There was a time in my past, before Snake left us, when I had this kinda sorta general idea about what happens in our nation’s animal shelters. I, like most people, knew in somewhat hazy terms that animals die in shelters, but I thought it was just those animals who were suffering or were broken in some way. I was wrong. I learned many years ago that the vast majority of animals destroyed in our shelters are either perfectly healthy or have some treatable condition and they really just need a second chance. This is a situation where we, as a society, tend to not delve too deeply into how our money is spent. If animals are being destroyed, surely there must be something wrong with them. No. Although there are some animals who are suffering and for whom the act of euthanasia is warranted, most are someone’s lost pet or just the victims of our poor choices. The vast majority of these animals are perfectly healthy and may be much healthier than that dog you may think you want from a breeder or you may think you are saving from a pet store or the back of a pick-up truck in a Walmart parking lot.
Then there are the special needs animals. Some are blind, some are deaf, some are missing limbs, some are old and some have conditions like epilepsy or diabetes. According to a survey performed by Petfinder.com, these “less adoptable” pets wait for homes nearly four times longer than most other adoptable pets. Some can be housed in shelters for years before being adopted, but in less progressive areas these animals are simply destroyed because they are harder to adopt. And that is nothing less than an absolute tragedy.
It is entirely true that special needs animals need some extra care and may require more of your time or patience. But the plus side is that you may very well find that having a special needs animal in your life and in your home will change your life in ways you never expected. We all know that shelter and rescue animals teach us the value of unconditional love. They don’t care what we look like or what we do for a living or whether or not we got impatient in the check-out line at the store or if we bounced a check. They just accept us as we are and love us without reservation. When it comes to special needs animals, the bonds we can form with these animals can simply go beyond description. Yes, they rely on us in ways “more adoptable” animals do not, but they also teach us invaluable lessons. They do not spend one minute on self-pity. They simply adapt. And they don’t ever even realize they are anything but perfect just the way they are.
I had been planning to do a project about special needs animals for years and the concept just never really came together until recently. Looking back, I think it was probably just meant to be. I was doing something on Facebook for my website when I ran across a post for a special needs dog named Walter “aka Walnut.” Walter had passed away recently and his mom, Gabi, was taking a memorial trip in his honor to go to places Walter had never been. I began reading about his life and his genetic condition and I just felt compelled to do a project about Walter on behalf of all the special needs kids. Gabi originally was interested in a different song for the video, but once I started downloading images and videos I knew just what song to use: Fisher’s “Anything For You.” It just fits Walter and his very charmed life with a family who loves him dearly. And there’s a connection which made it clear to me that this was meant to be. Walter’s favorite TV program was The Golden Girls. For those of you old enough to remember, Betty White was in the cast of the program. Betty was also recently in a TV Land series called Hot in Cleveland, scored by none other than Ron Wasserman of Fisher. I remember Ron telling me once in an email how he had been tasked to teach Betty how to play the drums.
Not everyone is cut out to have a special needs animal. The reality is that they require a very deep commitment and you will need to have plans in place for the care of a special needs animal if you cannot take them on a trip with you or in the event something happens to you. From where I sit, though, any companion animal is a long-term commitment and you have to be prepared for unexpected veterinary costs, short-term daycare and long-term rehoming in the event of a disaster.
The next time you’re looking to bring a new-to-you animal into your life, think about adopting a special needs animal. Yes, you can get the young dog or young cat with absolutely no health issues and that animal will probably live a really long time and make you very happy. Or you can decide to help that older dog and give him the very best years of his life. Or that diabetic cat who was having trouble finding someone to love her just the way she is. Or that little Miniature Pinscher a little like Walter who may not look like the other dogs you see, but who will make you smile and laugh and cry.
And who will remind you that life truly is precious. And that each day is a gift.
I've made a lot of new friends in the wake of the passing of Harley "Freight Train" Taylor on Sunday; Harley was the 2015 Hero Dog, one of my "clients" and one of my personal heroes.
Like many who have followed Harley's story, I am still struggling to process the fact that he no longer walks the Earth. Our sense of community loss simply cannot compare to the loss of Rudi Taylor and Dan Taylor or even those who spent a lot of time with him like Michele Burchfield, Teddy and National Mill Dog Rescue founders Theresa and Richard Strader. I mean no offense at all when I say that I'm still getting choked up knowing that he is no longer here. I don't really have a right to feel that way, but I do.
As I think about how we all came to know Harley, I think we can all agree that the whole sequence of events was extraordinary, if not magical. He was left in a bucket to die. What are the odds that he would be saved? Surely those odds were against him from the start. Mill dogs die each and every day in ways most of us would find criminal. It is a miracle that he was saved at all.
Then when we think about the family who took Harley in and made them their boy, that is also extraordinary. There are a lot of people who love dogs and a lot of people who could have given Harley a charmed life, far removed from his suffering in the mill. Surely the odds were against him crossing paths with the Taylors who we all must admit are extraordinary people. Their incredible work to help educate the public about mills and to help save other mill dogs is just something magical to behold and it is something many of us would not have the strength to endure.
When I think about the success of the Harley to the Rescue campaign, I just have to smile. Who could know that casting Harley and Teddy as little superheros would affect us all so profoundly? Saving mill dogs is dirty, difficult heart-wrenching work, but because of the incredibly positive energy behind the way it was and is handled, we all smiled and cheered every time they set out on a new mission to save more dogs.
Like all of you, I voted every day for Harley to be named the American Humane Association Hero Dog last year and when I heard he had won, my heart swelled with pride not because I had anything to do with it, but because I knew what it meant to his family and to Teddy's family and to the Straders and to every person who has supported or volunteered with National Mill Dog Rescue. I knew that him being named would change the national discussion about mills and reach so many more people so we can end the mills once and for all. When I watched the ceremony on television, I knew he had already won but I still got all choked up watching the process and hearing Theresa's voice when his name was announced. I found myself crying with a smile on my face so wide that it made my face hurt.
I will not compare losses with any of you. That would just be selfish. But I will say that life has taught me that no one gets to stay, human or canine. We all have a finite amount of time to live and love and learn and try to make a difference. When I find myself so incredibly sad for the loss of Harley, I am reminding myself how incredibly fortunate we all are that we even knew about him in the first place.
Harley's life was both extraordinary and magical. I plan to hold that in my heart when I think about him and as I move forward, working to honor his memory with my new projects related to mill dogs and related to National Mill Dog Rescue.
We are all so very blessed. It's time to get busy to continue Harley's legacy and to honor his truly extraordinary life.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson