As I watched Tucker rip open his gifts Christmas evening, a part of my heart reached out to all the shelter pets who didn’t get to share this day with their forever family. While Tucker was here with me, many dogs and cats sat alone in their kennels that night—some mourning the loss of the family they once knew; others not yet knowing what a family is.
A few weeks ago, I joined Laura and Christy to hand out the toys the kids in the Humane Education classes had made. Every child and parent was invited to attend, but only one parent with her two children was able to make it that Saturday morning. The six of us entered the LA City shelter bearing gifts of toys made by children, but we also came with a gift that cannot be bought: the gift of time and attention. Whether human or canine or any other species, physical objects can bring us happiness, but it is the connection to one another that is the priceless present. The gift of time we give one another is all anyone truly desires: to be seen, to be heard, to be loved.
When people talk about animals in the shelter, they often say that “they have no one.”
But that’s actually the very opposite of the truth. I say Tucker is “my only dog,” and although he is my soul dog and the only one who resides with me, every dog in that shelter is mine—just as every dog in that shelter is yours.
An animal shelter belongs to the community, and each and every animal in there is all of our collective responsibility: the ones brought in as evidence in neglect classes, the ones found abandoned by the side of the road, and the ones whose guardians have passed away but there is no one who can care for them. They are our dogs and our cats. It is all of our responsibility to care for them, to love them, and to find them the kind of forever home Tucker has now.
As I watched the little girl put the cat toys through the bars of the cages, the smile on her face warmed my heart.
Her mother told me their apartment didn’t allow pets, so there was no fear of her children asking to bring every animal home. Right now, though, for this little girl, every cat at this shelter was hers. She cared and loved each one of them. She handed a scrap of catnip-laced fabric to the kitten, but that was just the physical object. The bigger gift she gave them couldn’t be seen: it was all the love in her heart.
I walked through the dog area slowly and deliberately stopping at each kennel so as to not just give a dog a toy, but give him or her my time, my attention, my love.
The kennels were bare. There was nothing but concrete floors and walls, stainless steel doors, and a water bowl in each one. Back in their den area some had blankets and beds. Some of the dogs stayed in their dens when we approached. Others came forward, eager to greet us.
One chocolate lab mix pressed his head against the bars of the kennel, desperate for human touch—just a hand to stroke his head, even a finger to lightly scratch his ear. A grey and white pit bull mix stood up with her feet on the bars and sniffed my hand, more interested in me than the toy I was offering.
For these dog and cats, every day is the same. They are protected from the elements and have food and water, but that’s just the necessities. They wait and hope in their stark kennels. They hope enough volunteers are on that day to give them a walk, or let them out in the play yard for just a few minutes. They wish that some child will see them and beg their parents’ to take them home. They dream of a day when they can lie by the fire and listen to their families talk and play games together. They long for a hike in the woods with their forever person, just the two of them exploring the world together.
One dog, Duke, smartly figured out how to get us to play tug through the bars.
Another tore hers to shreds—multiple times and got a few extra as bonus prizes.
|Some merely looked at us with such appreciation in their eyes that my heart nearly shattered.|
On Christmas Eve, Christy went to the Baldwin Park shelter with her family and Bark Avenue Foundation supporters to hand out more toys and pet beds. Dogs don’t know it’s Christmas Eve. They only know that this day is different; this day is special: because they’re each treated as special themselves.
Every single animal in that shelter is yours and mine. They’re our responsibility to not just feed and shelter from the elements, but to love and care for and make them feel as special as they really are. They are living, breathing, individual souls who hope and wish and dream and whose sole purpose in life is to love… (and maybe deconstruct or shred some toys.)
There is a saying: Be the person your dog believes you to be. It’s a tall order, but one that we can all fulfill. Don’t have a dog? Yes, you do: every one in that shelter. And they believe you will care for them and love them and treat them with kindness and respect. And you won’t forget them. You’ll never forget them.
In this holiday season, and all year round, remember the pets who can’t be with—or don’t have—families of their own. For them, you are their family. You don’t need money or even toys, for the greatest gift you can give any pet is the gift of your love.
Love on and give the present of being present not just at the holidays but throughout the entire year.