January 23, 2010


I walk into the Carson shelter on a Wednesday or some day during the week, and first I have to get a set of keys from the front desk. Everyone in the front office is very friendly and professional, except for a couple of grouches, but that’s life. It’s actually impressive how friendly the front desk workers are because they have to break away and give me keys while the public is waiting at the counter like seven people deep, and I mean there are three lines of seven. Sometimes they can’t break away and you have to wait. It’s understandable.

I’m here to clean kennels, to help out the staff. I walk through the front gate to where all the animals are kept. Two families are looking to adopt dogs and they want to spend some time with two particular dogs. Can I help? Sure, but they have to go the front desk with the cage number, make sure the dog is available for adoption and come back with the paperwork. One of the families has already done that. Took close to an hour. I pull a wonderful little boxer mixture of a dog out of a kennel and stick everyone in the back play area with the dog, tell them I’ll be back in ten minutes. You have to keep an eye out. Once in a while people steal dogs.

I spot a county kennel worker with the same shoe size as me and ask if I can borrow his rubber boots. We go through our usual routine of me assuring him that no, I have not picked up any foot diseases since the last time I’ve worn the boots, plus I’m wearing fresh socks. It’s a routine I’ve come to enjoy and find myself unable to stop smiling through it. Him too. Even after two years.

I pull on the boots and head for the dirtiest kennels while the front desk is on the public address system calling for a county worker to come up front and fetch a stray cat someone has turned in, and two minutes later they call for a county worker to come fetch a dog that someone is giving up. Turns out the dog had a stroke, can barely walk, and the owner would rather drop him off at the county shelter, which cannot refuse the animal, rather than take the dog to an animal hospital and pay for his 11-year-old lab to be put down. So the dog will wait at least five days in the pound to be euthanized. The dog is freaked out to be in a pound with all the barking dogs. Happens all the time. The owner drives off in a brand new full-size Ford pickup. The arthritic dog shivers for the rest of the afternoon and won’t eat until three days later, and when he eats it’s just a mouthful.

I clean a bunch of kennels and realize that I forgot about the family visiting with the boxer puppy. On my way toward the back of the shelter a woman stops me and asks for help finding her missing cat. I shake my head and tell her in a minute and that leaves her frustrated because she can’t find anyone free to help, and I clomp around in the rubber boots too wide for my narrow feet and deposit the boxer puppy back in his kennel amid the roar of barking dogs that can’t stand to see another dog outside of his kennel while a guy in Lakers shirt is going from kennel to kennel telling each dog to “sit!” and when each dog doesn’t listen he moves on to the next kennel. Seriously, if a dog can sit, it improves his or her chances of being adopted significantly. I race to find the woman looking for her cat and discover another volunteer is already helping her.

This volunteer has been showing up at the Carson shelter for many years, about ten. She smiles reassuringly when speaking to the woman, and she smiles warmly at me, too, when she sees me. She’s happy to be here, truly, and you feel at ease knowing she’s around, as if everything is alright because somehow, she makes that kind of a difference in the landscape of the place.

“Just put in your time,” she has told me. “Do what you can.”

And you understand that somehow this woman knows a secret, the sort of secret millions upon millions of men have spent lifetimes looking for and never finding, and she found it in a fucked-up animal pound. And I don’t want to be a new volunteer anymore. No, I want to have at least ten years under my belt and be in balance in a place like this, crowded like this, just as she is. And she helps the woman look for her cat, which cannot be found, and then she suggests a particular dog to the man yelling “sit” to every animal and he's listening to her while I clean kennels with a fuller chest than when I walked in because I believe in heroes, the real kind, the kind I can talk to, the ones that touch you and leave a mark, the ones that never show up on TV.


