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.