Rescue Me

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In shelters like barcs and the SPCA, it doesn’t sound like those sad commercials with Sarah McLachlan singing about angels. It’s pretty barking loud in there.

In 2002, I was actually considering a different dog when I happened to turn around and see Echo, a skinny white mutt with one blue eye and one brown sitting in the back of the cage, so serious and quiet. As the other dogs frantically voiced their opinions, Echo seemed to be waiting politely for a formal introduction. I took him home the next day. Then, after six years of happy and loyal companionship, I encountered a straggly little dog running around a 7-Eleven parking lot on a cold February night. He was filthy, a little bloody, and very mean. Regardless, I wrapped him in my pashmina and took him home. This is, by the way, exactly what you are not supposed to do when encountering a stray dog. But Ike was all of 8 pounds and he added a new spirit to our little pack—after some serious training.

I felt blessed that I had the time and resources—both financial and emotional —to provide both of these pups with homes. It can be heartbreaking to think of the numbers, but approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. Of that number, about 2.7 million shelter animals are adopted each year (1.4 million dogs and 1.3 million cats), while another 2.7 million are euthanized.

Joy Freedman, dog behaviorist and obedience instructor with almost 20 years experience, cautions about rushing out to save a pet without doing your research. “Think realistically if you have the time and energy to put into caring for a pet. Take one of those Internet quizzes to determine what kind of breed best suits you and your lifestyle,” says Freedman, who’s also a board member of Rockville-based rescue Mutts Matter Rescue (and the trainer who helped me to rehabilitate Ike).

“Remember that even the smartest, best adjusted dog will never be more capable than a 3-year-old child.”

When I talk about adopting shelter pets and strays, I’ve heard a lot of concern about “not knowing what you’re getting.” True, I didn’t know what I was getting, but in the case of Echo I got a much better deal than I could have
brokered with a breeder. He was house-broken and already knew his name and most basic dog manners. 

All pets from reputable shelters and rescues, including local Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, Inc. (BARCS), are screened for health and temperament issues. They also come spayed or neutered and micro-chipped, which saves you time and possibly your pet’s life someday. “These groups work really hard to make sure that pets are matched with their best owners,” Freedman says. “Otherwise, the pets can end up right back where they started, at the shelter. A forever home is the ultimate goal.”

Although my landlord told me no pit bulls, the breed certainly has its hard-core devotees. Freedman offered this succinct piece of guidance: “Pit bulls are just Jack Russells on steroids. They are terriers and all terriers need a strong owner. ”

Virtually every American Kennel Club breed, along with purebred cats, reptiles and birds, has a corresponding rescue group. This means if you have your heart set on a Weimaraner or a Himalayan, you can get one at a discounted price from a rescue organization and save a life.

Whatever the circumstances of surrendered animals, those of us who have loved them are grateful for the chance to welcome them into our lives, as brief as their time with us seems. At the end of September, my good dog Echo passed away. While I continue to mourn the loss of his bark at 6 a.m., I find myself remembering the lessons Echo taught me about how to gracefully start over and begin a new life—and also the family who kindly and humanely passed him on when they were unable to care for him.

So while rescuing an animal is not always easy—Ike has surely proven that—it’s well worth the effort. If I had a tail, I’d wag it. If I had wings, I’d flap them. And if I could live 100 years like a turtle, I still might not be able to describe the joy and friendship that my adopted pets have given me. In getting to know the amazing people (and their fuzzy, feathered and hard-shelled friends) in this story, I know they all feel the same way.

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