There’s a volunteer who has been coming to the Carson shelter for 20 years. She picks out dogs that need baths, grooms them and makes them pretty so they might be more attractive to the public. You ought to see the dogs in her care. It’s as if God herself is fluffing up the pooch and blessing the animal with her smooth hands. Another volunteer pulls cats out of the cages for people to hold. He’s in school and gets dropped off and picked up by his parent. Another cleans kennels like me. He had to take a break for a while after he was accidentally shot in the leg during a gang shootout walking down the street (hey, this is LA), but he made a limping visit to say hello to the animals while he was healing. Another volunteer picks out dogs that appear adoptable and moves them to kennels closer to the front gate because most of the public doesn’t venture too far inside the shelter, sticking close to the security of the front gate. Other volunteers drop milk bones to the dogs through the bars of the cage and others take them for walks. A mother and daughter volunteer team teaches dogs to sit in the back play area.

You do what can, when you can. If you don't think God herself would be down with that, then you don't know Her like I do.

Besides cleaning kennels to help the staff out, I liked to hose them down because if the water runoff turns bloody-river, then I’ll check the dog for a flea infestation. Fleas are a force in LA since the winters don’t get cold enough to kill off the flea populations in the ground. When I saw that first dog in a state of shock from being eaten alive by fleas, and the relief she experienced from a medicated bath and subsequent skin drops to keep the fleas away, well, I knew I had done my duty for the day. No amount of merchandise could compete with the joy that’s produced from using our opposable thumbs to do Her work.

My beautiful Uncle Joe, who often plays devil’s advocate with me, and often wins whatever argument we have, says, “What about the fleas, Eddie?? You’re killing them! Don’t they count??”

I don’t have an answer for that, other than to laugh hysterically. So maybe the dog spirits will give me a pass in the next life while the flea spirits will chase me around the universe like piranhas after a swimmer.

January 22, 2010

one at a time

There were stretches where I didn’t feel like showing up at the pound and giving my time. I had other things on my mind. A girl left my life. My writing career wasn’t working out. The Bears sucked again. Well, the first two got me down. The last item I’ve become accustomed to.

I trudged through my mornings touching fewer dogs, interacting less than usual, unable to recall the last dog I took to the play area in back of the shelter. And after a while I noticed that there was a Pit Bull who was starting to look familiar. I checked his cage card and found that he had been in the pound for three months— and I’m the guy who allegedly prides himself on taking out animals doing hard time in order to maybe stave off the inevitable cage craziness?? But someone had named the dog on his cage card and put a blanket in his kennel, so he was getting some attention. I found out that it was one of the county workers. In fact, it was two of them and a volunteer. I ripped myself for being mentally AWOL for the past three months as the Pit Bull barked at me like I was a stranger because I was. Still, there was something to be learned because I was spinning and that’s my cue. The universe works in mysterious ways and when I got over feeling sorry for myself I discovered that underneath those feelings of self-pity were feelings of gratitude to the much-maligned county workers as well as the other volunteers because I don’t do much at the pound and that’s a fact. But together, everyone who cares does do something significant. While I’m down in the dumps and sleepwalking through my shift, others are up on their energy. And while I’m up, maybe someone else is down. It’s a team, working independent of the system that seeks self-preservation mainly and is concerned with the animals only marginally. Even dogs don’t live on chow alone.

I started to feel better. My energy returned. Gratitude bubbled up within me to be a part of this team, the greatest underdog team of all time, with a pantheon of history that stretches back for thousands upon thousands of years, a team that has survived everything and is incapable of sucking. My job: I come off the bench on Sunday mornings and go kennel to kennel, one dog at a time. Just check in, say hello and take it one kennel at a time.

That’s what we do, only what we can, one kennel at a time.

January 20, 2010

who philosophy

It’s easy to sling shit at the top dogs who run things for the county. The animal rights folks are proficient at slinging shit. To be clear, many of the animal rights folks volunteer, but many just sling shit. A favorite target of theirs is the head of LA county’s department of animal care and control. They’ve had an ongoing campaign to get this department head fired, ever since Zephyr’s death.

These animal rights folks are like the daydreaming portion of the anti-war movement in the 60s that wanted anyone but LBJ in office. So they got Nixon. Meet the new boss, same as the old one.

