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Like many stories about events that seem to conspire to predestined ends, this story begins with a passing thought.

It was on the Sunday when I knew I would be posting my annual R.I.P., Beloved Animal Companions tribute.  (Throughout the year, I save diaries and comments about the loss of animal friends; they are always so tender.)  I knew that I would end the diary with a plea for our friends in shelters -- there are so many of them, these days, because of the foreclosure crisis and the rotten economy.

My thought was this: I knew that it was time to adopt a new friend.

But I had no idea that this simple thought would change my life.

Ever since the death of my beloved Madison, I have volunteered off and on to be part of a weekend caravan that transports dogs, cats and other animals on death row at kill shelters to places where they might have a chance for a new home.  The amazing women who organize this effort (which stretches from the Deep South to New England) put some military operations to shame.  The organizing emails arrive on Wednesday or so, with "transport lists," destinations, requirements for each sweet animal, and pleas for help.  I’m a lousy transporter.  Every time I participate, I fall in love with my transportee and get teary-eyed at the last stop on the journey. That last stop, on a couple of my runs, has been Friends of Homeless Animals.

FOHA is an amazing organization that has a beautiful facility on dozens of secluded wooded acres out in the horse country of far western northern Virginia.  To protect the animals who live there, the location is not publicized.

But, of course, I know where it is.  

And on that Sunday, I asked my Mom if she would like to see it, because it was a beautiful Sunday and we both had decided that the time had finally come for us to welcome a new friend to our home.

Because you are not really supposed to visit the FOHA facilities until you have expressed an interest in a particular dog or cat, the shelter people were a little perplexed at our visit, but I explained that I had volunteered on the transports and one of the great volunteers gave us a piece of paper and told us to walk amongst the lovely dogs and write down any that we might like to take for a walk or a visit.  

Ordinarily, the sight of so many friendly faces behind bars would have dissolved me, but I know that FOHA does not euthanize, that its volunteers and staff are kind and compassionate, that most friends there do get forever homes, and that those who have special issues get extra-special care.  So we walked through and wrote down names, and took a few friends for walks.  They were all special.

And then, quite by chance, we spotted someone else walking Briar:

Friends of Homeless Animals.

He hadn’t been available to see while we were walking through, because someone else was already walking him.  And he hadn't been on the website the night before because that was when he had arrived. And, wow, was he a beauty.  My Mom asked to walk him, and off they went.

The volunteer who had put my Mom together with Briar started talking about shepherds, and I started talking about my beloved Madison the German shepherd.  I love all dogs, but I have had shepherds all my life, and I feel a special kindred spirit with them.  

And that is how the magic started.

Just the day before, the volunteer said, a lovely female shepherd had arrived at FOHA.  This lovely girl, she said, had been surrendered to a local shelter by her owner, along with her two GSD brothers, both of whom had been determined to be too aggressive for placement at FOHA.  In the space of a few days, she had lost her home, her human companions and her dog buddies.  She was, the volunteer said, desperately sad.  I asked to see her.  And when I saw her, sad and curled into herself, in her kennel, my heart melted.

During our walk, this sweet girl leaned on me, looked at me with sad eyes, allowed me to hug her.  And, as had been the case with dear Madison, I fell in love right then and there.  It troubled my heart to leave her, but I took an application to adopt her.

Over the course of the next ten days, I tried repeatedly to fax the application to the number I had been given, but it wouldn’t go through.  I left messages at FOHA, asking that someone call me to give me the correct fax number.  I finally sent it as .PDF attachment to an email to their general email address, but I kept calling, because I wanted to make sure they knew how much I wanted her.

Last Thursday, a volunteer called me and said she had been given the application.  But, she said, someone else had taken my girl home.  Maybe I would like to consider another dog?  And I burst into tears.  

That night, despite my sadness, I helped my Mom pack up donations for FOHA’s annual Variety Sale.  We decided that our disappointment shouldn’t distract us from helping other homeless friends.

Just as we, as progressives, can never let temporary disappointments stop us from continuing to do what we must to achieve justice and fairness, even when we do so through tears.

On Mother’s Day, what my Mom wanted was to go back out to FOHA.  She wanted to find out, for herself, what had happened to our wanted-friend, and thought maybe we should take a look at some of the other dogs.  

That was the closing day of our Feeding America series, and, having organized it, I felt guilty about taking several hours off to drive out to Loudoun County.  

But it was Mother’s Day and she is my Mom.  

"I need to know," is all she said.

By the time we got to the facility, it was nearly time for it to close.  We went to the tiny office.  My Mom asked the volunteers what had happened to the friend we had chosen, and their eyes widened.  Just that morning, it turned out, she had been returned to FOHA. And just by coincidence, the volunteer I had spoken with on the phone about her (and who had reviewed my application) was there.  

They said my friend had not eaten since she had been returned and that she had been shaking all day. Already skinny from stress, she was becoming skin-and-bones.

They took me to her, and she recognized me, and the shaking ended.  We took her for a walk, and she accepted food from my Mom’s hand.  And then she walked to our car (we have no idea how she knew it was ours) and stayed there.

FOHA is a responsible organization and requires anyone adopting to have a home visit.  We had not had ours. But that evening, as the facility closed and everyone was beginning to leave, our girl would not leave the side of our car.  

Apparently, the kind women who were in the office saw this, because, long after closing time, with our girl still firmly parked next to the car, they asked whether we wanted to take her home with us right then.  One of the volunteers would come to our house that night for the home visit, they said.

When my Mom opened the car door, our new friend leaped in.  Throughout the hour-ride back to our house, she was asleep in the back seat, with her head in my Mom’s lap.  

I made a blanket roll on the floor of the room our new friend had chosen as her own that night, and she slept with body next to mine.

She has eaten, heartily, since she arrived at her forever home.  She is 15 pounds underweight, according to our wonderful vet, who squeezed her in for an appointment on the day after her arrival.  But she is calm and happy and amazingly well behaved. She has lovely dog manners.  She has become a hearty eater. And she is so loved.

I can’t imagine what would have become of her -- or of us -- had my Mom not insisted on driving out to the shelter on Mother’s Day.  

At the shelter, her name was Sabene, and here’s her video:

Friends of Homeless Animals

(She was much skinnier by the time we welcomed her into our home; I will post pictures soon.)

It turns out that her original forever name was Athena, the goddess of wisdom and justice.  Who could possibly have known.

In the R.I.P. diary, not this time posted this beautiful comment:

About adopting a new pet after the loss of a loved one:

My name is _, and I came to my Big Person as a comfort for a friend she lost. The first time I saw her, she picked me up and held me to her face, and she laughed, although I could see the tears she was holding back for the one who left. I heard her say yesterday that when a good dog says goodbye, he leaves a shape in the doorway and the heart that no other dog ever quite fills, and young as I may be, I know that's true. I can smell the fading scent of a dog who once loved this house, this ground, and my Big Person. When she opens the door, she still sometimes automatically looks for him and then, realizing he is gone, feels an emptiness inside. But then she looks to me, and pets me, and I step through the doorway--there to make my own shape with the love I bring.

not this time

Madison’s shape still fills our home, and always will. But I am beyond grateful for the wonderous kismet that brought Athena here. She has already carved out her own shape in our home -- and in my heart.


Bless you, dearest Madison. Athena has looked for your shape, and I think she has found it.

Originally posted to noweasels on Thu May 14, 2009 at 06:35 PM PDT.

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