I’m going to start this post off with a confession: I did the wrong thing, but it was for all the right reasons. You can judge me at the end of this post.
Before we went to Kauai last month, we heard about a program, conducted by the Kauai Humane Society. Vacationers can come to the shelter, the only one on the island, and take a dog or two out for a field trip — to the beach, on a hike, on a walk. You can come cuddle the kitties, too. The program helps with socialization, of course, and potentially could lead, in the case of the dog field trips, to someone seeing the dogs and deciding to adopt.
The Kauai Humane Society is a kill shelter. They have no choice. Kauai’s permanent human population is somewhere around 65,000, and the number of homeless pets is inordinately large for an island that size. They rely on tourists falling in love with the animals and taking them home, as furry souvenirs.
Usually, going to a shelter is my worst nightmare. Shelters — even the best ones — are sad, desperate places. But we decided as a family to go and “check out” a dog or two on our second-to-last day on the island.
“You know how this is going to end,” I warned Steve as we drove to KHS.
He sighed. “I know.”
We decided to check out two dogs — kennel mates who preferred to go out together. Flynn was a beautiful brindle whippet mix, and Zellie, a scruffy Airedale mix with sad eyes. The two had been at the shelter for months, a bonded pair found abandoned in Waimea Canyon. We took them to Kalapaki Beach for a little stroll.
Steve and I had assumed that the dogs would be crazy — high strung, difficult to control. Shelters are stressful places, and the animals tend to be in a constant fight-or-flight state. Stressed-out dogs would have made it easier for Steve and I to return them to the shelter, knowing that it just wouldn’t work. What struck us about Flynn and Zellie is how calm they were, how good they were with our son and the other kids on the beach, and how sweet they were with each other.
Several people stopped us with the dogs. “It’s so good that you’re doing this,” said one surfer guy. “The Hawaiians are terrible to dogs, just terrible.” I nodded, but I had no idea what he was talking about.
Another woman, with a geriatric Golden Retriever, approached us on the beach. She was a volunteer with KHS, and she went into more detail. Kauai is a rural island, and people tended to use dogs as “tools,” she said. They’d have six or eight of them, usually kept outside, chained up or in a kennel. The dogs were typically used to hunt feral pigs, or as bait for dog fights. Flynn, a lightning-fast whippet with a strong prey drive, had likely been a hunter. And the 6-year-old Zellie, with her swollen, ulcerated nipples, had probably been bred over and over. Her ears were torn and she cowered when I first tried to pet her, although she perked up after about an hour.
Driving back to the shelter several hours later, Steve and I were quiet. I knew he was thinking what I was thinking — how could we take them back? We were moving in just six weeks, and our dog, Jones, himself a rescue, could be very reactive to other dogs. And don’t even get me started on our two cats.
Back at the hotel, we all went to the pool for the last time. None of us could get the dogs out of our minds, but we knew it was a crazy idea. So we talked about adopting just Zellie, since girl and boy dogs do better than two boys. Steve went back to the room, and I took Bini to pick up our boarding passes, which were being handed out at the hotel.
While we were waiting, one of the Alaska Airlines employees heard Bini begging me to adopt both dogs. She told me that she headed up a program between Alaska and KHS to get dogs to the mainland. We could do it as cargo, or as checked baggage, she explained. But it probably wouldn’t work in time for our flight tomorrow.
Back in the room, Steve was sprawled on the bed, looking troubled. “We can’t leave them both,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we can’t leave them.” It’s one thing to know, in the abstract, about all the homeless pets in the world. It’s another to spent four hours with two, and know that they might not make it.
I put out a call on Facebook, complete with pictures, to see if anyone would be willing to adopt Flynn. I used every ounce of persuasive language that I could, but I was honest — these dogs hadn’t had the easiest of lives. One family stepped up for Flynn, and my other friend, Janet, volunteered to take Zellie until we moved in six weeks. I was elated, crying with relief as we taxied down the runway toward home. We were going to save the doggies!
I wrote to the shelter and told them we wanted to fly both dogs over. The manager told me that she couldn’t do that, not unless I intended to adopt both dogs. So I lied, and told her we did intend to adopt both. I bought the crates over the phone and felt more than a twinge of guilt when the woman on the other end of the phone gushed with gratitude. She remembered Flynn and Zellie, and how wonderful that we weren’t going to split them up.
