I’m standing ankle deep in feces, mud and garbage, staring into the face of a bone thin mama dog who is crouching in a nearly collapsed wooden shed. She has made a bed of trash and cardboard and I can just barely make out her beautiful, terrified face. She is chained. There is a wild, almost feral look in her eyes of long-standing desperation. Meanwhile, her seven pups are wandering around my feet inquisitively, with all the innocence of a brand-new day, tails wagging, eyes shining, bloated bellies toddling atop tiny legs.
The back door of an adjacent trailer opens and a woman with a hallowed face and unsteady shyness approaches hesitantly, apologizing from the moment of her approach, before she even says a word.
I am there at the request of someone nearby who had become aware of the pups and had already seen a few of them die from starvation and dehydration. I am there because we have worked in this impoverished, remote area before and the folks that live here have a tentative trust in us that allows us to occasionally be there and help where we can.
I am there because I want to help, not to judge.
The pups instantly run to the woman the minute they see her. They love her. As she approaches, her slippered feet get covered in a mound of wagging tails, as the pups all scramble to greet her.
The Mama dog then comes out of the shed and approaches the woman too, staying low and eyeing me cautiously; her empty teats sag below her visible rib cage, every bone laid clear under tightly stretched skin.
The woman, who we will call Jenny to protect her identity, pets them with tenderness and familiarity. She then begins what will be a non-stop stream of apologies about their condition. About the condition of her yard and home. About everything. She is deeply ashamed.
The pups were born on the day of the biggest storm of the year, she explains, which is how she knows their age – about five weeks. She had put mom and the pups in a car to try to keep them safe for the first few weeks.
Jenny says she is worried that now the pups are big enough to walk around that they will wander into the nearby road. She wants us to take them. Of course, I say, trying to act casual, while a huge wave of relief crashes on my chest, knowing that they are going to be safe.
I inquire about the Mama dog;would it be possible to take her too? At least to get her spayed and healthy…I fumble a bit in my questioning, trying not to reveal my burning, blinding need to get her off that chain, out of that shed, and into our care.
Jenny is all for it. She knows she can’t care for them. She wants them to have a better life. My heart swells with another wave of relief and immense gratitude toward Jenny for letting them go. Moments later, as I am beginning to round up the pups, I notice Jenny crying quietly, almost imperceivably, as she says goodbye to each dog. She does not waiver in her decision. While some looking in from the outside will never be able to understand this, Jenny loves these animals. She loves them enough to let them go. It’s a big love, really, especially when carried within such a broken heart.
Jenny lives in an area crippled by generations of harsh poverty, drug addiction, and geographic and social isolation. Her weathered face and shaky hands bear the imprint of a life born into and lived within that crushing landscape.
Standing there with Jenny, I am reminded of a quote from someone I admire deeply, Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in L.A.: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
I don’t know what Jenny has had to carry in her life, but I do know it has been heavier than most of us could shoulder without also collapsing into a life filled with bad choices… choices which probably felt more like mandates and predestined outcomes than actual decisions. So instead of standing there and recoiling from the conditions of her life and where she has landed, I chose to admire the flicker of love within her that has somehow, miraculously, survived that load.
Jenny hesitates and then gives me a quick, uncomfortable hug. We say goodbye and I promise to take good care of the dogs, not really knowing what else to say. Climbing into the car, I join Moncho, who has been waiting nearby, nervously wondering what was going on. When we arrived to the location, we had been advised by the person who had alerted us to the puppies to have Moncho wait close by and not to come on the property with me. We were told it would cause Jenny’s husband, who has a severe drug addiction and suffers from paranoia, to become alarmed and not let us in.
I sink into the passenger seat and look down at the mud all over my feet and pants. The pups whine and scuffle from within the carrier. The Mama dog is frozen, absolutely terrified. Moncho starts the ignition, puts his hand on top of mine, and puts the car in reverse out of the driveway. As soon as we are out of eyeshot, I realized I have been holding my breath and finally exhale.
My heart hurts, and so does my head, and I’m just so sorry about all of this. I’m sorry for the Mama dog and what she has been through; the hunger, fear, confinement and struggle. And I sure am sorry for each of those puppies, who were thrust into the world on the day of the biggest storm of the year, into a much harsher life than they could have ever deserved.
And, I’m sorry for Jenny. Real sorry. As is so often the case in the work we do, the difficult realities of the animals we are helping in areas of extreme poverty are an extension of the desolate reality for the people in these communities.
There is no real way to feel better about this. I let the tears come and invite the sadness I feel about Jenny to saddle up next to the many other sorrows I’ve gathered along the way, inviting it to stay there as a constant reminder to me to always orient toward compassion and understanding and to not fall victim to the easy trappings of judgement and condemnation for people bearing loads I can never fully understand.
As for the Mama dog and pups, they are all doing great. Mama is now named Meadow and her initial shyness and apprehension quickly gave way to reveal the friendly, sweet dog she truly is. Just one week out and all are gaining weight and settling into the new lives before them.
Thank goodness for the person who called us to come help. Thank goodness we were allowed onto the property. Thank goodness Jenny let us take them. And, thank goodness I am able to do this work, which breaks my heart almost every single day, but not nearly as much as it fills it back up again. Compassion is a verb. http://www.cwob.org