To cut to the chase, for now we are six. There are twice as many quadrupeds as bipeds living here, and that doesn't count the feral family in the back yard. And as I mentioned, it's been a fairly eventful three months; here's a (not so) brief history:
Go Josie, Go!
Alpha dog Josie has arthritis that has caused nerve degeneration in her spine, so over the past few years she has lost more and more mobility in her back legs. We've tried lots of different adaptive leashes and harnesses and slings to help her get around, and we're pretty used to cleaning up the accidents she can't help because of her disability. We've taken to carrying her outside if she can't get there under her own steam, and one of us always comes home at lunch to give her a bathroom break. We know that her diminishing abilities get her down sometimes--she doesn't like stumbling around and falling. Because of her loss of function and depression, we really wondered whether we should let her go soon.
Sometime in late March a neighbor saw us on our morning walk/stumble and stopped me. She said she had a cart that belonged to her dog who had passed away, and she'd be willing to give it to us. I was definitely interested; in fact I had wanted to check into buying a used doggie wheelchair/cart but had no idea where to begin looking. So the offer of a hand-me-down was providential. Even better, it fit pretty well and Josie took to it immediately.
The cart is from an East Coast company called Eddie's Wheels, and they custom-build based on individual dogs' measurements, but the carts are adjustable to some extent. One of their former employees lives in Guerneville, so we took a day trip out there to have Josie fitted to her new/old cart.
The result has been better than we expected: She goes out in the cart twice a day, and it has strengthened her back end and improved her balance, so that she even gets around a bit better without it. And it's given her back confidence--she gets to choose where she walks, and she even challenges other dogs again. For an alpha dog, that's huge. We don't tell her she still can't do much damage; it's the attitude that counts.
New Year's 2009 was the 15th anniversary of the J-Dog coming to live with us (which makes her 16 or 16 1/2), and I was mentally composing an elegiac post for her back then. (The stack of photos of her that I pulled is still waiting to be scanned, and I still owe her a real photo album.) But here it is six months later, and she's holding her own.
Our next-door neighbor is an elderly woman who has always been eccentric, but in the past year has shown clear signs of dementia. And the companion who was her main source of support left the situation (with the complete approval of everyone who knows them). I've never liked this woman (she was the self-involved, talk-your-ear-off kind of crazy and staged screaming fights in the wee hours; since I'm prone to insomnia, this made me murderously angry), and I've avoided her for years. But around Thanksgiving I shamed myself into making sure that she got something to eat periodically. We realized then that she couldn't take care of herself and called Adult Protective Services.
When she was briefly hospitalized in December, Jane wanted to make sure her cats were cared for, so we went into her house and found it was filled with trash. I called her social worker and said the house wasn't safe for her to live in, but legally they had to let her return home. For the next few months she stayed in her house as her family and APS tried to improve her situation and she resisted. In late March one of her two cats died, and she called us to help her. Jane went over and took the dead cat out to the trash for her.
Finally in early April she was hospitalized again, and again we worried about the remaining cat. Her family asked us to look after it, and we decided to try to trap it, so we could at least care for it over here, rather than going into the house next door. But Zizi resisted trapping for weeks on end. I consulted with animal control, and they also tried trapping him without success. On their advice even the water was removed, and they left a way for him to escape the house, with the idea that he'd leave and maybe show up with our ferals for food.
More weeks went by, and Zizi never showed himself or went into a trap. The city got involved in cleaning up the house and yard, and I pretty much convinced myself that he had died. Jane heroically made a final walk-through of the house to look for him (going in meant picking up fleas, as well as climbing over garbage), checked out the back door, and caught a glimpse of a cat that looked like him diving under the house. We set a trap in the crawl space and caught him by the next morning.
We took him to the animal shelter, where he got hydrated and fed, vaccinated and flea-treated. We visited him regularly because we also became shelter volunteers in the past three months. Amazingly, one of Jane's work friends adopted Zizi within a week of his coming to the shelter. He now lives in a San Francisco studio with another cat, and he's adjusting nicely to his new, uncluttered life and getting lots of love and playtime.
The Shelter and Little Big Man
In March Jane and I went through training and orientation to be volunteers at Berkeley Animal Care Services, our municipal animal shelter. I can't really explain my motivation to volunteer at a shelter when we have our hands full of pets at home, but knowing I'll need a kitty fix when we no longer have the Orange Boy is part of it, and rescue fantasies are surely a big chunk of it. Also, I inquired about volunteering with Bad RAP late last year, and for whatever reason they never got back to me.
So once or twice a week, sometimes together and sometimes individually, Jane and I go to the shelter and play with cats or walk dogs. BACS is a low-kill shelter, which means that they euthanize only as a last resort. Even though they work hard to get animals out of the shelter and into homes (even foster homes), sometimes animals are there for weeks and months at a time, and we volunteers get to know them and get attached to them. Jane and I have talked often about how doing this volunteer work requires compartmentalization. Mostly, I just focus on what I can do for an individual animal in a single hour, to avoid being overwhelmed and just wandering the aisles of the kennel, bawling.
But I see the potential in every dog I walk, and engage in a mini-rescue fantasy about how great it would be to have him or her in a good home with a loving owner. I've already tried to persuade my parents to take Satin,
a deaf 9-year-old shepherd-cattle dog mix. (She looks like Tina's big sister, and she's a sweet old thing.) Since Satin has been in the shelter for two months and still hasn't found a home, I'm not done working on my parents...
Jane and I have also talked often about what to do when Josie goes, and what kind of dog we'd get next. I've always said I wanted to scale back to two pets, and that we should wait and give Tina a chance to be top dog. I was also emphatic that our next dog needed to be dog-social, not a terror like the young Josie was. We agreed that we wanted a small dog next, who wouldn't threaten scaredy-cat Tina. As much as our hearts went out to the old dogs at the shelter like Satin, no one was talking about getting another dog now.
But then the shelter volunteers and staff began a campaign to find a home (either foster or permanent) for Coffee, an arthritic 9-year-old chihuahua who had lived at the shelter for three months. And I started to fantasize about whether it maybe, possibly might be OK to add one more small dog to the mix at home. I knew that senior shelter volunteers sometimes took longtime shelter residents for a weekend taste of home life. Jane agreed we could "check him out" for a trial run, so I asked the shelter director if we could. Coffee exhibited some dog-aggressive behavior while in the shelter, so a seamless transition wasn't a sure thing at all.
Last Friday I brought him home for what might have been just a weekend visit--but he joined the household pack with relative ease. Josie has magnanimously decided to tolerate him. Tina isn't thrilled about the competition for love and treats but thinks he's kinda OK. We can see that the two of them are going to team up and be pals in time. Orange Boy spends most of him time in bed, but when he's up, he isn't threatened by Coffee, merely annoyed.
Last Saturday I headed out to buy pet supplies, and Jane told me to get Coffee a bed and a nametag--because we both knew all along that he was home to stay.
Orange Boy's Long Road
In dealing with kitty's illness over the past couple of years, we've done things we never thought we would or could, like sticking him with a needle to administer subcutaneous hydration. We've learned not to be thrown into high anxiety by a few days of lethargy and low appetite, and we've learned to appreciate the way he is now rather than constantly mourning the way he used to be. I miss him making a beeline for my lap in the mornings, but I'm glad now when he wants our company.
And yet I'm feeling with increasing certainty that it's time to let him go, because he's losing ground. He's had a rough week, even after visiting the vet following the last rough week. He is being treated with everything that makes sense (4 drugs in addition to the hydration). It's really, really hard to know how much quality of life is enough, and whether we are keeping him here for him or for us. I just know he's a huge piece of my life and my heart.