At the time, I didn't think I needed another dog.
I already had two, and a pit bull with problems seemed like too much to handle. But when I interviewed Donna Velez, who runs a pit-bull rescue organization called Heart of Gold (one of several dozen private pet rescues currently operating in the Mid-South), a few years ago and met one of her pooches, I fell in love. Today, Beulah is a happy, healthy dog thanks to Velez, who worked with the scarred, scared animal for nearly a year before giving her up. I honestly cannot imagine my life without Beulah.
Ken Foster, author of the bestselling book The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind, feels the same way. His three dogs, he says, have always provided comfort: After 9/11, when Foster was living in New York City, it was Brando who kept him sane. When his friend and fellow writer Lucy Grealy died of a drug overdose, Zephyr filled the hole in his heart. And when Hurricane Katrina barreled toward his home in the Bywater section of New Orleans a year ago, Foster waffled on evacuation -- until he took Sula, who's afraid of water, into consideration.
"I woke up in the middle of the night and knew I had to leave," recalls Foster, who will be signing copies of his book at Davis-Kidd next Tuesday. "I took the dogs and nothing else. That's what mattered to me.
"So many people literally had no room, and they left their pets behind not because they didn't care, but because they thought they'd be back [the next day]. Of course," he sighs, "we were all completely wrong."
Foster seems perplexed as to how he came to be the champion of overlooked, abandoned, and forgotten dogs. "I never intended to do any of this, and I'm always trying to unravel the mystery of how this happened to me," he says. "My dogs showed up at particular times in my life when intense stuff was happening. With both September 11th and Katrina, I thanked God that I still had these silly little tasks and routines to do, like going on walks and feeding the dogs every day."
Now that he's back in New Orleans, Foster's main concern is, once again, his pets. "When we first came back, I was worried about contamination and stray animals roaming around," he says.
"Being responsible is one of the great things about having a dog," Foster claims. "When I got Brando, I was 36, and I found that there were so many rewards to doing the right thing."
Appropriately enough, the American Kennel Club is celebrating Responsible Dog Ownership Day on Saturday, September 16th. While no official Memphis events are currently scheduled, there are plenty of things that local dog owners can do to ensure the health and happiness of their pets.
"Dogs are social animals," says Foster. "They want to be part of the family. They want to be told what to do and given direction. Everyone talks about pit bulls and fatal dog attacks, but those factors have nothing to do with breed. The dogs who attack usually aren't fed properly or regularly, they aren't exercised, and they aren't trained. Instead, they're unneutered and unsupervised."
Foster adopted his dogs after they were found abandoned on the side of the road, dumped at animal shelters, or given to rescue groups. All were casualties of careless owners who lacked the time, energy, and money to properly care for their pets.
"A lot of times people relinquish their animals because they're moving, or because they got the dog as a puppy and it grew [too big]," says Ginger Morgan, executive director of the Memphis Humane Society. "They get rid of them because their lifestyle changes. Maybe they're getting divorced, or having a baby, or because the dog has behavioral problems. Our main mission is to take care of injured and abused animals, but if we have the space, and someone comes in to surrender an animal, we'll take it."
At the Humane Society, potential dog adopters are asked if they're ready to make a 15-year commitment to the animal and whether they have the time and finances to take care of it.
"Last year, we adopted out over 600 dogs," says Morgan, who hopes that number will increase when the Humane Society relocates to its new home in northeast Shelby County next January.