Finding the road to ‘home’

Yes, 'he’s a rescue.' He's also family. The gratifying saga of one castoff canine is also the story of many others.


If you spend any time in traffic, then you’ve probably seen a few of those paw-shaped car magnets offering up the rhetorical query “Who rescued who?”

That little adornment – heartfelt, if grammatically gone astray – is big with animal adopters who want to share the emotional tug they feel each time they lock eyes with a pet and think about an injustice: This loyal and loving companion was once committed to death row at some cacophonous shelter.

People drawn to castoff canines, scruffy misfits of wildly tangled lineage, are themselves a pretty defined breed. They’ve even given rise to parody. Check YouTube: “He’s a Rescue” is the title of at least one comedy sketch meant to send up what some see as an overplayed bit of self-righteousness.

The phrase can also be a way of apologizing for unpredictable behavior down at the dog park. I’ve used it in that way, my barking “rescue” straining at his leash.

I don’t have the car magnet, but I do have a daughter who volunteered at a no-kill shelter in Salem, Mass., that’s a magnet for animals facing death elsewhere. Three years ago Luna made the case for bringing home a spindly Chihuahua mix for just a two-week respite, some quiet socialization ahead of post-kennel life somewhere else.

He had a patchy coat. Horrible breath. The “yappy” temperament of some diminutive dogs. He didn’t like me much. “Issues with men,” the shelter said. Baxter had come from a high-volume “kill shelter” in Ventura, Calif. He’d been languishing in Salem for months.

We kept Baxter (pictured above). We couldn’t take him back once he warmed up and staked out his spots. We kept his shelter name, too. Reinforced during fostering, it stuck. So now I have my first lapdog after a long run of bigger dogs. If I sink into a chair with a blanket, I’d better have it spread before I’m set, because Baxter’s already on final approach. If I take him somewhere unfamiliar, he is tight on my heels. His coat has filled in. He smells much better now. He’s family, helping to fill the gap left by the college-bound.

Some of us work out these symbiotic arrangements for ourselves. Others take broader advocacy roles. I met Mark
Barone, for example, while on assignment in Paducah, Ky., a decade ago. Mark has since painted thousands of poignant 12-by-12-foot portraits from photos of dogs that didn’t make it to new homes in time to avoid euthanasia – the stunningly routine act at the end of a last short walk for more than a million US dogs a year. (One portrait is of a 5-pound miniature pinscher put down for lack of space.)

Others adopt hands-on roles. In this week’s cover story, Peter Zheutlin, author of “Rescue Road,” profiles Greg Mahle, who fell into the gratifying work of springing dogs from crowded Southern shelters and trucking them north.

Americans from all regions celebrate dogs as playmates and workmates. But plenty of dogs have worn paths at the ends of chains at inhospitable homes, then been killed for being unwanted when they would have been warmly welcomed somewhere else. Peter’s is the story of one man’s dedication to digging away at that injustice.

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