You don’t get to be head of any major organization, public or private, without a serious vetting process first in order to find out if you embody the proper values, namely that the protection of your organization as it is comes first. For this particular department head, an important element of her job is never acknowledging that the budget she is assigned -- and publicly supports -- is nowhere near sufficient to properly care for all the animals.

In fact, I have no doubt that this department head cares for the animals, but this caring for the animals could never trump protecting the department and county from criticism and complaints that have the potential to unseat elected officials and cause colleagues to lose their jobs. You must have your priorities in order to head any significant organization or department in this world. Or a new boss will be found.

January 15, 2010


I wanted to bolt. Honestly, I wanted to take all the notes I had been keeping about the shelter and present them to the attorney for the plaintiff, fill out an affidavit, take my suspension and walk away from this hellish place know as the Carson Animal Shelter.

I also wanted to stay. My Sundays were glorious after I began them by making sure most if not all the dog kennels were clean and all the water bowls were full. Putting in a few hours on a Sunday morning was like church for me. I left the shelter feeling as if I had done my duty to God and the animals. I hadn't yet understood there was no difference at all.


During the winter a 10-month-old puppy died suddenly on a cold night. A few days later a volunteer animal rescuer filed a lawsuit against the shelter and county. LA County officials responded by revoking the adoption privileges of the plaintiff.

The message was both clear and chilling to us volunteers at Carson Animal Shelter: Speak up and you might lose your volunteer privileges.

January 13, 2010


Dogs are stronger than they look. And if a dog looks strong, think hard about what you're are getting into if you decide to take that animal for a walk so that he sees something besides the inside walls of his kennel for the first time in a month and more importantly, has his first chance in a month to expend some serious energy. These things are learned. There is no such a piori knowledge. Trust me. The massive Pit Bull named Toro was about a hundred pounds. I threw a leash on him and off we went, pretty much like that one time I tried water skiing. My brother and cousin operating the boat either couldn't hear me or found my pleas to ease up hysterical and worthy only of depressing the throttle further. Bent over at the waist, shifting from foot to foot to hold my balance, there wasn't much of a difference between Toro towing me and the outboard Johnson motor.

"Toro! TORO! Toro, please! TORO-TORO-TORO! Eieeeeeeeeeeee! Toro! Oh dear God, Toro! Toro! Pleeeeeease, Toro!"

January 11, 2010


Of course, I committed plenty of missteps as I slowly blended into the natural landscape of Sunday mornings at the shelter, especially before I understood the nuances of the reasonably strong hose, like the time I went to hose poop out of a water bowl and ended up with a face full of dootie. I did the quick look-around to make sure no one, besides the dogs, had witnessed the event and was, for once, thankful so few county kennel workers were on duty. Then there was the time I tried to unclog a drain and ended up with, once again, dootie on my face. And the time I went to take a skinny dog out of shit-filled kennel. I mean, it was like shit soup an inch deep all over the cement floor. I leaned over and began saying something like, “What a mess!” That was when the little dog lifted one of her front paws and somehow placed it squarely in my open mouth.

January 4, 2010

one-eyed willie and the boys, part 3 of 3

Luke’s departure shrunk the pack to three dogs. And we were a pack, even just for a few hours a couple times a week. Besides Willie there was a golden Pit Bull, about a year old. There were so many Pit Bulls. This little guy wasn’t unlike most of them, friendly, loving and so appreciative of any attention. When I stepped into his kennel and pet him, this dog wagged his stump of a tail so forcefully his rump swiveled from side to side. Then he’d fall on his side to receive the pets, his eyes rolling in ecstasy behind his third eyelids. I could have stayed for twenty minutes and it wouldn’t have been enough, so I stayed for only a couple of minutes. He wanted more. I never gave him enough. A couple of times I went directly to his kennel, slipped my key in the lock and was inside before he had raised his head from a nap. The other dogs barked like volleys of rifle fire while I pet and kissed this dog who licked my wrist in the most sincere gesture of gratitude. Twice he did not give me time enough to crouch down. Instead, he stood on his hind legs and wrapped his front legs around my waist, stretching to kiss my face. I brought him in the play area in the back of the shelter exactly once, and he bounded around with the rawhide bone Luke had thrown in the air and forgotten about. The golden Pit Bull, nameless, chewed and watched me out of the corner of his eye, his stumpy tail never stopping its wag. I returned him to his kennel before he was ready and thought about him numerous times as I went about my business the next week. When I arrived the following Sunday, I planned on taking him in the back for a longer romp after I finished with my cleaning duties. I went straight to his kennel, reached my hand through the bars and told him we were going to have fun later. Then, while I was cleaning the building, I noticed his kennel door was open and he was gone. He didn’t escape. He was euthanized. Right under my nose. He was at the kennel for a month.

