I've had a lifelong yearning for a dog. For too many childhood birthdays, I screwed my eyes shut and resolutely wished for a puppy as I blew out the candles on my cake. Of course, I never got my wish, because a puppy is at the top of the list of things you don’t get when you have seven siblings.
Earlier this year, I had moved back home from college and suddenly had a large yard, a job, and (some) disposable income. My younger siblings were old enough to handle taking care of a pet, and my mom was all for it. There was just one obstacle: my dad.
This story has the unwanted effect of making me feel like a five year old all over again, taking me back to when I begged my dad to let me bring home a tiny English Springer Spaniel puppy (I can still smell its sweet, sweet puppy breath, almost 20 years later), so I’ll keep it short. He put his foot down.
He had good reasons, but the disappointment still hurt -- especially since, like a fool, I had already gone to the local animal shelter to see what they had. I was all ready to adopt a beautiful, older Weimaraner named Fiona. I fell in love with her grey coat, her amber eyes, and her calm manner. I went home that day dreaming about going on long evening walks together through the woods, having her lying in my bed warming my feet in the winter, even thinking about the tears I would inevitably shed in a few years when my aged companion finally passed away. I will freely admit that my pet-owning daydreams skew towards a Les Miserables degree of melodrama (full disclosure: I’ve never seen any version of Les Miserables).
After my dad said no, my daydreams of taking Fiona home gradually faded away, and as the weeks went by, I started to tear up less and less whenever a dog food commercial came on.
My memories of the animal shelter stuck with me, however.
Sadly, no animal shelter is a heartwarming place. The concrete floors, often soiled; the din of huge dogs barking as they try to leap up and over their mesh cages; the sad (or maybe just bored) expressions in so many dogs’ eyes. It's the real-life version of one of those awful late-night animal shelter infomercials that used to spur me to go on a wild-eyed search for my mother’s credit card when I was a kid.
“BUT THE THREE LEGGED KITTEN LOOKED SO SAD,” I’d wail while being marched to my room.
The only difference is that now, I have my own credit card. Last Christmas, I joined my co-workers in donating to the animal shelter. It still didn’t feel like I’d done enough, though, so a couple weeks later, I filled out some volunteer forms and dropped them off. I was going to volunteer to walk the dogs at the animal shelter.
A confession: I am not big on volunteering. This aversion can probably be attributed to a bad experience I had in high school, when I volunteered at a stable that gave disabled children horse-riding lessons. I was painfully shy and didn’t know anything about horses, and all the other workers and volunteers were too busy to deal with me. Most of the time, I was given a broom and told to sweep up.
Whenever I think back to that time period, I don’t really have any memories of pride or gratification for having helped people out; it’s mostly feelings of being awkward, useless and super cold.
Despite those old fears bubbling up, I started yesterday. I was worried about being in the way. I was worried that I wouldn’t know enough, or be particularly helpful. I was worried about being ignored or snapped at by busy volunteers who actually knew what they were doing. I was worried about having to clean up really nasty dog poops. I was worried about falling in love with all the dogs I’m not allowed to bring home.
All of those things happened. But you know what? It wasn’t the worst thing ever. For every curt volunteer, there was a friendly one who was willing to explain things to me. I am not yet the most efficient or helpful volunteer, but I’m going to keep showing up until that changes.
All of the dogs and cats there are sweet and loveable and I feel bad for them. They’re stuck in a shitty place. If I could, I would adopt all of them. I figure that the next best thing I can do is to show up in my spare time and take them out for some fresh air and attention.
I'm still bummed I can't get a dog right now, but I like to think that one day, my future pet will be sitting in some animal shelter somewhere waiting for me. And I know I’m really going to appreciate the person who waits with her.