“You know, don’t you, that dogs, unlike wolves and coyotes, are totally dependent on people? When I see the suffering, I can’t turn away. I have to save them.”
Nancy, my friend of thirty-eight years is speaking. We are sitting in her large backyard in El Paso this past April, enjoying a pleasantly warm late afternoon, 80 degrees with gentle winds.
Her welcoming yard has a big grassy area with carpets of flowers, bird baths, bird-feeders, and shady salt cedars and cottonwoods, and there’s an abundant vegetable garden sporting balloon-size cabbages.
She continues, “You think I’m something special. I’m not. Plenty of people rescue dogs.”
“Yes,” I argue, “but they get dogs at rescue shelters where the dogs have been fed, cleaned up and medically attended to. The dogs you get off the street are starving and terrified, with ticks covering their entire body, sucking the life out of them. How many people are willing to do all that?”
I knew that Nancy had been rescuing dogs most of her adult life, but today I am moved to delve into the specifics of her odyssey because I feel her story deserves to be told and I would like to tell it. I open a notebook and begin asking questions.
Growing up, Nancy had dogs, cats and birds as pets, even a rabbit. “They were my world,” Nancy explains. The middle child of four siblings Nancy was raised by Mexican maids—her mother volunteered at Hadassah and at the Jewish Conservative Synagogue rather than stay home with her children, and her workaholic father left the children’s welfare to his wife. Nancy’s pets were her solace.
Nancy is five-foot-two with a halo of curly brown hair, a big smile and an even bigger laugh. She’s “tough,” having beaten alcoholism and a serious health issue.
When I first met her in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, she and her boyfriend were breaking up and she needed a room to rent. I had recently separated, had two young children and needed the income. We started living together and our friendship began; that was 1979.
Nancy was a woodworker when I met her, but when that seemed like an unlikely way to make a living, she went into sales. She worked for a high-end gallery in Sausalito and being a “schmoozer,” she made good money.
But what Nancy wanted was a baby, not necessarily a husband. She “accidentally” got pregnant, and decided to move back to El Paso when she asked her father to gift her with the down payment on a house—the same gift he had given her four other siblings when they married. “I deserve the same,” she told her father. “What difference does it make if I’m not married? I’m going to have a child.”
She brought her golden retriever back with her to El Paso. Her parents fell in love with the dog and wanted to breed her. But the vet read Nancy the riot act. “Your dog has arthritis and diabetes; you never breed a sick dog. But, most importantly, in El Paso there are so many homeless dogs to save—it’s the moral thing to do to not bring more dogs into the world.”
“I was young and naïve,” Nancy told me. “What the vet said to me was a revelation.”
Nancy settled into her modest ranch house with her son, Micah, beginning her life as a single mom. She wanted a career that would be flexible, so she chose to become a nail tech. “I love working with my hands. I’ve been doing nails since Micah was born, twenty-seven years ago, and I’m not tired of it yet.”
Her first experience with El Paso’s homeless dog population began when her Grandmother asked her to find her a dog. Heeding the vet’s advice, Nancy went to El Paso Animal Services. “That place is dogs’ last stop, ‘Death Row for dogs, dogs in tiny cages. It’s nasty. I wanted to take them all but I could only take two, one for my Grandmother, and one I would try to adopt out.”
The dog that Nancy decided to keep was sick. “It had no hair, and was malnourished; the dog acted like a wild wolf. It was my first experience with feral dogs. It was six months old and had never been socialized.” But then the dog let Nancy touch him and her heart warmed. “Tango, a collie mix, turned out to be a great dog.”
As she became more knowledgeable about the homeless dog population in El Paso, she discovered a horrifying fact. “Do you know how many dogs and cats are euthanized by Animal Control every year? Up until a couple of years ago, it had been over 20,000.”
Due to a strong “No Kill” campaign by Animal Control, El Paso’s residents have rallied to save animals, but, even with these new efforts, in 2016 El Paso euthanized 8,628 dogs and cats. In a city around the size of San Francisco (euthanizing 507 dogs and cats last year), El Paso is still a killing machine. How could there be that many homeless animals there?
Is it cultural? Is it socio-economic? Is it the Wild West? Dripping with disdain, Nancy says, “People in these parts only want a cute puppy, like a stuffed animal. When the dog reaches around ten months, it’s not baby cute anymore, that’s when they dump him. And these dumpers don’t believe in spaying or neutering. It’s a macho thing, you know, like ‘I’m not whacking off his balls.’”
