Friday, May 24, 2013

Our Construction Girls

Every dog has a story to tell.

Unfortunately, dogs can't speak. 

So for some of them, their stories will always remain a mystery. 

For others, we are a little luckier. 

We - okay fine, - would wrangle their stories excitedly from the people who knew them before their shelter days.

It seems like each year, we never fail to have one particular rescue that would characterise the rest of the year. Last year, the rescue of the offshore island dogs saw the addition of fourteen dogs to the shelter. One passed away, six have been adopted, one is on a trial homestay currently and the rest remain with us at the shelter. 

What about this year? 

It's only May but I daresay life at the shelter has been drastically changed by the rescue of a group of five dogs known as our Construction Girls. 

This is really not my story to tell - at least not the beginning. 

What I know of them began only when we took over their care at the shelter. 

This is in part the story of their rescuer and stray feeder, Emily, who very kindly took me through their pre-shelter days. In my role as messenger, let me share with you the miraculous story of our gorgeous Construction Girls. 

The story began when Emily found a little white and brown puppy in a long drain, the very puppy we now know as DanDan. She followed the pup along the drain, deeper and deeper into the thicket until she managed to get hold of her. The frightened puppy bit her in the arm but it wasn't enough for Emily to desist. She eventually helped the little one out.

That was not the end. 

Once on safe ground, DanDan scurried off in a hurry.

Emily followed. 

In her frenzy to get back, the silly puppy unwittingly exposed her pack to her rescuer. Emily discovered DanDan was part of a group of five dogs at a construction site, including her mother, two sisters and it seems a friend, in the form of another adult dog. We later knew them as Delphi, Dairy, Dilly and Dora respectively. 

And so began three months of stray feeding for Emily.

The dogs started off a little wary of her. But these dogs were irrationally trusting. It didn't take long for the barrier of ice around their hearts to thaw and for Emily to become a friend. 

Over the weeks, their different personalities surfaced. 

Mommy Delphi was the undisputed leader of the pack. She was a calm and independent dog who enjoyed roaming the construction site. Her unique black and white coat made her stand out against the drab gray site. The little puppies had coats that bore such an uncanny resemblance to hers that they had to be her flesh and blood.

As for the puppies, in Emily's own words...

Runt of the litter, Dairy, was friendly.

DanDan was shy.

And Dilly was angry!

Were there any other puppies around, I asked Emily, amazed that a large and majestic dog like Delphi only delivered three pups. Emily replied in the negative. 

The site was vast, barren and arid. There was no cover from the elements and food supply was sporadic. I guess it was a miracle even for three of them to survive past puppyhood. As it was, Delphi did good.

And then, there was the family's special friend Dora. 

Dora was a black medium-sized stray dog with pointy ears, an elegant face and the friendliest nature. She had a weakness for tummy rubs and had no qualms about running out of the site, across the road and flipping over happily in front of Emily in anticipation of a tummy rub.

Emily would worry about the silly girl's safety, running over towards her like that without a care in the world... In the photos, Dora's paws were often caked in dried mud. But discomforts such as these were just not enough to squelch the joy she got from an impending tummy rub. Little things that we could dispense so easily meant the world to her.

For three months, Emily fed these dogs. Their life wasn't the easiest, but it was peaceful enough. What little peace they had was broken when works began on a massive excavation of the site that would precede piling.

The land they had been living on the past few months caved in and like a large pothole, began to collect water.

While the adults, Delphi and Dora, were large enough to waddle across the water and reach the other side, the puppies were too tiny and fearful to venture anywhere near the water. Left on their own, they were often found cowering uncomfortably under an old generator as shelter.

Emily didn't know how long they would survive like that. Worried, she dropped us an email, asking if we could take the three puppies in. 

That is where our story began.

I don't consider us a typical shelter.

We started out as a bunch of strangers of all ages, from all walks of life.

But the dogs needed to be fed, the compound needed to be cleaned, they needed showers and walks. Dogs were born, they fell sick and they died.

Over the years, we jumped for joy together and wept in each other's arms together. We dreamt of setting up our own shelter together and saw that dream through together.

Some left us, some joined us.

Rollercoaster rides like our shelter experience have a way of bringing people closer together. We were passengers in the same capsule on the same journey.

And so from strangers, we became family.

The decision making within a family can be a rather amusing process.

Florence said she would leave me to make the decision on this matter, which left me feeling very uneasy.

Having just pushed through the rescue of Laifu, Doudou, TongTong and initiated the rescue of Laifu's wary mother which subsequently fell through, I was uncertain about making impulsive decisions again. We were lucky to find homes for all three of them. But would we keep getting lucky?

I hated the responsibility of decision making. I was uncomfortable with the idea that one single decision meant potentially foisting a ten to twelve year responsibility on us all.

I know well that in the course of shelter work, we had to learn to say no. By virtue of our limited resources and the theory of diminishing returns, we could not save all dogs. 

But at that point in time, I was undeterred. I wanted take in the dogs. In fact, I had been going through the email requests recently and given each serious consideration, bringing the more urgent cases to the attention of the rest.

