Pat Brayer, board president of the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society, plays… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Our new dog is a real looker.
She's a husky, Siberian or Alaskan I'm guessing, with maybe even a bit of California coyote mixed in.
I'd promised my 6-year-old daughter a dog ages ago, though it fell to my wife to actually search for one. She contacted dog rescue groups and shelters until she finally found a dog she liked at the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society.
The dog, named Sandra by the people who found her, joined our family with several stories attached. One was told to us by the worker at the Humane Society. And a much bigger tale was revealed to us on the second night she was in our home, when my wife turned on the 11 o'clock news.
It turned out that Sandra — whose name we changed to Madame Josie because she possessed a regal bearing — had come to us as a kind of dog messenger. She brought news of the plight suffered by her fellow dogs and cats in a shelter struggling to stay afloat.
But we didn't know any of that when we met her. All we knew was that she had been skunked, apparently, while wandering the streets of suburban Los Angeles. A good Samaritan found her and tried to track down her owner, to no avail.
"She's sick with a respiratory thing," one of the shelter's workers told my wife. "But they get better, faster, if you take them home."
She arrived at our home in Northeast Los Angeles the day after Christmas. Once we took her off her leash, Josie bounded up and down our hillside property like an athlete trying out for the Olympic hurdling team.
Then I took her for a mile-long walk. By the time we got back home, she was wheezing. She collapsed in our living room and fell into a deep sleep, waking up to look at us with half-open eyes. Josie was young, thin and clearly not feeling very well.
The next day my wife took Josie to one of several vets who provide free consultations to recently liberated shelter dogs. "Your dog has a fever — 105 degrees," the vet said. "She's very sick." Maybe even with pneumonia or distemper. In fact, Josie might need a five-day hospital stay, the vet said, which could cost us "thousands of dollars."
The vet recommended we take our dog back to the shelter and have them nurse her back to health.
This set off a family conference. My wife and I and our kids had seen the 5-foot-wide shelter cell Josie was in. The steel mesh bars were rusting. It had been raining rather hard for several days before we picked her up, and water poured off the edge of its corrugated roof.
The people who worked there were all wonderful and obviously loved the animals, but those cages resembled a dog Bastille.
Sitting in our living room, Josie looked desperate, clinging to all of us as if she'd survived some life-altering trauma. None of us was willing to send her back to the shelter.
"Mommy, you can't take her back there," my oldest son insisted. "She'll never get better there."
A little while later, my wife turned on the TV and we realized we'd made the right choice.
The same shelter from which we'd sprung Josie was on the news, the roof of one of its buildings having collapsed during a recent storm. The shelter's workers had hurriedly evacuated more than 100 cats.
"Luckily our staff got them out before the ceiling collapsed," a spokeswoman for the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society was telling Channel 11, as pictures of undeniably cute homeless kittens flashed on the screen.
So I rolled out to the shelter, thinking I should probably take a closer look at this troubled place of animal refuge.
Pat Brayer, board president of the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society, told me that the shelter was perpetually broke and still suffering the effects of decades of mismanagement and neglect.
"Nothing had been maintained," said Brayer, a former fashion industry executive, describing her arrival with a new board of directors in February 2009. "The animals weren't being cared for. They were in dirty and cramped conditions."
Auditors told the board that the shelter was in such dire financial straits it would have to close by August 2009. Brayer and others fought to keep it open. "I pretty much said, 'This shelter will close over my dead body,'" Brayer said.
Fannie Thompson Kessler founded the shelter in her home in 1924, after years of fighting with the city of San Gabriel over the stray dogs and cats she cared for.
More than 80 years later, the shelter is still housed in Kessler's old home and the surrounding property. The cats displaced by the collapsed roof are in her former living room — space that was, until recently, the shelter's employee break room.
"We just don't have extra money for repairs or maintenance," Brayer said. "Everything is so decrepit, it all needs to come down and be rebuilt."
The facility cares for 130 dogs and 130 cats. One of the buildings that most urgently needs to go, Brayer said, is the trailer-like set of cages where we found Josie.
"The floors are fiberglass and the dogs can't walk on it," Brayer said. "It's the worst material for an animal. Especially when it gets wet."
Brayer and the board have plans for new facilities. "We don't want a Taj Mahal," she told me. "We just want a nice, clean, safe environment for the animals."
After the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and two television stations reported on the shelter's winter plight, more than 500 people donated to the humane society via its website.
A donation helps a lot, Brayer told me, but adopting an animal helps even more, because the strays keep coming. Sometimes people dump them at the front door. Recently a kitten named Brickles was squeezed in through the narrow spaces of the shelter's outer wall. "Our staff was besides themselves," she said.
Our own rescued dog seems to be getting better. We got a second opinion and paid $200 for some antibiotics and a chest X-ray.
Josie doesn't have pneumonia. But if anyone out there has any idea how to get a dog to swallow her pills, please let me know.