It was a tough time for our rescue. We were in the middle of dealing with another hoarder, had tons of owner giveups (which rip your heart out for reasons I will explain in another column someday), and some dogs who looked like they might take months to place. I had arranged to go out to West Virginia to see my rescue partner, Victoria, and we would strategize about our current situation in person, and I’d stay overnight at her farm.
I was reading and sending emails until late the night before. It was about 2 a.m. when I opened one last email. It was from someone from a rural shelter I’d dealt with before. It was a doozy.
The email asked us if we could help with a sweet yellow lab they had named Jack. He had come in as a stray, and his back was covered with old scars. They weren’t sure if they were from abuse or if he had squeezed under a fence at some point. Everyone suspected the former, because Jack was a very frightened dog. They sent pictures of him one with him backed up against the wall of his run with his eyes closed, and another one licking his nose. He was a cute dog, and I wished we had space to take him.
Then I saw the concluding line of the email, which said, “What makes us really want to help this dog is that even though he is clearly terrified and covered with scars, he will crawl all the way across the floor on his belly so he can give butterfly kisses to the people he meets.”
Butterfly kisses. Really? That was my breaking point. It was some sort of grotesque pathos pile-on. This dog made Tiny Tim look like a self-absorbed whiner. Death row, scars, crawling on his belly, butterfly kisses. That story was a special kind of heartbreaking and we didn’t have the resources to help him or so many of the other dogs who were coming our way. I couldn’t hear one more thing. I wrapped up the emails and went to bed.
The next morning, I drove to Victoria’s without checking email. She was waiting for me at the door when I drove in. She helped me settle in and she said, “Boy, you really created an uproar with Jack.”
I looked at her, uncomprehending. She said, “You know, the email you sent?”
At that point, I remembered. Without even thinking about it, I had forwarded the email to our group of volunteers with the email heading, “I can’t take it anymore” and no other comment. Then I pushed Jack to the back of my mind, like I had pushed so many other dogs we couldn’t take to the back of my mind because it was the only way to cope.
Let me mention here that our rescue really tried to steer away from drama. We didn’t want to make our volunteers miserable and lose them to burnout. (We had even advised our volunteers not to open those heartrending “Dog slated to die at midnight!” emails that everyone who does rescue receives constantly from slacktivists.) Instead, my style was to use humor and hyperbole when describing our situations, while Victoria specialized in a loving optimism and poetic writing style that made you fall in love with each individual dog, no matter how humble they were.
With our low-drama policy, I imagined that my “can’t take it anymore” email got the attention of our volunteers in a special way. I had meant to convey how twisted I felt the universe was for sending a dog who deserved our help and whose story was so poignant it was almost ridiculous, a lament about the fact that when we were maxed out in every way, a dog came along whose outrageous fortune made it incredibly painful to say “no.” Instead, I had passed on this dog’s heartbreaking tale to our kind-hearted volunteers and made them feel the same way. I felt ashamed.
Then Victoria told me that a foster had stepped up from our pool of volunteers, and that there had been an outpouring of support and energy for Jack. Some of them had forwarded the email about Jack to their email lists of fellow dog lovers, and there was already interest in him. Others volunteered to transport him from the shelter where he was being kept. People who couldn’t help in any other way donated for his medical care.
In short, our entire rescue, and a lot of other animal lovers, had rallied around Jack. My plaintive email heading had gotten their attention, then Jack and his story had done the rest.
That weekend, Jack made his way to our rescue. He started to receive applications before we even put him on Petfinder. Within a few days of being at his foster’s, we had a dozen gold star adopters. We finally settled on someone who volunteered for another rescue and who had heard about Jack and thought he would make a great companion for his female rescue lab. We liked the way he was clearly touched by Jack’s story, but was generally matter-of-fact. Jack would be loved there, but he wouldn’t be treated like he was a basket case.
Jack came and went so quickly we barely had time to get him vetted. His adopter sent us an email at the holidays letting us know that Jack was thriving and gaining confidence every day. I have no doubt he lived happily ever after.
And what lessons did I learn from this experience? Well, first of all, sometimes a dog’s story is so simple and heartbreaking that all you need to do is have people hear it. Second, even though we avoided drama, sometimes a heartfelt request can make all the difference. Third, “butterfly kisses” were not to be trifled with when it came to capturing people’s hearts.
The most important thing I learned, though, is that the thing that is the most amazing and wondrous about dogs — that they will try with all their hearts to love us no matter how cruelly life has treated them — is what inspires animal lovers to do more than they ever imagined they could. It’s a lesson I have re-learned countless times since then.