It was one of those fall days that helps me understand why so many people say fall is their favorite season. It’s not mine. I prefer the long hot days of summer – swimming outdoors, hiking to alpine lakes, wearing flip flops and shorts. But this fall day I had to give it to those lovers of fall. The strong blue sky, the perfectly just-warm-enough air, and the beginning of the startling colors of the hardwoods made it an almost-perfect Sunday. I was starting my second academic year in what I had come to call “the frozen northeast.” When I thought carefully about my struggles with this place, it was neither the snow nor the cold that made the winters here such a challenge. Rather, it was the lack of light, the dim skies, and the thick layers of clouds that blocked even a hint of the sun. But the short, grim days of winter were still ahead. This was a glorious day. I had been out for a good run. Nevertheless, the rest of my day felt empty. There are always things to do. Laundry is always fun… but wash can wait. Nothing was pressing; nothing was calling. It was too early in the semester to have the dreaded stack of papers waiting, so I decided this was the day to find myself a buddy.
I hadn’t had a dog in over five years, too long to be without one. I opened the yellow pages of the phone book looking for animal shelters. After a few calls, I realized that only one animal shelter in the area was open on Sunday. I had never heard of the shelter founded by in the early ‘50s and named for founder’s childhood dogs. Now, her granddaughter was in charge. It was off the beaten path in more ways than one. Down a long dirt road, in a rural setting, I came upon a house and some outbuildings. It looked more like a compound than a shelter. The cats lived on the one side of the narrow road, and the dogs lived on the other. The shelter had a no-kill policy, but it also appeared to be the kind of place that very few animals ever left before they died. This was the end of the road for most of these dogs and cats.
There were about eight dogs, each in its own eight by eight chain link pen. They were dirty and unkempt, and most of them were angry – barking and growling wildly at their fences when I tried to approach. One that looked like a German shepherd mix was in a larger cage with a taller fence, where he was literally climbing the walls. In some kind of a frenzy, the poor animal was running six feet straight up the fence, circling, coming down, doing it again and again, like training on a small vertical track. But there among the sad stories was Katie, a gorgeous blue-tick coon hound that had lived there for six years. Somehow she remained calm amid the pandemonium. I talked to her, then asked if I could take her for a walk. The answer, of course, was, “Yes.” I was nervous. Katie was a big dog, about 90 pounds and I had no idea how she would react to me being at the end of her leash. We headed down the dirt road. Katie was happy to be out and behaved impeccably. I later found out that there were a few volunteers who came to walk her every now and then, and that she had two young friends. When we approached the shelter after our walk, the friends appeared. Two thin barefooted girls about four and six came running to meet us. Their appearance was not that different from the dogs – matted hair, faces browned from the summer sun and the dirt. Katie was their dog the only one they played with and occasionally took for a walk. These little girls lived with their mother, the shelter manager, in the house next to the cat dorm. I talked to them, asked them and their mother some questions about Katie. I can’t remember the questions or the answers. I was slightly outside my comfort zone. It was the kind of place my husband would call “git back.” A git-back can have some allure. We’ve looked at a few git-back cabins thinking about buying them and walked away from some others that were not git-back enough for our tastes. And I can easily see why kids who are not going to church should not have to shower, comb their hair, or wear shoes on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Besides, how could anyone fault this family who cared for these animals, including a large contingent of cats with AIDS, vowing never to kill them?
I didn’t take Katie home with me that Sunday. I began to have doubts about her. What I saw in the other pens scared me. And I had read way too much about never getting a dog from a shelter, let alone a dog who had spent six years in a shelter like this one. But I couldn’t get Katie out of my head. For the next seven days I drove to the shelter to take Katie walking. When that felt comfortable, I asked if I could take her for a ride in my car. Finally, I asked if I could take her to a vet for a checkup. The woman who ran the shelter was as carefree about Katie as she was about her kids. Sure I could take her anywhere, put her through any trials. Katie passed all the tests. Even though I was nervous, I had fallen in love with Katie long before she passed the car test. Finally, one evening, about two weeks after I first met Katie, I took her home.
When we got home, all hell broke loose. I don’t know if you have ever heard a coon hound howl, but it is ear-splitting. Katie would not be consoled. For Katie, this house was no match for the security and certainty of the eight by eight pen. I wracked my brain for skills I didn’t have and couldn’t conjure up. Finally, I remembered that when my son, Tim, was distraught as an infant a ride in the car would calm him, put him to sleep. It was my only idea. Katie and I got back in the car and headed for the freeway. We drove north. Katie settled down. We got off the freeway to circle back, and Katie panicked again. We drove south. She settled down again. Eventually we made our way back home and it seemed she would be okay. But the minute we walked into the house she started to howl. I was at my wits end. I put up some child gates and went for a bike ride. Being on the verge of losing it myself, it seemed better to ride.
When I returned an hour later, the gates were scattered like twigs in a wind. No match for a 90 pound coon hound. But Katie had settled down. I don’t know what went on in her head, but maybe she figured out that it was probably going to be OK to be warm for the night and get a bit of love before bedtime. Katie never lost it again in the house. Occasionally, though, in the first few months we lived together something in the back yard would make her revert to panic. I would go out, take hold of her collar and bring her inside where she would quiet down. It was not easy to get her from the yard, up the deck stairs and into the house. One day she got the best of me. I found myself on the ground, the bridge of my nose having hit the edge of a deck stair. My glasses were broken, and I showed up to teach a few hours later with a black eye. It was not her fault. She was consumed by some panic neither of us could explain. Eventually, the panic stopped. Katie, the POW dog, and I became inseparable. My love for Katie, as love often does, led to some irrational thinking. When I would take her to the store with me, I would lock the car fearing that someone would steal her while I was shopping. The fact that she had waited six years in a shelter for me to show up had nothing to do with the value I placed on her and the risk I imagined of her being pilfered.
As it turned out, Katie was the one who met my needs, not vice-versa. When I got her, my emotional life was more than a little “git back.” You could have said it was covered in mud, pretty tangled, and in need of a good shower and fixing up. Katie cleaned it up. She made me feel safe all alone in a very big house that I didn’t like and wished I hadn’t bought. She slept near me, traveled with me, and moved with me when, thankfully, the big house sold. But most of what Katie did was just walk with me. We walked in the morning even if it was 20 below zero. We went out before bedtime to see the stars and in December, the Christmas lights. We walked with my neighbor, Roz, and her dog Milo, which allowed me, as I built my relationship with Katie, to also build a friendship with Roz, my first close woman friend in 50 years.
Katie is gone. But she started something. Because of Katie, there is now another rescue, blue-tick coon hound, Zoli, at my feet. And Zoli replaced Kisha who, after waiting a year in an SPCA shelter, took over for Katie, Three amazing dogs, all sent away by someone who saw no value in them, only to become priceless to me.