The Frontier Animal Society in Quebec’s Eastern Townships was selling my book, Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash to raise money, and I was invited to speak about the healing power of dogs. But before the event, I wanted to visit the shelter I’d heard so much about for so many years.
It was Sunday morning, and though I arrived early, several volunteers were already busy exercising and training the dogs. Just a few minutes into my visit, I had to beg Brenda Pratscher, the dog-walker and adoption co-ordinator, not to allow me to adopt Becky, the waggiest, gentlest senior dog. Later, visiting the Cat Room, I added another creature to my list: dear old Max, the fifteen-year-old cat who gazed fixedly at me, begging to be noticed. I had come only to observe, document and support. But other visitors were there to adopt, and I was lucky enough to witness a mother and her daughter’s second meet-and-greet with cocker spaniel Tina, whom they were carefully considering as a permanent addition to their home.
The meet-and-greet, out in the exercise yard, was informal. For Tina, rescued from a wretched life as a breeder in a puppy mill, it was a non-threatening romp outside with gentle people as fellow canine residents of the shelter raced up and down beside her. Tina was a glossy black dog, cautious but playful and as gentle as her new human companions. I liked them at first sight, and applauded the sentiment and humour displayed on the daughter’s tee-shirt” “Sorry I can’t, I have plans with my cat.”
Just imagine that only months ago, Tina was imprisoned in a soulless and uncaring dog breeding factory farm, one of the puppy mills that is a blight on the province of Quebec, and the focus of so many dedicated animal activists. But under the patient care of the Frontier Animal Society’s dynamic volunteers, Tina no longer cringed with fear. Instead, she wagged her tail trustingly, knowing she was among friends.
On my way to the shelter’s housing unit I passed a statuesque German Shepherd Dog in training with a volunteer who used my presence to reinforce the No Jumping on People lesson. “Good job!” her trainer exclaimed, and was rewarded with the waving of a fluffy tail.
Inside the shelter, a dozen dogs crowded the front of their outdoor runs to greet me, and I spent a few minutes with each one. It was as I gazed into old Becky’s soft eyes that I demanded – urgently – that nobody permit me to walk away with her. But I wasn’t leaving her in a sad concrete bunker like so many other shelters. Frontier Animal Society is modest but open and sunny, surrounded by trees and foliage, and the dogs inhale real country air and glimpse wildlife on a daily basis. Add to that the core complement of three volunteers, Brenda, Dominique Simon and Caroline Kemp, reinforced by a few more on weekends, and the resident dogs aren’t badly off, though life with a family of their own would be much more fulfilling.
In the building’s core, I saw vast heaps of laundry – “cat stuff” – bedding and soft nesting fabric kept clean by volunteers who maintain a routine of endless laundry cycles.
There are also two quarantine rooms where incoming felines undergo blood work and temperament testing. They are distinguished from the general population by the yellow collars that signify their veterinary status. But many hate their collars and remove them, and are identified by name. Once they graduate, they enter the Cat Room, a delightful and sunny room exposed, like the dog runs, to the sights and sounds of nature. In winter, when the mercury plunges, heated panels are installed on the windows, warming the frigid space.
But the cats aren’t confined to the Cat Room. They have free range of the laundry room as well, and several of them enjoy overseeing volunteers as they operate the industrial-size washing machine and wash the mountain of stainless steel dog food and water dishes. “For the health of the colony,” chief volunteer Brenda Pratscher says, “the number of cats should not go over twenty. So before we can accept more, we have to find homes for the cats we have.”
Last year (2014), Pratscher told me, the Frontier Animal Society had an excellent record: one hundred and one animals adopted out, including ninety-three dogs and eight cats. Only four dogs were returned and all four were subsequently adopted out again, successfully.
And how many in 2015?. And what about Tina? I inquired a week after my first visit. My question evoked a great sigh of happiness. “Yes, Tina went off to her forever home a few days ago.”
I checked my notes. “And so that makes how many adoptions this year?”
“Tina was the thirty-fourth out of thirty-five dogs and four cats. Next week, who know? But it’s a slow and steady process, because placing our animals in forever homes is at the heart of our mission.”