Essay Contest: Gimme Shelter

The visions came in fragments, drifting in during the steel gray intervals of relative calm, between gusts of tears and sorrow. I saw dogs. Dogs in confinement, to be precise; abandoned, with desolate eyes staring from cold cages. I’m not quite sure why I thought of shelter dogs in those empty hours following my mother’s death, but for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, I began to scour the Internet for local shelters.

Had I been home, surrounded by family and friends, I might have ignored the nudge. But I’d recently taken a new job in a strange Florida city where I was close to no one except Lola, my American bulldog. She would snuggle at my side during the nightly blur of reality TV shows and pitiful junk-food-land forays, licking at my ever-present tears. But not even her steadfast presence could quiet the call.

One day, groggy from yet another night spent in the calming glow of the television, I drove to the no-kill shelter near my house and filled out an application to volunteer. I was ready to barrel into the kennels, drop a collar on a doggy and take him for a walk, leading him a little closer to salvation.

But that didn’t happen. I would have to come for orientation and training classes before I’d be allowed to walk my first dog. When the day finally came, I have to admit I wasn’t as ready as I’d thought I would be. What if I messed up and couldn’t transmit that cool, collected vibe I was supposed to, à la the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan?

It wasn’t easy to feign “calm, assertive” energy as I ventured between the rows of chain-link kennels and stepped into a thunderbolt of barking, desperate and deafening. The faces behind the wire were just as I had envisioned, rough-hewn and battle-weary, attached to wholly misunderstood canines, most of them pit bulls. An attendant pointed out the cages where the “volunteer” dogs lived. These were the less rambunctious, more submissive types: a beautiful black Labrador named Buster, a sweet pit named Twinkie, a quiet Lab mix named Shadow and an old russet-toned pit mix named Charlie.

That evening, I led young Buster along the path behind the shelter, a darkened, weed-choked road scarred with potholes. I passed other dog walkers—most of them high school students earning community service hours—on the trash-strewn route toward a more open road traveled only by locals on their way to the restaurants around the corner. The soaring headlights of their cars revealed the seediness of it all: the unkempt lots lining the street, filled with debris and uncollected dog droppings.

We walked in silence for a long while in the stench of that humid night. He tugged a little and sometimes stopped to gaze up at me. I would lean down and stroke his shiny fur, the way a mother might stroke the hair of her child.

“Buster,” I said in a low whisper. The dog sat at attention and looked up, as if waiting for a command. “I love you,” I said.

And this is how it went with every dog I walked, at least once or twice a week. I’d amble with old Charlie or sweet Twinkie or quiet Shadow in solemn, anonymous silence, sending up my prayers for their survival as I passed the weeds and trash and slow-moving cars.

“Please, God, help find Charlie a forever mom,” I’d pray. Each time I did, I felt my own grief had found a place to settle, a place more soothing than a TV armchair, a serene space for motherless souls.

I found a curious motif in these dogs: a sense of strength that seemed to come from a degree of resignation. But they weren’t defeated—they were stoic, and they were grateful. I wanted to be like them.

And as we moved in our strange, silent symmetry, I also found something else: the reason I had followed my call to the shelter. I had not come to save the dogs. I had come to be saved.

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