Ellie

The little black and white dog was either going to be known as Animal Aid #95-110, or she was going to become a permanent marker on highway 51.

A local group focused on rescuing and rehabilitating injured pets and then rehoming them, Animal Aid relies heavily on its volunteer force. On standby for the phone call describing an animal in need, I was always eager to assist whenever I could. The chance for success is typically pretty clear from the description of the rescue, but this one had my heart in my throat from beginning to end. A little dog had been spotted on the grassy median between the eastbound and westbound lanes of highway 51, just outside of Tulsa. The timing couldn’t have been worse. A heavily traveled route, highway 51 was preparing for its afternoon rush hour, so I knew I had to hurry. 

When I got to the median I drove as slowly as was safe in the left lane of the three-lane highway. I scanned the grassy strip carefully as cars whizzed past me on my right. No dog. Off the exit ramp, and back onto the highway, headed east. Again, I scanned the… Aha! I spotted a black and white lump in the center of the median. Her entire body flattened against the ground, she seemed to be saying “Nobody here but us grasses…” By now traffic was picking up and I had to make some quick decisions. I drove past her and pulled off the highway, onto the left shoulder. I immediately realized this poor dog had nowhere to go. About 300 yards of grassy median lay ahead of her, but then it narrowed into a tiny strip, and was eventually swallowed up by the opposing highway lanes. I recognized the intense seriousness of the situation, and sat motionless for a few minutes, planning my approach. 

I could see her in my side mirror, and I could tell she was terrified. I knew I was too close to her, but I took a chance and opened the car door. Her head instantly popped up, and she bolted past my car, heading full speed down the median toward a grisly, tragic end. I froze. Two hundred yards from the end she sat down. Within seconds a green Bronco pulled over, stopped next to her, and spit out a woman in high heels. Wearing a dark skirt and blazer, she gingerly started towards the dog, calling out and clapping her hands loudly. Clearly horrified, the dog ran full speed toward the end of the median. My heart was racing. One turn to the left or the right and she would meet with certain disaster. She finally stopped a mere 20 yards from the end and flopped down in the grass. I wanted to scream at the lady but she had already gotten into her truck and was moving off into the beastly traffic. I was torn between trying again or abandoning the rescue until rush hour was over. 

I drove back onto the highway and scanned the traffic. Back off the next exit, turn onto the highway, off at the next exit, and then back on. This time I drove past the dog and positioned my car as close to the end as possible. I just had to try again, and this way, if I sent her scampering once more she would hopefully head back up the median away from my car and the deadly flow of traffic. I opened my car door and got out very casually, armed with an open can of odiferous cat food. I never looked in the direction of the dog, rather, I kneeled down in the grass about 5 yards from her. She didn’t move. When using food in a rescue I typically try to place myself upwind from an animal for maximum effect. This time I had little choice and I realized the wind was not in my favor. The food isn’t only used to entice an animal but also to establish that a) I might be okay since we like the same things, and b) I am preoccupied with something other than the animal. In this case, I was thrilled to notice that the dog had not budged, so I knew I had a chance for establishing a relationship. 

The cars continued to whiz past and I prayed that no one else would stop to help. Humming, I proceeded to play with the food, using a plastic fork to flip some here and there in the grass, occasionally “eating” a bite and smacking loudly. I finally looked over at her, as if noticing her for the first time. She remained motionless, her entire body plastered to the ground. I looked away, then glanced her way again briefly, finally surmising that she was an adorable black and white Basset Hound mix puppy, her white nose sprinkled with little black spots. Her big sad eyes looked up at me, seemingly begging for kindness. I casually flipped some food her way, and she gobbled it up unashamedly. I took another “bite” and then flipped her some more, a little closer to me so that she had to belly crawl to reach it. It was very clear in my actions that I wasn’t feedingher, I was sharingwith her. We were becoming friends. I named her Ellie and cooed to her softly as she licked the grass where the food had been. Tricking a dog is not only difficult but also risky. Talking too softly or moving too slowly can be as suspicious and as threatening to a frightened animal as clapping hands are. A frightened or injured animal’s senses are generally heightened, particularly their sense of self preservation. They will employ whatever defenses are least confrontational, typically opting for flight at the slightest provocation or suspicious behavior. 

So, we did this several times, flip, crawl, flip, crawl… until I started worrying I would run out of food. Ellie was about two feet away from me at this point so I held out a handful of food matter-of-factly and she gently took it, her soft tongue melting in my hand as she licked. I scooted over to her sideways, patted her head, and held the can out to her. It was clear I was not posing a major threat. I held my breath. I slowly looped the nylon choke leash around her neck and snugged it down, wrapping the end of the leash around my hand several times. In doing so, I realized the potential for rope burns on my hands, but I couldn’t afford to lose Ellie if she suddenly balked. As calm as she appeared, I knew her demeanor could change in a flash, as soon as she bumped against the choke around her neck. She never budged. In fact, I had to pick her up to put her into my car, which presented yet another danger. Without any way of protecting my face from hers, I lifted her up and could do little more than hope she wouldn’t go for a piece of my nose. This is especially risky and not recommended when dealing with an injured animal as one can never really be sure of the extent of their internal injuries. Fortunately, this little girl was clinging to me, wrapping her front legs around my chest, and attempting to claw her way up my torso. I opened the back door of my Escort wagon and plopped her on the seat. Shoving her over, I climbed in, and slammed the door. She flattened herself out and hugged the seat just as she had done in the grass, so I crawled to the front and climbed into the driver’s seat. Then I exhaled. 

