LET INGA TELL YOU:
On Aug. 15, as I was picking up allergy medication for our foster dog at La Jolla Veterinary Hospital on Fay, I couldn't help but notice the flier for a found Shih Tzu on their bulletin board. He looked like the identical twin of our previous foster dog, Percy, who, freshly rehabbed, was now living an idyllic life as the adored companion of a senior citizen.
The vet's staff explained that the dog had been found the day before with a collar and leash, panting in the heat, on Prospect Street near the Rec Center. The woman who found him waited an hour with the dog, fearful he would run into the street, expecting a frantic owner would appear. When none did, she brought him into their office hoping he might be microchipped. He wasn't.
Because her own dogs weren't friendly with smaller breeds, the woman then brought the dog to the County shelter hoping an owner would claim him. Or, maybe hoping an owner wouldn't claim him. The dog's hair was so overgrown and matted that it was hard initially to tell whether he was a male or female. His toenails were so long they curled around making it difficult for him to walk. It seemed obvious to me that this dog, like Percy, had been dumped. Wasn't going to be claimed.
I asked the veterinary staff if I could be in touch with the woman who found the dog as I hoped that the same small private rescue organization that had rescued Percy from the County shelter could save this dog as well.
The vet tech called me back an hour later. "She says she knows you. Her name is Eloise."
My jaw dropped. Eloise had been the pet sitter who was taking care of our beloved Winston when he died suddenly of a heart attack in March. A true animal whisperer, she was devastated. We, meanwhile, were tremendously comforted that Winston's last moments had been in her gentle hands.
I said to Olof that night that if God had put this dog in Eloise's path, it was meant to be saved.
I called Eloise and told her about the rescue organization. She was thrilled.
But the rescue organization was swamped; no more foster homes available. In fact, we were already doing an emergency foster of a second one of their dogs ourselves. But the rescue was able to get me the dog's medical intake records from the County, four long pages of heartbreaking neglect. There was no part of this animal that wasn't suffering from massive infection — ears, eyes, skin. Even his anal gland was ruptured. Eight to nine years old, he had never been neutered.
The news only got worse. The County subsequently determined that he was blind.
If this dog thought life might finally be looking up, he was sadly mistaken. His very first night at the County shelter, the other two dogs in his kennel beat him up, his fur found all over the cage the next morning.
Eloise visited the dog several times over the next 12 days at the County shelter as we pondered possibilities for him. Our hand was forced when we got a tip that the dog was going to be euthanized if not quickly adopted. He wasn't eating and had lost substantial weight. Totally shaved because of his infections, he looked more rodent than Shih Tzu. His skin infections were still healing. In real estate parlance, he lacked curb appeal.
The phrase in the medical report that had truly broken our hearts noted that when approached by shelter staff, the little guy exhibited a "low tail wag." That this poor dog could still find anything to wag his tail about, however minimally, was a testament to the resilient spirit of animals. Eloise and I decided that no matter what, this dog was not dying at the County.
Neither of us could keep him long term but we agreed that if this dog had genuine issues that would require him to be put down, it would be in our arms after being showered with the love for which he was so overdue.
After an afternoon of frantic phone calls, Eloise went down the next morning and officially adopted him, to buy him time. Olof and I said we would share medical expenses.
Eloise named him Moo, because his coloring, when shaved, strongly resembled a Guernsey cow. The two big dogs in Eloise's house were decidedly unthrilled about the interloper. Moo took up residence in a bubble wrapped spare room to keep him safe both from bumping into things and from the other dogs, one of whom, a Rottweiler, would have happily eaten Moo.
Dr. Julie Breher at La Jolla Veterinary Hospital generously gave Moo a complimentary full exam the next day, determining that in the 17 days since Moo had been found, he had recovered almost completely from his County-treated neglect-related infections. While we were there, she called an animal rescue she thought might be able to help find a home for Moo. Alas, they couldn't take a blind dog.
Dr. Breher also recommended a consultation with a top animal ophthalmologist just to see if there was anything — surgery or eye drops — to be done for Moo's eyes. Even an improvement of 10-20 percent would improve the quality of his life immeasurably, not to mention make him more adoptable.
However, even without sight, she added, blind dogs compensate well because of their acute senses of hearing and smell. "Just don't move the furniture," she smiled.
Eloise soon noted this adaptation as well. Moo would chase her around her back yard, tracking her voice. Moo's mellow, affectionate Shih Tzu personality began to shine through as he slowly relaxed into his temporary new household. He began eating again and regained the 22 percent of his body weight he'd lost at the County. Eloise's vet, Dr. Bruce Lindsay, took over Moo's care at a discounted rate.
I contacted every senior dog rescue I could find that specializes in finding homes for senior or special needs dogs. Most never replied. The two that did said they only rescue animals from shelters, not from private parties. Meanwhile, Eloise's family's Rottweiler was making Moo's life increasingly perilous. We had just finished adopting our own foster dog, Lily, who had issues of her own. Options for Moo seemed to be rapidly diminishing.
Eloise called one night in tears: "We really have to find a home for Moo. It's not working here." My husband predicted we were going to become owners of a second dog.
The canine ophthalmologist diagnosed Moo as having retinal degeneration. Nothing to be done.
By sheer chance, when Eloise took Moo to Green Paw Grooming in the village that afternoon, one of the groomers, Ashli Shore, suggested contacting the Rancho Santa Fe-based Scratch My Belly (scratchmybelly.org), one of many small private rescues in the county. Eloise did, and the woman who runs it, Frederica Ginsburg, not only posted Moo's photo and story on her site's Facebook page but arranged for him to be featured on Channel 6 News 'Animal House' segment for special pets seeking homes.
Five well-intentioned people applied to adopt Moo but alas, none was a suitable placement. One applicant had toddlers ages one and two which Eloise and I privately agreed was the equivalent of two more blind Shih Tzus. Moo needed a heavily supervised environment. We still hoped for the perfect home.
More weeks went by. If dogs have a signature talent, it's for worming their way into humans' hearts. Eloise's immediate and extended family, originally hesitant about taking on Moo for even the shortest term, started falling in love with him. Eloise's mother bought him a doggie stroller so he could go to the grandchildren's soccer games, and smuggled him his treat of choice, street tacos from the Rubios on Fay. Most importantly, the Rottweiler seemed willing to consider a doggie détente.
And so, nearly three months later, Moo now has a forever home with Eloise. As my husband observed watching Moo happily snoozing in Eloise's arms, "this dog has fallen into a vat of warm butter." But while Eloise deserves the lion's share of the credit for staying with him that first day and for her heroic care of Moo, she'd agree it took a village to save him.
Moo couldn't be more grateful.
— Inga's lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com