Fifteen years ago the coolest yellow Lab in Virginia was put out of his misery at too young an age.
A phone call from the 24-hour animal hospital jolted me awake at 1 in the morning. Initial blood tests detected venom, likely a snake or brown recluse spider, the poison festering undetected for days until entering the bloodstream, making its way to the organs, destroying red blood cells, causing renal failure and — at noon the next day — death.
I blamed myself for not knowing, for running Jack at full speed, for throwing sticks far out into the river. He never slowed down or even hinted of pain until his front leg suddenly swelled like Popeye’s arm. I carried all 85 pounds of him to his favorite seat in our Jeep, assuring my concerned daughter that he’d likely torn a muscle. Kerry was three when Jack stepped out from under the Christmas tree and she might as well have lost a brother.
There would never be another dog in our house, I declared, and those who knew Jack understood why.
Last month, with the intention of introducing myself as the new editor of this newspaper, I paid my first visit to the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League (RAWL) shelter in Amissville, a small facility located sadly at the county dump (although the dogs don’t know the difference).
For me, there’s no more difficult a walk than down the aisle of a dog shelter, where I imagine myself opening the gate of every kennel and setting the animals free. Which is why many shelters require volunteers sign no-adoption pledges or else they’d be taking home these sad-eyed detainees left and right.
I’m convinced, however, that if you’re a dog without a home there’s no more caring a shelter as RAWL — and no better den mother than its director, Patti Want. In fact, for many of the rescues here this is the best home they’ve ever known.
“Do you notice anything standing here?” an older gentleman visiting RAWL last month asked me. “You can’t smell anything. That’s how clean it is. That’s not the case in other shelters.”
He explained that a few years ago he adopted one of RAWL’s older dogs, which tend not to be matched with homes as quickly as younger dogs and puppies. That dog died not long ago, he said, and now he was back to rescue another aging hound. As he put it, the older dog he takes home might not live as long, but what life it has left will now be surrounded by love.
That was all I needed to hear.
Luna, renamed for her mismatched brown eye and moon-like blue eye, came home with me on Valentine’s Day. Some believe these special dogs see into heaven and earth at the same time, and I’ve no reason to doubt it.
I won’t reveal everything RAWL knew about Luna’s past, but it wasn’t good. She was estimated to be between three and four years old and had just given birth to a litter —likely not her first. Her teats were swollen, she was malnourished, suffering from Lyme disease, and had a gagging cough. What life she knew was said to be at the end of a chain.
This is where RAWL begins the process of saving a rescue’s life. Luna was immediately transported to a vet, who diagnosed the Lyme and administered a strong course of antibiotics. She was put on preventative medicines for heartworms and fleas and ticks. She was then spayed, implanted with a microchip, and vaccinated for rabies. Luna was hopefully on her way to a full recovery.
Getting her through the front door of my cabin for the first time was another matter. She didn’t like how the screen door swung open and backed away. I tried coaxing her in, but she wouldn’t budge. Tugging on her collar only caused her to choke. So I ended up kneeling behind her and pushing her in.
Once inside her nervous demeanor changed dramatically. She sniffed at every corner, surveyed every room, discovered her food and water bowls, and when all that was accomplished she inched her way into my lap and licked my face. Soon, her eyes were drooping and she climbed down and gingerly approached her new bed — filled as it was with squeaky toys overnighted by my approving daughter.
Luna was exhausted. She stared curiously into the fireplace, and I wondered if she’d ever been this close to burning logs before — or for that matter inside a home. I dragged her bed closer to the warm flames, and the next thing she knew it was morning.
Luna is always wanting to please. She’s learning to walk on a leash at my office, and not stray too far from home. She entertains by tossing toys into the air and catching them in her mouth, plays hide-and-seek behind stonewalls, and slithers deep into piles of leaves until not a hair of her can be seen. Her favorite thing is to run — bouncing through the forest like deer, the faster the better. And she loves riding shotgun in my truck.
The staff at the Rappahannock News has welcomed Luna with open arms, even if she greets every visitor with two paws, and despite her persistent gagging that may or may not have been kennel cough.
And then I discovered the lump in her neck. I tried to convince myself that it was a cyst or swollen gland. And then a few days later my friend Trish Bartholomew — inventor, wouldn’t you know, of a portable stretcher for ill and injured dogs — met Luna for the first time and felt the same hard lump. She shot me a concerned look.
Dr. Kevin Jones of Rappahannock County’s Rose Hill Veterinary Practice came highly recommended. He saw Luna for the first time last Thursday, removing her stitches from her previous surgery, peering into her ears and eyes, and starting her on new medications. Furthermore, he guessed her age to be closer to two, which explains all the puppy in her. And then I told him about the lump.
“I don’t like what I’m feeling,” he didn’t hesitate to say. My heart sank.
My hunch was the vet knew he wasn’t dealing with a cyst or tumor. Either way, Luna went off to the X-ray lab, where I was summoned to appear a short time later. When I walked into the room the doctor was staring at Luna’s X-ray pictures in disbelief.
“How is this dog alive?” he said, repeating it more than once.
The X-rays revealed a bullet lodged in Luna’s neck. And not the smallest caliber, either. By a stroke of luck it somehow stopped just short of penetrating her trachea, which conveys air to and from her lungs. Somebody, for whatever god-awful reason, shot this defenseless dog that doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.
There won’t be any surgery for now, Luna’s been through too much. To take the pressure off of her neck, I’ve ordered a dog vest to replace her collar. As I finish writing this incredible outcome Luna is lying quietly next to my desk, glancing up between snoozing to make sure I’m still here. Soon she will realize she can’t get rid of me.
In closing, I hope more residents of Rappahannock County will consider donating to RAWL, and if you haven’t yet done so pay a visit to the shelter and spend time with one or more of these amazing rescues. You never know, you too might meet your new best friend.