Two small warnings: 1) this is a long post and b) there are a few graphic pictures.
When I tell people that I volunteer at the shelter, the question I am usually hit with is "why?". Which is usually followed by the statement of "I can't bring myself to go to a shelter... it's so sad". I totally understand that... I used to feel that way myself. I mean, I love animals. I became a veterinarian so that I could help animals... and to fulfill a promise that I made to my cat Misha when I buried his ashes. At 18 years of age, I felt totally helpless as I could do nothing to save his life. I promised him that one day I would have the knowledge and the skills needed to save other animals' lives.
Here I am, 19 years later... a fully qualified and experienced veterinarian. I have worked at an emergency practice for the past 5 years and have had the opportunity to save lives. But the reality is that, more times than not, I end them. Because when an animal ends up at an emergency/critical care facility, it is usually very sick and the prognosis is poor. Don't get me wrong... a lot of great work goes on in emergency clinics and countless lives are saved. I just happen to Dr. Death. And with that title comes a heavy emotional burden.
I decided to become a photographer two years ago, after my youngest daughter was born. I wanted to specialize in children's portraiture, and photographing animals was a natural extension of my veterinary career. I practiced on my own pets... to the point that they ran the other direction when I pulled out the camera. I began following the blog of Grace Chon of Shine Pet Photography in Los Angeles (she is brilliant and amazing - check her out!). She honed her pet photography skills by volunteering at DawgSquad in L.A. - her head shots increased adoptions of their animals. She inspired me and I sent letters out to various groups, asking if I could photograph the animals. Amazingly enough, I did not receive any responses. Not a single one. Until one day, through a twist of fate, I was put in touch with Tara Diller at Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation. She set me up with a volunteer so I could learn about the shelter and find my way around. From the moment I stepped through the door, I was hooked. Not just because it is a beautiful facility, but because there is a certain vibe in that place. And on that particular day, a favorite animal was being adopted after having spent nearly 4 months in the shelter. When it was announced over the loudspeaker that Millie was going home, everybody cheered. I got goosebumps, and at that moment, I knew wanted to be a part of this place.
Millie on August 27, 2010
Five months later, Millie's mom let me know that she would be stopping by the shelter for a visit, and I knew I had to be there. It was a quick visit, but I got to see how well this girl was doing... she had put on weight and was wagging her tail at a frantic, yet happy, rate. And Laura, the staff member who played an integral role in Millie's adoption, was on hand for a big wet kiss. Or should I say, Millie got a big wet kiss from Laura?
Since that first day in August, I have been back nearly every Monday to photograph the animals. I look forward to walking into the cat wards and hearing a chorus of meows. Or taking a dog for a walk, knowing this may be the only walk he or she gets for the day. One day, when I sat down for a moment (while trying to get a photo of a rambunctious little kitten), I noticed something. I noticed that I felt good. Really, really good. My worries were another world away and I was content to do nothing more than pet the animals.
One day in December, Laura asked me to photograph a particular resident at the shelter. Her name was Chloe and she was back in one of the isolation kennels. She was a cruelty case who was rescued by one of the officers. Starved and infected, Chloe would have certainly died in her yard (thank goodness for the good samaritan who called animal control). Her thought was that I could document Chloe's progress. I loved Laura's positive attitude. Her request wasn't "get pictures so we can nail that bastard", which was my natural instinct. Instead, Laura's request personifies what I love most about this place: lets take care of this girl and find her a home.
I made my way back to the iso ward and found Chloe. An adult pit bull, she weighed 38 pounds and had wounds on her flank. The drains that were in place to treat her abscess had just been removed and she was wearing an e-collar. She was weak, but still bright enough to greet me when I approached her kennel.
