Micahel Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC
Animal shelters can be hard places for dogs and for people too. Most of us choose not to go. They are places of heartbreak. We don’t want to see them. The faces tell stories of life on the street or of a person who died and left them alone or of a family who just didn’t care enough. We don’t go because then we will know. How many came in this month? How few will leave? What happened to the rest? If we pass the cage they will wiggle with excitement, maybe bark. Take me out of here. Take me away. Take me anywhere, anywhere but here.
City kennels are the worst. They are hidden down narrow streets near places we wouldn’t go anyway. It’s true in any American city, not just here. They are hard places. And there’s always controversy. Sadness pits people against each other. The work is difficult and low-paying. The funding runs low and the buildings run down. It’s true in Cleveland. It’s true in San Francisco. It’s true in Houston. We know they exist. But we choose not to go.
Most of us. Others, it turns out, choose differently. Every Saturday Morning they drive the narrow road in North Houston to the Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC). One becomes two becomes 5 becomes 15 or more. They wear old clothes and good attitudes. They bring a cooler of water and soft drinks and lots of patience. Then, after some warm “hello’s” and a short “how was your your week,” they get to work.
“Weekends at BARC” started in January 2009 when the founders, James Oxford and Lance Marshall, visited BARC for the first time. The mission: give every dog (there are dozens) a chance to get out, get some fresh air and maybe get a little quiet time with a human being. Some even get a cool bath just for good measure. It’s hard work and sometimes messy work. But it’s important work too. The positive interaction with people, coupled with good physical and mental exercise helps stave off behavioral deterioration. Shelters are hard places. They can wear dogs thin quickly.
I worry about our relationships with dogs. Some we love to the point of insanity. Others we forget about at places where no one wants to go. How many this month? What happens to them? The truth is hard to face full on. But the folks who come to BARC on these hot Saturdays, these muggy or rainy Saturdays, know the truth. They know it and the come anyway. The dog they visit today may not be here next week. Not adopted. Just gone. There aren’t enough adopting families. And maybe this weekend at BARC a visit will have to be enough.
It’s hard to think about. And yes, there is an undertone of sadness here, even on Saturdays. But there is also magic. Every week this place we only hear about on the news becomes the place to be. Dogs lead people and people lead dogs to and fro. Dogs and people play in outdoor runs. They bark we clap and cheer. There are cool drinks and cool baths, warm hello’s, smiles and big faced tongue-hanging-out doggie grins. BARC comes alive and the lives here, human and canine, are better for it.
Here’s how it all comes together. The cages are marked with clothespins. If there’s a pin on the bars, that dog has been out. No pin? That one’s next in line. Every dog gets one-on-one time. Every dog. I pin the high bar of the cage five from the end and introduce myself to a big brindle pit mix. He slips easily into his collar and we head out for our walk. I give him a treat every time he looks up at me and we hit it off right away. (I love a dog with good eye contact.) He’s as sweet as my own dog but I have to be honest with him, you look terribly frightening. He stares up at me with a stupid face and a gentle blink to his eye. I name him “Brick.” We all deserve a name don’t we buddy?
They are such good people, these folks who find their way and choose to come every weekend to BARC. I walk Brick and smile at his big-faced grins. But I can’t help but marvel at these people, the one, the two, the 15, the 400 who now count themselves part of this group. Some have come once. Some never miss a Saturday. Either way they all made the choice and did the work. I watch a young woman running circles around the play area with a big white dog on her heels. She’s in the moment, un-tethered and free from whatever worries held her back before she got here. She could be anyone. But for that one moment she is everyone to that dog. She is his and he hers. It’s the simple commitment we share with dogs when we are at our best: I’ll pass the hours with you sweet friend. You’d do the same for me.
I put Brick back in his kennel and he looks back at me with calm resolve. He’s done this for many more weeks than I have. Maybe I’ll see him again. But more than anything I hope he finds his way home. Not gone. Adopted. Good boy. You’re a very good boy.