03/17/2015 11:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Errand of Mercy


I made the mistake of visiting an LA animal shelter unattended recently, and surprised my wife when I returned with three beat-up, old dogs.

My original mission was to rescue a Pomeranian, Daisy, scheduled for execution after outliving her welcome at the shelter. Daisy is a 12-year-old who was dumped off at the shelter to die after becoming inconvenient to her human. Anyone with a heart who has visited one of these urban kill shelters knows well that this is an unconscionably cruel end to the life of a dog who has given unconditional devotion to its human companion. The shelters are physically barren, scarce on medical attention and comfort, pervaded by the smell of urine and an atmosphere of fear and terrible sadness. The animals have been abandoned. They don't know why. They just know they miss their humans terribly, even monsters like the one that gave up Miss Daisy.

The original plan was that my wife and I would simply be a stop on the rescue railroad for Daisy on her way to a foster home in Denver. While I was waiting at the shelter for Daisy to be fetched, a woman walked in the door with a tiny 10-year-old Norfolk Terrier named Waif. Waif had been adopted by the woman, who decided to return her because her vet found that Waif had too many medical problems. I watched the scene anxiously as the woman placed the little dog on the counter and discussed her predicament with the worker. Focused on the conversation, the woman was unaware that Waif, fully aware of her location, was attempting to hide in the woman's arms. Ultimately, Waif was pried away from the woman and taken away. I had overheard that Waif had a serious heart murmur. Having lost a cherished old dog last year to congestive heart failure, I knew how Waif was going to die. There was no possible way I was going to allow that to happen in this horrible place. I told the staff that I wanted Waif.

While I sat waiting for, now, two dogs, the worker told me,"Y'know, she's got a brother."

As it turns out, their story was virtually identical to Daisy's -- they had been abandoned at the end of their lives to die in the shelter. My heart knotted further.

"Ok, let's take a look," I sighed.

Waif's "brother" turned out to be a sister, completely blind, who was sound asleep in her cage. The shelter worker touched her, and she awoke, scanning the room with her sightless milky eyes and sniffing the air with a congested wheeze. She stretched and laid back down.

"Ok, I'll take her," I told the worker.

"You're doing a good thing," he replied.

I was not so sure, but I also knew I had no choice. My wife and I already cared for four other rescue dogs, in addition to four rescue horses, and a rescue pig. Our three new old additions to the family were all special needs dogs, and were going to require a tremendous amount of medical care and TLC. I was making a huge unilateral decision for our family, which is unheard of in our relationship.

"You did what??" my wife said over the cell phone when I gave her the news as I drove home from the shelter with a carload of dog. Indeed I had, and when my wife saw Waif for the first time, she knew that she would have done the very same thing.

Thankfully, I was not in the doghouse.

It's been a while and our three new charges are coming along nicely. Daisy's rescue train came off the tracks, so my wife and I decided to keep her, at least for the time being. She appears to have been abused, and though she always wants to be near us, she is very nervous about being touched and often snaps. Given her needs, we did not want to give her up to anyone we had not personally met and trusted.

Waif indeed has a life-threatening heart murmur, though she is not yet showing the dreaded symptoms of congestive heart failure. She loves to putter around in the yard when we take her outside (all of our dogs live indoors with my wife and me.)

We now call Waif's sister Snufulupagus, because of her nasal congestion, probably due to an infection from rotted teeth and gums. All three dogs have terrible teeth, and Daisy had her few remaining removed by our vet. Waif and Snuf are following suit and will be dining on soft food for the rest of their lives. Once Snuf recovers from her dentistry, she's heading off to an eye clinic, where we are going to evaluate her options for restoring her sight. Meanwhile, she is becoming increasingly ambulatory, exploring the house, and learning where the walls and furniture are. Waif and Snuf always sleep together, and Waif cleans Snuf's face and eyes every day. They seem genuinely happy to be reunited.

As for me, I light up when I see these dogs and know that they are happy, comfortable, and well fed. As is the case with our dogs, I've come back from the dark place where we all met for the first time, and I experienced the hopelessness and futility of what the shelter represented. There were some 200 animals in the shelter that day, and many had the same incomprehensible stories as Daisy, Waif, and Snuf. On days like those, if there are indeed a thousand points of light, it seems as though there must be a million darknesses. While I waited an eternity at the shelter for my dogs' paperwork to be shuffled around a classic municipal slate gray office, yet another frightened dog was led through the front door by his human.

Sure enough, the following morning, the dog's picture was on the shelter's website.