Why do I rescue? I have asked myself this on a number of occasions. Right now, as I hold the leash away from me, with a dog barking and lunging on the other end of it, it seems a reasonable question…
Isn’t it emotionally hard? Isn’t it depressing knowing that you can’t help them all? Yes, and yes.
I’ve been bitten, scratched, barfed on, and peed on. I’ve had sleepless days and nights of bottle feeding tiny babies, and held furry souls as they drew their last breaths. I’ve cried more times that I can count, and had my heart break over and over for creatures that others have tossed aside.
But I’ve also been there when the light comes back on, in eyes that held no hope. And I’ve felt the love and gratitude from a sick, neglected soul that starts feeling better. And even when there is nothing that can be done – no one should die alone.
I began as a “rescuer” when I was very young. I was the kid that had animals “follow them home”. The kid that noticed a dog or cat that seemed to be lost and in need of a little help until their person could found. I once brought home 2 gerbils in my lunch box because my teacher said that someone needed to take our two classroom pets. Of course, my parents hadn’t actually given their permission (to be honest, my mom was super afraid of anything vaguely rodent like) and as soon as I got home and opened the lunch box, they jumped out, and ran up inside the back of the sofa. It was a long time before I was forgiven for that one! I rescued butterflies, hand fed baby birds, picked up worms from the sidewalk and placed them in the grass after every rain – and generally helped creatures wherever I felt I could.
As an adult, I worked as a volunteer for several different organizations – helping with wildlife rehab, walking dogs, patting cats – and then I found Animal Alliance of Canada. At the time, Animal Alliance was a newly formed organization that intended to work on many facets of animals and the environment, and was in need of all types of volunteer help. What was most appealing to me however, was the Project Jessie program.
Project Jessie was formed because of need in the community. There is a law in Ontario called The Animals For Research Act, which says that pounds and shelters that pick up stray animals, must hold those animals for 72 hours, and after that, if the shelter receives a request from a registered research facility, they can turn them over. Project Jessie was formed to offer an alternative. We approached pounds that were sending to research, and offered them another option – we would take the animals, vet them, then hold them in foster homes and eventually adopt them into new families.
I started as a volunteer driver – picking up animals (mostly dogs and cats) and driving them to vet appointments, or to foster homes. Then one day they needed a foster home for orphan kittens – so I did that. Then a foster for a senior dog – so I did that. Then a foster for a large number of birds that had been removed from a hoarding situation – so I did that.
About 20 years ago, the Project Jessie coordinator was leaving the organization, so I became the new coordinator. Over those years, I have welcomed hundreds of animals into my home; senior animals, young animals, cats, dogs, birds, bunnies, guinea pigs, hamsters and hedgehogs – and helped them find their new families.
Most of the time, these guys stay for a little while until they find the perfect new place, then they travel on their way to new lives – and I am just a small part of their life journey.
But sometimes, they come and stay. I have a real soft spot for the seniors. With young animals, if I am good at the “matchmaking” part, they are adopted into good families and will have good lives.
But the seniors are different. They are less adoptable by most people’s standards. They often have medical or emotional challenges. Sometimes they aren’t pretty. They are often scared and confused – they have lost the people who loved them, often through no fault of their own, or they have had a poor life and deserve to know love before they go.
The very first foster who stayed was Pixie. I received a call from a pound that went something like this, “We have a 4 pound dog that is super vicious, is flying to attack people and needs to go into rescue the minute her stray time is up or we will euthanize her.” I needed to meet this tiny fury! When I arrived at the pound, I found a tiny, scared little dog, facing into the corner of her run, shaking, and feebly looking over her shoulder and growling at me. I sat in the run with her for a few minutes. Then I reached over and stroked her back. She growled. I sat, waited, talked to her, stroked her, she growled, and so on. After an hour or so, I lifted her up, tucked her into my sweater and took her home. Pixie was a bit of a mess – too thin, with pyometria, missing most of her teeth, contrary and opinionated, but I loved her to bits. When no one stepped up who wanted her, I officially adopted her and she lived with me for about 6 years until she eventually passed.
Over the years, several others came and stayed for long or for short times. Boodle was a bichon mix who was dumped on the side of the road outside of a puppy mill – probably because she was too old and sick to breed anymore. She had leukemia – and the worst blood results that the vet had ever seen. I asked whether she was in pain, and the vet said that no – leukemia wasn’t painful, but a slow fading and that she didn’t think this dog would have long. I took her home intending to make her last few days as loving and comfortable as possible – she stayed with us for almost 4 years.
One day I was at a pound picking up a dog. I went into the office trailer to fill out paperwork – and the staff were gathered around a dirty A&W box. They were trying to decide whether the little scrap of a kitten would die on its own soon or if they would have to take it to the vet for “disposal”. I looked into the box and saw a sad little kitten. About 3 weeks old, he had fleas and lice, was suffering from coccidian and worms, had a broken tail and splayed legs, and was near death by starvation. What impressed me the most though, was his will to live. As soon as I touched him he had the most amazing, loud, full bodied purr. I immediately put him in my car and took him straight to the vet. She wasn’t sure he would live – but he did – and Rootbeer , is still part of our family now 15 years later.
Over the years there have been so many wonderful animals! Teddy the one-eyed wonder pomeranian who would climb along the back of the sofa but fall off because he had no depth perception. Pearl, a senior rosy bourke (a small bird like a slightly larger budgie), who had cataracts, and a small tumour, but who lived with me for another 12 years. Bibble the hedgehog who was abandoned outdoors, and had cancer in the muscle of her leg. Lily, the Pekingese who lost both eyes to glaucoma. Bijoux, the tiny cat with megaesophagus. Anna Maria the budgie who lost her legs to frostbite.
So many lovely animals and so many stories that I have been privileged to be part of. Although I sometimes lovingly refer to my home as the “House of Misfits” (and incidentally I include myself in that description!) and caring for seniors and special needs creatures has its own messy and emotional challenges – I honesty wouldn’t have it any other way.
As this little snarling dog slowly calms and then eventually stands quivering but allows me to gently touch him, I can see the fear behind the bravado – but also see a bit of hope. He doesn’t know that I’m his last chance – his people have an appointment to kill him in two days if I don’t take him. As we start to trust one another and he lets me lead him to the car so we can go home, I’m pretty sure that I have answered my own question, and this is why I rescue.