by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris ~
Rescue Dilemma Number 6,437: Two dogs get pregnant in a Greek shelter where you volunteer. Long ago you promised one of them you’d find her a forever home. The other one is staring back at you too, as if she knows you’re trying to figure out how to help. But how indeed to help, now that there’s this new bump in the road—or two bumps, so to speak?
That’s the spot where I found myself during a hot summer on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, when more sensible people were at the beach.
Dashing my hopes, sweet Penelope would not be able to travel in three weeks. Her surprise pregnancy at the shelter threw quite a wrench into the plan to send her to Stichting AAI, the wonderful Dutch re-homing group who had answered my pleas for help on re-homing her, since there are not nearly enough adopters in Greece for all its needy animals.
The folks at AAI were already working to find Penelope a forever family in the Netherlands, but now I would have to rethink all the complicated steps involved in getting her there.
Very, very pregnant
Worse, I would have to delay my own trip home to California—to our beautiful eldest dog Kisses, who was dying from osteosarcoma, to our other dogs, and to my husband, who was having to cope on his own with care of the whole sizable pack, plus provide the intensive care needed by the ill one, and her impending loss.
Complicating matters further were the other foster pooches filling our tottering old family property there on the island, and the intricate web of plans to deliver them each to their own adopters or to the re-homing groups waiting for them abroad.
As if all that weren’t enough, now there was Penelope’s companion in trouble, a black pointer mix. A very, very pregnant black pointer mix.
Brain in a whirl
Both Penelope and the pointer had become pregnant while living in a group pen at the woefully underfunded shelter, due to mistakes caused by the huge challenges that its all-volunteer staff faced. Those same challenges meant that the two girls’ safety could not be assured during their pregnancies and upcoming motherhood.
My brain went into a whirl as I tried to figure out what to do. There were no good options, but I’d have to do something. Looking at the two girls’ huge bellies and pleading eyes, it just wasn’t possible to walk away.
Besides, I had made a pledge to Penelope more than a year before. I had promised to help her find a loving home, and there was no way I’d break it.
No room at the inn
The shelter managers told me they had nowhere to put either Penelope or the pointer to keep them safe during the remaining few days of their pregnancies. Not even when they would go into labor and have their pups. Not even while they would have to nurse and raise their pups. Through it all, they’d have to remain in the same group pen that they currently shared with about eight other dogs. My heart sank.
Because of the shelter’s skinnier-than-shoestring budget, on which even just the daily need for food was sometimes not met, there was never anything left over to build special infirmary pens that could be left vacant for illnesses, emergencies, or, as the case may be, pregnancies.
Both of these sweet girls were wisely submissive toward the dominant dogs in their pen. But what would happen when they went into labor? When they gave birth? When there were puppies to care for and protect, from not one but two litters? The thought made me shudder.
Some of the volunteers had already told me about a previous incident at the shelter where a mom giving birth got harassed by the other dogs. After the pups were born they attacked her, and killed some of the newborns. I couldn’t bear for that to happen again, and certainly not to Penelope or the black pointer.
Minefield of politics
I asked if perhaps the moms-to-be could be housed temporarily in a special pen that a generous supporter had donated. It was the get-acquainted pen, where prospective adopters could spend quiet time with possible adoptees. It seemed perfect, with a cozy little shed to provide shelter and privacy for the two pregnant dogs.
The answer was that the donor had stipulated the pen must be used only for get-acquainted purposes, not for housing. The shelter managers felt they needed to abide by that stipulation, because they could not afford to ruffle any feathers.
To me that’s a familiar situation, because I know all too well the political minefield that rescue organizations must constantly navigate so as to keep supporters happy and the donations flowing in.
The shelter managers said they really had no options but to leave Penelope and the pointer in their current pen, and hope for the best.
Then one of the managers turned and looked at me. “Can you help us?” she asked, with such worry in her voice that I felt nearly as bad for her as I did for the dogs.
Right then, the muddle in my head cleared out, making way for a new plan to sprout.
“May I borrow your phone?” I asked.
I dialed the number for a pet hotel on the island. After much desperate, shameless begging on my part (taking in two pregnant females is a lot to ask), they agreed. I nearly whooped with joy. Boarding them in a private facility, where they could have their own safe and relatively quiet runs, would at least buy a little time.
My rescue budget, funded primarily by Hubsy (a.k.a. The Saint) while I struggled to get my website Spicy Stories Save Lives off the ground, was already in the red. Saintly though he might be, Hubsy would not be pleased about the expense of boarding two dogs at a pet hotel, and even less about my further delay in returning home. But right now, it was the best I could do.
