One in a Million: An Orange Terrier’s Origin Story

April 8, 2016

I’ve set aside this morning to work on the Million Cat Challenge and I’m supposed to be writing about cats. But today is my dog’s birthday, so I’ve got dogs on the mind.

This week we’re also planning how to celebrate the moment when the Million Cat “Lives Saved” counter hits the half million mark, so I’ve got numbers on my mind.

I’m thinking about big numbers and I’m thinking about just one.

I’m thinking of lives saved, and the people and stories behind those lives.

In honor of my dog’s birthday, I decided to tell you one such story.

A little over 13 years ago today, I was sitting at work plugging away at email when a note dropped into my in-box from my friend Sheila. We were both Shelter Medicine residents at the time. That day while I held down the fort at the office, she was working with an animal shelter in a neighboring county.

Her email described a dog she’d been asked to evaluate. He was just a youngster, no more than ten months old, but had been impounded as a repeat offender for running with a pack of dogs and killing livestock. The shelter’s reluctant policy in those days was that all repeat livestock killers would be euthanized. Poignantly scrawled side by side on the dog’s paperwork were the words “Cute dog!” and “For PTS (Put to Sleep) only”.

Sheila told me an exception to the policy could be made if the dog went to a veterinarian who lived outside the county, provided they were willing to swear on their professional oath that he would never be allowed to chase or kill another animal. She couldn’t take him with her other pets in the house, but I fit the bill. This picture was attached to the email.

at the shelter

One look and I was a goner. I didn’t think I would keep him – I never wanted a terrier, and wasn’t ready for a new dog. However, I was sure I could rescue him and find him a home somewhere urban and far away, where he would never give another moment’s worry to a goat or chicken.

So I zipped over to the shelter later that day, filled out the paperwork, christened my new foster pet “Muggs the Terrier” and brought him home. Exhausted from his stint in the damp, noisy back ward of the shelter, as soon as I sat down he crawled into my lap and dropped into a sound sleep. I sat there for hours, trapped by his heavy head and the sound of his peaceful snores.

I captured that first scene with my new digital camera, which just happened to be within reach.

relief

It wasn’t long before I knew Muggs was no rescue dog just passing through. He and I were stuck with each other for good. I bought him a permanent collar and engraved ID tag to replace the cheap nylon collar that marked him as a foster pet. He celebrated his newfound permanence by climbing onto my dining room table and chewing up my digital camera while I was in the shower the next morning.

From then on, Muggs knew there was nothing he could do to shake my absolute adoration. He stepped graciously into the role of Top Terrier in the Hurley house.

He became the reason that in the 13 years since I brought him home, I haven’t been able to leave my house without first strapping the refrigerator shut – lest I return to find my provisions merrily distributed across the living room, distended terrier relaxed and farting in their midst.

He became the dog who spent chilly winter days lounging in front of my wall heater, chewing through my canned goods as if they were tasty bonbons with a delicious creamy center. Turns out that for those mighty jaws, munching through a few cans is just like flossing for us regular mortals. My tomato paste and chickpeas were in tatters but his gums were pink and healthy.bad bad muggs 013    bad bad muggs 016

He also revealed himself to be a terrier of discernment, who could paw through my books and chew up only the ones related to dog training or how to adopt shelter pets. Guess he thought that with the addition of himself, the household was complete and his personality and behavior needed no further refinement.

Muggs shares his opinions (1)

Just once, he branched out from eating training books and actually ate one of my student’s homework.

Muggs also became the dog I could trust, if not to be left alone with my books or canned goods, certainly to co-exist peacefully with other creatures of every shape and size. He shed his ferocious past as soon as he saw that we didn’t chase livestock in his new pack, and stoically accepted the role of plaything, hot water bottle and occasionally surrogate mother for the endless parade of foster pets passing through our home.muggs and kittens (3)   muggs and kittens (4)

The summer after I adopted Muggs, we set out on an 8,000 mile journey together, touring shelters and shelter medicine programs across the U.S. We slept in the guest rooms of shelter vets, the back of my old Toyota wagon, in the seriously creepy “honeymoon suite” of a seedy motel in Ohio and once even got put up in a luxury room at the Fort Collins Hilton. Muggs was perfectly at home wherever we landed.ohio   Muggs enjoys the Hilton (2)

You’d think that would be the story I meant to tell you, right? That from that chance email on a random January afternoon, came a friendship that has spanned so many miles and over a decade together. More than 70 dog-years! That even as I write this, I still smile to hear Muggs snoring and snarfling in his bed nearby. That tonight we’ll go to the drive through for burgers (hold the bun, please) to celebrate his 14th birthday. That’s a pretty good story.

But wait. There’s more.

