Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Maggie - The Dog in the Basement

I have interspersed this story with random photos of rescued dogs.

Chapter 13

We were canvassing an area that fall day. I wore cargo pants and a flannel jacket. Kate drove the van, Angela had her Cavalier and a few of the other volunteers drove their cars. I can’t imagine what the people in that neighborhood thought when we pulled up. All of us.

Kate split us into groups and we canvassed the neighborhood. Each group had a box of small bags that each contained a pamphlet explaining the benefits of spaying and neutering as well as contact information on low-cost veterinary services. The bags included information on micro-chipping and other pet resources in the Kansas City area.

Kate takes each situation on a case-by-case basis. After each call she receives from a dog or cat owner needing veterinary care, she looks at the money in the account – either for Chain of Hope or her personal account –start negotiating with vets around the area. I don’t think Kate ever turned any pet owner away. We have treated parvo, a serious and oftentimes fatal disease that puppies get, we've been able to amputate legs that became infected after dogs were hit by cars and we were able to get vets to remove cancerous tumors from strays.

Generally, Kate and I knocked on a few doors and the same dialogue ensued each time.The homeowner skeptically answers the door. Usually they left the screen door closed in between us. Rarely would they speak first.

"Hi. I’m Kate. This is Sarah. We’re with Chain of Hope."

Usually a pause, rarely did the homeowner speak at this point.

"Do you have any dogs or cats?" One of us would usually ask.


"We’re a non-profit organization. We encourage dog and cat owners to spay or neuter their animals. We also like to make sure dogs aren’t living in inhumane conditions such as on the end of a chain or without shelter. Is there anything we can help with? In exchange for your cooperation we can provide dog and cat food, vaccinations, heartworm prevention and treatments…."

At this point they still wouldn’t admit to having a pet.

"We aren’t animal control. We just want to make sure pets are being taken care of."

Once we assured them we weren’t animal control, they spoke. "Oh okay. Well yeah, we have a couple dogs living in the backyard. They’re outside dogs. They don’t come in the house. And there are a few cats that run around the neighborhood. My wife feeds ‘em although I ain’t sure she should be.

"Can we go back and look at the dogs?" Kate would ask.

There was a chance of hearing ‘yes, you can look at our pets in the backyard.’ Usually if the dogs were living in tolerable conditions, the owners would give us permission to go in the backyard. There was always the chance they might say ‘no’ in which case Kate had to try an alternative route.

"Ok sir (or ma’am). Well, here’s our information" and she would hand them the bag full of literature, "give us a call if you decide you could use us. Remember we give free dog food as well."

"Oh wait. Well, can’t you – can’t you just leave some food up here with me?" They would inevitably ask.

"I would be happy to leave it with you. However I need to check on the living conditions of the dogs. We are not animal control. We cannot take your dogs from you and we cannot ticket you. We are just here to help you."

Best case scenario the owners would then let us in the backyard. Usually the conditions were appalling. Part of Kate’s mission statement was to first try to educate the owners. If that approach didn’t work, we would liberate the dogs. To ‘liberate’ meant to get the dogs out of the situation regardless of the owners’ wishes.

This particular day we knocked on a door expecting the same scenario. An older lady in her nightgown answered. She opened the heavy door and left the screen door shut between her and us.

"Can I help you?" She asked.

"Hi ma’am. We’re with Chain of Hope. We are an organization that helps owners care for their pets. In these rough economic times we help with food, medicines and shelter. Do you have any pets?"

"Why yes ma’am, sure do." The woman had one hand on the door and one hand on her hip. I heard a football game on the television in the background and someone mumble "Ma". She looked behind her and yelled at somebody in the room. "Don’t you talk to me like that Tyrone! Do not talk to your mama like that!"

She looked back at the three of us. "Don’t mind him. He don’t know nothin. We got a dog. She downstairs."

Kate repeated, "You have a dog and she is downstairs?"


"Like, in the basement downstairs?"

"Yes ma’am. That’s what I said. She in the basement."

"Ok well, could you bring her up for us to see? We’d like to make sure she is healthy. That way, when we give you free dog food we can also determine if you need medication for her."

