Monday, July 25, 2011


"We don't give them names."

That was what the woman working at the Humane Society told Iain and me when we asked the name of the dog we were playing with in the "family room," a tiny cinderblock room with a desk, some chairs, and a couple of ancient toys too sad to pique the curiosity of any animal. It was meant to be a space for prospective adopters to spend time with a dog or cat, to see how they would behave in a home environment, but it doesn't look like a home.

This, you see, is not a rescue organization or a no-kill shelter that takes in only adoptable animals; this is a place that takes in everyone, and keeps them alive as long as they can, in the hope they will be adopted before the next round of strays and dumps and regretful relinquishments come through the door. Many of these animals aren't housebroken. The "family room" needs floors, and chairs, and walls that can be easily cleaned.

It was the second area shelter we'd visited that day, taking dogs that otherwise wouldn't get them for walks and petting the cats and handling puppies—including a litter of pitbulls younger than any puppy Iain had ever seen in person; he held them gingerly, like he might break them. Both of them are high-kill shelters, not for lack of love or dedication by the people who work there, but for lack of funds and resources and space to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of homeless and abandoned animals in the area, where the busting of large dog fighting rings and backyard breeding operations are not unusual.

There are dozens of local rescue organizations—some breed-specific, some who will take any dog or cat that isn't aggressive or untreatably terminally ill—and they work with the shelters to save as many animals as possible through rescue and adoption. But it is impossible to save them all.

And it is because so many of the animals die that they aren't given names by the staff, if they don't come in with one. It's a heartbreaking enough job, without coming up with a name for every cat and dog on death row.

So the stray in the family room with us didn't have a name, until we gave her one.

Zelda, a medium-sized black and tan dog, lying on the floor in the living room at Shakes Manor, grinning
Zelda, the newest resident of Shakes Manor.

We've been talking, at my instigation, about rescuing a second dog for awhile, although I expected we would get one from a rescue organization, from a foster home, like we did with Dudley, from people who could tell us something about the dog. We went to meet several dogs, who were lovely, but they just weren't the right dogs for us, for impalpable reasons best, although not perfectly, filed under chemistry.

A week ago Saturday, I didn't expect to bring home a dog from the pound. But there she was, this little nameless two-year-old stray, a black dog on death row, to whom none of the families looking to adopt dogs that day were paying the slightest bit of attention. I pointed her out to Iain, who was busily making eyes at a bluetick hound puppy in the cage next to her. We had already walked a few other dogs, pet them and praised them, and put them back in their cages. After we'd walked Zelda, we took her into the family room, which was empty for the first time since we'd been there, and I said to Iain, "I'm going to have a really hard time putting this little girl back in her cage."

So, basically, we didn't.

We asked if the cat who's used to test dogs could be brought in. Zelda sniffed at her, wagged her tail. The cat was not the slightest bit alarmed. We told Zelda what a good girl she was; she sat in front of us and grinned, her blue-spotted tongue lolling out of her mouth.

"Well," I said to Iain, "she's terrible on the leash. And she can't stand having her paws touched, which will make clipping her nails a challenge."

Iain shrugged. "If she were perfect, she wouldn't need us to rescue her."

We drove home and got Dudley. He's never met a dog (or cat, or person) he didn't like, and Zelda was no exception. Having gotten his stamp of approval, we signed the paperwork, paid $80 to spring her, and she was ours.

At the vet, where she got her vaccines, we found out, to our relief, she is heartworm negative—amazing for a stray in this area. Even the vet was unable to clip her nails: "You might have to have her sedated," he suggested. We've started paw-touch training in the hope of avoiding that.

Zelda lies on the floor, and Dudley lies on the couch with his tongue hanging out, both sleeping

We've also started leash-training, because she is, as Iain describes it, "impolite on the leash," or, as I describe it, "a total nightmare." She's already getting better, though—and this morning's walk was downright verging on pleasant. Dudley is a trooper—and even though he howls like he's being murdered by the devil himself and gives me a pitiable look of wretched aggrievement when Zelda's leash catches him up, he is being a ridiculously good sport, showing her the ropes and welcoming her in every way.

She definitely looks to him for guidance on how to fit in: When he sits, she sits; when he gets excited, she gets excited. At the dog park this weekend, she was very unsure of herself at first, but she saw that Dudley was confident and unafraid, so she just followed his lead. Soon, they were running around together, having a blast.

Video Description: Dudley and Zelda investigate the long grass, and Zelda decides to turn it into a game of hide-and-seek.

At home, their new favorite game is tug-of-war. One of them will grab Pinkie and waggle hir in the other's face, and then IT'S ON!!! There is much play-bowing and leaping around, and then they'll take a break to go drink out of the water bowl together, then back to the wrasslin', which is incredibly funny to watch.

Last night, they curled up on the same couch together for the first time.

Zelda is also great with the cats, who have all welcomed her into the pack. Her energy matches our low-key household very well. She's completely housebroken, quiet (I've heard her bark exactly once), rides wonderfully in the car, has perfect house manners, and is hugely friendly with new people, despite the fact that her two presumed breeds, Rottweiler and Shar Pei—she looks exactly like a mini-Rottie, with her coloration and square head and bottle-brush tail, except for the extra-wrinkly folds around her neck, her blue-spotted tongue, and her perfectly triangular Dorito ears, which give away her Shar Pei heritage—are meant to be naturally reserved. All she wants to do is cuddle. She would love for you to scratch her head, please!

Zelda sitting on my lap, grinning

Or her belleh.

Zelda on her back with legs in air while Iain scratches her belly

The other night, Zelda was lying at my feet, and I put my foot out to scratch her. She jumped away and cringed. It is clear that in her life before she came to us, someone loved this dog, and someone hurt her. Maybe the same person. I am slowly teaching her that our feet won't hurt her. No one will ever kick her again.

Zelda lying on her stomach, back feet out behind her, her nose between her front paws
"It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superdog!"

We really don't know what her life was like before now, how she ended up a stray with no identification and no one looking for her. We know, because she is a black dog and a Rottweiler mix, that she was at high risk for euthanasia.

We had no way to be certain, and really no reason to believe aside from our instincts, that we could bring her home and throw her into the deep end and it would all work out. But we took a leap of faith, and, so far (touch wood), everything is going swimmingly.

We're so lucky to have her. She has been a wonderful surprise—even though Iain says he knew we'd be bringing home a dog that day. By a strange coincidence, I was wearing the exact same outfit I had been wearing the day we adopted Dudley.

Because we weren't expecting her, we didn't even have a bed for her at first, or a food bowl. She's still wearing one of Dudley's old collars. But now, at least, she's got a name.

Zelda sitting on the couch with her paws crossed