I stood in a puddle beside Kimberly, watching a black-and-white, Border Collie mix cleaning and rearranging her eight puppies. We were in the dank, gray hallway of the county animal shelter. The entire shelter, which was mostly concrete, had just been cleaned. My feet squeaked in my wet flip-flops and a strange mix of bleach and urine filled my nostrils. It didn't seem like a place that could ever really be cleaned.
I kneeled down with my face close to the chain link fencing that contained the mother and her pups. She stopped licking a black-and-white puppy to look at us. She was comfortable with the eye contact, and we stared at each other for a bit.
"I'm sorry you're in this place," I thought.
"I've got my puppies to keep me busy," her eyes said as she returned to cleaning her babies.
The other dogs--about 20 of them--weren't fortunate enough to have any small, fuzzy distractions. Most were barking frantically, shoving their noses or paws through the diamond-shaped openings in their chain link cages. Even if they hadn't seen any of their fellow canines put down--nine that day alone--these dogs knew the fate that awaited them.
Despite the warmth and smiles of the shelter staff, a cold, black cloud of death hung over the entire place. The man showing us around told us that he took the shelter job last year when his wife was injured and could no longer work. He was a dog trainer by profession and had 11 canines of his own. He had taken home as many as he could but still looked like he wanted to cry every time he introduced us to another shelter dog.
He brought out the Border Collie mix on a leash, and she seemed confused by the freedom. She looked back at her puppies a few times, but after sniffing around the small, fenced-in yard, she came right over to Kimberly and me. We kneeled down, and she licked both of our faces before rolling on her back with her tail wagging furiously. She was a heck of a salesperson, and it worked.
"We'll take her," I told the man. Kimberly nodded in agreement.
We would have to wait the week until the pups were weaned to bring her home. We gave the man every possible piece of contact information we had and said goodbye to the mother, who had returned to her duty of cleaning and rearranging her pups.
It was a fairly quiet ride home. I think a bit of that black cloud was in the car with us, and it was difficult to ignore. I couldn't imagine how a dog person could survive a job at a kill shelter. I have no desire to know what it feels like to put down a perfectly healthy dog. At least we would be saving a life by bringing the mother home.
"She looks almost exactly like Kit," I said.
"I know she's not Kit," Kimberly responded, "but looking at her makes me feel good. Plus we can give her a good home."
"By 'give her a good home' do you mean 'we can spoil her rotten?'" I asked.
A few days later I was on the metal roof of the new foaling stall. Just days from her foaling date, Mandy watched me from the riding ring. I drove in the last few screws and gave her an enthusiastic "thumbs up." She just shook her head.
Kimberly and I built the foaling stall with two doors. The stall measured 10 by 20 feet, and we wanted the option to install a center wall if we ever needed to create two 10-by-10 stalls. Also, Kimberly and I are saving up to buy siding for the foaling stall, but it's far enough along to shelter Mandy and her baby.
Earlier in the week, Kimberly had taken up a huge pile of wood flooring from an old barn on our property. I then took down the heavy, rough-sawn floor joists to be used for the stall's interior walls.
Kimberly had the floorboards planed smooth at a nearby wood shop. She framed out the Dutch doors for the foaling stall and faced them with the reclaimed flooring while I cut and installed the giant joists.
Deep down inside, Kimberly is a carpenter. She approaches woodworking projects in the way I would imagine Michelangelo approached his ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
Kimberly's stall doors were perfectly stained and smooth. The wavy grain of the old pine boards was a rich mix of gold and pale honey colors. And the old-timey, heavy black hinges and latches gave the doors a classic functionality. I swung them open and shut a few times. They were satisfyingly solid with nary a squeak. Her doors made my rough, though well-engineered building look amateurish and unfinished.
"Wow!" said Mandy as I walked her into the barn the next morning. "Are those new doors for me? They're amazing!"
"The entire stall is for you," I said. "With the top and the sides... you know, that I built."