"Oh no, ma’am. She never come upstairs. She live there. In the basement."

I looked at Kate. My heart began to beat faster. I panicked.

"I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t understand." Kate said. "Your dog lives in the basement?"

"Oh please call me Phyllis. Yes, she live in the basement." The lady cocked her head and looked at us thoughfully. "Is there something wrong?"

"Well, what about when she has to go to the bathroom, Phyllis?" Kate asked her.

"She go down there."

Kate and I looked at each other.

"You can go down there if you like. One of the boys go down there once every few days to feed her. My husband and son." By this time the two men were at the door.

"What’s going on? Who’re you?" The son asked us. He was probably twenty or so.

"We’re with an animal organization." I said. "We help dog owners. We’re here about your dog in the basement."

He looked at his mom.

"Oh now you just go back to what you were doin Tyrone." She said. He rolled his eyes, looked at his dad and sauntered back to the room and out of sight.

Phyllis turned to her husband. "Larry, these ladies want to go down and see the dog. You take ‘em."

"Oh, damn you, Phyllis. The game is on." Larry, smoking a cigarette, glared at us after speaking to his wife.

"Don’t you dare talk to me that way! You hear me, Larry?"

"Uh, Phyllis, Larry, let me talk with my volunteers a moment. Can you just wait a second please?" Kate said to the couple behind the screen door. "It will just be one moment." Kate grabbed my arm, "Come here, Sarah."

We walked down the sidewalk leading to the street and Kate’s van.

"Oh my fuck. Oh my fuck, oh my fuck, oh my fuck." Kate repeated under her breath. She motioned to several groups of volunteers who could see her. She looked down at me; I could see her lips shaking. "Do you have any fucking idea what we may see down there?" She looked at me. Kate never got rattled, never got scared and was never faced with too much.

The volunteers gathered near the van.

"We need to make this quick so they don’t think this is a big deal. We have a dog living in a basement. The owners don’t remember the last time they went down there. Maybe the son has been feeding the dog. We know the dog has not been outside. Ever." The eight or so volunteers who had gathered stared blank and listened to Kate in disbelief.

"Judy, grab three masks from the van. Sarah, you me and Judy will go in the basement with Larry." Kate looked at Judy. "Larry is the father, husband, homeowner, whatever. He is going to take us to the basement."
Kate grabbed the lit cigarette from Shantel’s hand and inhaled fiercely and quickly.

"We can only pray this dog is alive. If she is, God only knows what we’re dealing with. An unsocialized, starving dog with –" Kate’s voice faded away. "Grab a few flashlights." She asked a volunteer named Shantel.

Judy, still in the van retrieving the face masks, grabbed two flashlights and tossed them to Linsday. Judy put on her face mask. She handed Kate a mask, then me. I put mine on.

"Let’s go get her out of there."

Judy and Kate walked up the cement walkway and I trailed behind them. Larry was waiting. We walked into the house. I could smell the weed, the beer and the cat litter. We hadn’t even gotten to talking about cats yet.

Larry led us around the kitchen and through a door to some stairs that led down. It was pitch dark.

"Isn’t there a light?" I asked.

"Nah." Larry said. "Well, I spose there is but we ain’t got no lightbulbs for it."

I turned my flashlight on. Judy turned hers on and handed it to Kate who was directly behind Larry.

I used the flashlight to look around below. I dipped my feet to the next step to feel the stairs as I descended into the basement.

At the bottom of the stairs Larry stepped aside and motioned for Kate to go ahead.

"Go ahead. I ain’t goin no further."

I wanted to scream at the man. "What kind of human being keeps a dog in a basement. Alone, living in her own urine and feces. No human attention and no love. Never knowing when her next meal was coming or if she would ever get fresh water?" I wanted so badly to scream at him but, in a dark basement I realized I wasn’t in any position to tell him I didn’t approve of the way he took care of his dog.

I felt the rickety stairs change to cold cement under my feet. Judy stayed near the last stair. I heard Larry step back up the stairs and step up on the kitchen linoleum. He left the door open at the top.

Kate’s flashlight lit up the left side of the cold, moist unfinished room. My flashlight lit up the baseboards and shone up the wall. I slowly steered the flashlight along the middle of the room and came to a pile of bags.