The final member of the crew was the most intimidating Pit Bull, short, squat, wide and brown, with a big leather collar around his neck. He was even better than Luke at not allowing me to seal him into his outdoor run using the guillotine. He shit all over just like Luke, and he tried to bolt just like Luke. I met him while cleaning outdoor runs. Like most dogs he sniffed my jeans from behind while I hosed the run standing inside the kennel. I pet him without looking at him. Then when I looked at him I thought, ‘My God, this dog could have latched onto my chest and carried me around like a pork rind.’ I jumped into his kennel and checked him for fleas, put my flea comb in my back pocket and pet him. He jumped up, grabbed me by the waist and started humping. He was so big and strong he was nearly bouncing me up off the ground. It took effort to disengage him and I thought, ‘That’s the last time in your kennel.’ He was there three weeks.

One-Eyed Willie grew up in the kennel. He was a tiny puppy with a missing eye when he arrived and a larger puppy after the other dogs were gone. Willie and I became a thing. After the rest of the pack was gone, I saw Willie at least twice a week, sometimes three times a week. I sat in his kennel before I did anything, or I took him for a walk. His tail excitedly rapped so hard against the cement wall of his kennel that the tip burst open and sprayed blood all over more than once. He softly chewed on my arm but I had to break him of that habit because there was always a chance for adoption. Problem was, Willie shit all over and stomped in it. Nobody wants one of those kinds of dogs. Willie wasn’t stupid. He just needed to expend energy during the day so he jumped around when another dog was walked within sight, and thus the stomping-in-the-shit. Bigger problem was that Willie had just one eye, and the sight of him made people tremendously sad. People couldn’t see past the one-eyed freak to see the fun-loving dog Willie was. After two months at the shelter, Willie was beginning to understand he might not be going anywhere.

I broke Willie of chewing on my arm after letting him get away with it for a while. I brought a blue rubber toy into his kennel and switched him to mouthing on that. I went into his kennel and took him out enough times that he knew he was my favorite, which was nice, because then he could relax. I’d be cleaning the inside of the building, and Willie would sit down and watch, without barking at all. I’d be cruising through the building filling up water bowls, and Willie would be chewing a rawhide bone watching me come and go, knowing his time was coming. The protest barking from other dogs was loud. I talked to everybody, but everybody knew. Willie wasn’t the first dog I kissed on the face, but he got the most of anyone. Everybody at the kennel loved Willie, but nobody wanted him. He understood the difference.

One day an attractive woman with thick black hair approached me and asked my opinion of two dogs she was considering for adoption. I told her they were both very nice dogs. She pressed me for other dogs I thought highly of. She had seen me going kennel to kennel and thought she had found a good resource. Well, I figured this might be my chance to spring Willie. I talked him up. We went to his kennel but he was such a sad sight with his one eye that the woman had to cover her heart and stagger away. Willie was like, ‘What did I do?’

Willie had been at the kennel three months when I visited my brother in Chicago for two weeks. After my trip, I went right over to Willie’s kennel. At the front of the kennel was the blue chew toy. Willie was still there, I thought. But he was not there. A yellow Chihuahua was sitting in the kennel eyeballing me like, ‘What are you looking at?’

No Willie. They finally put him down. Thank God he wasn’t circling around like a crazy dog in that kennel anymore, because that’s what happens a lot of times when a dog is kenneled for three months like Willie was.

