We started the great dog search before Christmas, because this seemed like the best way to use my vacation (as well as naps, lots and lots of naps). I was still experiencing occasional waves of grief over Miss Butterfly, but I felt a desperate need to at least try to find a second dog, someone small and gentle and loving. Cricket loves me, of course, but not like she loves her Grandma. She greets Grandma, and pines for Grandma, and guards Grandma, and, every once in a while, she comes over to visit with me.
The first shelter we visited was about forty minutes away from where we live, with a friendly staff and separate buildings for different groups of dogs and cats. We walked through a hallway of barking dogs who were all a little, or a lot, too big for us, and then we met a Lhasa Apso. She was white-haired, eight years old, and had cataracts in her eyes, and it all made me stop breathing for a moment because she looked so much like Butterfly, with a bad haircut.
We left that building pretty quickly and were led over to the infirmary, where the little dogs were recovering from spay and neuter surgeries. There were Chihuahuas, a Pomeranian mix, a Dachshund mix, a senior Shih Tzu, and a Puggle. The Pom mix was adorable, but he snapped at the volunteer who opened his cage, so he wasn’t allowed out to meet us. Instead we visited with Ursula, a one-year-old Puggle. She was adorable, but we happened to have arrived just when the vet tech was filling Kongs with peanut butter, and Ursula was utterly distracted. Freed from her crate and on her own feet, she moseyed over to the tech, sat down, and gradually inched her butt closer and closer to the peanut butter. She was the right size, and terribly cute, but she barely looked at me. I felt like I should wait for some kind of spark, some flash of connection. Just being cute couldn’t be enough.
Of course, I felt guilty leaving her behind, even though the staff assured me that she’d be scooped up in minutes. There’s something awful about looking at abandoned dogs, and judging their looks and age and health and character, and then rejecting them as not the one. It makes me long for the days when I didn’t know about puppy mills, and could walk into a pet store and believe that beautiful puppies just grew on trees.
I built up the nerve to try again a few days later, and we decided to visit the shelter where we’d adopted Butterfly. They have an extensive medical program with subsidized care, so there was a safety net if I bonded with a dog who had some health problems. I’d seen a few small dogs on their website, some poodle mixes and dachshund and terrier types who all seemed around the right size and age to deal with Cricket. It was raining and cold, and we ran from the car with our hoods up to get to the adoptions building. But, because of renovations in progress, the adoptions had been moved to a smaller location, and the line of people waiting to see the dogs was outside and down the block. My emotions were still raw, with the guilt of leaving Ursula behind, and the gnawing pain of No-Butterfly, that the disrespect of making people wait outside in the freezing rain just to get a chance to fight over puppies enraged me. I knew the dogs would all be adopted, or fostered, or kept safe and warm and medically cared for, but I felt like the shelter was telling me that I didn’t deserve to be treated well. And I couldn’t accept that. Mom shrugged and followed me back to the car, and the day devolved from there into a huge pool of self-loathing and hopelessness that even chocolate couldn’t fix.
A few more days later, we heard about a shelter, more than an hour further out on the Island, where they had rescued a hundred small dogs from a hoarding situation. The website only had a few blurry pictures of the dogs in their original home, with no description of breeds or ages or health, but with a hundred dogs, we figured it was worth a try.
When we finally walked into the office, the woman at the front desk barely looked up from her computer and told us to look through the photo album on the desk. The pictures of the dogs were blurry and dark, with names under each picture, but no sexes or ages or descriptions. The first five names I mentioned had already been adopted, but then there was Twinkle. A volunteer brought him out and he was so much tinier than I’d expected. She put him in my arms and he shivered, in fear or cold, I don’t know which, but when I sat down and put him onto the bench next to me, he climbed back into my lap and held onto me. I looked into his eyes and he looked right back at me and then licked my nose. He could have been part Rat Terrier, part Chihuahua, part Schnauzer, but they had no idea. He loved the gentle scratches on his matted grey and brown and black coat. He was so much smaller than I was looking for, but I’d felt that spark, and it wasn’t going away. I asked the woman at the desk if she knew anything else about him, and she looked down at a sheet of paper next to her, and said, he’s nine years old. My heart broke. I’d promised myself, and Mom, that we wouldn’t get another senior dog, at least not this soon after Butterfly.
A volunteer came to take Twinkle back to his cage in the back, and I felt his absence immediately. Then someone turned on the lights in the little room next to us, and it was filled with more of the hundred dogs, but these were in the three to five year old age range. We were allowed to go in and sit with the dogs, still in their crates, and they very loudly asked to be let out. Some of them looked more Schnauzer-like, some more Dachshund-like, some with wiry red hair, and others with soft black hair, but they were all, obviously, related. We visited with a few of the dogs individually, and a staffer explained that the woman must have started out with a handful of strays, and then, since she didn’t spay or neuter, the family grew exponentially. They were an incest family. The dogs were all being adopted out to different families, but the backstory made me uncomfortable. The staffer told us that we’d have to bring Cricket in for a meet and greet, if we wanted to adopt one of the dogs (and no one else already had an application in on that dog), and then we’d have to bring the dog back to be spayed or neutered. They gave us the extensive adoption application and we left, to drive the long way home and think it over.
