I Was A Lost Pet Magnet

I grew up on a farm, but not the kind of farm that evokes the overused and idealized image of the Hardworking Family That Is Feeding America, with their single-seat John Deere tractors and days spent getting up at dawn to hand-milk the cows.  To be sure, we were surrounded by just those types of farms (although, even then, the tractors were already sporting amenities like air-conditioned cabs and stereo systems—and the cows had been machine milked for years), but ours was more of a hobby farm.  Mother, who had grown up in the middle of a large, Midwestern city, had always loved animals and wanted to live on a farm so she could have as many pets (large and small) as she liked.  Eventually, she was able to wear my father down to the point where he agreed to sign off on her pet project. 

They bought a 10-acre farm (which, even by the standards of the time, was quite small) that used to be a combination dairy and grain farm but was no longer viable for either.  The dairy equipment had long since been stripped out of the largest barn, and the only silo had been destroyed by a tornado. Even if my parents had wanted to purchase the large field next to it (which the seller of the farm wanted to retain as part of his farming empire), they wouldn’t have had anywhere to put the grain.  So, what they bought was essentially some dirt, some barns, a bunch of smaller buildings that had likewise not been utilized for their true purpose in ages (the smoke house, the corn crib, and three other buildings of unknown designation), and my mother’s dream.

In time, we had horses, a couple of goats, a shitload of chickens, two ducks, a few dogs, and enough barn cats to annihilate every bird and rodent in a two-mile radius.  There was also a sizeable garden—probably 100 feet by 20 feet—so we could pretend to be living off the land.  I fucking hated it.  From the age of four until we moved away when I was 15, all I wanted to do was live in a city, much to my mother’s chagrin.  When you are an adult, it’s pretty easy to see the charm and allure of such a lifestyle, but as a kid, with zero options for freedom of movement, such geographic isolation begat social isolation, which—at the risk of oversimplifying—was no fun at all.  I had no friends—that is not an exaggeration—so my social interactions were with the animals by necessity.  I’d play with the cats and dogs, ride my horse, and watch the chickens for hours at a time.  I know that sounds boring as hell, but I’m telling you that watching chickens (especially when they free range, which we did after they lived past their prime laying years) is both fascinating and quite meditative. 

I was also exposed quite often to the Circle of Life, either through the natural deaths of the animals, or deaths through predation (we had a weasel problem for a while), or deaths from injury or disease (the vet was on call any time of night or day), or deaths by our own hands (we raised meat chickens for a bit, but my mother couldn’t handle the killing and then wouldn’t eat the birds—we had probably 20 of them sitting in a chest freezer for 10 years).  So, while I had all the social graces of a feral cat, I did develop a pretty good capacity for bonding with animals and could gain their trust pretty easily.


Time passes, and I get older (without growing up).  I get married and divorced.  I move across the country several times.  I finish college.  I get married again.  And, at this point, we are living in a 900 square foot duplex on a small, unfenced, plot.  We have no pets of any kind, mostly because my time on the farm had imbued me with some pretty strong notions of what is, and is not, fair for a pet—particularly dogs.  One of the bigger items on that list is room for them to just run around freely, which in a subdivision means a fence.  No fence means no dog.  We did not consider getting a cat for a bunch of reasons.  Firstly, because cats—with very few exceptions—are assholes.  Plus, we were renting the place and cats can stink up a living space like nobody’s business.  You can pet-sit a cat for a friend who goes on vacation for a week, and six months later someone can walk into your place and say, “you have a cat, don’t you?”  Another considerable factor in our no-cat policy is that my wife has a background in bird rehabilitation, so periodically we would have an injured wild bird in the house to nurse it back to health (spoiler alert:  most injured birds die).  There was one particularly memorable time with a mockingbird who recovered nicely and took to us so completely that even when we let him go, he decided to nest in a nearby tree.  But that was it as far as pets. Oh, how I longed for a dog.

It was around this time that my streak of finding lost pets began.  Sometimes I found them while walking through the neighborhood.  Sometimes I found them while driving.  They were almost always quite local.  It wasn’t often that I would find a dog that had gone further than a few miles from home and most of them were in rather good shape.  Almost all of them had collars with tags (this was before microchipping had become ubiquitous) and so were easily reunited with their owners either through a phone call or simply dropping them off at their respective homes.  Some dogs were easier to approach than others, but I could always get them to trust me enough to either come along with me on my walk back home or hop in the car. 