For the rest of the afternoon, I went ahead and checked dogs for fleas in their kennels and found myself not spending much time with the dogs. I kept explaining to each successive dog that I had to move quickly that day. Sorry, buddy. You can sniff the cuffs of my jeans another time. Things to do, you know.

I spotted one of the county kennel workers I knew.

“They finally put down that Pit Bull with the one eye, huh?” I asked.

He thought. “No, he got adopted.”


“Yeah, he got adopted.”

We both smiled.

“Was it a woman who adopted him, with black hair?” I asked.

“No,” the worker said. “Actually, it was three buff dudes, big guys, who adopted him.”



I kept going kennel to kennel for the rest of the afternoon, maintaining my quick pace, but with exceptions here and there. Some dogs needed attention and it was no problem giving them some.

January 2, 2010

one-eyed willie and the boys, part 2 of 3

One-Eyed Willie wasn’t adopted within the first month and so he was moved to the far end of the boys’ building where his chances of the public even knowing he was available for adoption were greatly diminished. The good thing about Willie’s move to the back of the boys’ building was that all four of my boys were within eyesight of each other. We were a pack of five on Sunday mornings, or on afternoons during the week, whenever I showed up. I greeted each of them with a hand through the bars, which they licked, then brought the hand to the other dogs, which was sniffed and subsequently licked.

I never ignored the other dogs. That would have been impossible. So many dogs bark repetitively if a human being is showing attention to another dog. I spoke to whoever was trying for my attention, at least tried to. It wasn’t easy, being pulled this way and that, but the dogs appreciated someone making an effort to look them in the eye, smile, speak and recognize each of them. Of course some could never be satisfied, lots actually. I had to turn my back on their barking at some point. I don’t want to pretend I touched them all, not by a long shot. You do what you can while you’re there. Each building contained 44 kennels, with multiple dogs in many of the kennels. If a dog had a buddy in his kennel, I said hello and that was about it. At least they had each other, I figured. I gravitated to those dogs who didn’t have much of a chance to be adopted. Of course, that’s the majority of dogs at the kennel but you’ve got to start somewhere.

I started with Willie and a huge yellow lab someone eventually named Luke on his kennel card. Luke was very smart. Whenever I tried to shoo him from his indoor kennel to his adjoining outdoor run, he refused. He knew I was ready to close the guillotine and lock him outside while I cleaned the inside of the kennel. Luke wanted to stay in the indoor portion of his kennel and watch me, be a part of the conversation as I cleaned other kennels. Luke was the first dog to refuse going outside and thus paved the way for other dogs to mimic him and decide to remain inside while I cleaned the indoor kennels. Problem was, as I explained to Luke, he tramped shit all over on his paws because he wasn’t a neat animal. So I had to move him so I could clean up. It was an ordeal, and finally I gave in to Luke and put a leash on him and brought him to the back of the shelter property and let him run around, which he did like a colt out in the field for the very first time. He jumped on me, put two shit-colored paw prints on my chest and slapped me with his enormous tongue. He picked up this toy and that one, found a bone he threw ten feet in the air, climbed on picnic tables and punched me in the chest with his paws again when I wasn’t ready. Luke was so regularly paw-deep in shit I avoided climbing into his kennel with him. Sure, I’d clean his kennel, inside and out, but he’d usually drop a load ten minutes later and then bark at me to come and look at cool thing he had done. The problem was that whenever I climbed in his kennel, he would throw all his effort into slipping out of the kennel when I exited. And he was so big and strong that it was a shit-stained battle between us as to who got out and who didn’t. He barked at me, angrily sometimes, when I was passing his kennel with such body language that told him I wasn’t planning on climbing inside. I didn’t blame him. He was in a bad situation. I quietly wondered when the shelter staff was going to euthanize Luke so I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of not wanting a little poop on my jeans on a particular afternoon. Luke was at the kennel for almost two months. Then one day he wasn’t there and I didn’t ask whether he had been adopted because after a while you know the answer and it’s not what you hope.

Here's the next part.