As I was taking these photos, Dr. Alek appeared. He looked at me suspiciously and I clumsily introduced myself: "Hi! My name is Nicole and I'm a volunteer who takes pictures. Laura asked me to photograph Chloe. Oh, I'm a veterinarian. Is it okay if I take Chloe's picture?". Dr. Alek squinted his eyes and said "yes" then turned around and walked away. I felt like I had been caught stealing candy, but I kept on clicking away. Dr. Alek reappeared a few moments later and said "you are a vet?" and we began discussing Chloe's case. Then he asked me if I felt like volunteering some time to do some spays and neuters. I don't get to do much surgery anymore, so I agreed. I figured I could come in a little earlier on Mondays, knock out a few surgeries, take my pictures and call it a day.
I continued photographing Chloe every Monday. By the third week, I had a hard time photographing her by myself. She had recovered from her infections and gained nearly 20 pounds. When I opened her kennel door, she bolted past me. She had figured out how to open the door exiting her iso ward. I stood in stunned silence as I watched her run down the hallway. As I chased her down, the thoughts running through my head were "oh crap... after all the work these people have done, I let her escape". I managed to catch her and take her back to her kennel. After that day, I didn't dare photograph her by myself.
A few weeks later, I showed up to the surgery suite to do my procedures. I asked Diane what fun she had in store for me this particular morning. I was not expecting her to say "you will be spaying Chloe". As it turns out, someone was interested in adopting Chloe, and she could not be released until she was spayed. I was so excited that Chloe may be going home. And then I was flooded by anxiety... "what if after all the hard work that all these people have done, I kill her during her spay". It was a tense procedure. I was beyond cautious and I second guessed myself every step of the way. I was relieved when I saw her sitting up after her surgery:
I didn't sleep well that night as I worried myself over potential complications. So much for my relaxing volunteer work, I thought to myself. Logically, I knew that she would be fine. But I had invested so much in her emotionally, I couldn't really think logically. Fortunately Laura emailed me a photo of Chloe on Tuesday morning, proof that all was well.
On Wednesday, I checked in with Laura to see if Chloe's adoption was still on. If so, I wanted to be there to take pictures. And I'll admit, I wanted to be sure that Chloe's adopter was worthy of this amazing girl. A dog who had been starved, neglected and essentially left for dead. A dog who we all watched improve week after week. A dog who, despite the abuse, was happy.
I arrived at the shelter with my daughters in tow (they love to come see all of the animals), just in time to meet Chloe's perspective family. Officer Fischer took us out back to find everyone. There I saw Chloe, dragging along some poor young girl behind her on a leash. I say young, like she's 12... Samantha came over and we introduced ourselves. She told me that she wanted to take Chloe home on Sunday, but it was too late in the day and Chloe hadn't been spayed yet (shelter animals are spayed/neutered before they are allowed to go home). I told Samantha that I spayed Chloe on Monday - oh, the sparkle in that girl's eyes when she realized that she could take Chloe home today. She told me how much she loved this dog and how she was so sad to leave her on Sunday.
While we were talking, three separate staff members stopped by to say hi and to let Samantha know about Chloe's history. Remarkably, Samantha was not aware of the abuse that Chloe had endured. She had simply found a dog that she had fallen in love with... It was funny to watch all of the staff members stop by and tell Samantha about Chloe's story - they reminded me of big brothers interrogating their little sister's prom date. And for good reason. We have all invested our time and our emotions in this girl. For two months we have witnessed the transformation of "skinny Chloe" into a beautiful, happy, wonderful dog. And we didn't want to see her go home with just anyone. Her person had to be special. And her person had to know what a precious girl Chloe is. We all made sure that Samantha knew it.
Turns out we didn't have much to worry about. Samantha is as sweet as can be and you can tell that she genuinely loves this girl:
Sneaking in a little kiss
I think Chloe is happy, don't you?
And that is why I volunteer at the shelter. To see happy endings like this. To know that I may have helped save a life. To be a part of something so much bigger than myself. And simply because it makes me feel good. To those who think that visiting a shelter is sad or depressing, I understand your concern. You can view the shelter as a sad place. Or you can view it as I do - a place of hope where animals get a second (or third, or fourth) chance. Like Millie and Chloe.