We were still very new to rescue when I received an email from a rural shelter that was infamous for its mismanagement and its capricious use of euthanasia. Seeing that our rescue had the word “hound” in its name, they wanted to see if we could take a beagle who might be pregnant. I replied that we couldn’t (we were full to the brim) and hoped that another rescue could do it. This wasn’t a shelter in our typical geographic range; in the world of rescue, that meant that we considered such requests to be secondary in nature. We were a long shot for that shelter, and they knew it.
You have to understand that requests to help dogs come in every day, by the dozen. We got used to hardening our hearts and moving on when we couldn’t help a dog. So we pushed the beagle’s plight aside and plowed ahead. A week later, we got another email. I was surprised that the beagle was still available for rescues to take. To be honest, I assumed she was dead. But we still were so full that we were paying to kennel several dogs until foster homes became available. We had nothing. So I pushed it back again.
One night a week later, we got a third email. It consisted of this:
Hi we want to know if you could take this beagle who is pregnant. She is very sweet and doesn’t mind about her flatten foot that might fall off.
That was it. That was a record-scratch hard stop kind of email. Even the misspelling of flattened seemed to add to its pathos. I called the other rescue director, Victoria, and we agreed to think about it overnight. We even talked to our husbands about it, which we didn’t typically do, because both of them were too sentimental. That night, my husband slept fitfully. When I asked what was wrong, he said, “I can’t stop thinking about that beagle.” I told him, “Don’t worry, we’re taking her.” First thing in the morning, I spoke with the other director and she said that her husband had agreed that they would foster the beagle. They had a lot of experience, but also had a lot of animals to care for already, so this was a big sacrifice for them.
That weekend, I picked up the dog, which had been transported to a nearby shopping center. We would keep her until the weekend, when we could get her to my rescue partner. She called me, eager to hear about this little girl. I said, “Well, she’s small and brown, nothing flashy, but very sweet. She’s like an apple brown betty. We could call her Betty.” Little did I know at the time that Victoria’s mother’s name was Betty, and that it had special meaning for her as a result.
We spent a day or so with Betty, during which time she visited our vet, who said he had no idea how pregnant she was, but she could give birth any day, as far as he knew. He also evaluated her foot, which had apparently been caught in a trap. He said that he could remove the foot, or we could wait for it to fall off. His suggestion was that we remove the foot at the same time as the spay.
Spay. It was what most rescues did when they ended up with a pregnant dog. Sometimes a pregnant dog would inadvertently be spayed; most of the time, though, the rescue made a conscious decision.
But Betty, who had clearly been through an ordeal if you looked at her physical condition, was happy being pregnant. She seemed to be very far along, and she had already started to nest. At our house, we had watched in shock as she pulled the nicest dog bed in the house over into a corner and made herself at home. When my other dogs approached, she barked at them in such a way that even my Chow Chow steered clear. I don’t know what she said because it really wasn’t a super-aggressive bark, but I guess the dogs recognized that she meant business.
It didn’t feel right to spay this dog, to have her wake up without her puppies AND her foot. She’d been through so much. And the truth is, although we don’t like to publicize this, some dogs that are spayed when they are far along often do seem depressed and confused for a while after the experience.
We talked about it. We slept on it, and we decided not to spay her.
All hell broke lose in the rescue community, or at least the small part that knew us. We got calls from people who worked at our vet’s office and who lectured us about how you always spay a pregnant dog. Our vet’s staff accused us of trying to make money from the puppies. (AS IF! I can only think of one or two dogs where we ended up making money, but they were never puppies, whose adoption fee included vaccinations and spay/neuter.) We were perturbed because they were an excellent vet and we had just started working with them, but we stood our ground. We drove Betty out to Victoria’s farm in West Virginia, where she would remain until her puppies were born. Our country vet told us to soak Betty’s foot in soapy water every night, and that it would eventually fall off. (It did, four days before the puppies were born. Victoria and her husband had a funeral for the paw, and buried it under the shady tree where they bury family pets. Betty did not attend, but some of Victoria’s other dogs chose to.)
Later that week, Betty gave birth to her seven puppies. We called the litter the Shamrocks because they would be available for placement around St. Patrick’s day (at 8 weeks). They all went to lovely homes (one of them right down the street from me, it turned out). Their names were Orla, Keely, Eileen, Bernie, Guinness, Fiona and…well to be honest, I’ can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure the last one was Bridgette. Betty went to live in a suburban home where she was doted on and beloved. We did a followup home visit for her to make sure that the backyard fence had been completed (a condition of the adoption), and we watched as she dropped to the ground in her beautiful green backyard and wriggled delightedly on her back. It seemed like she was sending a message to all of us, but especially to Victoria, who doted on Betty by then: we didn’t need to worry about her. She is still living there, happily ever after.
And what did we learn from this? (You didn’t think I was going to skip the lesson part, did you?) Well, we decided that we were a rescue that was going to consider the well-being of the individual dog on a case-by-case basis, and to hell with anything else. That turned out to be one of the most important things we learned, and it guided us through many of our challenges.
The second thing was we decided to accept that sometimes nature wins. Puppies are born, and that’s just how it is. On the dozen or so occasions when we ended up with a pregnant dog, we did not interfere with the pregnancy. The pups were born, and we made sure that all animals were spayed and neutered as soon as safely possible, including the mother (and, when we could track him down, the father). We could live with that.