Saturday, March 24, 2018

Don't Forget to Remember

It was Monday. The day we were rostered to head down to the shelter to conduct night feeding for the dogs at Gentle Paws. On the long straight road leading to the shelter, you could see the gentle rays of the evening sun caressing the tired landscape of the pet farm.

The car park of the pet farm where Gentle Paws is located used to be a bustling place. Two different nurseries ran their businesses there. One of them was run by a smiley elderly couple with a spirited Japanese spitz of their own. The other was run by a man who generally kept to himself until one of our cars blocked his shopfront or one of our dogs knocked over his flower pots.

Now, ten years from the day I first stepped foot here back in 2008, this same car park feels empty. The nurseries have vacated the premises. The perimeter of the car park is no longer lined with bonsai and other potted greens. Parts of the farm's infrastructure are gradually being removed to prepare the land for its impending handover to the authorities. The number of workers at the farm has also seen a significant reduction.

It feels almost as if the sun is setting on this familiar town that I once knew and loved. Dogs and volunteers are still abound. The dogs still live here for now. They still need to be fed and exercised.

Yet, there is something different about the whole place. The air hangs heavy with the knowledge that everyone's days here are numbered. Farewells will soon need to be said. The deadline on the lease saw multiple extensions and seemed like it was never going to materialise. Now, it looms perilously close.

This was my playground for a good seven years or so, before my participation in shelter work began to dwindle. I found myself searching my mind for some of the best and worst moments that I had gone through here in these premises. What had I learnt in those seven years? There are too many things to note down here in any great detail. But let me just take one last nostalgic walk down memory lane before it too shuts down and moves away for good.

Memory #1: Coffeeshop Talk
It all started at a coffeeshop. We were having lunch after a day's work at another shelter where Wee's rescued dogs had been housed. The plan to run our own shelter was hatched over food and drinks. We confirmed one another's interest, without thinking too much about what we were getting ourselves into. We did not stop to consider how many years of our life this venture could possibly consume or even how long we had known each other at that point. 

These were five people who were as different as day and night, whether in age, background or occupation. By some twist of fate, we found ourselves, at that point in our respective lives, fuelled by the same motivation to provide a better life for the shelter dogs under our charge. Without mulling more over the possible implications of our decision, we plunged headfirst into the murky unknown. Just like that, we set the events of the next eight years rolling. 

The spark of enthusiasm that hit us that day was like the flick of a finger that set a sequence of dominoes tumbling. The dominoes kept on going, even when one or another of us eventually jumped off the bandwagon. On and on they went in a steady, dependable rhythm, one after another, unceasing throughout the years. This was exactly how the shelter operated. It just kept on going for eight years now, no matter who came or left. 

Memory #2: Moving Day
On that rather thrilling day, we opened the side gates of the old premises and guided the dogs to the new one several units away. Most of them ran excitedly down the corridor toward the new shelter that was to become Gentle Paws. The other more fearful and uncertain dogs had to be carried or dragged on leash. We had our first party at the shelter that day. We invited lots of people we had never met to meet our dogs and view our spanking new facility. We were proud to show off our spacious new kennels and our freshly painted walls. 

We hadn't realised it then. But these kennel grounds and walls would soon collect grime, pee and algae over the years. They would become the subject of merciless scrubbing by many an enthusiastic volunteer on self-declared cleaning days we called Detox Day. 

The older the shelter premises grew, the more lived in and well loved it became. I remember coming in at 8.30am on weekends to wash the shelter by myself. I would sneak out of my home quietly in the morning so my mum wouldn't nag too much about me spending the whole day at the shelter. Again. Yes, the unwashed smell of pee and poo lingered in the air. But there was a certain enjoyment derived from the peace at the shelter and being alone with the dogs that you can't get anywhere else. 

Memory #3: Death 
I never expected that my involvement in shelter work would mean I would be so intimately acquainted with death. Dollar was the first dog we lost after operations began at Gentle Paws. She died of acute kidney failure. I remember taking the bus to the clinic to say my final goodbye. I had not known then this would be the first of many goodbyes to come, some so much more painful and graphic than others. 

There was Dikki, who got hit by a car and whose body we retrieved from the NEA contractor at the side of an expressway. We wrapped her in a towel and placed her in my car boot to bring back to the shelter. There was Baby who seemed to be in so much pain toward the end of her life that we had to decide whether to put her down. It was a huge decision and I remember all of us gathered at the vet's to deliberate. There was Dyana, who had fallen multiple storeys from her adopter's apartment and whose body who had looked everywhere for in despair. 