"Yeah--but those doors!" Mandy gushed. "Just look at those doors!"
I tossed her a couple flakes of hay and hoped we could afford that stall siding sooner rather than later.
Kimberly had been calling the animal shelter daily, just to make sure no one took home or adopted "our dog." I was making lunch when she burst into the house.
"We gotta go get her!" Kimberly exclaimed.
"Who?" I asked.
"Our dog, from the shelter. There's an outbreak of parvo and they're going to put down any dog that doesn't get picked up." She grabbed the car keys and ran out. I threw all the food into the fridge and ran after her.
The shelter didn't charge us the customary adoption fees, but simply sent the three of us on our way home. The staff had been calling everyone who had expressed an interest in any of the shelter dogs. Five of our dog's puppies were spoken for, but the staff wasn't sure which, if any, of the eight had avoided being infected.
And though many of the dogs might have been old enough to escape the virus, the shelter's protocol was to euthanize all the dogs and close for two weeks for a thorough disinfection. As we walked to the car, I wondered how many thousands of animals could be saved if more owners made the commitment to spay and neuter their pets.
"We've decided to call you 'Pepper'," Kimberly said to our new dog. "Is that okay?" Pepper wagged her tail and licked Kimberly's face.
This drive from the shelter was far more pleasant than the last one, even though Pepper reeked of urine and was covered with matted fur. She sat in the back seat enjoying the wind from the open windows, occasionally leaning forward to lick me or Kimberly.
When we arrived home, we drove straight to the barn. The horses were inside, out of the hot and humid day, and watched as we gave Pepper three baths, a conditioning and a painstaking "haircut" to get rid of every mat and dread.
"We're just trying to clean you up," I said to Pepper as Kimberly gently guided the clippers under the matted fur beneath Peppers ears. Pepper just licked my face.
I was drying Pepper with a towel when Kimberly hollered from the barn aisle and ran past us with a bale of straw. Pepper and I stood in the doorway of the foaling stall as Kimberly frantically threw handfuls of straw everywhere.
"Mandy's ready!" she exclaimed. "She's lying down and getting up. She's pacing. She's waxing, and I think I saw a few drops of milk!" I looked down at Pepper and then at myself. We were both covered in straw.
Vander, Madison and Ellie were all whinnying as Kimberly led Mandy into the freshly-bedded foaling stall. Pepper and I retrieved the air mattress and sheets from the house and some folding chairs from the horse trailer.
Now that she was clean, Pepper looked even more like Kit. Granted, Pepper's white socks and nose are a little shorter. But while we were in the house, she took a few of Kit's plush animals and stuffed them in between the couch cushions like Kit used to do. She also got excited and wiped her face on the loveseat--also like Kit used to do. I know Pepper and Kit are not the same dog, but, as with Kimberly, the dogs' similarities made me feel good, too.
Back in the barn, I inflated the air mattress while Kimberly made a place for it on the tack room floor. The evening was beautiful. We turned out Vander, Madison and Ellie--all of whom offered Mandy a nicker of encouragement as they were led past the new stall. A cool breeze blew across the pastures and through the barn as the sun set. Hundreds of flickering fireflies were visible across the surrounding fields and into the nearby woods.
Kimberly and I sat in front of the foaling stall in our chairs with Pepper sleeping between us. With all the excitement and work during that week, I was glad that we were forced to simply sit and wait.
"I really like our new stall," Kimberly said casually while petting the dog.
"And we finished it just in time," I added. Mandy nodded emphatically.
Mandy was quietly standing, munching on hay when we went to bed in the tack room. It shares an outside wall with the new foaling stall. We could hear every bite Mandy took, and we were sure we'd hear her moving around when she went into labor.
The air mattress squeaked and bulged as Kimberly, Pepper and I tried to get comfortable. I don't remember falling asleep, but I have a vague recollection of my face being licked just before I drifted off.
To be continued...
Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina.
Read Jeremy's other columns in EquiSearch.com's Humor section.