Making it Home by Jamie Heard Smith

Picture it: A lazy, summer Sunday afternoon in North Mississippi. You’re sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea as the sun goes down. Lightening bugs are dancing, and crickets are singing their song. There’s a rocking chair or two — maybe even a porch swing. Chances are there’s a dog wandering around nearby. Maybe it’s a tired, old Lab who has retired from her duck-retrieving days. Maybe it’s a stray Mississippi mutt that showed up at your house years ago and never left. Perhaps it’s a spoiled little designer dog that rarely prances too far from that porch where you’re sitting. 

Whatever the case may be, there’s probably a dog in the picture. After all, a true Southern homestead is not really complete without a dog or two. If I had my way, every Mississippi home would have a dog, and likewise, every dog in this great state would have a home. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.   

In Tate County alone, the animal shelter takes in an average of 1,500 animals each year. Some of them are just lost and, when possible, are reunited with their families. Some of the cute, young, healthy animals find homes immediately, but others have to wait much longer before they are healthy enough for adoption. Some dogs sit in the shelter for weeks awaiting their forever families, and other dogs simply run out of time before other homeless souls claim their cages.

In May 2014, a young beagleish mix and her nine mixed-breed puppies found themselves at the Senatobia-Tate County Animal Shelter. Someone discovered them fending for themselves at the city baseball park, where the young mother was likely dumped by very people on which she once relied. Although she and her two-week old pups were safe in the shelter with full bellies and a soft place to sleep, the shelter is really no place for such young, vulnerable puppies — much like a room full of snotty-nosed kids is no place for a newborn.                          

The shelter staff made an immediate public plea for help for the family through their Facebook page. Shortly thereafter, a volunteer offered to take all 10 of them out of the shelter and into her own home. A local 501(c)(3) rescue group — New Beginnings Animal Rescue in Olive Branch, Miss. — stepped up to cover the costs of the family’s vetting. The foster family and the rescue group would work together to find the abandoned mom and her babies new homes.

This in-between phase — the period between shelter life and a forever home — is the part of the rescue process that the general public rarely sees. It’s exhausting, it’s expensive, and sometimes it seems to go on forever, but it is always worth it. 

When Maddie and her puppies reached the shelter, they were full of parasites — little bugs living in their intestines preventing the absorption of nutrients that these dogs, particularly the pups, need to thrive. Maddie and each of her puppies also suffered from fungal skin infections. It caused hair loss and itchy skin, so they scratched constantly. In turn, the scratching caused scrapes and scabs, which combined with typical, messy, puppy shenanigans, led to a secondary skin infection. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of the rescue group and their donors, Maddie and her pups received the medical treatment they needed and deserved.

When Maddie and her pups were old enough and healthy enough to undergo surgery, they were spayed and neutered. While spay/neuter procedures for 10 dogs would typically be very expensive, veterinarians generally offer their services to shelters and rescue groups at a slightly discounted rate. This step in the rescue process is the most important — it ensures that neither Maddie nor her puppies would contribute to the cycle of pet overpopulation.

After about six painstaking weeks of cleaning poop, giving medicated baths, feeding puppies two or three times per day, traveling to and from the vet, and socializing the pups, the rescue group listed the puppies for adoption. Volunteers spent hours reviewing applications, emailing pictures and videos, speaking with applicants, checking references, and matching each puppy with the right family. On July 4, 2014, each of Maddie’s puppies — Charlotte, Owen (now Jackson), Jake (now Roscoe), Hazel (now Remy), Daisy (now Mya), Jersey, Bella (now Harley), Katie, and Wiley — boarded a transport van in Memphis and were soon united with their forever families. The only thing that stood between them and their new lives was a long ride to the Northeast. 

With the puppies gone, it was time to focus on Maddie’s health. It did not come as a shock to anyone that Maddie had heartworms, for which she was promptly treated. In September 2014, Maddie was finally ready for the next chapter in her life.  

Being a little older (and of questionable lineage), it was understood that Maddie would be a little harder to place than her puppies. Despite the fact that Maddie was the perfect dog, only a handful of applications to adopt Maddie trickled in over the next few months. For one reason or another, though, none of the applicants was a good match. 

By Christmas, the foster family had accepted that Maddie may be a permanent resident and vowed to adopt her if she didn’t have a home soon. They didn’t mind — they loved her like their own. After all, you can’t spend eight months with a dog as special as Maddie without loving her. In this case, the attachment was mutual. Nevertheless, the New Year brought a new beginning for Maddie. She would leave for her new home in Ohio within a week of the final adoption decision. 

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As Maddie’s foster mom, I read over that perfect application in early January and realized almost instantly that I was losing her. That moment and the weeks that followed were a roller coaster of emotions for me. I experienced gut certainty that her adoptive family was the right one, followed immediately by anxiety that I was making the wrong decision. I was happy for Maddie, who would now enjoy all of the attention of her parents instead of sharing it with other pets, but I also worried that Maddie would not understand why I was giving her up after all this time. I was thrilled for her new parents and the joy that they would experience from a life with Maddie, but I knew I would miss her dearly. Most importantly, though, I felt a sense of responsibility to love and let go. So I did.

Maddie’s rescue story is not an uncommon one, but her spirit is truly one-of-a-kind. She’s just this little mixed breed dog with three toes on one foot, but her heart and soul are more loving than any other I’ve ever known. She took pieces of my heart and soul with her when she left. Maybe that’s what she’s made of — the best parts of each of us who contributed to her rescue story. The donors, the veterinarians and their staff, the foster families and their pets, the shelter staff, the volunteers, and the transporters —maybe she’s a little bit of all of us.  

Now, Maddie is the dog in her parents’ back porch scene — the one they picture when they are describing the perfect lazy Sunday afternoon. The truth is, Maddie’s gentle spirit is in two places at once, because she’s running around somewhere in mine, too. 

While Maddie’s impact on my life alone is profound, her presence continues to have a positive ripple effect on the lives of so many others. Be a part of something great. Support your local animal shelters and rescue groups by volunteering, donating, and adopting. To learn more, email fosasenatobia@gmail.com.

*Heartworms are small worms that reproduce and grow up to 12 inches in length, crowding the dog’s heart and lungs. Heartworm treatment to rid a dog of these parasites consists of a 30-day period of antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection from lodged, dying heartworms, followed by concentrated pesticide shots administered at least 24 hours apart and only under intensive veterinarian supervision. After treatment, 30 days of crate rest (at the very least) reduces the risk of a pulmonary embolism due to dislodged, dying heartworms. In addition, multiple follow-up tests are necessary to determine the success of the treatment and ensure the post-treatment health of the dog. As you may guess, this process is not inexpensive.