Suzy is a tan dog with a black snout like a strong German Shepherd mix should be. I thought she was still growing when I found her, and I hoped she would be my largest dog weighing in at 100 lbs. Yet my veterinarian took one look at her nine-month old teeth and said she was as large as she was going to get. This fact didn’t stop her from trying to gain weight on a daily basis. I’ve caught her eating a pound of peanuts, a skillet of cream cheese and sausage, a family-size bag of trail mix, a family-size bag of potato chips, a family-size bag of sunflower seeds, a bottle of garlic, a tub of butter plus a various assortment of panties and fast food wrappers. Yet she’s still floats between 45-50 pounds. She’s a scavenger. A garbage princess.
Suzy is named after my aunt Susan. I told my aunt this one day at a Sunday lunch at my parents’ house.
“Really?” Susan gasped like the southern lady she is. Her eyes lit up as she smiled. A combination of surprise and honor. Her niece named a dog after her.
A second later I could hear a chorus of male voices from the living room belonging to my dad, brother and maybe some cousins. They were shouting and even swearing at Suzy. She had peed on the carpet in the living room. She peed with no shame, in front of everybody. We sat in the kitchen, and I watched my aunt’s face transformed from an appreciated smile to a look of concern that teetered on a look of fear. I looked at my aunt’s concerned face and said that I was sorry as if part of the accident was her fault. And that, of course, was my fault for naming this feral dog Suzy.
People asked me where I got Suzy when we’re at a dog park or the animal clinic. I assume it’s because she is one of the most beautiful dogs they have ever seen and not simply making small talk. I have been told she was, in fact, not the prettiest dog in Birmingham, yet I did meet a lady who was convinced that she was a purebred Malinois Shepherd. People pay up to $2000 for one. I argued with her that Suzy is a mutt that was running wild in Pinson, Al.
“Well they have Malinois in Pinson too,” the woman replied all the while eying my Suzy like she was some sort of prize she wanted to steal.
I looked at her eying Suzy, and then I looked at Suzy with her signature stare. It’s the stare that makes some friends believe and declare on social media that Suzy doesn’t not have a brain. Suzy is brainless. I turned back to the lady and, again, told her there was no way Suzy was a $2000 purebred.
I always try not to tell the story, but it comes tumbling out of my mouth like some proud mother. Like everybody does if they have a pup, especially a rescue pup.
“We found him on the side of the road”
“Our friends rescued her after they watched someone throw her out of the car.”
“This is my dog. He is a rescue pup that lived under a bridge, in a pile of trash, abandon house…”
And so on.
If this line of conversation is not familiar to you then you don’t work with animals. Congratulations.
I try to hold back my own rescue story because this usually leaves the person asking about the rest of her pack. And so I tell them. I could lie, but sometimes it’s better to know the truth. They were all euthanized. Then I have to watch their eyes grow big with alarm, or they look down at Suzy and feel sad.
I trained for two days as an animal control officer before they handed me the keys to my own truck. Me. I had them fooled I suppose. Luckily I only got it stuck in the mud in someone’s yard once, and I only wrecked the truck once. It was a fender bender in the parking lot with another company truck. My truck was a big Chevy model. If I owned a truck that big it would be considered excessive, and I would have to hang truck nuts off the hitch.
The truck had built-in carriers for transporting animals so basically it was just one big blind spot. I would closed my eyes and hoped for the best when I had to reverse out of our parking dock. Hence, the fender bender. However, by the grace of god, I always made it through malfunction junction in rush hour traffic without even spilling my coffee.
When I use the word training I really mean that I rode around with another animal control officer to shadow her. There was no training. There were no workshops. There were no classes or even an online seminar for new employees. Mainly because there was no time. You just learned as you go. I found this hard after leaving a ten-year stint of working in libraries. I was still trying to look cute in my new uniform. Tights, dresses,curled hair and discussing your favorite author is a lot easier than goddamn durable khakis.
