She emerged from a dirty plastic doghouse. I took a moment to take in the sight before me.
We were in the brush, yet somehow light filtered in and illuminated the skeleton just feet ahead. One by one, you could see her ribs down her back, each more prominent than the last until her rear, which was so thin and bony it was a wonder she could even stand. She stepped forward and the heavy chain dragged across the ground. She wore a collar around her neck, which lay too loose because it was fit to the neck that once existed but had withered away. Her tail tucked between her legs and she lowered herself to the ground, inviting us forward yet ready to retreat in an instant.
I knelt down and moved my fingers across her bony back and felt the hard ridges. I looked into her eyes. Her face was sunken and misshapen.
Her dark eyes were covered in yellow and brown mucous. Her right eye was hidden by a large pink and irritated mass, which I would later learn was inverted cartilage. Her ears were caked in fly waste and dried blood, as flies swarmed around her body and the entire area she inhabited.
I drew my attention to the buckets to my left. One was filled with green water with a layer of slime. The other with dog food, filled half full but soggy with rain. It was obvious it had been sitting out for days.
While I work, I always have thoughts of our budget, space, numbers, statistics and resources swimming through my brain. We are always thinking of creative and innovative ways to save more lives–to make the biggest impact with the resources we have available. But in this moment, I forgot everything. This life needed saving. This life needed help.
I came to and remembered the human standing next to me. A young eleven-year-old boy had led me to this abandoned backyard, overgrown with brush and hiding this little secret. The family that lived in the home had moved out three months prior and asked the boy to check in on and care for the dog. But the boy had many dogs of his own, and could barely keep up with the ones on his own property. He tried the best he could to care for her, but it wasn’t enough. He needed help.
I could frame this story to end here. To focus on just the skinny dog weighed down with a heavy chain. But I won’t. Because this story is not just hers. It’s much bigger. It’s about racism and classism and poverty. It’s about a community in need of resources. Broken systems and broken promises. It’s about much more. So much more.
Anger. Pity. Both easy emotions to feel when looking into her dark eyes. In that moment I felt a whirlwind of emotions, those most prominent. However, I challenge you to dig a little deeper. To tap into an emotion we don’t tune into as often as we should. Empathy.
Not just empathy towards this emaciated dog. But also for the family that left her there. What happened to them? Where did they go? Prison? Divorce? Eviction? Promotion and Relocation? How many children are missing this dog, wondering what became of her? What types of obstacles were they facing? What struggles did they endure?
Empathy for the little boy. Imagine the humility and vulnerability he experienced as he finally decided to reach out and ask for help. We can only hope he learned a valuable lesson in life. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to need people.
Empathy for the volunteers and staff with boots on the ground, witness to the obstacles and struggles not only pets face, but also the families that love them. Volunteers that transport injured animals because their owner has no access to transportation. Volunteers that work night and day to coordinate life-saving efforts. Volunteers that brave the heat and cold to deliver supplies to families and pets in need. Volunteers fighting compassion fatigue, exhausted and overwhelmed as they trudge forward to save lives.
I write this with the emaciated dog curled up at my feet. Her eyes closed, her breathing steady. Her protruding ribs rise and fall with every breath. She is content. I feel fulfilled. And together, we only look towards the future.
— Janet Roberts