A Moment In Time
What is animal welfare? What does it mean to work in animal welfare? What does it mean to work at Palm Valley Animal Center (PVAC)? How do you explain it all? At family gatherings an uncle, a grandparent, or a cousin will ask, “you still working at the pound?” When we hesitate to answer, the following thoughts and memories are the type that flash through the mind of a PVAC employee.
Thunder shakes everything. The thunder was my alarm today. It has been raining hard all night and it’s going to keep raining hard all day. The kennels are at full capacity and more animals will arrive all day. At first the clouds and the rain were a welcome change from the oppressive summer heat. Now, every flash outside the window makes me nervous. Every roar from above makes me wonder what the animals are going through out in the kennels at PVAC.
It is 5 in the morning and I have a rescue transport to San Antonio today. I drive at least twice a week, every single week, no matter the weather, no matter how beat up I feel, no matter how beat up our equipment is. Each trip takes anywhere from 35-70 homeless animals from PVAC to rescue organizations. Those non-profit rescue organizations are based all around Texas, The United States, and even Canada. They each make arrangements for their organization’s volunteers or employees to meet me in San Antonio to take the animals they have chosen. From there, the animals make their way to a new future and a chance at living a life full of love and warmth. The transports I drive represent just a single strand in an intricate web of meticulously planned logistics, and instantaneous adaptation when those plans go out the window. I am a single tooth on a giant lifesaving gear comprised of animal rescue organizations, volunteers, advocates, transporters, veterinary clinics, and animal shelters. That gear has to keep turning.
It’s late June and I’ve been driving for 8 weeks already. 1,000 miles a week for San Antonio trips. Add another 1,000 miles for a rescue transport to Dallas and back. Another 1,000 for a trip to Sterling City and back. There is no end in sight. I spend more time in that van than at home. There’s no way around it. The animals have to get out. The van has to make it. I have to make it. We have no space at the shelter to house them safely until the weather passes. I just had a transport yesterday and the highway southbound was flooded. It is bound to be worse today.
Before I even get dressed, the messages come in. Help will not be there for the load up. One staff member’s house is flooded. Another staff member’s street is flooded. No word yet from the third. My heart starts racing in a rage. I rage at the fact that my job is hard enough when everything goes right. I rage at the seemingly endless stream of abandoned and stray animals coming into the facility. I rage at the fact that we don’t have some limitless tract of land to house them all. I rage at the fact that we don’t have an unlimited staff to care for them all. I rage at the fact that we don’t have an infinite amount of money to pay for it all. I rage at the fact that we can’t save them all. We can’t even save half. I rage at the rain and the thunder. I rage at the dangerous highway I have to get onto in a van that I am convinced is conscious and bent on hydroplaning. I rage at the fact that the 43 animals I take out of the shelter this morning will be replaced by 107 throughout the day.
At 5:55 AM the rain has stopped, but the thunder has not. Hopefully I’ll have a couple of hours to work before the rain comes back. When I arrive at the front gate I see a car waiting in the vacant lot next to PVAC. I know that car. I knew she would show up. Her house and her street were flooded, but she showed up somehow and earlier than me. I open the gate and we make our way to the back of the property, while all along the 5 acres, the eyes of dozens of opossums reflect our lights back at us.
When we turn the lights on in the kennels the dogs go crazy. They sound louder than the thunder. All of them barking and crying and whimpering. I don’t know what is more heartbreaking; the cries of the dogs desperately scratching at the kennel doors, or the silence of the dogs who stay huddled in the corners. Have they given up? Do they know their odds? Were they abandoned by people who once loved them? Have they ever even known love?
A quick check through the kennel halls with my flashlight to make sure no one is injured or sick, and then on to loading up the lucky 43. As we put on our first gown and first pair of gloves for the morning, the rain comes back more fiercely than before. We give each other a quick glance and embrace the situation.
Most of the dogs I am taking to San Antonio are mixed in with others who are staying behind. Sometimes 5 large dogs share a single kennel. Sometimes 10 small dogs share a kennel. Overnight with no staff to clean, the floor and their paws get covered in urine and feces. When we get inside a kennel to grab a rescue confirmed dog, all the dogs come running up to us. We have rubber boots to protect our feet from the mess, but nothing protects our pant legs. After only 1 kennel, every article of clothing not covered by our plastic gowns is soiled by filthy paw prints. Filth flies everywhere with those enthusiastic paws. It hits our faces, it lands in our hair, it slides into our boots, it soaks through our shirts and pants. Those same paws tear apart our gowns. Those innocent little creatures eager to love and be loved leave you scratched, sweaty, and bruised.