My coworker showed me how to use the catchpole in our parking lot before we all loaded up and headed out one day in our individual trucks. I knew that day there would be a dog in a trap and it would be the first time I had to use one if the dog proved angry about his or her confinement. They usually were angry.
“You just use your legs and then you scooped them up into the truck like this.” Here, she made a gesture with her catchpole that was similar to shoveling dirt and tossing it out of the shovel.
A catchpole is a long pole with a noose at the end. Looked easy enough.You gently place the noose around the large, angry and snarling dog and slowly tighten. Then you push and drag the dog to the truck as he or she stares at you with vengeance and murder in their eyes all the while trying to lunge at you or jerk away from you. And as my coworker showed me, you just scoop him up in the truck. It’s as easy as shoveling dirt.
Dogs with good temperaments who lost their way from their human family were, of course, the easiest. They usually just jump into your lap and lick you face as if to say thanks. Scooping up dump puppies from the side of the road was easy too. However, there were the other dogs. Dogs that might belong to people but were lost, scared and aggressive. There were court order cases such as a dog named Pain who killed another dog and mauled the owner of the dog–a child.
Then you have your feral dogs who are completely unsocialized, unfamiliar with humans and with keywords of discipline. They are naive to any kind of animal to human communication and interaction. Suzy’s pack of dogs was not the first feral pack I encountered. However, they were the first I successfully trapped.
There were five: three dogs that were older and then two that looked to be puppies. The two puppies were Suzy and her sister. One of the older dogs was a female that looked like a smaller yellow lab, and I assumed she was the mother to the two younger dogs. She had an old injury to one of her back legs. She never put that leg down on the ground, and she ran three-legged when I got too close and she felt threaten. But we made progress.
Out of the three older dogs, she was the most curious and would approach me. She would get within five feet of me then jump back. Then she tiptoed to three feet before she jumped back. Soon she walked all the way to me so I could touch her. She took the food out of my hand, and I could use that hand to lightly pet her face. However, any sudden movement forced her to jump back and scurry away from me and into the woods.
The other two dogs were black, and one of them had been named Outlaw by the people who lived in the area. They never dared to get close to me. Apparently this neighborhood has been Outlaw’s stomping ground for years and nobody had ever been able to catch him. They both look like black chow mixes. The two younger dogs looked like a perfect combination of the three older dogs plus some shepherd, maybe some pit, and I swear I see boxer in Suzy.
Suzy was tan and black. Her sister had the same pattern, but it was reverse: Black and tan. Both dogs lay on their stomachs with their faces in the corner in the trap. Suzy growled and moan every time she exhaled, which l learned she will always do when she’s tired, and it sounds like an old lady moaning due to aches and pains. I wore a bite glove and used a towel to gather Suzy up by the scruff of the neck and back legs. Her growls grew intense until it sounded like crying. She never moved as she was frozen with fear. Her sister made the same sounds but thrashed around and tried to reach back and bite me. I held her stern and got her in the truck. In my mind I was going to come back and get their mother, the little yellow lab, and they could all be in the shelter together but that was the last time Suzy was near her mother.
They lived in the shelter much like any wild animal who was ripped out of their home and thrown in a cold, sterile building: lying on their stomachs and facing the corner farthest away from the door. No eye contact. When I would open the door they scrunched even farther away from me and tried to bury their heads in the concrete wall. But I kept opening the door because I wanted to save them.
The next day I drove my truck back out to Pinson to try to trap the other dogs. It was then a neighbor told me there were more puppies in an old barn on his property. He said they were only a few weeks old. It took some time to crawl around the old barn and gather the puppies in all the dusty cracks and broken floorboards where they hid. I got them all, but this meant it was imperative that I catch the yellow lab. She was the mother and they were still feeding. Luckily for the puppies she fell for the bait, and I found her in the trap. Unluckily for me, I had trapped my first feral adult dog, who I had to take to her puppies. What I learned fast is that feral dogs lose their fucking minds when you trapped them. Plus I had a crowd of Pinson locals watching me. I had the truck. I had the trap. I had the uniform. I was suppose to be the expert. Good God. It is in one of their yards where I got my truck stuck in the mud.