Was it my impulsivity at work again? Was I becoming a unhealthy dog hoarder? Dog hoarding was a disease!!! What was wrong with me?

Horrified, I turned to Choo for help. He always had a way of helping me put things in perspective and making me feel better.

As usual, he did.

In his very logical and patient way, he guided me through my thought process. 

Why do you think we can afford to take in more dogs? He asked. 

We had the capacity for 35, I told him, and we currently had about 30 dogs. I really felt we could do more. I knew we had not secured premises beyond the end of 2014, but I didn't think that building an iron curtain around our shelter was the way to go for the next two years.

There, I had my answer down pat, Choo pointed out. What was holding me back and causing this frenzy? Take the dogs. 

My unease, I confessed, lay in the guilt of increasing the burden on us all. 

To that, Choo replied simply that we were a team... That once a decision was made, we would all step up to support it. 

He raised an extremely corny example to illustrate his point, but one which brought me so much comfort and which I am not going to forget in a jiffy. We were different parts of the same body, he said, it was inevitable that we thought and worked differently. Ultimately, we are all in this together. 

He also said that he felt my need to take in dogs would die a natural death when I truly felt we could no longer afford to do so.

And then suddenly, everything fell into place. 

Wee, being Wee, was supportive of the venture from the start. When Florence heard from Emily that Dora might possibly be pregnant, she insisted that we not only take in the three puppies as initially proposed but the two adults as well. When Feng was notified of the dogs' impending arrival, she immediately started the process of booking the vet appointment for their vaccination prior to their arrival at the shelter.

Choo was right. We are a family. Even though it was I who started the ball rolling, I was never in this alone.

I had no time to dwell on any uncertainty of mine because the next problem we faced was the issue of whether or not to vaccinate Dora.

When we agreed to take the dogs in and take over their care for good, our only requirement was for Emily to vaccinate them and bring them down to the shelter. Vaccination was crucial because the shelter was located in an area where thousands of other dogs were congregated. Diseases were prevalent and any unvaccinated dog was in serious risk of contracting one ailment or another. It could be deadly.

Although Dora showed no signs early on, Emily told us the workers at the construction site suspected she was pregnant. That immediately put us in two minds about vaccinating her. Vaccinating her might potentially harm any babies she was carrying. Not vaccinating her would leave her vulnerable to the diseases in the air. We decided to leave the decision up to the professional. 

The vet decided to vaccinate Dora.

I was worried and guilty, afraid that the decision to rescue her was also the decision that would kill her babies. Everything on the Internet screamed that no one ought to vaccinate pregnant canine mothers. For that whole weekend, I recalled being extremely volatile and moody. 

But in the end, we were convinced that Dora's well-being was of the utmost concern - not so much that of her unborn puppies. Dora needed the vaccine to survive the shelter environment. Daphne was not vaccinated previously and she fell prey to Parvovirus. She was lucky to have made it through. We didn't want a repeat of that horrible experience. 

With their vaccinations settled, it was time for the dogs to join us at the shelter. I recall Delphi was so stiff she had to be dragged into the shelter. Instead of hiding behind their mother, the three little ones stuck close to their Aunty Dora.

All five of them looked at us sullenly and went to hide in the room, away from our prying eyes.

It was rather comical. First days at the shelter always were!

It didn't take too long for them to get comfortable - and for us to get to know them. 

Delphi was the calmest and gentlest of them all. She loved to jump on top of the kennels and look at the world from above. Even though she froze on the leash on her first day with us, she grew to relish her walks. She enjoyed it when we allowed her to run out of her kennel and along the corridor. Don't mistake Delphi's unruffled exterior for oblivion. At one of our outings to the park, when she heard her puppy Dilly cry in fright from afar, Delphi's ears pricked immediately. She whined and struggled to go to her baby's rescue.

Are pregnant dogs supposed to be more aggressive? It certainly didn't seem like it to us! Dora was the most affectionate of the lot. It took awhile for her stomach to show. At first, we contemplated sending her for an ultrasound to confirm her pregnancy. But when we were informed that only an X-ray was available, we were hesitant. An X-ray sounded invasive and we didn't want to do any further harm to her puppies, if any. The vaccine administered to Dora would already have done enough. We decided to let nature take its course. If Dora was really pregnant, so be it. If she was not, we could start her process of rehabilitation pronto.

With the passage of time, Dora grew steadily bigger. She wolfed down her food and began to bully the other puppies! Her stomach grew large and tight. Our suspicions were confirmed and we counted down to the day of her impending delivery. 

As for the three puppies, they were three of the most beautiful little ones we had ever seen. 

DanDan's brown and white markings made her resemble a Jack Russell Terrier. At the beginning, we received so many enquiries about our "Jack Russell" up for sale or adoption that I grew quite exasperated! DanDan was smart, gentle, good natured and so very gorgeous! We needed people to love and accept DanDan the special mongrel that she is, not the Jack Russell she resembled.

Because adoption queries were slowing down, Florence mooted the idea of a training class led by Choo to instill in our younger dogs some basic commands to boost their chances at adoption. We were each randomly assigned to a dog. I got DanDan and had the good fortune of discovering first hand just what a fast learner she is. She's our star pupil! I would announce brazenly to everyone at class. Because truly, that's what this little girl was!

