Red Bull in hand, Shantel hopped up and into the passenger seat next to me. Sitting on an upside-down water bucket, I was sandwiched between Kate and Shantel in our new van, donated by some good Samaritan the previous week.
"Donuts, Kate?" Shantel asked her.
"Of course! We need to gas up anyway." Skinny as they were, it made no sense between the donut and diet coke breakfast and fast food and Red Bull lunches.
"I hate you." I said. The two laughed.
A local news crew was following us today. They’d heard about Kate from an article in the Kansas City Star newspaper and wanted to get in on the action.
Our first stop was to a house involving an injured Rottweiler. A man left a message on the COH machine. He said his dog was dying and he didn’t want to deal with a dead dog.
Usually the weather doesn’t make a difference when these dogs live outside during 100+ degree days and -10 degree days however, days like today it did matter. The heat was oppressive. Air conditioners couldn’t keep up. Cars overheated on the interstate. Dogs without cool, fresh water could face dehydration or death.
"I have this professor who breeds English Bulldogs. I’ve gotten in several arguments with her. Well, I guess you could call them debates but regardless I’ve asked her repeatedly why she needs to breed. Just drives me nuts. If I didn’t have to have this class for my major I’d drop it. With the quickness." Shantel spoke eagerly of her undergrad studies.
"What?" Shantel asked.
"You’re so young!" Kate said. "You’re studying geology, you named a dog Cale after, what was that jewel called?"
"Caledonite." Shantel said. She laughed and took a long swig of her Red Bull.
Shantel went out with Kate every single day for months during her summer break.
Kate spoke of her recent move into a new town home in the dead of summer. I sat still, motionless, not wanting to move in the heat. From where I sat I had a perfect blast from the AC.
The neighborhood had a heaviness to it; the sweltering heat and heavy humidity weighed everything down. Trees seemed to sag under the weight.
We pulled up outside the house on our right. The news crew was behind us. Kate and Shantel opened their doors and hopped out. I reached behind me for pamphlets and treats- a staple for every stop.
Nearly spraining my ankle as I jumped out of the van, I saw Shantel and Kate approach a man. Dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, I glimpse his boxers showing underneath.
I pick myself up from the ground and jog over to the trio.
"He’s in the back. He’s almost dead. I don’t know what we gonna do. You need to get him out of here." The guy said.
"What do you mean he’s almost dead, what is wrong with him?" Kate asked. She glanced at Shantel, then me. My stomach dropped, my pulse was rapid and I panicked. This kept me motionless.
"He done get all skinny. He got some kinda sores everywhere like he’s got AIDS. Man, I don’t know. We fed him. It ain’t our fault he gone die on us."
Shantel looked at me, I glared back. People never cease to amaze me.
Another man and a woman came out of the house. They stopped briefly on the porch then came down the steps to us.
"Turn them cameras away. We don’t want no cameras in here." The woman said.
I’d nearly forgotten about the news crew.
"We’re here because you called us to help you. The news crew is following us around today. They’re here with us. Do you want our help or don’t you?" Shantel said exactly what I wanted to say but was scared too.
The new man said, "I just done get outta prison. I ain’t gone have no news crews up in here. Send them away or we don’t show you the dog."
By this point Kate was already around the side of the house; Shantel and I followed. I motioned to the news crew to back off and stay in the front yard.
The back yard was mostly shaded. Willow trees eerie limbs touched down throughout the lot. A chain link fence surrounded us. We walked to the back right corner. The very back of the yard to a dirt circle with makeshift dog house.
They called him Jose. He was laying in dirt with no shade. There was a food bowl in front of him. Maggots circled the bowl full of green and moldy water. I fell backwards holding my mouth and tripped over an old plant pot. The smell was intolerable.
We tiptoed closer. Jose’s front right leg was missing below the first joint. At the infected end of his leg were maggots, flies and exposed bone. He didn’t move. His head rested on his left front leg.
Tumors bulged through his thin skin; his torso, his neck, his head, even the side of his face near his eye. His ribs stuck out from his thin skin. He was starving, dehydrated and dying, without a doubt. Before I knew it I backed away and was throwing up in a bush.
In all our years doing outreach, helping abused animals and working with strays, we had never seen anything like this.
Shantel and Kate were yelling at the owners. I couldn’t hear much of what was going on the whole situation was so surreal. The pain and sorrow in this dog’s eyes haunted me. I knew the look; he’d given up.
"You don’t fucking ever let it get like this do you fucking see his leg?" Shantel yelled at the men and the woman. "No, you can’t see his fucking leg because its gone!"
Kate never looked like this before; shocked, appalled and helpless. I think today a little part of her heart was taken away.
"Sarah, go get a pet taxi from the van." Her voice was emotionless, her face stark-white.
I ran to the van as fast as I could fighting the vomit in my throat the whole way. I could hear them all in the background, behind me. The men saying it happened overnight, Kate and Shantel yelling back that this didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen in a week and it didn’t even happen in a month. Infection, starvation and disease like this took months if not years to get to this point. This dog had suffered in silence longer than we’d ever know.
The reporter and camera man approached as soon as I ran from around the side of the house.
"Sarah, can you tell us –" She stopped when I threw up in the bush next to us.
I grabbed a pet taxi from the back of the van. I hurled it out. I was light headed and nauseas.
Normally I wouldn’t have difficulty lifting a 40-lb pet taxi but I could hardly stand up straight. The camera man helped me carry the crate to the backyard.
"Now you lift your damn dog and you put him in that crate. It’s the least you can do. You fucking let him live like this you owe him at least the decency of putting him in the pet taxi so we can get him out of this hell hole!" Kate yelled at the men.
The men walked cautiously toward Jose. They almost tip-toed.
"Do you ever come back here?" I asked.
They ignored me.
"Do you ever fucking come back here? Cause if you ever did, you wouldn’t be terrified of your own fucking dog you mother fucking pieces of shit!" I was crying now.
Shantel came over to me and put her arm around me. I looked down and the ground and said,
"Sarah go back to the van. We got this."
As I walked to the van the two men loaded their dying dog into the plastic pet taxi.
"…better not call Animal Control…don’t call the cops….ain’t need no trouble ya hear…..just got outta prison don’t need no attention…wasn’t our fault dog wouldn’t eat…."
I nearly threw up again.
Shantel sat in the back of the van with Jose, Kate drove and I sat in the passenger seat. The news crew followed. We all sat in silence.
I looked back and watched Shantel. She cried silently; her tears fell on Jose’s nearly dead body. She stroked him gently through a hole in the pet taxi. She sat next to it, leaning into him. It suddenly seemed very dark in the world.
We renamed him Atticus. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was the most moral and just character. Atticus deserved to know we were trying to bring justice to the world of animal cruelty.
We took him back to the shelter. Kate got the concoction of sedative + euthanasia prepared as Shantel fed Atticus small bits of a hot dog. He received love and attention in his last moments alive. But nothing would ever take away the pain and neglect he suffered over that last year. Cancer had literally eaten away his leg; the tumors found all over his body were malignant.
And, although his owners did set food near him he couldn’t reach it nor chew it, had he been able to reach it. A tumor had taken over the side of his face and his teeth were gone, a result of his trying to chew his way out of his chains.
The cancer began eating away at his paw from the inside out. When it went untreated, the cancer tore away at his leg and finally ate away at his bone and skin leaving the infection exposed to the outside elements. The food left for him rotted and attracted more elements such as maggots. In life he was helpless to the attacks on his body; yet mentally, aware of every last ounce of pain.