The day started out like any other day. Ordinary and uneventful – just the way I like it. I’d been running errands when, as if pulled by an invisible force, I stumbled onto an animal adoption event in full swing. I picked up my pace, but a girl wearing a blue apron stepped in front of me.
“Hello!“ she said, her voice a bit too cheery. “Would you like to see one of our dogs? All of them are vaccinated and neutered.”
“Oh, thanks, but no. I just . . .”
“What about a kitten? Wouldn’t you just love a sweet little ball of fur to cuddle?”
“I would, but I can’t get a pet right now. Sorry.” I continued walking, trying to ignore crate after crate, each one housing an animal in need.
I couldn’t help myself. I stopped to read the card clipped onto the door of a crate with a small, curly haired, white mutt: “Chloe was found wandering the streets, hungry, cold, caked in mud. Eighteen pounds, she’s sweet and playful and about four years old. No cats, please.
The next crate – a black dog with feet the size of salad plates: “Freddy was only hours away from being euthanized when rescued from a high kill shelter. Labrador mix. One year old, smart, highly trainable. Loves to take walks and eat. Weight expectation: 90 plus lbs.”
The stories continued: Twiggy was dumped at the shelter when her owner moved away . . . Buttercup was tied to a fence and abandoned . . . Josie was found in a cardboard box . . .
I could hardly stand it. Each story broke my heart, but I was in no position to adopt a dog. Our beloved boxer, CC, had been gone barely a year. It was too soon to replace her. I’d feel disloyal. And to be honest, after ten years of having a pet, I was enjoying the freedom of animal non-ownership. No worries about getting home late; no vet bills; no fleas; no dug-up flowers; no accidents.
As I hurried toward my car, I passed a few cages pushed off to the side, no index cards clipped to the doors. A flash of brindle caught my attention. I turned. My resolve melted. Before I knew it, I was staring into the eyes of a beautiful brindle boxer. The dog’s bones stuck out like spareribs at the butcher shop. I knelt beside the cage, and he lifted his head with considerable effort.
“He’s not available.” The girl who had offered me a kitten was next to me.
I looked up. “Why not?”
“We just got him yesterday, and we can’t release animals until owners have a chance to claim them. Pretty sure nobody’s looking for this one though.”
The dog lowered his head, as if giving up.
“Poor guy,” I said. “Is he eating?”
“A little. When they’re half-starved like this, we’ve got to be careful. He gets a little soft food four times a day, like a puppy. Anyway, are you sure you wouldn’t want a kitten?”
I ignored the kitten question. “What’s his name?”
The girl sighed. “Doesn’t have one. We’ll give him one eventually, if he survives.”
I sat on the ground. “Can I pet him?”
“Sure.” She unlatched the hook.
The dog pushed the door open with his nose. I patted the top of his head and could feel the knobby bones of his skull. He scooted out a few inches and sniffed me.
“Can we let him out?” I asked.
“Let me get my boss.”
A minute later, a woman was standing next to me with leash in hand. She slipped the collar over his head. “I’m Diana,” she said. “This poor fella isn’t doing so well.” She made little kissing sounds and tugged gently on the leash.
The dog lumbered to a standing position. He was taller than I’d expected. His square head perfectly shaped but too large on his emaciated body. The ears had not been cropped, but the tail had, albeit improperly. I blinked back tears. I could tell he was pure boxer. He would have been gorgeous if somebody had cared for him. Diana handed me the leash. I walked backwards, and the dog came with me, taking tentative steps.
“His paw pads are raw from walking the streets.”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“We think about a year.”
“Where does he sleep?”
“I had him last night,” Diana said. “But he’ll go to the shelter tonight. We have way more dogs than we can handle, and the bigger ones are really difficult. You wouldn’t want to house him, would you?”
“What do you mean? For tonight?”
“Yeah, or you could foster him. You know, take care of him until he’s ready to be adopted.”
I looked at the dog. He looked at me. I was about to recite my excuses, but then heard myself say: “Uh, I guess.”
I filled out an application. With all the questions, you would have thought I was taking a baby home. An hour later, Diana and I walked to my car with kibble, crate, ointment for the paws, feeding instructions, list of phone numbers, and the nameless dog I’d just agreed to foster.
“Listen,” Diana said. “He’s really frail. If he doesn’t make it, don’t blame yourself. If nothing else, at least he’ll know he was loved in the end.” Together we lifted him into my car.
My husband and two young sons embraced the task at hand. We were determined to do everything possible to nurse this dog back to health. I refused to name him, though. A name would be one more thread attaching us to the poor animal, and if he died it would be that much harder. But after a few days, we got tired of saying “the dog” all the time, and “the dog” was pretty much all we talked about. We named him Max. My sons threw sleeping bags on the floor and slept next to his crate. My husband called home four times a day to check on him. And I stayed by Max’s side hours at a time, stroking his head, rubbing ointment on his paws, watching him nibble at his food. Max rewarded me with gentle licks and brown-eyed gazes that expressed trust and gratitude.
A week after I’d brought him home, Max developed a hacking cough. I called Diana. She sent me to the vet who had seen Max the day he was rescued. After diagnosing him with kennel cough, the vet gave the dog a quick exam. “His paws look better, that’s good. And he’s gained a little weight. Be sure to give him the medicine with food.”
“Will he be okay?”
The vet scratched Max’s ears. “I hope so. He’s had a rough go of it. I need to see him in a week. Can you bring him back?”
“Of course,” I said. “When will we neuter him?”
“Well, he has to get over the cough. And I’d like him to gain more weight. Then we’ll see about neutering. No point in . . . “ the vet stopped. But I knew what he was going to say.
“He’s going to live,” I said. “He’s already so much better. And we’re taking good care of him.”
“I can see that.” The doctor picked up Max’s chart. “Be sure to make a follow-up appointment on your way out.”
The cough cleared, his paws toughened up, and his muscles thickened. The vet neutered Max two weeks later. Ten days after that Diana called. She said it was time for Max to find his forever home. I told her he already had.
“My family loves him. He loves us.”
“I thought you didn’t want to adopt right now,” Diana said.
“I changed my mind.”
We formalized the paperwork, and Max became part of our family. Every day he grew stronger, healthier, and more confident. We were dog owners once again.
There’s never a perfect time to rescue an animal. But homeless pets can’t wait. They need their forever homes now. Right away. Today. One year after we took in Max, I heard about a female boxer whose owners didn’t want her anymore – they thought she was too much trouble. So we adopted Lucy. And then Bogie . . .
On a cool autumn morning, Max slipped outside to nap in his favorite spot – inside of a circle of sunlight that warmed the grass. He died peacefully, his heart full, his life perfect, his journey over. We had given him his forever home, and, in the end, he knew how much he was loved.