Despite my having been married to Steve for 22 years, I haven't learned all the lessons in being a kind, considerate and compassionate partner. Instead, sometimes I fall into a space where I impulsively decide to do something and don't check in or consult with others who may be affected.
Again, as in so many situations, the person being impacted was Steve.
But there I was, feeling that I'd been summoned, and was careening headlong in spontaneity.
I knew that if I consulted Steve, he'd say, "No," and placatingly add, "Honey, you can't save all the dogs."
It reminds me of the starfish story-- the little boy walking along the seashore and many starfish are stranded on the beach. He picks up one at a time and returns each creature back to the sea. A man witnesses the little boy's actions and approaches.
"Son, there are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. You couldn't possibly make a difference."
The little boy, unperturbed, reaches down to the next starfish and tosses it into the water.
"I did for that one."
And when I make impulsive, spontaneous decisions to help, I do it with the idea that I am making a difference for that one.
Now this presents an interesting dilemma.
When we intervene to lighten the burden, to help a being in need, are we taking away the learning and growth opportunities provided by whatever challenge the being is experiencing?
And if you extrapolate that idea, should we just sit silently by, allowing things to unfold wherein we witness pain, remorse, devastation or death?
I am particularly touched by the plight of the voiceless. Victims, unable to help themselves and unable to speak up for themselves. Particularly animals.
I've read about, reported on, watched films depicting and personally witnessed cruelty to animals.
I've always felt a particular affinity for animals. All animals. Dogs and horses at the beginning, but it quickly expanded to deer and dolphins, lions and tigers and bears, oh my, the list could go on and on. My mom to this day doesn't like cats so, growing up, I didn't have any experience with them, but I enjoy and appreciate them. Mom had grown up with a dog and she liked dogs, even though she didn't really have time for the additional responsibility in a busy household with four children.
As a child, I witnessed my dad many times become angry upon finding poop or pee on the area rug in the playroom. He would become particularly enraged if he found it by stepping in it. The rug was near the sliding glass door that led to the fenced-in backyard. Sheba or Tipsy had probably urinated inside the house because my parents were too busy to take them for a walk or even think to open the door to allow them to slip outside to do their business. Whether it had been minutes or hours since the accident didn't matter. He'd respond by grabbing newspaper off the counter, rolling it into a tube, then hunt for the dog. Whichever one he'd find first was the one who was punished. He'd grab her and drag her over to the spot, mash her face into the rug, then hit her repeatedly with the rolled-up newspaper, yelling, "Bad dog! Bad dog!" She'd cry and wriggle to get loose and he'd hit her more for not taking her punishment.
"No! Stop!" I'd scream, rushing to protect her and sometimes his ire would turn on me instead. I wish I could tell you that I never felt my father's hand striking me. Sometimes it was his belt, instead.
I may have been about 10 or so at the time. I'd go find the dogs and we'd sneak into my bedroom. The dogs weren't supposed to be in the back part of the house because the rooms were carpeted. I didn't care. I'd sneak them into my bed and stroke and cuddle and love them.
In hindsight, I see the gift.
There's always a gift in adversity. Sometimes we can't see it, but it's there. Sometimes, long after, we're able to have the distance and detachment to reflect on how the obstacle really provided a great benefit.
Witnessing these instances with my father really left a big imprint on me. No matter how afraid I was for myself, the experiences developed a strength in me that spurs me to protect, rescue and defend the helpless, the voiceless, the defenseless. And whether it's a child in need, a battered woman, an senior citizen, an animal, or a tree, it doesn't matter.
So this is the context in which I respond to animals in need.
I knew that the family giving up the animals would also be mourning.
I'd been there, done that as a child, too.
We'd recently moved into "the new house." I was nearly 8. There wasn't a fence around the house yet. I'm sure I'd been clamoring for a dog after watching "Lassie" on TV. Lassie was a collie, so smart, so resourceful, so loyal, and each episode saw her doing something to help others. I wanted a collie. I had been told "when we move into the new house."
A friend of my mom's had a collie and she had had a litter of puppies. I don't remember whether we went to meet the whole litter and pick one out or whether Mom and Dad brought one home, but I was thrilled to have Champagne Lady K or "Lady" join the family.
