Pets, Pets, Pets . . .
Twenty five years ago this week our first "Pets" column appeared in the Beacon. In 1983 three new members of the League for Animal Protection South Shore (LAP) were asked to collaborate to promote shelter animals. Although I just met the other two, I said I'd help for a while. Little did I know we'd become the best of friends and that I'd want this column to go on forever.
Leslie Hill approached the late Mr. Wolfe with the shelter idea because she had covered school board meetings for the Beacon. Barbara Von Bartheld, pet columnist, had recently left. Leslie dragged her pal Michael Bursztin along because he was incredibly talented and funny. Dear Michael, who died in 2002 at age 40, wrote a few "Pets." He loved to embarrass us. We silenced him at the get-go because we were afraid of what he would submit. Michael was also partly responsible for the "Dolly Parton Debacle" (below), our rescue trial by fire.
Leslie and I visited Babylon Shelter each Saturday to take Polaroids of the dogs. Two shots would go in "Pets"; the rest would hang on posters in store windows. Our goal was to make the invisible visible, to lead people to the buried treasure at their neighborhood pound. Few residents realized we had a town shelter, then next to the dump on Edison Avenue. Extremely naive, we thought we could "save" every shelter dog/cat just by advertising. We were up against huge obstacles. The municipal mindset was different. Most animals, including the real Lassie*, were put down in a week, sooner if owner surrendered. No matter how creative our copy, no matter how boldly I marked shelter paperwork, we couldn't find a home for a dead dog.
My dad had major surgery the same '93 day of the Colin Ferguson LIRR shooting. I spent the morning before going to the hospital frantically making arrangements with Collie Rescues to take a sweet, young male who was only given 'til noon.
Disease was also rampant. Kennel cough more potent, parvo new, distemper always lurking. By the time we had a place, the dog could be too ill.
"The Dolly Parton Debacle": Most of our early rescue lessons stem from this fiasco. Michael named a small Shepherd mix after the country singer because of the dog's "flowing wigged hair". His mother said she'd foster a shelter pooch for us, but it had to be a female. We signed Dolly out when her time was up. I left Leslie while I went to the doctor. She learned "Ms. Parton" was a "he" the hard way. The insulted dog nipped her as she accidentally grabbed him by his manhood while loading him in her car. We wound up boarding him at a nearby clinic for many months- huge mistake, but a crash course in reality. Here's "Dolly's Wisdom":
Lesson #1: Always sex the pet yourself. Don't assume that a cat collar or canine cage card is correct.
Corollary Lesson #1a: Owners need to go in person many times to look for their lost pet. Only you can ID your missing pet, not some poor kennel attendant who's seen a million Pit mixes or a harried receptionist who rarely enters the dog runs. (Islip Shelter insists you come down on their phone message.) Back in the "Dolly" days the shelter told a lady they didn't have her lost Great Dane puppy. She came down and found him, lounging in the female section, although the pup's plumbing was larger than Rhode Island. This time no one could blame the error on big hair.
Lesson #2: Foster homes are precious and few. Our problem was that Dolly was a female impersonator. Meanwhile, foster families, those who can nurture needy animals in their home (without becoming collectors) and then give them up when the pets are ready, are a special breed, similar to the kind folks who continually raise guide dog pups. Many times humane groups lose the precious slot when caretakers decide to keep the foster.
Lesson #3: Boarding is the most expensive way to do adoptions. Dolly, who turned out to be mature and testy, cost us close to $2000 in boarding before we placed him. Fees mount quickly. Dogs at vets are less accessible and harder to show. You must tread lightly around the animal hospital schedules to make appointments so prospective owners can see your pooch.
Lesson #4: Once the pet is in your care, do not rely on anyone else to place him. We just assumed the veterans who were mentoring us would find Dolly a home. We were too idealistic to notice the many animals in their care that were going no where. Also when placing privately, screen references; then bring the animal to the possible home. You can still change your mind. I've walked out with the dog or cat. I've repossessed.
Corollary #4a: Check out your rescue contacts; determine
how trustworthy they are. Especially with the internet, groups and individuals can make themselves appear more reputable than they really are. Some "saviors"
are actually hoarders. Other outspoken critics have
no hands-on pound experience. Eager volunteers
pull shelter animals to bring to
On the other
who think even
Old Yeller in end
stage rabies, is
adoptable, are delivering
or death's door animals
compassionate people. My head spins when I hear: "If someone will put a muzzle on the feral dog, I will drive him to blah blah rescue in Connecticut." Are you mad? If you can't touch him, what makes you think people 100 miles away can?
Lesson #5: Don't empty an organization's treasury with just 1 dog or cat. LAP assisted us with Dolly's bill after warning we were on our own next time. Dolly was a mega-mistake in judgment, neither a surprise nor known medical emergency, as many later LAP pets were.
Corollary #5a: If you want to rescue, be prepared to dig deep into your own pockets. Like many others, I'd have a time share in Tahiti if I had the moola I spent on shelter animals. Besides, I kept Polaroid solvent for many years. Rescue is a costly avocation but each contribution helps. Animal groups are badgered constantly. and are more apt to assist those who will share expenses.
Lesson #6: Temperament tests are merely snap shots and guidelines, not guarantees. We were too quick to choose Dolly based on aesthetics. A shelter is an artificial environment. The behavior of dogs and cats can change based on many factors, including cage confinement. They will react differently with various people or animals. Some get better in homes, while others relax and reveal hidden issues. Too many adopters expect instant perfection. It takes time for a dog or cat to settle into a new home.When problems arise, before relinquishing the pet, new owners should seek the help of behaviorists and experts.
Lesson #7: You can't save them all…but you sure can, within reason, keep trying. After a quarter century and 1,300 pet columns (I have them all in folders), I can't say how many dogs, cats or owners my "Pets" or shelter presence has touched. Just part of a network, I know some lives have been altered; some matches have been heaven sent. I'm heartened with LI's animal welfare progress and the vision of Chris Elton, our wonderful, new shelter director. I've never earned a dime as a columnist, but the rewards are priceless.
Oddly, "Dolly Parton's" photo was never featured, nor could I find him in my Polaroid collection, but shown is the first Beacon poster dog, a 1983 Lab mix rejected by North Shore Animal League because he had sores on his feet, yet adopted as soon as his picture appeared here.
This week the adoptables at Oyster Bay Town Shelter (677-5784) Miller pl. Syosset include "Wallace" # 113, a cute, middle-aged Pug with her breed's typical eye problems and "Orange Crush" #35-a jumbo male cat.
Also available: "Princess" #147- a 2 yr. Min Pin; a friendly male Shepherd mix #117; "Gustaf" #59 the Swiss Mt. Dog mix; "Nica" #128- an 8 mon. Lab/Shepherd puppy.
SPCA Fosters: Inquire about some Silky Terriers, Chinese Cresteds and guinea pigs in need of foster homes.