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Las Cruces Oral History group is the talk of the town

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008


Play Misty for Me

One man's hunt for a new "dawg" turns into an appreciation of High Desert Humane Society.

By Larry Lightner

If you've followed this writer's ramblings elsewhere in this paper, you know that I've had as many as four dogs at one time (over a period of seven years). Attrition due to old age took three of the canines in the last three years, and my wife Jeri and I were left with good ol' Barney Dawg, and he was at the ripe old age of nine.

"Misty," the author's shelter dog.

Now, Jeri and I were quite satisfied with that arrangement — after all, one canine is a heck of a lot easier to take care of! Barney became my constant companion, but after Noosa died two months prior, we started to notice a change in the pooch; he became morose, listless and seemingly lonely in spite of my best efforts to be his pal.

We soon found ourselves examining the photos of dogs available for adoption. We'd comment that Barney would like this one or that one, or this one was too small for him (he was close to 100 pounds at the time and 98 percent solid muscle from our many ramblings outdoors).

Earlier this year, I spoke casually about several largish female dogs. The next thing I knew, Jeri was on the phone with the High Desert Humane Society here in Silver City. I was surprised but ready nonetheless and needed no more prodding to load up Barney and trek on over to the animal shelter the next morning.

The staff there was great. I explained my plans to find Barney Dawg a girlfriend, and a helper named Heather Carr led me to the back pens. One hound was almost as huge as Barney and would have been the perfect fit, but she had just been adopted. The second dog had been pictured in Desert Exposure and had been really my main attraction; she was big enough and seemed quite gentle, but was covered with way too much long hair for our carpets.

The third dog was nicely sized at 50 pounds, black and quite pretty with a quiet disposition. She wagged her tail as I passed by and it seemed as if we connected instantly. Two other dogs were also chosen for consideration — both Lab crosses and quite gentle.

So, one at a time we took them for a walk to see if Barney would accept any of them. He growled at all three but immediately accepted my pick — the first dog, "Pepper," a good sign. They walked well together and basically ignored each other after the first encounter.

The second dog we walked was a Lab-pitbull cross of about 60 pounds. She was just too aggressive for Barney and wouldn't submit to him; she was out.

The third was the smallest, a Lab cross maybe, sleek, shiny and puppyish. Barney was none too thrilled at her exuberance, although she did submit, so it seemed overall that the first dog would be our pick.

Next I called Jeri and asked her to come quickly and see what she thought, and we all walked Pepper once more with the same results. We all got along famously and soon a check for 90 bucks was written (to cover spaying, shelter care and shots). We were informed that we couldn't take her home until she was spayed and given a rabies shot, and by then Jeri had renamed her "Sadie."

For the next week Barney and I made two trips daily to walk Sadie and get to know her and start to give her obedience training. In just two days she was responding to commands of "sit" and "come." Barney seemed to like her just fine.

We had picked her on a Saturday and the following Thursday I got a call: Sadie had growled at and bitten a helper at the vet's office; then on the next morning she had growled at the vet's children as they passed by her cage. What did I want to do? They said she had become unpredictable and aggressive.

Within two hours I was at the Humane Society and told them that I was willing to take a chance anyway on "my dog." But Gigi Shoaf, the office manager, gently yet firmly said that I could no longer adopt Sadie; she was simply too much of an unknown risk. Besides, she had bitten someone and now rabies shots might have to be administered unless Sadie was put down and her head checked.

I was discouraged, but understood. The Humane Society has to act responsibly to all of its clients.

As I walked out, Buddy Howard, the shelter's animal-control officer, had just driven up with Sadie in the back. I stuck my hand in and ruffled her neck as she happily wagged her tail at me, but she did seem a touch distant. Then I said goodbye; Sadie was put down hours later. I found out she didn't have rabies after all.

The shelter still had our check, at my request, and Jeri and I returned the following Saturday to look at that third dog, the puppyish one. I went into the cage and knelt down by "Ollie." She wagged her tail and snuggled her face to mine in a shy, quiet, warm way. (She turned out to be a good actress!)

Our walk with Barney was full of his growling because Ollie was exuberant towards him, but by the end, he grudgingly accepted her. Jeri and I definitely liked her and so we filled out the paperwork and on the following Tuesday she was shipped off, this time to our regular vet, Kevin Brown, to be checked over and spayed.

Ollie came home to us on the next day and my wife promptly changed her name to "Misty." Two days went by and Barney finally accepted her. Now they run, play and tussle with each other in our fenced half-acre backyard and Dawg is back to his old happy self. In fact, he has dropped 15 pounds!

As for Jeri and me, we are trying hard to get used to a six-month-old, 50-pound ball of constant energy! This is something we were not prepared for in our advanced years. And as for Misty being shy? Forget it!

But this is only part of my story. The other and more important part is the High Desert Humane Society and the role they play in managing all of the unwanted or stray dogs and cats in Grant County.

It is very hard on an animal fan to walk into those indoor cages and see the dozens of dogs penned up, all barking and vying for attention as a human walks by. Dogs of all sizes and ages, Chihauhaus to Saint Bernards — I wanted to take them all.

Most are strays, picked up throughout the town and county; Misty came from 12 miles away. The society is very careful about the dogs that come in. Heather, who is one of their caretakers, explained to me that all strays are isolated for four days and watched. If the canine displays erratic, aggressive or unpredictable behavior, or is unhealthy (quite a few have parvo virus) and no one comes to claim it, it must be put down.

If a stray or a turned-in animal displays a sweet, lovable, friendly temperament, it's brought out into the general population pens and kept for adoption (sometimes up to a year, but that is rare). Misty was there for two months before Barney and I came along.

The shelter's staff consists of director Jeff Young, office manager Gigi Shoaf and animal- control officer Buddy Howard. Other staffers include Heather Carr, Brenda Foor and Margo Byrne, the "hands-on" caretakers who clean and care for each animal, clean the cages, feed the animals and put them outside in runs for an hour or two each day. If you're looking to adopt, these are the people to speak to, because they know the critters best.

I was astounded at the number of volunteers. They are the nuts and bolts of the organization; at least three or more give their time up front in the reception area, while at least 30 volunteer to be "dog walkers." (By the way, the shelter can always use more volunteers to walk dogs between the hours of 1 and 3:30 p.m. A dog walker may be the only reason that the animal sees freedom of any kind!)

Now for the sad and disturbing portion of this story. In 2007, 1,368 dogs entered the shelter in Silver City; approximately 65 percent were strays and of those 889 dogs, only 208 were claimed by their owners. Both Heather and Buddy told me that most people just don't care whether their lost dog is found or not, and never call to check.

Of those 889 strays, 311 were put down either for poor health or incompatibility, as Sadie was.

An appalling 479 dogs were voluntarily turned in to the shelter. The number-one reason was because the owner was moving, but a goodly number are turned in because the owner doesn't know how to train the pet, or is simply too lazy. I suspect a good number of strays, too, are simply unwanted, turned-loose animals.

Out of the total of 1,368 dogs arriving at the shelter, besides those returned to owners, only 363 were adopted. Last year 786 dogs were euthanized for all reasons; the shelter has only so much room and money for even the adoptable dogs, and there are 30 dogs per day at the kennels with more coming daily.

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