Ellie spent two weeks the animal hospital before being adopted by a wonderful family with two gentle children. During her stay at the hospital she got the full work up of vaccinations, testing and worming, as well as her spay. She also came out of her shell and blossomed into a wiggly, smiley little girl with lots of personality.  Just like my own basset mix, Heidi, when she was excited Ellie would bend her body in half, so that her tail smacked her in the face as she wiggled in circles. Round and round she’d go; wagging and blinking, wagging and blinking…

The Kitten

I don’t bother wondering any more why it is that every time I take a different path from my normal routine I find an animal in distress. Instead I have become somewhat of a believer that there is a reason for everything. 

Well… almost everything.

One rescue which actually challenged this belief came on a frigid January morning as I made my way through the maze of highways leading in and out of Tulsa’s downtown district. Heading toward the city zoo for my weekly docent training, I decided to skirt the inner city and navigate the outer edges. I was busy switching lanes to make the series of prescribed exits when something caught my eye. I instantly groaned and my heart sank as I located a small, black kitten high up on a grassy hill, playfully tackling something in the weeds. Completely unaware that he was surrounded by deadly highways resembling a den of  writhing, pulsating snakes, the kitten was totally absorbed in his amusement. This was clearly not a kitten-friendly situation. Staring hard and taking a detailed mental photograph of the exact location of the stranded kitty, I determined my best approach. Thankful my car had a mind of its own and knew to stay in its lane, I turned around in my seat and looked back at the highways as they angrily circled their prey. 

I spent the next 20 minutes becoming steadily more frustrated, exiting different ramps in pursuit of the one which would put me directly above or alongside the kitty. At least the kitten was staying in the same spot, stalking and occasionally pouncing on something in the tall grasses. Relieved, I concentrated harder on finding the right turn off. By this time I was already so late for my docent class that I had resigned myself to missing it altogether and instead focused on the rescue at hand. I finally found the off ramp which would place me closest to the kitten and yet keep me out of danger from the steady traffic. My worst nightmare is chasing an animal into a disastrous situation and realizing things would’ve been better left alone, so I was very careful to survey the situation and plan my approach. I decided to come from above the kitten and hoped I wouldn’t scare it down the hill into traffic. 

I pulled off of the ramp, onto the grass, and turned off the engine. I sat a moment, waiting for a lull in the traffic, my car rocking with each passing vehicle. When I got out of the car minutes later, the fierce wind bit into me with such determination, it was difficult not to take it personally. I crouched down on all fours in the grass and slowly moved toward the side of the hill, cooing softly.  Suppressing a sneeze, I pulled my jacket collar high up on my neck. No sign of kitty. Cresting the hill, I moved forward cautiously until I saw movement out of the corner of my right eye, about 15 feet from me! Avoiding eye contact, I immediately looked away and engaged in a distraction tactic I have used successfully on several rescues; I engrossed myself in play with an imaginary bug in the grass in front of me. Substituting a small rock for the bug, I poked, tossed and sniffed it, hoping to arouse the kitten’s curiosity. By now my fingers were numb from the cold, my nose was dripping, my eyes were watering, and my ears were nonexistent. 

After a few minutes of animated play I decided it was time to confront the kitten and invite it to join in. I continued to grab at rocks while gently tossing my head to the left to determine the success of my antics. I focused casually at first, and then stared in utter disbelief. Hung up on the weeds of the overgrown hillside my “kitten” was actually a small, black, plastic trash bag. It took on a breath of air, then exhaled, dancing a few inches to the left, and then back to the right in unmistakeable cruel mockery. Moments later, and still hovering on the edge of denial, I heard a man’s voice yell from a car behind mine. 

“Hey lady… You alright? Need some help?”

A Hairy Introduction

As far as we know, everyone gets One. Everyone. Just One. Nobody gets a second go-round, we all have only one shot at life. That is why I never felt justified in taking another one’s One. This made eating a cheeseburger as a child complicated, and caused me to question my beliefs and commitments. But when I was around 12 years old I discovered I really, really liked bologna. This proved to be a problem. It didn’t exactly resemble an animal, and it was rumored to be made up of discarded animal parts… So, was it wrong to eat bologna or would it place me in the category of some sort of cleaner, like a vulture? Hmm. I eventually decided all meat and by-products contributed to the harvesting of animals and so I declared a meat-free existence. Naturally, challenging tidbits and enlightening comments such as “Broccoli wants to live, too” surrounded me constantly, creating a defensive and very confusing environment. Fortunately, my family had a gentle approach to nature and calmly entertained my vegetarian demands with platefuls of, well…  vegetables.