There were those rescued puppies I found suddenly dead at the shelter during night feeding. The first time round, I wrapped his little body up in towels for Wee to bury the next day. The second time I tried to resuscitate the puppies clumsily even though their bodies had already turned slightly cold. There was Dita who collapsed from a heat stroke after one of her usual walks one fateful day. There was Daelle whom I half-dragged to the vet from his adopter's, only to witness him breaking into seizures on the examination table. He didn't pass on that day but that was the start of his decline. 

These are but a few of the more painful departures I can recall off the top of my head. Just talking about them makes my heart sink a little, even now. Looking back, I can't imagine how we went through all that together. But perhaps because we did, there is something extraordinary about this journey. The range of emotions you go through doing shelter work alone is not something you can ever get from your everyday hum drum. I don't know if I have been changed for the better because I have experienced all of this. But I know I surely have been changed for good. 

Memory #4: Rescue Work 
Rescue work is immensely exciting. I got my first taste of that with Damsel. I played absolutely no part in her rescue except for being at the right place at the right time. Wee plucked her from the bushes and placed the angry puppy in my shaking arms. 

But wait, that isn't rescue. Rescue only starts when you place a puppy in a warm home, not a shelter. At the shelter, we are able to provide for a pup's physical needs. With us, they would have food, clean drinking water and a roof over at their heads. But at the shelter, there is no one around long enough to ensure that the puppy develops good habits and behaviour. There is no one to expose the puppy to variety of people and experiences, particularly during their all important fear impact periods. 

Compared to the critical survival of the puppies, all this talk about good habits and exposure seems to pale in comparison. Its importance only becomes apparent when the puppies quickly grow into shy, skittish adolescents sorely lacking in socialisation skills. As a result, people who adopt kennelled dogs often have to work harder than anyone else to transition the dog to a life at home and for eventual integration into our wider community. 

With time ticking away so quickly, it was often a race against time to find homes for our rescued puppies before they grew too big. As much as we wanted to get them out fast, we had our work cut out for us. The average mongrel often exceeds the size allowed under HDB's Project Adore. We also realised that the chance of adoption for a mongrel puppy fell behind that of an adult pedigree dog. Bias and barriers can be hard things to break down. 

Given these circumstances, the shelter's efforts at finding homes for the puppies and dogs rescued can be said to be quite remarkable. Gentle Paws might not have been successful in every case. But we were lucky enough to have met more wonderful families for our dogs than I was counting on. 

Memory #5: Furry Days, Nat Geo and Walk a Paw
I hadn't even so much as organised a birthday party in my life. Suddenly, I found myself taking on the reins of organising beach outings for the shelter dogs. If you have read this blog often enough, you would know we call these events Furry Day. Since I have been at it ad nauseum in my previous entries, I shan't dwell on this for too long. I just want to remember them as bright shiny spots during my time with the shelter. I had fun organising them. It brought me closer to my fellow volunteers, whom I learnt to value and trust. The best thing was, I could tell we all had fun together with the dogs even though it meant we were tired as hell at the end of the day. 

From organising internal affairs like Furry Days, I was also tasked to take charge of our participation in the National Geographic adoption drive. It was our first big event as a shelter. What is the Nat Geo drive? Well, before dog adoption events became such widespread and common affairs, there used to be just one great big one each year. It was sponsored by the National Geographic channel and was often organised in conjunction with Cesar Millan's visit to Singapore. Yes, we have been around long enough to have participated in the inaugural Nat Geo drive. Back then, many dog welfare groups you see today had either not yet been established or hadn't yet thought of venturing out. I guess that was why a small outfit like ours was included. 

I remember having to attend those meetings with the organisers on my own and handle interviews with the media as well. For an introvert like me, this was quite painful. But the shelter really did thrust me into plenty of situations I was not prepared for. I was schooled that way over the years. 

We intended to bring all the dogs to the drive. That meant we had to prepare logistical support in the form of volunteers and transport. Everyone had to be prepped on the schedule and their roles. I was famously scatterbrained. But my fellow volunteers moved into their roles so smoothly that day, I didn't have to do much at all. I loved seeing some of them in action at the adoption booth, talking about our dogs with such tenderness in their voices. So many of them were older and better versed with interacting with members of the public than I was. There was so much to learn from them. This was the camaraderie I loved about our first generation volunteers and which I miss to this day. We were one big team and because we have been through so much together in those simpler times, we felt like such a family. 