Over the years, I sometimes wondered who scrawled that wistful “Cute dog” on Muggs’ cage card next to the stern injunction that he was “For PTS only”. I wondered who asked my friend Sheila to take a look at him that day.

It wasn’t obvious. Muggs was housed in the back of the shelter where only dangerous dogs and custody cases were kept. No volunteers were allowed in that part of the building. Cleaning and daily care were performed by prison inmates under the watchful eye of their warden. Even the kennel staff rarely strayed into the area. It wasn’t a pleasant place to be.

Who could it have been who saw Muggs and spoke up for him?

Sheila moved on to a job on the opposite coast and I never got around to asking her, but still the question rattled around in the back of my mind from time to time.

Then one rainy December evening, several years after I adopted Muggs, a friend was visiting from out of town. To amuse ourselves we decided to head over to the local auto dealership and test drive a car I was considering to replace my battered old Toyota.

The saleswoman who came to show us around didn’t quite seem to fit the upscale car dealership in my little college town. With her lean, weathered face, well-worn leather jacket, and raven-black hair hanging well past her shoulders, she looked like she belonged in some grittier setting – as a cop, maybe, or in the back wards of an animal shelter.

Within just a few minutes of conversation, I mentioned that above all my new car needed to be dog-friendly. Her face lit up. She asked me what kind of dogs I had. When I said I had a couple of shelter mutts, she smiled and said, “Oh, good for you! I used to supervise the prison inmates at the shelter in the next county over, and I can tell you they had some great dogs there.”

I smiled back – I could well imagine her in that role! – and told her a friend of mine had worked with that shelter a few years ago. Then her eyes got a far-away look and she asked, “Say, did you ever know a veterinarian named Sheila who used to work there?”

Small world. I exclaimed that Sheila was the very friend I was referring to.

She hesitated. Then she said, “Hey, do you think you could ask Sheila something for me? See, there was this dog at the shelter. He was supposedly this terrible livestock killer…but he just had the most soulful face.”

My heart skipped a beat. She went on. “I asked Sheila if she could just take a look at him and see if he was really all that bad. When I came back to the shelter the next day, he was gone. I couldn’t bear to ask what happened to him. And I’ve never stopped thinking about him.”

It still gives me chills thinking back to that moment. I stammered out, “That…that’s my dog! That’s Muggs!!!!!”

Of course, Muggs was waiting in my car parked just outside. I ran and got him. I don’t know if he really remembered the saleswoman, but when he saw her kneel down and reach for him, he flew across the dealership and into her arms. Wiggling his whole body with joy, he licked her face as if he knew she’d been his salvation.

It was mayhem. She cried. I cried. My friend and I’m pretty sure everyone who witnessed the scene shed at least a few tears.

I told that saleswoman she was my hero, but in all the excitement I didn’t get her name. I never saw her again. The way it all happened, sometimes I think she was only at the auto dealership that one rainy night, miles from the shelter where I adopted Muggs and years later, just so we could both know the rest of his story.

heart vector

The problem with huge numbers is that it’s easy to lose sight of the individual lives and stories behind those faceless digits.   When the Million Cat Counter rolls past half a million lives saved, maybe it’s hard to picture the litter of three tiny kittens whose eyelids just peeled open or the plump senior cat whose eyes could no longer see, that make up just four of that impressive number. But I’ve met those four and I know how much they each matter.

Or what about the wily little feral cat with only one tooth, now spayed, ear-tipped and living contentedly in my neighbor’s back yard? The beloved pet who just couldn’t bring herself to use the fancy new litter contraption her owner provided, now happily using her familiar old box instead of surrendered to a shelter as a house-soiler?

Those are two more whose stories I happen to know – cats that left the shelter alive when before they wouldn’t have, or better yet didn’t have to enter in the first place because their owners got the support and guidance they needed.

Those lives don’t only matter to the cats who are living them, though in itself that would be enough. They matter to the people who foster and adopt and feed and care for them, to the people who love them.

They matter to the shelter volunteers and staff who don’t have to carry worry or grief over those lives for who knows how many years, as Muggs’ savior did until the day we finally met.

Add to those six another 499,994 lives, each with a story as rich with adventure and affection, mischief, mayhem and minor miracles as the story of Muggs the Terrier.

So in honor of Muggs’ birthday, whether your stories are about pets or people, whether you’re working to save plants or animals or our whole fragile planet, when the numbers seem daunting I hope you’ll think of that can-chewing, kitten-loving, stout orange terrier and remember this: the power of just one.

Muggs on the evening of his 14th birthday, replete with burgers and wishing y'all many happy returns of the day.

Muggs on the evening of his 14th birthday, replete with burgers and wishing y’all many happy returns of the day.

 

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