The trip home was, again, painful. All of the other dogs receded in my mind, except Twinkle. But Mom had serious concerns: not only was he a senior dog, but he’d spent nine years as an un-altered male in a house with no rules, and he might not understand that he couldn’t climb on Cricket; and we had no idea what health issues he might have, or how long he could be expected to live; and they had no subsidized medical program, and even if they did, we couldn’t drive more than an hour each way to make use of it.
I kept dreaming about Twinkle, though, and feeling sick at leaving him behind. I couldn’t figure out if the spark was because of his sweetness, or his neediness. I couldn’t separate out my healthy loving instincts from my possibly pathological ones, and I was overwhelmed. Mom hated watching me suffer, so back online she went, to see if there were any other dogs in the area. She found some prospects at another shelter we’d never heard of, about twenty five minutes away from home. This would be our fourth shelter in a very short period of time, but I was still on vacation, so off we went.
One of the dogs we liked was still available: a seven month old, black haired Miniature Poodle named Traveler. When we arrived and asked to see him, a handler took us to what seemed like someone’s living room, and then brought Traveler in on a leash. He had soft, curly black hair and big black eyes and he sniffed the whole room. I asked if I could sit on the floor with him, and within minutes he had brought over a tennis ball to play with, and started licking my face. When he got tired, he rested his head on my leg, tennis ball firmly in his mouth.
The handler warned us that we shouldn’t bond too much, because the application process would take a while, and the staff would decide who they thought was the best match for the dog, but I wasn’t worried. We filled out the two page application, including phone numbers for our vet, and three personal references, and lots of details about how we would raise the dog, and what our other dogs’ lives had been like, and on and on. In the car on the way home I was already planning the new toys we would buy, and the training classes we would take with Traveler, but I was also still thinking about Twinkle, and wishing I could have both of them. They would balance each other out, I said out loud, to which Mom said a big fat no.
Of course we didn’t get Traveler, but it took two weeks for the phone call to come telling us that he’d gone to another family. In the mean time I’d found out that Ursula and Twinkle had both found homes, and I was back in school and busy with work. I wondered if maybe the universe was telling me I wasn’t ready, but then the loneliness hit me again and I went back on Petfinder to look for more possibilities.
We brought Cricket with us to visit one dog at a PetSmart adoption event, but while the dog was adorable, he was completely uninterested in us, and barely even sniffed Cricket, which I took as a personal affront.
I kept finding dogs at more and more shelters I’d never heard of, all over Long Island and in Queens and the Bronx and Brooklyn and Manhattan, but each rescue had their own application, and each one was more intrusive than the last. One rescue organization, in its online application, asked for a picture of your driver’s license and the names you use as aliases on social media. We applied for another dog in Queens, a black and white Maltese Shih-Tzu mix, but she was adopted before we could even finish the extensive application process.
We didn’t go through any of this when we adopted Miss Butterfly five years ago, because she happened to be eight years old, with health issues, and yet she was the one I wanted. Now that I want a younger, healthier dog, I see how competitive the Rescue market has become, and how much power the Rescues have to determine who qualifies as worthy. Adoption fees are much higher, applications are longer and more intrusive, and you’re still not guaranteed the dog you met and fell in love with, because someone else is, in the eyes of the Rescue’s staff, better suited to care for that particular dog.
In theory, this is progress. It means that people have learned to adopt, not shop, and fewer dogs are ending up in kill shelters; but it also leaves the power to decide who’s worthy of a dog in the hands of fewer people, people who have their own prejudices about what makes a good dog owner (able to afford higher adoption fees, owning a home with a fenced in yard, etc). I wonder if it’s like this across the country, or it’s specific to the northeastern US, or even just to Long Island.
It almost feels like it’s not worth the effort. I look at other people who walk into a pet store and leave with the exact puppy they were looking for, less than an hour later, or I think about Cricket’s breeder, who was friendly and responsible and raised the puppies in her home, with their Mom, and I wonder why I’ve committed to rescue a dog at all. But I know it’s because of Butterfly, and wanting no dog to have to go through what she did for her first eight years, producing puppies in a puppy mill. But all of these applications and rejections feel personal, and my inferiority complex, and guilt complex, and every other complex, is being kicked up like a dust storm that is going to choke me any day now.
I feel like I need twenty-four hour a day therapy to get through this process, or better yet a therapy dog, but Cricket doesn’t want the job. I have a sneaking suspicion that Cricket has been calling the Rescues to say, no, no, we’re not really interested. That would explain a lot.