For a while, Nancy only rescued dogs from the street. She’d pick the ticks off by hand if the dogs were too young to go to the vet to be dipped; she’d socialize them, get them their shots, and place ads in the local paper to adopt them out. She charged a nominal fee, say $65.00, to the new owners. “If I charge them something, they value the dog more.” As the new owners were about to leave with their dog, Nancy would ask them if she could call them in a couple of weeks to see how everyone was adjusting. The owners usually agreed. Unfortunately, during one particular call, Nancy could hear a dejected dog yelping in the background. She felt sick. She asked the owner to give the dog back to her, but she wouldn’t. After that, Nancy tightened her vigilance with prospective owners.
As word got out in the community that Nancy rescued and rehabilitated dogs, someone wrote her a letter pleading with her to take her beagle; the owner offered her $1,000.00. Nancy ignored her. “My need to rescue comes from the visual. If I see the suffering dog, I have no choice. I try not to look at the dogs on the street anymore.”
In addition to rescuing street dogs, Nancy felt a need to liberate dogs from their abusive owners. Some might say “steal.”
Once, over several months, Nancy’s sister-in-law, Anita, complained about her next dog neighbor’s dog who remained the entire day enclosed in a four-by ten-foot dog run with no shade covering. El Paso summers are wicked hot—90’s, 100’s. No feeling person can witness an animal being subjected to these conditions.
Nancy waited until Anita left town so she wouldn’t be blamed for the dog’s disappearance. Then she went over to the neighbor’s house, quietly lifted the gate, and the dog—who Nancy said was “so happy, so hopeful”—walked out to greet his liberator. Nancy found him a good home.
Nancy’s greatest Thelma-and-Louise caper came after witnessing a neighborhood dog sitting in a four-by four-foot cage in the blistering sun with a rusty orange juice can, a poor substitute for a water bowl. Enlisting a co-conspirator who drove the get-away car, Nancy, who’s no slouch, tried to lift the top of the cage but lost her grip because it was so heavy. As she was falling back, she realized she just had to lift the top of the cage, and with a surprising burst of strength on the second try, the dog was free. But the dog’s muscles had atrophied; it couldn’t walk. In recovery, until the dog was able to walk again, the dog just sat while Nancy nursed it back to health.
As she told me about these exploits, Nancy held her own counsel on whether these acts of liberation were moral.
As dogs came and went, the "doggie psychic circuit" must have been working overtime because one day her dog Tango brought home another dog. For a while, Booker, as the new dog was named, wouldn’t let Nancy touch him because a dog had rescued him, not a human. But after three days of hanging around, Booker warmed to Nancy and remained with her for over fifteen years, becoming one of her favorites.
Nancy’s dogs go out the doggy door to roam in the yard whenever they want, but several times a week Nancy takes them on a long run on top of the “ditch”—a small channel branching off from the Rio Grande that is an irrigation system for those who pay for the water rights. “One day I saw a big Lab heading for us. When he stopped, I saw his nails were worn down, which meant he had been running for days. He was so handsome and friendly. When people heard I had a Lab they came running. People choose dogs on how they look. I enjoyed him for three weeks until I found him a good home.”
Now Nancy has two dogs, and one might wonder why so few. Aren’t dog rescuers like the cat ladies who harbor fifty cats? Nancy explains, “Some dogs, if they have been handled properly by humans, only take a few days to weeks to recover, but the majority of dogs I’ve rescued, severely abused, homeless for long periods of time, can take years to recover. Booker took seven to eight years to trust humans again. Because I had to work with some dogs for many years, I’ve only rescued about sixteen dogs in total—I wish it could have been more.”
Her oldest dog, Lolly, is fifteen, deaf, partially blind, soft white and fluffy, with a bad back leg; and then there’s Zoe, a terrier type with blond steel-pad hair, maybe half Lolly’s age. With every dog I’ve ever seen her with, Nancy has a rapport, but Zoe is reluctant to accept her affection. “She’s so weird,” Nancy says in a frustrating way. “I tried to adopt her out but no one would take her. I keep all the rejects.”
Nancy also loves cats, and a black and white is another resident. “Ziggy rules the house,” Nancy chuckles, and confesses that Lolly and Zoe are possibly the last of the dogs she will save from certain death. “After almost thirty years of rescuing dogs, at 62, I’m tired.”
On occasion, Nancy’s friends have stepped up to help her financially with the health needs of her rescue animals. “Dana gave me $200.00 to get Zoe spayed, and Charlotte gave me $140.00 to pay for her first vet visit. If you can’t rescue animals, you donate money.”
There was only one dog that Nancy rescued that she couldn’t save. One day while driving, Nancy spied a dog limping down the street. The dog wore a diaper. Nancy picked him up. He had a fruity smell and Nancy realized he had diabetes, was blind, and couldn’t control his bladder. After keeping him in diapers for a couple of days, Nancy admitted to herself that his life was so miserable, the best thing she could do for him was to put him down. She paid the vet $120.00 to euthanize him.
When I returned home, I called my dear friend only to find out that she and her sister had rescued a litter of feral kittens! Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Animals--no contest.
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