of a boxing gym in nearly two decades. I don’t even know if I’m capable of violence anymore. I go back to feeling frustrated.
The four of us, having already experienced the same roller coaster of emotions in the hallway, have already decided not to leave Jack here. We just need to find out if the county can do anything to help us. Not much later we’re called back to the intake area by a more attractive looking hipster dude who works for the shelter. If this story has an angel it’s this guy. He explains to us that his job is to try to get people to exhaust all other options before surrendering a pet. I do not envy this job.
He tells us that this time of year the shelters fill up with dogs from people who want to travel for the Holidays, but don’t want to pay to board their animals so they abandon them to shelters. Then he discreetly mentions that he hates people. I agree wholeheartedly. Humans are trash.
We head home together relieved that we didn’t leave Jack in that nightmare, but still with no direction on where to go from here. All of us have exhausted our contact lists. It’s near impossible to get someone to take in a stray over the Holidays. Since we can’t keep Jack at her parents house indefinitely, and because Tanya and Dominic are going back to Connecticut in a few days, Tanya formulates a plan to bring in the big guns to save Jack: The New York City ASPCA.
Unfortunately we have to get Jack on a plane for this to work. Does this seem like a lot to go through for a stray dog? I guess it depends on how much that stray is worth to you. We’re all in at this point. Before Jack can get on a plane, he needs a physical and some standard vaccinations. Cha-Ching! That’ll be one hundred thirty dollars please. Let’s keep a running total of how much this is gonna cost, just for fun.
Per Delta Airlines requirements, Jack will also need a harness and a leash. We pick up more food and a chew toy while we’re out getting that stuff so now we’re at two hundred thirty dollars. Delta also has some very specific requirements for the type of crate Jack would be transported in. He has to be able to fully stand up and turn around in his crate plus the dimensions of the crate have to meet airline criteria. The crate is another one fifty so now were up to three hundred eighty dollars. Nice!
Oh, I’m leaving out the big ticket item. The plane ticket itself is six hundred fifty which is way too high for a one-way with a layover in Atlanta if you ask me. Now we’re up to a thousand thirty dollars. Jack also needs something called a certificate of health which would normally cost another hundred fifty, but our family vet is kind enough to waive the charges for this one. Tanya and Dominic pay for everything while the rest of us run around collecting the necessary items. My wife and I take Jack to the airport. It’s hard saying goodbye to him.
The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is apathy. I’m still amazed at the amount of damage caused by it. Every Nacho, Post Office Patty, and Lame Hipster will ruin the lives of so many dogs over time. It takes money and a team of people to save just one. Not to mention the added stress and emotional toll exacted from the people who care enough to stand in the gap for these animals.
This Christmas story has a happy ending. Jack is fine. He should be adopted through the ASPCA in less than a day, they ran out of dogs to adopt the day before he arrived so I like his chances. My sister in law is still a pain in my ass. She always will be. Because of her we did a whole lot more scrambling around running errands than we intended to this holiday season. But she didn’t ruin our break. She gave us a gift. We got to save Jack, and because of that Christmas actually means something this year.