Monday, July 05, 2010

The heart of the Casita

I've been busy, busy, busy. Coordinating volunteers and more for swim team, writing the weekly newsletter and newspaper articles for the SPCA-PV, trying to get moved back in to my house, cooking meals, wiping bottoms...you know, all the normal mom stuff. Those are my excuses for being a less-than-consistent blogger.

In the SPCA-PV newsletter I wrote last night, I included the story below which I wrote about a woman named Danielle French who takes care of the dogs at the SPCA-PV's shelter. She is a tireless champion for the dogs there, and I wanted her to know how much we appreciate her. Her dedication to the dogs inspires me.


The Heart of the Casita
Selfless woman changes dogs' lives.
By Hillary Dickman

Following the Rio Cuale up a long, dusty road, I eventually come upon the SPCA-PV's shelter for dogs, the Casita de Guadalupe. As I park my car and approach the Casita's entrance, several dogs sound the alarm. "Someone's here! Someone's here! Alert! Alert!" they seem to shout. Above them all, I hear Milly's Beagle bay. In an instant I know it is Milly's voice and I think she recognizes the sound of my Jeep Cherokee -- a sound she heard often when I was fostering her -- but maybe she is just excited like the rest of the dogs. And then Danielle French appears, the calm amid the storm. She seems unfazed by the incessant barking.

I am with Janice Chatterton, one of the founders of the SPCA-PV. She has accompanied me to the Casita in part because I never would have found it on my own. In the front room I get a chance to schmooze with Milly. We take off her cone of shame (put in place to keep her from ripping out her stitches -- a difficult but not unsurmountable task for a toothless dog) and she and I share some hugs and kisses. I notice immediately that Milly doesn't smell anymore. When she lived with me she stunk. The whole house stunk when she was in it. It was a rancid, intense smell that came from inside Milly and oozed out her pores and ears and mouth. I mention it to Danielle and she replies, "Yeah, when she first got here I didn't want to touch her, she smelled so bad. But then I felt sorry for her and eventually I started petting her and giving her dry shampoo baths and now she doesn't smell anymore." The combination of the dry baths and Milly's medical treatment have gotten rid of her smell. As I sit with her, I ponder the possibility that Milly's immune reaction to the cancer inside of her caused the stench, and I am stunned and thrilled all at the same time as I inhale the fresh air that surrounds her.

While Milly and I reconnect, I study the walls of the inside of the Casita. There are whiteboards posted all around. Milly's name is on one of them with the doses of her different medications listed under her name. Several other dogs have their names on the boards and it is clear that the whiteboards are there to track the dogs' medications and special needs. I sit there in awe, wondering who cares for all of these dogs and how none of them gets lost in the shuffle.

After Milly and I have said our hellos, I head out to the yard with Danielle. She tells me that the dogs aren't supposed to be on the steps where the back door exits from the Casita to the yard, but two of them are crowding the door and she has to shoo them off the steps to make room for us. I sneak out the back door carrying my thousand dollar camera, with which I'm hoping to get a few good shots of my experience, but I quickly realize that this is no place for a camera and I hand it back inside to Janice. It is clear that Janice has spent time in the yard before and has no intention of joining us there this afternoon.

Before I can even get down the stairs, the dogs are all over me. I feel like I am in the middle of a rugby scrum or a football tackle or Times Square on New Year's Eve. This is new for me -- I've never been so interesting to so many dogs at one time. I push them away with my hands and am severely reprimanded by Danielle. She tells me, "If you worked for me I'd kick your..." and I'm so surprised by what she says that I can't accurately recall her exact words, but I listened carefully to what she said next. "Any attention is good attention to these dogs. When they jump on you, don't touch them. Cross your arms and turn your back to them." And so I do, except my arms are all slimey from being mouthed by dogs and so I don't really want my arms to touch my shirt. It is a sticky situation, literally. Danielle tells me that once the dogs have left me alone, I can touch them again and offer them attention on my terms. This is how she treats the dogs and as she does, they are learning that if they want human attention, they must keep their feet on the ground. Her instructions are beginning to sound familiar, like I'm listening to Cesar Milan. I think I've heard this before, but it has been so long since I've dealt with a jumping dog that I had forgotten.

As I relearn how to deal with dogs who are desperate for attention, I wonder whether some of the more excited ones might actually rip my shorts from my body. I reach to pet one dog and two others begin playing tug-o-war with my drawstring, mouthing my pant legs, and pulling at the rear end of my shorts. Instead of pushing them away with my hand, I walk away and cross my arms and again they leave me alone.

"You know," Danielle tells me, "I need to get a metal bench or something out here so that my employees can just come out here and sit and do normal people things. Talk on the phone, smoke a cigarette, whatever, just so that the dogs get used to having people around doing what people do." I think that maybe we could find some dog-loving volunteers to come sit on Danielle's bench and act like people. She goes on to tell me that in the apartment where she lives, her landlord doesn't allow dogs. I think that is probably great, since she is with the Casita dogs for about ten hours a day. But Danielle says that she is thinking of moving to a dog-friendly complex so that she can take the more troublesome dogs home every night, one at a time for a month or so, to help them adjust to life in a home with humans. She believes that this will help the dogs become more adoptable and less likely to be returned by their new owners. I think she's right, and then I wonder what kind of woman has a heart so big that she is willing to move apartments in order to take her work home with her. Her slobbery, jumpy, dirty work. Work that requires her to scrub her hands and arms with soap and water every time she comes in from the yard.

My visit to the Casita ends with sad goodbyes to Milly. I bounce back down that dirty, bumpy road wondering how the SPCA-PV found Danielle and hoping that they'll never lose her.

A few days later I receive an email from Janice updating me on Milly's progress. She tells me that Milly's vet is stunned by Milly's progress, that a spot where Milly's surgical scar was having problems healing has returned to normal, a circumstance he called "impossible." He said it was a "miracle" and later on emailed Janice to let her know that Danielle had been doing superb care-work on Milly and that she is a great element in the SPCA-PV.

When I read this email from Janice, I start thinking about Danielle again and wondering how it is possible that we are so lucky to have her, that the dogs are so lucky to have her. And if it weren't for her, who would care for the dogs the way that she does? Danielle French is one in a billion, an irreplaceable asset to the SPCA-PV. Our dogs are happy, adoptable, well-adjusted dogs because they are in Danielle's care. Danielle is the heart of the Casita.

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