In June of 2013, animal control officers in San Bernardino County, California, evacuated 130 dogs from a dubiously named "sanctuary" in Apple Valley. The owners of the property had left, abandoning the dogs. You can read that story here, but it's a sad one, and I don't recommend it.
Initially, the dogs were taken to Devore shelter, which is notoriously a high-kill, low-compassion facility. But dog rescue groups rallied around, pulling out adoptable dogs and those needing special foster care. And, to their credit, administrators at Devore contacted other local shelters in an attempt to find housing for all the dogs.
Which is how three of the 130 ended up at Upland Animal Shelter. At first, the dogs were so under-socialized that shelter staff members and volunteers couldn't touch them, much less handle or walk them. But eventually, with time and patience and a lot of volunteer love, the dogs were taught to walk on a leash. They also learned that humans can be kind. Over time, two of the three made enough progress to be adopted. That left Sgt. Tibbs.
In July, I happened to stroll through Upland shelter, looking at the adoptable dogs, and I came across Sgt. Tibbs. When I first saw him, I wondered why such a beautiful young dog had not been snatched up by some family. But when I approached his kennel, I could see why; he tucked his tail and ran to the corner, huddling there. As an introvert myself, I happen to know that people don't flock to be your friend if you can't show yourself friendly in turn. The dogs who get adopted first are tail waggers and hand lickers, those whose faces say, "I'm so glad you stopped by! Now please take me home!" Sgt. Tibbs' face said, "Please don't hurt me. Just leave me alone." And I walked on.
During Christmas week, though, I went back to the shelter. I couldn't believe Sgt. Tibbs was still there. As I stood outside his kennel, one of the volunteers came by to tell me his story.
"We've worked with him a lot," she told me. "Now he walks on a leash. But he doesn't make eye contact, and he's still very shut down, very afraid." (More on the work of these great volunteers can be found here, and there's a photo of Sgt. Tibbs there as well. He's the one on the left.)
Every day for a week (with the exception of New Year's Day, when the shelter was closed), I spent part of each afternoon with Sgt. Tibbs, just standing outside his kennel. By the third day, he stopped running to the back when I approached. On the fifth day, he made eye contact, just briefly, then looked away. On the seventh day, another volunteer approached, and we discussed his personality again. I told her I was concerned about how he would be with me cats.
"Let's cat test him!" she said, and moments later she had a leash on him. We headed to the front, where he was taken into the office to meet the resident tabby there. He did not alert. He simply sniffed the cat, his tail tucked firmly between his legs, then walked away.
So the next day, which was yesterday, I returned to the shelter to adopt him.
I asked the volunteers (who've been calling him "Tibbs") how he got his name, and one volunteer confessed she had named him after the dog in 101 Dalmatians who looks like this:
(Most of the images I found for him online show him with a cat, so maybe that's a promising sign from the Universe.)
I don't think the real Sgt. Tibbs looks quite like that, and I don't know that "Tibbs" will work for me as I have no emotional investment in it. But I want to honor the volunteers who spent so much time with this dog to bring about a happy outcome for him, so I'm not going to change it. I'll just augment it a bit. I have two beloved friends named "Tom," so his name henceforward will be Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. Eventually, I'll call him Tom or Tommy.
As I write this, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs is at a nearby veterinary hospital having that minor surgery that he should have had years ago. (He's six.) This afternoon, I'll bring him home. He still has a long way to go in terms of hanging out with me and the cats while I write books or grade papers, but we'll start (when he's recovered from the surgery) with daily walks and getting brushed. I'll keep you posted on our progress. Wish me luck!
And to all of you out there who do the very difficult work of volunteering to go into shelters every day and walk dogs or brush them or socialize them in other ways, may the Universe rain down blessings on you and those you love.