I was finding lost dogs all the time; sometimes as frequently as once a month, sometimes even more often.  It got to the point where my wife simply stopped being surprised at the sight of an unfamiliar dog.  She used to say that it was God’s way of providing me with some much-appreciated doggie time in my pet-absent life.  More than once I considered just adopting the Dog of the Month (there was one particularly sweet Golden Retriever who probably would have happily stayed), but such fantasies were short-lived, and I would come back to reality within a few minutes and pick up the phone to let someone know I’d found their dog.

The people were obviously incredibly happy at my having found their dogs, which, in itself, was fulfilling.  Thankfully almost none of them offered me money as a reward which prevented the inevitably awkward cycle of refusal and insistence (“Really, I appreciate it, but I can’t accept.”  “No, I insist.”  “No, I insist more.”).  The funny thing about a lot of these incidents was that the dogs were rarely gone long enough for their owners to even be aware that they were missing.  One even tried to convince me over the phone that I had made a mistake because their dog was in their fenced back yard.  It took a little bit for me to get them to agree to go take a look, which is when they found that the gate had been left open.

Of all the lost pets I found during this time, there are two occasions which still stand out to me today.  The first one wasn’t even a dog.  On this day I was at our church for something I don’t remember (this was mid-day during the week, so not prime churchgoing hours), and when I was walking out to my car, I heard the unmistakable cry of a kitten in distress.  I headed in the direction of the sound and eventually found that it was coming from inside a bunch of hedges.  It took a little bit, because there was a lot of shade and the kitten turned out to be dark and striped, but eventually I found him.  He was about six weeks old and in bad shape.  There was an awful looking wound on his body just under his left foreleg and it looked like it was starting to get infected.  He was matted and just generally hating life in a big way.  He also had no collar or otherwise identifying accessory so it was just as likely that he’d been born outside and couldn’t keep up when he got hurt.  I sat down in front of the hedge, opened my hands in my lap, used a soothing voice, and waited.  After a few minutes, he came out and crawled into my lap.  I picked him up and got a good look at just how rough his condition was.  It was my day off, which was good because I knew this was not going to be an easy situation to resolve.

I put my new charge in the front passenger seat of the car and headed to PetSmart.  This location hosted local animal rescue groups for adoptions, almost daily.  While driving, the kitten crawled up the side of my seat, got onto my shoulder, curled up and took a nap while purring. 

“Oh, hell no.  This is not happening.  I can’t keep you, no matter how much you pour on the charm.”

“purrrrrrrrrr…”

“I mean it.  I’m going to help you as much as I can, but you are not coming home with me.”

“purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…”

“Christ.  I hope I can find someone who will take you before I start shopping for scratching posts and litter boxes.”

We arrive at the PetSmart and, lo and behold, a cat rescue group is there today!  This is perfect.  I’ll just hand my new friend over and that will be that.  I peel him off of my shoulder (still purring), carry him into the store, and head straight for the lady at the adoption center.

“Hi there.  I found this little guy and he pretty clearly doesn’t belong to anyone so I wanted to drop him off with you so you can find him a—“

“Oh, I’m sorry, our facility is totally full.  We can’t take in another rescue.”

“Um…but you’re adopting out other kittens today, right?  I’m sure once you offload a few—“

“Actually, when I said we are full, what I really mean is we are beyond full.  We’ve taken in way more than we should have.”

“Oh, boy.  I don’ t know what to do here.  I can’t keep him.  I rent a small place and we don’t have the money to cover a pet deposit, not to mention the general upkeep of a cat.”

“purrrrrrrrrrrrr…”

“He really seems to like you.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem.  I really can’t keep him.  Really.  Also, he needs medical attention and I don’t have the money to cover that.”

(Long, excruciatingly uncomfortable pause.)

Sigh.  “OK, what we can do is send you over to the vet who we work with.  He can bill his services to our account—but we can’t take him in.”

“That’s a start.  We can burn the other bridge when we get to it.  Thank you.”

So, off I go to the vet with my perpetual purring machine perched on my shoulder in the car again.  I get to the vet, inform the receptionist why I’m there, and wait my turn.  I’m a walk-in so I get to read lots of magazines (“Holy shit, Roy Horn got mauled by one of his tigers?  That sounds like an omen.”) while I try to ignore the ever-building emotional bond with this kitten.  I feel like a spaceship caught in the gravitational well of the universe’s cutest and fuzziest black hole, both dreading and welcoming my destruction.