Finally, there was our annual Walk a Paw event, which was a self-created stress fest for me each year. I got it into my head to create this year-end event to raise some funds for the shelter. Yet every year, I would worry endlessly that no one would be interested to participate. The premise of the event was to buy a goody bag and spend a morning with the shelter dogs by walking them to the park. Does this sound counter-intuitive? You are effectively paying to walk our dogs. But people who signed up recognised that they were essentially contributing a little of their time and money for a meaningful day and cause. Coupled with the fact that this event takes place around Christmas, the spirit of giving was strong. I will always be grateful for the support received for this event. But beyond that, thinking about the unexpected outpouring of kindness and generosity I received from this event each year will continue to comfort me on many a discouraging day. 

Memory #6: Getting Bitten
I don't think I have ever written about this here. One fine September day back in 2013, I got seriously bitten by one of our dogs. I must disclaim that it was through no fault of the dog. No matter how many times I thought back about it, I reached the same conclusion: I should have been more cautious. 

We had always known that that dog of ours was distrustful of people. He came to us as an adult. I heard he had been passed around from one adopter to another when he was a puppy. That left a lasting impact on him. Despite his experiences, he was not impenetrable. He became great friends and formed lasting bonds with several of our volunteers. But this was only after extensive time and effort had been expended to befriend him. He placed his trust in them incrementally. When he finally decided to let them into his heart, there were no holds barred. 

I had known the dog for several years now but hadn't made much inroads with him. I decided that this was as fine a time as any to start. I went along for a walk with him and another volunteer. I guess I was too hasty and eager to extend my friendship to him. I walked too close beside him for his comfort. In a split second, he leapt forward to bite the front of my thigh. I can't remember if I had placed my left hand in front of me. But the adjoining skin between my thumb and index finger was bitten as well. Fortunately, the volunteer handling the dog recovered quickly enough from the shock and pulled him back and away. 

Have you ever been bitten? A chunk of flesh was torn and blood suddenly streamed down my thigh. I could see a layer of my fat had oozed out. I can't recall if I had been handling a dog myself and whether I passed it on to someone else. All I remember was standing at the spot on our walking route that was furthest from the shelter. I don't know how long it took for me to regain my spirits. When I did, I fished around for my phone and called for transport. It wasn't painful at first, probably due to the adrenaline. All I remember was watching dazedly as blood flowed freely down my left leg and hand. I got a ride to the hospital and waited for more than 6 hours at the emergency department to be treated. I received 4 or 5 stitches on my thigh and 2 or 3 on my hand. Getting bitten wasn't so bad. What was horrible was the recovery process. It was a pain to shower and to have to change my wound dressing twice daily. But slowly and surely, I eventually healed. 

Looking back, I count myself lucky. I know of others who had been bitten in the face, which must surely have been a thousand times more painful and inconvenient. The lessons I took away from this incident I will probably never forget in a lifetime. I learnt that things like trust and friendship need to be earned over time. There was no rushing it. Dogs are loyal creatures, but their experiences may have made them grow inhibited.

I can't say that the incident left me unscarred. I grew a lot more hesitant and anxious when handling new dogs. But success stories of rehabilitated dogs continue to make me believe that they are worth every bit of our patience, understanding and grace. If rescue work were so easy, it wouldn't be called rescue. It is exactly dogs like this that require us to open our hearts and take a step forward. Except remember, do it step by baby step and don't go rushing in like me. 

Summing Up
There is so much more to say, except this entry is already unduly long. The above are some of the memories and insights I gained in my seven years or so of being fully immersed in shelter work. They might not make sense to an outsider. But to a fellow volunteer who has been with Gentle Paws or simply someone in the dog rescue scene, what I have said might strike a chord somewhere. 

The shelter might have been something we started on the spur of the moment. But we learnt that once you commit to caring for a dog, be it a pet dog at home or a rescued dog at a shelter, it is a journey that needs to last the rest of their lifetime. The more puppies that the shelter rescues, the longer is the road that stretches out ahead of it. Yet, Gentle Paws has done so time and again because the reality is, there are just too many of them that need saving. 

Shelter work can be thankless, lonely and incredibly frustrating. This must be particularly so at a time like the present, where the big move is so close and the future seems so vague. That is why the people who grit their teeth, brush aside their worries and carry on with this journey ever so doggedly deserve nothing less than our fullest respect. That includes the people at Gentle Paws who continue to run the shelter, rain or shine, every single day of the year. 

And so Gentle Paws, thank you for the memories. I wouldn't have been the same if I had not met you. 

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