Dilly was the slowest to warm. I recall she would scurry away hastily when we walked towards her. But we had many extra opportunities to further our interaction with her. 

Dilly had a genetic condition known as hairy demoid, where cells on the skin were found in her eye. This effectively meant there was fur growing from her eye. While it wasn't giving her discomfort, we were advised that it was better to have it removed. This meant extra trips to the vet for consultation, surgery and post-surgery reviews.

The extra time we spent with her helped break down the wall that she built around herself. This girl was no longer the puppy Emily first laid eyes on... the one who seemed to be angry with the world. This little girl now positively sparkles in human attention and runs towards you joyfully when you squeal her name. Dilly had her surgery a fortnight ago and to aid in her recuperation, she is being fostered by one of our beloved regular volunteers.

Dairy was the littlest one of the three and also the only one with ears that stood. She was afraid of the bigger puppies sharing her kennel and would often hide under the bench for protection, the clever girl.  We didn't get the chance to know Dairy as we did the other two. But that is really a blessing in disguise, because the reason behind that was her early adoption!

Liz and Jachin adopted another one of our dogs Donut from us about a year or so ago. They felt Donut needed a playmate because their other dog was too old and frail to tussle about with her. After some contemplation, they decided to take Dairy home and from their frequent updates, we learnt the two immediately got on like a house on fire! Who said anything about three being a crowd? This family is coming together wonderfully.

As the days turned into weeks, we knew it was mere moments before Dora would deliver. We took to locking her up in her own room at night just so that if she did give birth, she could have her privacy. 

On Sunday, 17 March 2013, one of our hardworking regular volunteers Venn arrived at the shelter early to start cleaning up. She was shocked to find about six wriggly black lumps by Dora's side. Yes, Dora was in labour at last! When Venn informed Florence of the news over the phone, I was by Florence's side listening in with bated breath. 

This was it. How many new members would be joining us? 

Dora's labour was an extended one. When Wee, Florence and I rushed down to the shelter that day, Dora was still delivering her puppies. In the next three to four hours, one puppy after another was born. The final count stopped at twelve. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. 

We had an entire football team plus one.

Size of the litter aside, we were just extremely thankful that Dora had a safe delivery. Despite the vaccination administered on her in the course of her pregnancy, the babies were doing fine. There were no stillborns. Also, a less cooperative new mother we never met! Dora allowed us to pick up her babies and clean the compound right from the start. She had completely no defenses against us and in the face of her whole-hearted faith in us, we were humbled.

As the news of Dora's birth settled in, the fact of the twelve new additions began to weigh more heavily on us. The puppies were tiny now but they would grow up rapidly. We were expecting a litter in the region of five or seven puppies. Never in our wildest imagination did we expect twelve!

Where were we going to house all of them in three months' time when they started to run around and demand the space that they needed to live and play?

That awful feeling of panic began to creep in... and I asked Wee... How? How are we going to pull this off?

In his calm and lighthearted way, Wee chuckled and said that we would find a way. Meanwhile, Florence was already busy concocting ways to rearrange our dogs to incorporate the twelve puppies into our current structure. I have been involved in shelter work and under the wing of these two stalwarts for about five years now. Yet I still find myself learning something new from them each day. When life throws you curveballs, they showed me that you don't get into a fluster - you deal with it.

Twelve puppies was a lot for a single mother dog to handle. When four of the puppies didn't appear to be gaining sufficient weight after three weeks, we decided to remove them from the litter and have them fostered by Suat. We also kick started a nightly duty roster so that there was always someone around to feed Dora to ensure she has enough nutrients to cope with the heavy duty nursing. Of course, we weren't in this alone. Our beloved veteran volunteers Suat, Denise, Jiawen and Venn stepped up to the plate ever so readily to help out with the night duties.

To combat the distemper virus afflicting the other shelters in the area, we made it a rule for all volunteers and dogs to wash their feet and paws before re-entering the shelter after their walks. It was troublesome, but we firmly believed that collectively, this would go a long way in helping to protect our unvaccinated puppies.

With everyone pitching in, we managed to see the pups through the first two months of their life on earth. From the time they first opened their eyes to the time they started walking on their wobbly paws... From the time they were totally dependent on Dora for food to the time they gradually began to consume solids on their own... We have come a long way. I experienced a bizarre sense of euphoria when we finally saw the twelve puppies off to their first vaccination at the vet. They had reached their first safety zone!

Choo was right. I can no longer look him in the eye and say we are able to take in more dogs. We are filled to the brim. So if your request for us to take in a dog is declined, we hope you understand. With twelve rapidly growing little monsters, our hands are tied. The next few weeks will probably see a reshuffle of the living quarters of some of our dogs in the shelter to accommodate the puppies who are outgrowing the enclosure they currently live in.

No, this story doesn't have an end. This is only the beginning of things to come. I did my best to relate to you the story of our Construction Girls. I hope I also managed to impress upon you the type of shelter that we are. We aren't high profile. We aren't glitzy or glamourous. We do the best we can in ways that we know how.

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