Like Lassie, Lady was a very smart puppy. And mom was well-meaning, but training a dog while managing the kids and striving to be "the perfect mom" was not always on the top priority list.
One day, Lady slipped out the door that was always opening and closing, and took off running.
My dad took off in pursuit, finally managing to catch her and bring her home.
He told my mom it had been a bad idea to get a dog before we had a fenced-in yard.
My dad grew up in a small town in Texas. He didn't talk about what his life had been growing up. In my adult years, I learned that he'd had a very volatile and angry father who would beat on him and on his mom. When he was a teenager, maybe 16, his dad was again hitting his mom when he intervened. He was nearly as big as his dad by this time, and he stood in front of his mom defensively, and threatened to strike his dad if he continued hitting his mom.
This volatile violence was something with which he was familiar growing up, and he ended up carrying out the same pattern as a young father.
I arrived home from school, eager to come in and unload my books and get a snack. But first, Lady.
She didn't come racing up to greet me as she'd done every day since we'd gotten her.
I was told that Lady had found a new home, one where she could run around and play outside.
They'd decided to give her away. While I was at school. I never had a chance to plead for a different outcome or meet the people who were taking her or tell her goodbye. She was just-- gone.
And this is why Mama's situation touched me deeply.
Knowing that Liraz couldn't help, I'd begun to call people to see if they could take in the male dog. I would talk Steve into letting me foster the mama dog and her two helpless babies.
I called a woman in LA whom I'd met a couple of times through my interest in women's empowerment. She'd recently shared her love for animals and her intention to develop an animal rescue group. Maybe she could help.
Silva asked if the male dog would get along with her cat.
Having not met the dog yet, I really had no way of knowing, but I replied, "Oh! He has a cat. A tuxedo cat," I recalled from the post on Craig's List. "I don't really know but I'm guessing he'd get along fine with your cat."
I was desperate. I was scheduled to go pick up the dogs soon and knew that bringing four dogs into the house-- even with two being helpless babies with their eyes still closed-- was not going to go over well with Steve. We already had two permanent resident dogs and a long-term foster.
Steve is very practical. He thinks about things like how much time goes into the care of the animals and what the related costs are and whether or not I would follow through with my intention to create enough time to care for everyone and still honor my other commitments.
Silva exclaimed, "I have a tuxedo cat, too!"
We both wanted to help. We both felt the pull to defend the helpless.
She agreed to take in not only the tiny 3-lb male Chihuahua-- and I don't know if she's ever even had a dog-- and spontaneously suggested I could bring the cat, too.
I felt relief, knowing that I had support, and I felt deep gratitude that I could call someone I didn't know very well and ask for help and receive a "yes."
I put travel crates in the car and headed over to Anaheim to pick up the dogs and the cat.
On the way, I called Steve.
His reaction was predictable. He was not up for such an interruption to our household.
I didn't care.
"I'm on my way to get them," I said, and then the cell phone beeped with another incoming call. It was Liraz.
I told Steve I'd call him back.
Liraz explained that she knew another woman who might be able to take in the male dog, if I could pick him up and take him to her. I said, "Of course." She told me to call the woman. I agreed to call her later, once I had the animals safely loaded up.
I called Steve back two minutes later. The immediate reaction had dissipated, but he had two conditions.
"One is that you must take care of these animals on your own. Do not ask me for help. Not to walk them or clean up after them. This is on you," he said.
"Second," he continued, "I will move into the guest room so you can get up in the middle of the night and tend to them without disturbing my sleep."
"Done and done," I replied.
I knew with my nocturnal habits, I probably interrupted his sleep or kept him awake too much, anyway, and I wanted to minimize the impact of my decision on him. We hung up and I approached the house.
I didn't expect that I'd spend a long time with the family, but once I arrived and saw the piles and stacks of stuff in the very cluttered and dark living room, I knew that I had the opportunity to transform their experience of this sad situation.
It turned out the person who had posted the ad on Craig's List was a single mom with a little boy, age 7. She lived with her mom and her younger brother, 19, who was attending community college. She worked as a greeter in a popular chain restaurant and made minimum wage. Her mom was recovering from back surgery and was disabled and could no longer work. Ultimately, the family lost its home.