I remember distinctly when my vegetarian journey started. It was one summer morning while I was sitting peacefully at our neighbor’s pond watching their cows graze. I eventually fell back in the tall grass and closed my eyes. The warm sun and slight breeze put me into a sort of trance. I wasn’t exactly asleep, just in the in-between state of semi-consciousness. When I regained my senses 30 minutes or so later, I opened my eyes a slit and held my arm across my face to block out the sun. I focused and discovered a large, wet, cow nose inches from my own. The smell of fresh grass and warm breath blew into my face with the force of a large balloon exhaling. Suddenly a big, rough-looking tongue protruded from under the nose and entered one of its nostrils in front of me. I was clearly being examined up close. I moved my arm to prop myself up and in so doing startled what turned out to be the entire herd of 15 or so cows. They had encircled me; this foreign lump growing without purpose in their pasture. I eventually scattered the herd by sprouting legs and wandering back through the brief woods toward home for lunch. Ah, lunch. Cheeseburgers. I had not quite yet made the connection until that moment. I knew hamburgers came from cows… but REAL cows?

A declared vegetarian from then on, I promised to uphold all living things and do what I could to preserve life. This included gently removing spiders from windowsills, “cupping” wasps and placing them outside, as well as rescuing worms after a rain. The latter was actually something I’d learned from my father who would spend what seemed like hours walking up and down our driveway, flicking drowning worms into the grass with his car keys after a rain. A physicist, he was a quiet man, a thinker, and he did this routine so methodically I wondered if there was some sort of deeper satisfaction to be gained from this ritual. I found myself doing the same thing years later, mumbling the phrase “Just one more!” as did Private Doss during his famous rescue of fallen soldiers in the movie Hacksaw Ridge.

A big heart for rescues, my mother accumulated several dogs and cats during my childhood. One cat in particular took a liking to snoozing in the upstairs bathroom towel closet. Every time anyone took a shower they eventually ended up with a face full of cat hair. Not to mention the hairy socks. Shuffling through the house in socks resulted in a unique cat-hair quality, with every other article of clothing eventually also earning a particular mohair look.

My mother first realized I mirrored her concerns for animals when she dropped me and my two brothers off at the local library one dreary afternoon. I’m certain this was as much so she could have some quiet time as it was entertainment for us. She watched from the car as we walked to the front door of the building, but she must’ve pulled away from the curb too soon. I never made it inside. My brothers left me outside with a fat black and white kitty that was purring loudly and head-butting my upper body as I sat on a wall at the entrance to the library. Two hours later my mother returned, and was shocked to find me sitting on the wall with my new friend. The library was in an older  run-down area of town surrounded by narrow streets; not exactly a safe place for a stray kitty. “Mew” came home with us and produced seven lovely kittens in our linen closet two weeks later, thereby explaining her initial plumpness. She eventually transferred them to the basement, one at a time, somewhere up in the rafters, amongst the fiberglass. Concerned with the consequences of the environment, we retrieved her little family and relocated them into a bedroom closet, which she accepted.

I started marveling at all facets of life at a young age, staring into the faces of glorious insects for minutes at a time, imagining what life must be like for them. Animals fascinated me, and I wanted to feel what they felt, to understand what mattered to them, and to know what they thought of us. I soon decided we didn’t treat animals with the appropriate amount of respect and that I wanted no part in this. Growing up near the ocean, plenty of trips to the beach were in order during the summer months, and they consequently proved my point. Naturally the beach was a popular destination, where families with young children could be seen romping along the shoreline. My day would frequently turn into one of desperation, as I would witness a young child filling a bucket with crabs, sea stars, or some other hapless creatures. I would try to reason calmly with the offender, starting with “How would you like it if someone put you into a bucket….” And later, nearing controlled hysteria, “You know they carry diseases…” The minion would typically ignore me and trot off to retrieve more unsuspecting creatures for the collection. It remains a mystery how the bucket would almost always tip over, expelling the rapidly moving contents into the safety of the ocean before the warden could possibly be notified… but it happened.

I wanted to respect animals in their own right, not to have or hold everything. Let animals do what nature intended them to do. People, children especially, seem to want to “have” or “keep” animals taken from the wild. The critters are then forced to live out their lives in a box of sorts where they couldn’t possibly behave as they were designed to. I found it much more interesting to observe them in their natural state. The desire to confine them seemed foreign to me and I realized a determination to assist animals in need.

Rescuing animals comes naturally to me, given my upbringing and inherent sensitivity toward others. I try to help animals in distress to reach safety and to encourage them into an appropriate environment. While there are certainly situations where help is impossible without causing a threat to others, most of the time there is something that can be done. This is why I choose to act, to do something, rather than sit idly by. It’s not always convenient, not always practical, but it is always rewarding knowing I did something. We all get One. And we’re all leaving wearing the same clothes in which we arrived, some of us perhaps a tad hairier.