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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About this author

Mariela Rosario,

I'm a raging opinionista and I love to share my ramblings on everything from pop culture to food to stuff that makes me laugh & cry! I've worked in all types of media (TV, film, print) and was previously the online editor at Latina magazine before joining Mamás Latinas. On most nights you can find me working my way through my library of cookbooks or playing with my puppy Lola (my only child so far). I have a wonderful hubby who shares my passion for any and all kinds of travel. Together, we've formed a semi-professional wine drinking team.

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