Undone By Puppies and Sunshine

Tonight I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

But more on that in a moment.

I’m hitting the road again. I’m leaving fleeing the States for northern Norway on Sunday.

It was the sun that did it.

Well, the heat and humidity also, to be fair.

I have an amazing opportunity to spend a little more than a month above the Arctic Circle. I’ll give you the full scoop once I’m there, but let’s just say for now that I’ve been watching the weather there for the past week: highs in the 50s, lows in the 40s, rain most of the time.

Heaven.

Which is great because, well, late summer in Wisconsin has kinda been hell for me. The last time I returned from the Ice, I spent a rainy, chilly month in Tasmania first (sort of like visiting  Endor while transiting from Hoth to Naboo) and arrived here in December, when the cold and limited sunlight were jussst riiiiiiight.

The temperature and dewpoint have sapped my energy and soured my stomach, while the sun burns my eyes and makes me feel a strange affinity for the Twilight gang that I never expected. I thought I’d acclimate, but when I didn’t and this Norway option presented itself, well, it was no contest.

Although I’m thrilled to be heading to one of my favorite countries and getting to see an area of it that I’ve always yearned to visit, I’m also looking even further ahead. Shortly after I return in mid-October, I’ll be doing a book launch, signing/reading event for my novel Plaguewalker at an indie bookseller. That’s going to be nerve-wracking for me, but it’s also kind of exciting.

Don’t worry, I’ll be posting more details as we get closer to the event. I’ve never done such a thing before, but, as I told some friends, I’m sure to be overcaffeinated, rambly and at least as entertaining as Clint Eastwood scolding a chair.

When I return from Norway, I’m also going to start on the most harrowing journey I’ve ever taken. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I laid the groundwork for it tonight by attending an orientation at the local animal control center.

Spending a lot of time in Antarctica does tend to clarify things, and one of the things I decided was that I wanted to do more to help animals than just clicking the “donate” button at BestFriends.org. I thought of volunteering at the no-kill humane society out in the ‘burbs, but then a friend told me about a concerted effort “the pound” is making to find forever homes, or at least foster families, for their animals.

Oh, one thing you should know about me: I don’t go to animal shelters. Haven’t been in more than 20 years, because the last time I went, driving a friend who was picking up a puppy for her dad as a birthday gift, I ended up a bawling, sobbing wreck, wailing in the car and waiting for her to come out already.

I get so verklempt because I hate it when people are irresponsible (two words, people: Spay. Neuter.). I hate it more when animals suffer at the hands of people. Hey, I know in the real world animals eat other animals every day, but it’s different. They’re animals. That’s how they eat, or defend their territory. Simple logic. We’re humans. There is absolutely no reason a cat should ever be swung by its tail, or a dog cattle-prodded into attacking another dog.

(If you’re wondering whether I’ve gone vegan, no…though I try hard to get my dairy from happy cows and goats and eggs from happy chickens. And I still wear leather and put gelatin in my panna cotta. But I don’t feel that puts me in the same class as Michael Vick.)

Anyway…

So it was a very big decision for me to get involved in volunteering like this, particularly at a place where the majority of animals they take in still end up getting euthanized. My motivation was to do at least a little good for a few, to make their days in that place, however they end up, a little better.

And I kept it together pretty well. At first.

The first part of the orientation was your standard meet and greet, here’s what we do, let’s review the handbook sort of thing.

The best part of that–of the whole evening–was when two cats walked into the conference room. Wow. They were the biggest cats I’ve ever seen. Both a little chubby, but just in terms of bone structure. Mammoths. Two enormous gray tabbies that didn’t so much walk as strut. You know that cliche scene in every action movie when the hero gets out of his car or walks into the room or saunters away from the exploding villain, always in slow motion, usually wearing sunglasses, while the soundtrack is pounding with epic metal bass? You know, the “Badass” moment?

Yeah. That’s how these cats walked. They both came right up to me of all people, and received my patented Kitty Skull Massage (cats love it) and well as copious amounts of chin rubbing and ear scratching.

Both Ultimate Badass cats are actually staff members.

Every dog considered for adoption or fostering has its temperament assessed with a series of exposures involving food, toys, and so on. That’s pretty standard in shelters across the country. To assess how a dog feels about the hand that feeds it, they stick a rubber fake hand in its face. To assess how a dog might do around a baby, they put a rubber doll near it and play recorded baby noises.

But when it’s time to assess how the dog might react to a cat, they don’t give it a rubber cat. They bring in one of these guys.

Yeah, the Ultimate Badass Cats earned their struts, going face-to-face with who knows how many dogs of all sizes and undetermined aggression.

No wonder they walked around the room with enough confidence to make a lion feel insecure.

The second half of the orientation was a tour of the facility. I was okay at first, rattled only slightly in the cat room and minimally misty-eyed in the kitten ward. But then we went into one of the dog rooms and yeah, I lost it. It’s the old dogs that always get me. And there were so many.

I started to feel ridiculous thinking I could do this. I have growled “we won the cold war!” to Russian gangsters in their mother tongue, I’ve hiked and camped through a hurricane alone on a reputedly haunted Icelandic moor, I had cancer, for crissakes, but give me a moment of eye contact with a scared, shivering mixed breed behind bars and I’m reduced to a weeping pile of boneless goo.

Then the orientation trainer mentioned that the first tier of volunteering is doing the dishes and laundry for a certain number of hours before you can advance to dog walking and cat socializing. She told us she knew everyone wanted to play with the animals, but the grunt work was just as important, because if volunteers don’t do it, the staff has to, which means less time they can spend temperament testing, arranging transfers to no-kill shelters and otherwise preparing the animals for adoption.

And that made me really happy. Because you can do the laundry and wash the feeding dishes without ever walking past any of the kennels or catteries. You can do good, in other words, without ever having to see those you’re doing the good for.

Upon return from Norway, I’ll be investing in a pair of heavy duty dishwashing gloves.

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