In My Absence

It’s been a busy week that unfortunately left little time for writing. Among other things, I was finalizing plans for my trip to North Carolina, where I will get to lay eyes on Galen’s hometown and the shelter that put her on death row.  I leave this afternoon. But this morning, as I ate left-over waffles and skimmed my favorite newspaper, I came upon an article that spoke to me.  So since I have no story of my own to offer up, I recommend Four-Legged Reason to Keep It Together from the Sunday Styles section of today’s Times.  Happy reading!

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Gryffin or Breastmilk?

I have extraordinarily healthy children.  My older daughter will enter fifth grade having missed just one day of school in five years.  My younger daughter enters third grade with a similarly stunning record.  My husband and I are fortunate:  We have two healthy, smart, beautiful girls.

I’ve always taken credit for the healthy part.  I recall rarely being sick as a child, and I think I, too, made it through whole school years without an absence.  But I don’t pat myself on the back because I passed on healthy genes.  I do it because I breastfed both girls, and to say it wasn’t easy is one of the great understatements of all time.

My older daughter and I got off to a cruel start, perhaps because of her unexpected entrance into the world via C-section. Each feeding brutalized my breasts more than the previous one; my nipples were so raw I cringed when the cotton of even my softest T-shirt brushed against them.  Being too stubborn and proud to give up, I kept at it, although I could never understand how something supposedly so natural, could be so awkward and, at times, feel so utterly impossible.

Ultimately, my body healed, and I nourished my child the “right” way, giving her all the benefits researchers say come from breast milk.  We got so good at it, my daughter decided she had no use for a bottle, and for six months I was her sole source of nutrition.  My younger daughter latched on more easily, but she decided to go bottle-free for nine months.  What were the chances of that happening again?

Needless to say, I always figured I was the reason I had such healthy kids… until I read this in The Week:

Finnish researchers found that children who lived with a dog were 31 percent more likely to be in good health than those who didn’t. They were also 44 percent less likely to have developed an ear infection and 29 percent less likely to have needed antibiotics… The more time pets spent outdoors, the healthier the babies that lived with them were, which suggests that dogs and other pets may track in dirt and germs from outdoors that ‘stimulates the immune system’ of babies ‘to do a better job of fighting off infection.’”

While my breasts suffered the wrath of my babies’ gums, Gryffin’s sheer presence in our home may have been as beneficial as my breastfeeding!

I often refer to Gryffin as my first child.

Gryffin

Kevin and I rescued him from an Atlanta-area shelter when he was twelve weeks old, and we were living in Philadelphia. I doted on Gryffin:  He came with me to work, we walked around Rittenhouse Square together, and he slept on my bed many a night when Kevin’s medical training kept him at the hospital round the clock. My mother says Gryffin brought out my maternal instincts, and I agree.

I will always be indebted to Gryffin.  He taught me I was ready to be a mom, not just to a canine kid, but to human kids, too.  He was my protector in Philly, the alarm system that Kevin could count on to keep me safe when he pulled all-nighters at the hospital. Gryffin instilled in my children a love of dogs so strong that after he died, the girls persuaded me and Kevin to cut our mourning period short. Thus, we rescued Galen, whose name doesn’t start with “G” by accident.

And now it turns out, he may have given the girls the gift of health, via all the germs, mud, dirt, and grime he tracked in off the city’s streets and dog parks.  If I’m worthy of a pat on the back for the girls’ good health, Gryffin surely deserves a pat on the head.

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When I’m feeling magnanimous, I share some of the credit for our girls’ good health with Kevin, who is a strong believer in the hygiene theory, which posits that exposure to viruses and bacteria in early life strengthens a child’s immune system.  Thus, he never panicked when one of our daughters took a toy from the floor and stuck it in her mouth – even after Gryffin, just back from the dog park, stepped on it.

The Fix

In September of 2000, Gryffin was on death row. I was just too naïve to know it. When I met him at an Atlanta-area shelter, I saw only an adorable 12-week-old puppy awaiting a home. He was black and gold and as friendly and clumsy as most puppies, but compared with his littermates, he was remarkably calm.  His paperwork revealed he was a Retriever/Chow mix; the shelter named him Rebel.  He was irresistible. I called Kevin, who was then my fiancé, and pleaded my case – Rebel’s case. The next day, Gryffin – the dog formerly known as Rebel – came home with me.

Gryffin using a sleeping Kevin as his pillow.

But what if we hadn’t adopted him?  What if no one had? Then Gryffin would likely be dead, because each year in Georgia, more than 80% of dogs and cats at county shelters are killed, an estimated 300,000 animals, at a cost to state taxpayers of $100 million. Pregnant dogs and cats are killed upon drop-off.