I tilted the trap up so it stood long way and the animal couldn’t sprint out. I cracked the trap door and wrangled my catchpole in, manipulating the metal loop around her neck. I pulled it tight so she couldn’t pull out of it. Then I truly understood the animalistic definition of feral. In the wild, she was the one that I could touch with enough patience. I thought I wouldn’t even have to use the trap if I had enough time to befriend her with dog treats. I thought she had a chance.
Once the catchpole was on her neck she panicked. I pulled her out of the trap and she flopped up and down and did death flips while growling as in pain, shitting and peeing all over herself. I was scared I was going to kill her. I was scared she was going to kill herself. I don’t know how long it took me to get her in the truck, but I got her in after what felt like hours. I was shaking and breathing hard. All the people watching were impress and said I did a great job. It didn’t feel like I did. I left feeling embarrassed and naive.
When I got back to animal control I had to use the catch pole again to drag her to the kennel where her young, feeding puppies were. I had to drag her the whole way while she did the death flop and gnashed her teeth at the pole that wrapped around her neck. Another newer coworker looked on in disbelief. Startled. Our supervisor saw his face and explained this is how feral dogs can behave.
The little yellow lab realized I had dragged her to her puppies. Her body released all tension. Her eyes seemed to lose focus and relax. And she immediately just layed down while all her wailing, hungry babies crawled over to her and started feeding. She seemed normal. She seemed like the dog I could touch before she was confined and desperate. One that could be saved.
Every morning I would save some eggs to bring with me to work. I would sit in the kennel with Suzy and her sister to feed them. Their behavior changed. They stopped scrunching their faces into the wall in fear. Sometimes they would look up. They went from not eating the eggs to eating the eggs after I left. Eventually they would eat the eggs as I was still in the kennel. At some point Suzy ate the eggs out of my hands. Progress.
My coworker and I would walk them in the yard on a leash. Soon we thought they adapted enough to be off leash in the small contained yard. They both would run from us and later did I understand this was the beginning of a lifelong game Suzy would be thrilled to play. Suzy was socialized easier and faster. Her sister bit my coworker. Not hard. I still hoped both dogs could make it to the adoption floor.
One day I came to work and Suzy was the only one in the kennel. The red kennel card had been placed on the gate for her sister. She was euthanized earlier that day. The person who makes these decisions for the shelter said Suzy was close to having her own red euthanasia card. At this point Suzy would look at me when I got to work in the morning, waiting for her secret breakfast of leftover eggs. That day she looked sad. Like she knew her sister was gone. Her mother was already gone. The puppies I saved all had heartworms. And yes, the shelter does a great job fostering heartworm puppies. But for every set of pups who are placed in the foster program, there are many more not given the chance. It’s bleak. They were all gone. I was able to trap one of the black dogs and apparently it was Outlaw. The Pinson folks were amazed I caught him. Like I was a pro and new what I was doing. But I wasn’t proud of it. He was euthanized too. Like most dogs I rescued.
I didn’t last much longer to be honest. I got bit. I was scared. And even though I knew I was doing the right thing it didn’t feel right to bring these dogs to their death. I only saw a couple of dogs make it to the adoption floor after the many I brought in. It wasn’t suppose to be like that. But when your intake is so much more than the adoption numbers what can you do?
My partner at the time said he would leave me if I brought another dog home, and I promised I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t leaving Suzy to be scared and alone in this sterile place. I brought her home. She hid and ran from any humans, including me. The first time she met my other dogs she just started shitting out of fear. Trying to socialize her left me covered in mud, late for work and crying because I couldn’t catch her when she got out. This happened dozens of times.
Just like you can’t ever take your childhood home away from you, you can’t take the Pinson countryside out of Suzy. She will always be determined to find the treats in the trash can if you give her the opportunity. And even though she has her very own dog bed, toys and a fenced-in yard with a kiddie pool, she will always be my wild child and the most beautiful dog in all of Birmingham.