By: Fiona Gerety
Volunteer, adopter, and foster mom
It’s still dark out when our alarms go off. Exhausted from traveling and our first day at the West Memphis shelter, we pile into a large van and drive sleepy-eyed to Pine Bluff Animal Control Center.
There is a different mood on our ride today. Before we get there I’m warned I need to prepare myself for Pine Bluff. This is considered the hardest shelter to visit and my fragile heart is already flinching at what I have yet to see. If ever there was a place to break you it is surely here. Knowing that my very own dog (Oliver) came from this shelter last year doesn’t help.
A group of well of over 20 of us huddle in the parking lot upon arrival to strategize the day. Steph, a LHK9 coordinator, tells us if we need to take a break and cry it’s OK. We can escape to the car or the outside for a breath when we need to. My heart thumps harder with anticipation.
Upon entering the shelter things seem promising. The facility is much more impressive than the prior day, with a shiny white lobby and manicured lawn. But this is just a facade. Once you get through the initial offices and holding areas, you reach Quarantine. Low lit rows of damp dank kennels seem to go on forever. The smell is almost unbearable and the sharp cries from dogs echo loudly.
Inside any given kennel you’ll find a sopping wet dog or young puppy staring up at you with terror filled eyes. They’re afraid, and they should be. Most of them may not make it out. Whether from illness or euthanasia, for some of these pups this is death row; their last stop on what was likely a short and miserable life. This is especially true for those labeled “pit bull”. Due to breed restriction laws in Pine Bluff, pit bulls cannot be adopted out. Their only hope is being selected by a rescue organization and transported. Their hope is almost non-existent. And you feel it. You feel all of it. The desperation washes over me and tears flow down my cheeks. The only answer is to get to work. Make yourself useful. Keep your mind busy. And so we do.
We divide into groups. One by one the dogs are taken out for walks. Sunlight grazes their faces and grass cushions their paws, even if just for a few minutes. Those of us not walking pups are quick to bleach and hose down the filthy kennels, which mostly consist of cold hard slabs of concrete covered in excrement and loosely secured by rusty fencing. Some members of our team also get to work on repairing these fences with the new materials we’ve purchased through our fundraising campaign (thank you donors!).
Each dog is given a warm bath, a nail trimming, and as much TLC as possible. We also take turns bringing the dogs in small groups to receive heartworm testing and vaccinations. The majority of them are heartworm positive and will require treatment if they are allowed to survive.
The day is long and at times grueling. Between caring for as many dogs as I can, I take on the chore of washing vinyl dog beds and placing them in the kennels. This means actually getting into the kennel with the dog and each time I try to stay a moment and give them some affection. My breaking moment comes when I bring a bed to a mama pit bull whose been staring at me for hours through her gate. I place her bed down and try to coax her onto it. “See mama? I has a bed for you! You’re such a good girl”, I tell her. Instead of checking out her bed she plops on top of me. She nuzzles her boxy head into my neck and forces me to hold her. I realize in this moment that she will likely never leave this small kennel. I begin to sob so hard I can barely see. I lay against the wall and hold her to me. She licks my face and attempts to comfort me. This dog, who is afraid for her life, is comforting ME. Not the other way around. If that doesn’t speak to the immense capability dogs have to love, and forgive I don’t know what does. I stay with her for as long as I can, but there is still much work to be done. Leaving her kennel and saying goodbye is like a knife in the heart. “Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back”, I whisper to myself. I look back anyways. Regret sinks in.
After 8 hours of hard work and many accomplishments, we pile back into the van and head home. I replay the day in my mind. All the faces of the dogs we met. The bitter unfairness of breed specific legislation. I’m sad but I try to tell myself we are doing all we can. It’s up to the world to change the way we treat animals. I have to have hope.
The music plays softly on the radio, a welcome distraction. I recognize the song by Alessia Cara but the words hit me differently at this moment. Her beautiful voice belting the lyrics, “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark, you should know you’re beautiful just the way you are. And you don’t have to change a thing, the world can change its heart….”
Let’s get going, world. The pups of Pine Bluff need you.