“An epidemic is what it is,” says Ginny Millner, one of the founders of Fix Georgia Pets, an organization tackling the crisis of pet overpopulation, and “euthanasia isn’t the answer.”

For those of us living in the Northeast and on the West Coast, spaying and neutering dogs is common.  In fact, Nora Parker, at New Jersey’s St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, says it’s rare for dogs dropped off at its shelters not to be fixed.

That’s not the case across much of the South, where attitudes about dogs reflect the region’s rural and agrarian history. “People thought of dogs as animals, not pets,” says a good friend raised on a ten-acre farm in north Georgia. “A pet is something you care for. It lives inside the house; it is a companion.” Growing up, she says, people had “yard dogs” for protection. “If they didn’t protect your house they weren’t any good.” Healthcare for a dog, including spaying and neutering, was unthinkable.  “People didn’t have extra money to spend on their kids, forget their dogs,” she says. So dogs lived outside the house, roaming freely, procreating at will.

Unfortunately today, much remains the same throughout large swaths of the South, resulting in females birthing litters that give rise to more litters.  The numbers are so great that the ASPCA reports that “areas of the south are overwhelmed with more dogs than loving homes.”  That’s why several rescue groups in the Northeast pull dogs from southern shelters, usually just days before the dogs are scheduled to be killed.

But rescue isn’t the solution, according to Ginny Millner, and no one in rescue disagrees. The term “band-aid” is bandied around a lot when talk turns to rescue. The solution – and the challenge – is getting dogs spayed and neutered.

Fix Georgia Pets, founded in March, is a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about responsible pet ownership and providing grants to clinics and organizations that provide low- and no-cost spay and neuter services to Georgia residents. Its goal:  raise $5 million dollars to spay and neuter 100,000 animals in the next two years.

“It’s got to be done and it’s got to be done soon,” says Ginny Millner, “because the more you wait, the more animals you have.” And that means more animals living on deathrow.

Gryffin, about four months old: spoiled, happy and very much loved.

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Ginny Millner hopes Fix Georgia Pets will be a model replicated throughout the South. To learn more, go to www.fixgeorgiapets.org.

Mission: Adoption

Fostering a puppy is not easy.

It’s not simply that you must live in a state of constant vigilance to ensure the puppy doesn’t act, well, like a puppy, by peeing on your kitchen floor, chewing up your favorite shoe, or escaping into the neighbor’s yard. What makes fostering a puppy so difficult is that you can’t unplug your heart.

Loki

I feel like we’ve known Loki for months, yet he’s been in our lives just over two weeks.  My husband, Kevin, and my two daughters saw something special in the six-month-old pup, when we met him June 16, at a local Pet Valu. He’d been rescued from a North Carolina kill shelter and brought to New Jersey by Catnip Friends Cat Rescue, but the group wasn’t having success finding him a home. We agreed to foster him, while Catnip sought someone to adopt him.

I quickly came to realize, however, that my daughters, ages 9 and 7, wanted to make Loki a part of our family. Kevin seemed amenable, as did Galen, our 20-month-old lab mix, also a Catnip rescue.  I watched Galen quickly move from indifference to joy at having a playmate at her beck and call. She didn’t even seem to mind that Loki stole every one of her toys, including the Mickey Mouse with whom she shares her crate (Mickey makes a great pillow for a dog’s weary head).

Galen and Mickey Mouse.

I was the lone hold-out, unsure that our house was large enough for two dogs, even if our hearts were.

A few days into Loki’s stay, I engineered a solution that works for me and that my girls, despite tears, are learning to live with: My mom and stepdad adopted Loki. The thing is, there was no way I could return him to the rescue group; he had already been through so much.  Just a month before we brought him home, Animal Control was set to kill him.  It says so right on his intake form: “Release Date 05/15/2012.”  “Release” is a euphemism for euthanasia.

My seven-year-old has taken the decision hardest.  She drew Loki a card.  It reads, “If they end up keeping you, I’ll miss you sooooooo MUCH!!!!! Always remember us.  Love, the Skole family.”  

Dhani’s letter.

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Loki seems very happy in his new home.  He has a large tree-filled yard to romp in, lots of sticks to chew on, and my mom is already spoiling him: In the evening, Loki settles into a prime spot on the couch right next to her.

As for fostering, I am in awe of those who do it.  One of the co-founders of Catnip told me that fosters are the life-blood of a rescue organization.  Perhaps, we’ll try again.  The need for foster families is great.