They were dark navy blue bags. They looked like cement bags or dog food bags. They were stacked four feet high. I shone the flashlight along the bags slowly. Then, movement. The tail looked black. It barely budged but there was some detectable movement.

"Kate. Judy." I whispered.

Within moments they were at my side. We looked at the nearly lifeless lump on top of the bags.

"Oh my God." Judy said.

"What do we do?" I asked.

"Kate, you should go near her. Try at least." Judy whispered.

Kate handed her flashlight to Judy. Judy and I shone our flashlights near the dog but not directly on her. I could hear my heart pounding. It was so quiet in the basement. I could hear Kate’s quiet shuffle across the floor. And then there was my heart. What would a dog be like, in this situation? Would she bite? Would she be aggressive?

Judy and I watched as Kate neared the bags. She stopped short of the pile, and slowly, ever so slowly, she put out her right hand, palm down. The dog didn’t move. Kate rested her palm on the stack of bags. Still, no movement.

Kate leaned her hip against the bags. We waited. Kate rested her left elbow on the bags. We waited still.
We waited. The dog slowly looked up. She lifted her head from the bag upon which she lay. She looked at Kate. Her nose seemed to creep closer to Kate’s hand. She looked black and fluffy. Her eyes looked tired and sad. She deliberately diverted her eyes from the sack to Kate’s hand, then to Kate’s eyes.

My pulse was racing. I was freezing cold yet breaking out in a sweat. Thank you, God, for making her live through this. Now all we had to do was get her out of the basement and into the sunlight. Show her a better life. I realized I’d been holding my breath that whole time. My muscles unclenched at the same time I exhaled.

The dog smelled Kate. Then rested her sweet head on Kate’s hand.

We were able to slowly and calmly take the dog from her life on the bed of bags. Kate lifted her and realized she needed two of us to lift her. We weren’t sure if her muscles had atrophied so we carried her up the stairs. Once upstairs, while Kate and I carried her, Judy blocked the view of the living room. Referees’ whistles from the football game echoed through the home. I made eye contact with the older man. He looked up at me and right back at the TV. As we walked past, Phyllis sat up in her recliner and looked at us.

"We’re taking her outside." I said. "We’re going to access her health, her condition, then we will talk to you."
Phyllis nodded and smiled. She then looked back at the TV.

Kate had her upper half while I had her bottom and back legs. We walked outside into the sunlight and crisp fall air. The pale blue skies and quiet volunteers loitering around the front yard. Kate set her down on the grass. We all watched as she took what could have been quite possibly her first steps. Kate named her Maggie by the time we got to the cement walkway.

Volunteers who’d been canvassing the neighborhood quickly made it back to where we were, once they realized what happened. We stood huddled around Maggie, as she stood in the grass. Before each step she carefully lifted her paw, glanced at it, set it down but not entirely. She set it down until it touched the long, un-mowed grass then very slowly set her paw down. She did this with each paw for a long time as we stood there and watched.

"There’s no sign of mistreatment or abuse." One of the volunteers said quietly.

"You didn’t see the fucking basement." I said.

"You know, these people are just ignorant. They kept her well-fed. They just didn’t realize she needed access to the outdoors. I honestly think this is a situation we could improve and monitor." Kate said.

We all stared at her in disbelief.

"Lindsay, grab an igloo dog house from the van. Shantel and Ben, grab tie-outs, metal food bowls and water buckets. We’re going to set Maggie up right here." Kate said.

I was in disbelief. The volunteers’ faces showed disbelief. Shock that we weren’t going to get the family to relinquish Maggie, shock that we were going to set her up right there.

Kate saw our faces. "If they thought they were doing anything wrong they surely wouldn’t have admitted to having a dog in the basement. They honestly didn’t know. They are ignorant." Kate dug into her jean pocket and pulled out her cigarettes and a lighter."We’re in this neighborhood at least once a week anyway, this is a situation we can monitor." She put a cigarette to her lips and lit it, then inhaled. "She still has it a hell of a lot better than half the dogs we see."

Kate exhaled.

      **** TO BE CONTINUED***

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