Eventually I get called back and give the vet what little information I have about Sir Purrs A Lot.  They tell me to wait back in the lobby while they go to work on him.  It takes a good 30 minutes or so (“Britney Spears had a stalker?”), before they call me into the back again.

For the first time, the kitten looked very unhappy, but that’s because they’d really done a number on him between bathing him and scrubbing away at the wound which now looked like a huge white mouth.

“So, this little guy was brought in just in time.  I think if he’d been on his own for a few more days, the infection would have gone too far to save him.  But, these antibiotics should clear him up, and he should remain indoors until everything is healed.”

“That’s great.  Thank you very much for taking care of him.”

“Well, he’s one of those rare cats who will absolutely appreciate everything that is done for him.  He’ll make a great pet.”

“Yeah, but not for me.”

Back to the PetSmart I go, feeling like the worlds strangest pirate with this kitten on my shoulder.  He’s already back to purring again and is grooming himself, which is great because the better he looks, I’m hoping the better my chances of convincing the Cat Lady to take him in.  If not, I’m super screwed.

“OK, so first thank you very much for covering the vet bill.  He should be in good shape now and has some medication for his wound.”

“You’re very welcome.  Have you decided to keep him?”

“Well, no.  Like I said there’s no way I can keep him.  Do you know of any other cat rescues or just really anybody who can take him in?  I can’t do it and I don’ t want to just put him back out in the wild again—especially with that injury of his.  Look at that thing.”

“Yeah, that is pretty bad…(Big Sigh)…OK, I’ll take him into my home because there is literally no room for him at the rescue center.  Once he heals up I’m sure we’ll have no problems finding a permanent home for him.”

“Whew, that is a relief.  Thanks again.  Here he is.”

“purrrrrrrrrr…”

“Looks like he likes you, too.”

“Um…”

I ran into the Cat Lady again a few months later and she told me that she named the cat after me (which I thought was odd) and that she decided to keep him as her own.  She said he was very happy and sweet and was enjoying his new life.  That was a solid win for everyone.


The other one that really stands out in the Sea of Lost Pets was a Black Lab who I spotted while driving through my neighborhood one Saturday morning.  He was in terrible condition and looked like he’d not seen home in months.  His fur was matted and starting to show signs of mange.  He was way too skinny—I could see his ribs, spine, and more bones in his legs than I should have.  Fortunately, he didn’t look like he’d been in any fights, so he didn’t appear injured.  He had a rainbow-colored collar, but no tags. 

I stopped the car, opened the door, and whistled.  He stopped, looked at me, and just started trotting over, wagging his tail.  Clearly his long period of being on his own had not dampened his love for human beings.  He hopped right in the car, and I took him home to get a better look at him.

I’d made a point of keeping a small bag of dog food on hand when I started losing count of how many I’d found, so I put a little bit in a bowl for him which promptly went down his gullet.  He was able to keep it down, so after about 30 minutes I gave him a little more.  This was going to be a tough one to figure out because up to this point the dogs I’d found either had tags or were familiar enough to me around the neighborhood to be able to connect them with their owners without much effort. 

I started asking around to see if anyone had seen any lost dog signs, and one person suggested to me that I take a look at a lost pet website that I hadn’t heard of.  So, I log on and spend the next several hours combing through the listings, which were sorted in order from most recent to oldest.  Finally, while going through listings that had been posted nine months prior, I spotted a picture of a Black Lab with a very similar looking collar.  Generally speaking, that was where the similarities ended because the picture was of a healthy, well-fed and loved dog, while I was looking at a worn down, mostly-starved, and lonely dog.  If the dog in my living room and the dog in the ad were one in the same, then he had just traveled 30 miles as the crow flies—and there was no telling how many total miles he’d traveled in that time.   I called the dog by the name listed in the ad and his ears picked up a bit and he turned his head, so I was hoping I’d found the answer. 

By this time, it was early evening.  I called the number in the ad and hoped for the best.

“Hello?”

“Hi there.  I think I may have found your lost dog.”

“I’m sorry, you must have reached the wrong number.  My dog is dead.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.  I hate to ask, but I just need to make sure.  Did you bury your dog, or is it just because he’s been gone for so long?”

“It’s been nine months.  If he was going to make it home or have someone find him, it would have happened a long time ago.”

“I’m pretty sure this is your dog.  Black Lab, rainbow collar, and seems to respond to his name.  He’s very skinny and looks pretty rough so he’s been on his own for a long time.  Can I get you to come out and take a look, just to make sure?”