The little boy timidly peered at me.
"Hi," I smiled. "I'm Kaci. What's your name?"
He answered but I didn't understand the name.
"Osben," his mom repeated.
"Hi, Osben. Do you know why I'm here?"
He nodded expressionless.
"Can you tell me?"
"You're here to take our pets," he said, and started to sob.
"Come here," I encouraged him, and he walked over. I held him for what seemed like a long time, maybe five minutes. Thanks to my experience with Lady, I knew what might ease the pain. The power of choice.
"Osben," I began. "You have a situation here which is difficult. Your mom has already decided that she can't take care of the animals any more. And you don't have a choice about that. But you do have a choice as to who takes them. I will let you decide. You can either choose for me to take them, or your mom can find someone else take them. Please let me know when you've decided which you choose."
He looked at me.
After a couple of minutes, he said, "I choose you."
And with that response, I invited them to get the cat first. I took their photos with the cat and they had a few minutes to say goodbye. Bella was big. She was sweet. A big purr baby. I learned she was three years old. We finally put Bella the cat [pictured] in the carrier. It took about 30 minutes.
I did the same with the male dog, Rambo. He clearly belonged to her mother. He wasn't friendly with strangers, and Osben was afraid of him. But he sat on the sofa next to his abuela with the dog on her lap, and his mom on the other side of his grandma, and posed with big smiles for the pictures. Rambo was tiny, just 3 lbs. He was six years old.
Another 30 minutes later, the male was safely in the crate with the leash still attached, in case he wasn't friendly when we arrived at Silva's. (I never recommend reaching into a carrying case when a dog has retreated there for safety. Instead, with a leash on, you can allow the animal to come out of his own volition, and you can reach for the leash without risk of being bitten and prevent the dog from running away.)
Next was the mama dog, age 8, and her two babies, just two weeks old. There was a puppy playpen set up in the garage with towels and blankets and a warming lamp. Clearly they cared about this little family.
The older woman picked up Mama. She held her close while I gently lifted the two puppies and put them in the crate I'd lined with clean, fresh, soft towels.
She had tears in her eyes as I snapped her photo. Her daughter and grandson joined for other photos with the dog, then she put her down, and Mama ran into the crate to be with her babies. I closed the door to the crate.
One at a time, I took each carrier to the car. Osben's mom walked with me.
She shared more. The cat was hers. She was so sad, even as she acknowledged it was in the best interest of everyone to admit that the responsibilities were too great. She knew she needed to relinquish the animals and her commitment to caring for them.
She burst into tears, and I held her for a long time, standing in the empty street.
"I'm glad it's you," she said. "I know you will take good care of them and do the right thing, find them all good homes."
I told her I'd keep in touch and that they'd be safe with me.
It was dark outside, after 9 pm, and I had a message from Silva, wondering where I was. There was also a text from Liraz, reminding me to call the woman who might be able to help.
I'd never been to Silva's house. I returned her call. She gave me the address so I could find it on my cell phone map app.
I headed in her direction, and dialed Steve to let him know I'd be late.
About ninety minutes later, I found Silva's house in the winding streets of the Beverly Hills.
Silva came outside as I pulled up. I brought in Bella's carrier, opened it and reached in and lifted her out. She's a big girl, nearly 20 lbs, and she purred with relief after having meowed much of the drive up to LA. I'd responded by singing, as I so often do, putting my words to some made up tune, hoping to calm and reassure or at least distract everyone.
We sat down and visited for a few minutes, while Silva stroked beautiful, big Bella.
Silva brought out her cat, a much smaller black cat with a white chest and paws.
"I hope they get along," she said.
We waited to see what would happen. Bella padded into the bedroom to see Chloe, who darted under the bed into hiding.
"We'll see," I responded. "Give it some time."
We went outside to my car to get the male Chihuahua. I reached for his crate. He was terrified. He snapped at the mesh window on the carrier, barking and growling. I told Silva I'd take him home with me, not to worry. It was late, after midnight, and I had a long drive back to Orange County. Silva wished me good luck, I thanked her and headed home.