Still, things were in motion, and I was possessed with a single-minded zeal to get the dogs to the mainland, no matter what. I priced out how much it would cost to ship the dogs as cargo, and booked them space. Meanwhile, I badgered the Alaska employee I’d met, asking her about the program. Finally, the day before the dogs were due to fly, she called to tell me that she’d found an employee willing to chaperone the dogs — for free. Steve and I got a babysitter so we could meet the 10 p.m. flight at Sea-Tac, and I was giddy, bubbling over with excitement. We’d done it!
Then, reality: Flynn’s new owners returned him after just 12 hours. Though I’d warned them about Flynn’s strong prey drive, the wife had said earlier in the week that she could handle it. But the first night had been a tense one between Flynn and their cat, so on Easter Sunday, back he came. “My mom is really mad at you,” Bini said wrathfully, as the husband handed over the crate.
Bini and I took Flynn for a walk that afternoon. He was trembling and stuck close to my legs, obviously bewildered by the plane flight, the overnight stay, and now, this. When we got to the elementary school by our house, I sank to the curb and started crying. Bini put his arms around me.
“Don’t cry, Mama,” he said. “It’s going to be OK.” He rubbed my back and took Flynn’s leash. “It’s really going to be OK.”
“Oh Bini,” I sobbed, “I think Mama did the wrong thing. I was trying to do the right thing, but I think I just messed things up.”
“No you didn’t,” he said, wiping my face with the hem of his shirt. “You didn’t do the wrong thing. You did the right thing. I know you did.”
We sat there for a few minutes, Bini, Flynn and I. I composed myself, and life went on. A dog-loving friend of mine found cat-free family willing to foster Flynn. It wasn’t an easy transition. Though Flynn was gentle and calm with their three kids, he went after their bouncy, aged Vizsla. I paid for a training session, and the couple committed to a few more weeks.
On May 10, I got an e-mail from the wife. Things had changed, dramatically. The family had faithfully done what the trainer had advised, and now, the two dogs were buddies. Their kids adored him. And they were going to keep him. “Thank you for sharing this beautiful soul with us. He is such a gift,” she wrote.
Zellie we renamed Kona, and she spent a month with Janet’s family, who loved her and spoiled her and helped her come out of her shell. She played with the other dogs in the house, she ate mangoes, she snuggled with their daughter at night. Janet sent regular updates, photos and videos, and generally made me feel like we’d done the right thing. She was a partner in this crazy scheme, and I’m forever in her debt.
Last Thursday, Janet brought Kona over for the weekend. She and her family were leaving on a trip, and I felt like it was time to take her — at least for the weekend. My friend, Kristie, had been helping me work with Jones, and we figured we’d give it a shot. The weekend’s over, and Kona’s still here. We’re moving in five days, and it’s crazy around here, but she’s already family. She’s determined to make Jones her friend, and he seems resigned to his fate as a dog sibling. Last night, I heard Steve calling her his little sweetie.
The timing on this dog rescue was ridiculous. No sane person would do what I did, but I never claimed to be sane. I also know that two dogs doesn’t make much difference in the larger homeless-animal problem. But it matters to me. It matters to the people who helped us. It matters to my son, and to my husband. It matters to those two dogs.
When I was a kid, my dad bought a used 1976 Audi Fox. It was a lemon, forever breaking down, and he was sick of spending money on it. Rather than sell it, like a normal person, he went to night school for several years to learn to fix cars. Though these skills brought him pleasure — and saved us money — it also enabled him to help people. If we passed families broken down on the freeway, all of us would start elbowing each other and rolling our eyes. Dad was going to pull over and make us late — again.
“Someone has to give a damn,” my dad would say as he eased our car onto the shoulder. I guess I got that gene too.
Was Bini right? Did I do the right thing? I was dishonest with the shelter, but my aim was true. I hope that counts for something.
That first night that Kona spent with us, Bini sat up in bed, his face shining. “Mama, we did it!”
“Did what, honey?” I asked distractedly.
“We did it! We saved the doggies!” He leaned across his mountains of stuffed animals, and high-fived me. And then fell back, smiling.
I slept pretty good that night, too.