By this time, I’m hearing a couple of girls in the background asking their father if someone found their dog.  He’s doing his best to not give them an answer while trying to tell me he’ll come out there alone just in case it’s not his dog.  I give him my address and number.

About an hour later, we hear him pull into the driveway.  My wife goes outside to greet him while I wait inside with the dog, holding his collar just in case.

When the man walks in the door and looks at the dog, he’s just about to tell us that we called him out here for nothing when he sees what I saw immediately:  the dog is wagging his tail.  I let go of the collar and he walks right up to his owner, while his tail wags faster.

The man can’t believe it.  He calls the dog’s name like a question, and now the tail is in full frenzy.  The man crouches down to hug the dog he thought had died months ago, while the dog licks his face and everyone in the room starts crying.  This is as Disney Fairy Tale Ending as it gets.

This guy is absolutely beside himself with relief and joy.  He spends a few minutes, just enjoying the love of his old friend while trying and failing to collect himself.  Eventually, he pulls it together, thanks us profusely, and takes his dog home to what I’m sure was a hero’s welcome and a much-needed vet appointment.


We lived in that duplex for about three years, in which time I had to have found a minimum of 50 lost pets.  Eventually we moved to another neighborhood, to a house with a back yard and a fence.  We brought home our first puppy a couple of months later, which is also the time when my experience as a lost pet magnet came to an abrupt end.  She was a Yellow Lab/Beagle mix with enough personality to fill an oil tanker, but who acted like a cat trapped in a dog’s body.  We loved her anyway, much to her annoyance, until she died three years ago after a long bout with cancer.

A few months after her passing, we got a new puppy who has turned out to be the exact opposite of our first dog.  She’s a Golden Boxer, and her personality can be summed up in the following way: “I LOVE YOU DO YOU LOVE ME I DON’T CARE I LOVE YOU ANYWAY!”  This dog is a bundle of paradoxes.  She is a bull in a China shop, who happens to also be the sweetest dog ever, and who is also a stone-cold killer.  Her favorite thing to do is to have “contact” which is just lying down at our feet and making sure that some part of her is touching one of us—such as putting her paw on one of our feet.  She also loves to gaze into our eyes while we pet her, which is not typical dog behavior.  Yet, she has also bested a racoon, killed a vole with one chomp and made a swan think better of its decision to hiss at her.  So, we must make sure she has as little exposure to wildlife as possible.  However, insects terrify her for reasons we cannot fathom.  I have never thought of dogs as having the capacity for make-believe, but I swear to you that she has a vibrant imagination when she plays.  Yesterday, for the first time since the lockdowns, she was able to play with another dog and it was hilarious.  They both had a lot of fun for around the first 30 minutes, at which point the other dog realized there was no way he could keep up with her boundless energy.  So, he had to simply endure the next three hours while she had the time of her life.

In the fifteen years since we got our first dog, the only “lost” pets I’ve found have been the few times one of the neighbor’s dogs has gotten loose.  But that’s okay.  I enjoyed it while it lasted.  I just hope that either someone else found themselves in my position to find more lost pets, or that there are a lot fewer lost pets out there.  The world sheds enough tears as it is.

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About butcherbakertoiletrymaker 575 Articles
When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.

14 Comments

  1. That top pic is the best picture ever! And, your fur child is adorable. You grew up exactly how I plan to retire and this was a wonderful look into the life of butcherbakerpetrescuemaker. 

    • She’s, truly, my favorite of all the dogs I’ve had in my life.  She’s taken up snorkeling in the shallow water of the lake–just shoving her whole face under water and rooting around down there.  She can swim, but absolutely, steadfastly, refuses to do so voluntarily.  Mrs. Butcher told me about a technique the other day for how to encourage a dog to swim on its own so I think I’ll give it a try this weekend and see how she does.

  2. This speaks well of you. The lost and hurt animals recognize that you’re trustworthy, nurturing, and have a great capacity for love. I gotta confess I’m a little misty right now. 

    Oh, and you know you came this close to having a cat , right? 

  3. Joining the group who just can’t figure out how it’s raining inside and all over my face…
     
    At one point in my life, I had 4 cats, a dog, a rabbit, and 5 pet rats, all of whom (except the first 2 ratties) were rescues of one sort or another. Almost every cat I’ve ever had has been a stray that we took in. I’ve brought numerous injured wild animals and birds to the nearby animal sanctuary/rehab center, and have brought several stray cats and kittens to the shelter when I just couldn’t take care of another animal. In other words, I’m a sucker for a furry face and They. All. Know. It. 

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