For a few minutes, while I worked out the details with the boarding kennel, the shelter manager temporarily moved Penelope and her pregnant pen-mate into the get-acquainted pen. The girls seemed to realize that something big was happening. They didn’t look very nervous about it yet—just keenly interested. Still, I wondered how they were going to handle the enormous changes they were about to undergo.
Five minutes later, when I finished with the call, two shelter volunteers loaded Penelope and her black friend into my car. The volunteers and one of the shelter managers kissed both girls good-bye.
Two steps at a time
“By the way, what’s the black dog’s name?” I asked as I opened the car door to get in.
The shelter manager shrugged. “She doesn’t really have one. But she’s beautiful, isn’t she? Look at those eyes.”
For the first time, I looked at the black girl—really looked at her—and realized that the manager was right. The pointer wore an elegant “tuxedo” of ebony with a white vest and gloves, and little black polka dots on the white parts. And yes, the eyes, in a brilliant golden hue, stood out strikingly against her dark face.
But she was just one of many gorgeous dogs and cats at the shelter. It was hard to pull out just two of them, leaving all the others behind. One step at a time, I reminded myself. Or in this case, two steps. Better than nothing.
“You’ll take good care of these girls?” the shelter manager asked.
“I’ll do my best,” I replied. “As we discussed, Penelope will go to the Netherlands. Thank heavens the group Stichting AAI is still waiting for her there, and they’ll find her a loving home. I know that much. As for the other girl… I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure something out.”
Biting my tongue
While I fished in my backpack for the car keys, the shelter manager asked, “What about the pregnancies? They’re too far along to be spayed now. The vets won’t do them at this stage.”
Being human, with my own frustrations and strong opinions, I felt like giving her an earful about the whole awful situation. About how wrong it was for dogs to get pregnant while in a shelter. About how things needed to get better organized around here.
Two weeks earlier, when I had first noticed the two girls looking suspiciously plump, and had suggested repeatedly that they seemed to be pregnant, the two shelter managers had sworn up and down that they couldn’t possibly be pregnant, since they had already been spayed.
Clearly, that was a huge error. And if the managers hadn’t been so insistent about it, not to mention if they had kept decent records that they could double-check, there would have been plenty of time to get them spayed and end the pregnancies.
I wanted to scream, Can’t you at least keep track of who’s been sterilized and who hasn’t???
Instead, I bit my tongue and clamped my jaw down tight. It was not this woman’s fault. She was devoting her whole life to the shelter, with absolutely no pay—in fact spending thousands of euros of her own money. And the other manager was doing much the same.
Accurate record-keeping was just not going to happen when there were hundreds of mouths to feed and no reliable income to do it with. Every day brought dozens of new crises that sometimes kept them there working till the wee hours of the morning. When they barely even found time to sleep, where would they find any moments to sit down and make notes about spays and neuters or anything else?
All doing our best
Like me, the shelter managers were just volunteers. We were all doing our best against practically insurmountable odds. Along the way I had made my own share of rescue-related mistakes, and no doubt would make more in the future, regardless of my best efforts.
The biggest blame for Penelope’s and the pointer’s pregnancy predicament lay not with the shelter managers, but with the thousands of irresponsible people on our island who were busily abandoning, neglecting, and/or abusing animals.
I stuffed my frustration, took a deep breath and said, “Yes, unfortunately the pregnancies do make things kind of complicated. So I don’t yet know what’s going to happen. I’ll take them to the vet as soon as possible. Then we’ll go from there.”
“Keep me posted?” The shelter manager’s tired eyes sought answers, but at that point, I had none to give.
I nodded. “Of course.”
We hugged. I noticed that her clothes were drenched with sweat from working nonstop under the broiling July sun. She’s a sturdy, fit woman, yet that day her body seemed fragile. Though her personality and her outlook are perpetually upbeat, that day she looked wilted, and about as close to discouraged as I’ve ever seen her.
Any lingering anger I had toward her about the pregnancies dissolved on the spot. “It will be all right,” I mumbled, patting her shoulder. “What you’re trying to accomplish here is almost impossible, you know? What a task you’ve taken on! But you’re doing an amazing job. And look, I promise, these two girls, at least, are going to be OK. I can’t tell you exactly how or when or where, but they’ll be OK.”
She nodded, thanked me, gave the girls some last ear scratches through the back windows of the car, then stood at the shelter gates, watching and waving as we drove away.
To be continued…
Part 4 of “The patience of Penelope” coming soon!
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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Her fiction includes 17 novels for Simon and Schuster, E.P. Dutton, Avon, and other major publishers (under the name Kathryn Makris), as well as a teleplay for CBS-TV, and a short story for The Bark magazine. She has written hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s Petside.com, Animal Issues Reporter.com, and Examiner.com (Animal Policy Examiner).
Together with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press).