One by one we walk or carry each dog from their kennel to the van. We get pulled in every direction, we slip on the wet concrete, and we sink our boots deeper and deeper into the mud as the rain keeps falling. Some dogs have been hungry their whole lives and do not do well around other dogs. We have to be careful to keep them separated and under control. Other dogs do not do well with people. Those dogs have been abused, starved, neglected, tortured, overbred, and abandoned. They have never known kindness or love, but they know fear. Sometimes we have to use a catch pole to force those dogs into the wire kennels we have stacked in the van. I feel guilty and sad and angry that their bodies and souls have been mutilated by such a cruel world full of such cruel people. But I tell myself, “just get them out of here and they’ll have a chance. Just get them out before their time is up.”
The little dogs are the tougher ones. Sometimes, if they are injured they are especially quick to snap at you. They are confused and in pain. One chihuahua came in with a broken leg. She was found by animal control wandering the streets with a bad limp. She was probably hit by a car, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. As with all the other animals leaving today, we in the rescue team took photos and videos of her to send out to our rescue partner organizations in the hopes that they would want to take her. When she arrived at PVAC our medical team assessed her, gave her pain medication, and any warmth and affection she would allow them to give. Our kennel staff fed her, cleaned her, gave her water, and tried to show her that not all humans represent a threat. She needs more time to shed that fear she learned on the streets. Taking her away from our overcrowded shelter and into the arms of a rescue organization will afford her that time.
When you try to approach her she shows her teeth as a reluctant warning. She is exhausted from being on the defensive her whole life. When I try to get a leash on her she goes off like a land mine. I call my companion for back up. She has a way with the “caution” animals, so I know she’ll be fine. In the meantime, I go to get the last few dogs loaded as it is already 7:45 and the window for an on-time departure is rapidly closing. A couple of minutes later I tear off the remaining tatters of my shredded gown and gloves and see that little chihuahua in the arms of my coworker. Her tail is wagging and she has a smile on her face. She’ll be in a good home soon. She just needed more time and the right person to show her kindness.
All 43 dogs have made it on the van. My coworker tears off her gown and gloves and goes to the office to gather the paperwork while I go and change out of my clothing. I learned the hard way my first week on the job that at least one spare set of clothes should be kept near at all times. I slip and slide over to the parking lot and throw my dirty pants, shirt, and socks into the bed of my truck. By the time I get back to the van she’s waiting with the paperwork. I am soaking wet with the water, but at least it’s only rain I’m drenched in now.
As I climb into the van it’s 8:00 AM sharp. The world is still dark with the storm. As I reverse out of our kennels, the headlights of the van shine on the hundreds of dogs left behind. My van is completely full. Even the passenger seat has a kennel of puppies on it. But those animals left behind who didn’t get tagged by our rescue partners and who will likely not get adopted, are burned into my memory. Some of them are still wagging their tails as I pull away. Others stand completely still. The guilt is overwhelming. The guilt is sickening.
I don’t want to leave any behind. To take them all to safety we would need a fleet of 10 vans, an army of employees, a thousand rescue partners all with infinite space, and a mountain of money. We can’t save them all now, but one day we will.
As I try to leave PVAC the traffic is already miserable. The visibility is horrible with the downpour. A block away I stop to fill up with gas and grab a coffee. As I stand at the pump I hear the dogs barking inside the van. They will be a little cramped for the next few hours, and some will even get car sick, but they will all be safe. When I climb back in the driver’s seat I see an animal control truck heading toward PVAC. The cycle is beginning again. It never really ends.
When I finally make it to the highway, I put my music on but the rain is deafening. After a few miles the dogs get quiet, and luckily the rain does too. I have to sing to stay awake. The energy drink and coffee combination I have perfected over the thousands of miles in this van can only carry me so far. The music is the real source of energy.
No matter how much I have seen at PVAC it has not become any easier to process. I still lose my composure on the road when I’m alone with the animals and the music strikes just the right chord. Sometimes I wonder, “If I were to get pulled over right now, what would the police officer think? I’m a grown man, driving a van full of animals, and I’m crying uncontrollably.” After my first session of borderline sobbing, I begin to regain my composure. I try to focus on the positive. I try to use that rage and sadness as my inspiration instead of my ball and chain. We can’t save them all today, but we will someday. As I look in the rearview mirror I see the faces of the innocent creatures looking back at me and I realize that the words of the song playing say it all: “I have no doubt, one day the sun will come out.”
Back to reality. I have to answer now. My hesitation has already been too long. I can pretend not to have heard, but that will only buy me another second. Finally, after an eternity in my mind and 3 seconds in reality I answer, “yea, I still work at the pound.”
-Luis Emilio Quintanilla
Palm Valley Animal Center receives thousands of cats and dogs every year. Our daily efforts to save these homeless animals are made possible by the generosity of individuals and businesses in our community. Please click the link below to join us in our efforts to make The Rio Grande Valley a safer place for our animals.