Marcie Fallek D.V.M., C.V.A.

Is it really so terrible to buy a collie?  These words were tormenting me, going round and round my head, after my beloved Shadow had been killed by a car at only one and a half years old.

My mind flashed back to the day I rescued Shadow from the local dog pound.   Carol, the veterinarian I worked for and myself, were part of a dog adoption organization and had dashed over to the municipal shelter to choose two dogs.  There were a couple of extra cages in our hospital, so we were able to choose one dog each from this squalid facility and hopefully find them wonderful loving homes.  I had five minutes to decide, as we were on our lunch hour and clients were waiting for us back at the clinic.  What a difficult position to be in!  Feeling painfully pressed for time, I raced down the long center aisle looking for a suitable candidate.  Suddenly, amidst the din and the misery  surrounding her, like a lotus flower floating on a polluted pond,  I noticed a genteel delicate looking dog sitting quietly in her cage, gazing at me with mournful eyes.  This is the one, I told Carol.

This dog pound was in one of the poorest cities in Connecticut, a filthy place with a horrible reputation.  It was severely overcrowded, sometimes three to a cage, with cowering, whining or barking dogs, covered in feces and urine, often wet from the hoses that were sprayed through the bars to clean their cages.  As soon as you entered the dog ward you wanted to leave: the smell, the noise the heartbreak of the place.  It really wasn’t this shelter’s fault.  The state allocated little money for the dogs, and none for the cats.  There often wasn’t enough food, and the shelter had to rely on the generosity of good -hearted animal lovers for donations of dog and cat food.  We volunteers would come and clean the cages, bathe the dogs and walk them, trying to offer some semblance of normalcy and love. We hoped that by making their situation more tolerable, they would become more adoptable.  The longer they stayed in the shelter, the more hopeless and depressed they would become.  They had to compete with those purebred puppies in the pet stores that looked so cute.

Running a shelter in poor city is a challenge.  How can they get good help when the pay is ridiculously low?  Sometimes, there was a real miracle and an ardent animal lover be hired and would love and care for them as if they were his/her own.  More often than not, these were poor people just looking for a job.  It was another minimum wage job instead of working at McDonalds.   If they didn’t do the job properly, no one was really looking. Who wants to clean up feces and urine and deal with difficult animals that bite ?  If you truly cared about animals, it could be a very tough job emotionally as well as physically.

No different from a prison, the doggie inmates were kept shut in cages or runs, isolated from other dogs. They had no family, abandoned by those they had once loved.  They had no idea what was to become of them.  Many dogs languish for months like that.  You can debatably say these are the lucky ones.   While I was in vet school, I volunteered at a friend’s veterinary hospital in Manhattan, and remember the story that he told me, one of the saddest and hardest jobs that he had to do.  A client of his, an old woman, was dying of cancer.  She had several dogs and cats, all elderly like herself.  He was called to do a home visit for her and euthanize all her animals- in front of her.  She wanted to make sure they would not end up in shelters. Although these had been her life companions for many years, she wanted to make sure that she actually saw them put to sleep, so that they would not suffer a fate worse than death.  As horrifying as that might seem, and it did seem so to me at that time, I am coming around to this way of thinking.  I am doing everything humanly possible to ensure that if I pass away before my animals, they will go into loving homes cared for as I would care for them myself.  If there is a chance that they would end up in a shelter with an uncertain fate, I too, would have them euthanized-  in front of me.

I don’t know how Shadow happened to be at the municipal shelter that warm Indian summer day.   She was as sweet and as nice a dog as you can imagine,  a perfect lady. She was a border collie mix, 35 pounds, but very tall and slim, her coat long and wavy, all black except for her two brown eyebrows and a little white snip at the end of her long flowing tail.

As soon as I took her out of there, and for many days following, she would turn around and look at me from the other end of the leash. You could read the expression so clearly on her face—total joy and disbelief at her luck in escaping from her prison and being with me.  She would place her two front paws delicately on my thighs as she stood up to smile in delighted amazement.  I was fostering her in my tiny studio apartment, and had never intended to keep her.  I worked too many hours to own a dog, and my apartment was barely big enough for me.  But as so many foster dog parents know, in the end I couldn’t part with her.  She seemed to feel it was heaven on earth with me.  In fact, our bond was unimaginably strong, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, or indeed, since.

I forget now what her original name was, the one on the cage door, but it sounded like Shadow and that name stuck.  A pretty banal name, but she was my shadow.  If I left my apartment for just two minutes to take the garbage out, she would throw herself at my feet and then into my open arms as I crouched down to gather her up, whimpering and crying in relief that I was back. It was as if I had been gone a lifetime, not 120 seconds.  This did not change for the one year we shared together.  She was so grateful for her life with me.

So was it really so wrong to buy a collie?  I think collies were my primary reason for becoming a vet.  I was a very shy child, never really comfortable with other kids. They could be so mean.  My family was not the Waltons, not like those idealized families that I read about in  Little Women.

I could not wait for Saturday mornings, when I would glue myself to the TV to watch the animal programs.  I lived for those TV shows, particularly Lassie.  Lassie was my hero.  She was always there to protect Timmy, rescuing him or anyone else who needed help. She was always at Timmy’s side. Waking him up in the morning, consoling him when life was not so kind.  Never letting Timmy down.  She had all those wonderful attributes that have been associated with dogs across the centuries:  loyalty, courage, and unconditional love. With her open heart and her deep wisdom, Lassie not only knew right from wrong, but she often served as our moral preceptor.  In this beautiful TV series, there was  always a moral to be learned, and it was by example that Lassie taught that lesson, usually the lesson of love, to we mortals.  At the beginning of each and every episode, she would lift her head as she heard Timmy call her name, jump a stone fence with grace and ease as she raced to her boy.  At the end of each program, she would raise a white paw as if to wave goodbye to me.

Then there were the films:  Lassie Come Home and the sequels.  That determined loving and loyal collie crossing all of Scotland to return to her boy, Roddy McDowell and their home in Yorkshire-- crossing dangerous rivers, risking her life to protect strangers, both human and animal, warming the hearts of a kindly old couple who took her in to nurse her back to health after her ordeals. The husband and wife dearly wanted Lassie to stay, but no, she had to move on, to find her way back to her master to meet him outside in the schoolyard where she always met him, after class was over.  Lassie was never late.  The shopkeepers would set their watches by her.  How she would whine wherever she was, as the clock reached the designated hour!  The family had to sell her, because Father had lost his job, and there wasn’t enough food to put on the table? Selling Lassie seemed like the only way they would have enough money to eat.

Lassie wasn’t the only collie I fell in love with.  I devoured the series of books by Albert Payson Terhune:  Lad a Dog, Buff a Collie, Bruce and Wolf, amongst others.

My favorite was the story of Wolf, a true story, as all Terhune’s stories were.  Wolf was the collie that was the reject, the one that didn’t have the looks for showing, the outcast. He was a disappointment to his owners, because despite his thoroughbred breeding, he barely looked like a collie.  The owners/ breeders had decided to keep him, because he would be so difficult to sell being so ugly, and they pitied him. Yet Wolf had an indomitable spirit.  He continually risked life and limb to impress his masters, craving as he did their love and appreciation.  Wolf had a huge heart, particularly in the defense of the weak and the helpless.   Trouble seemed to continually surround the hapless dog.  Despite his best intentions to help, he usually ended up making a mess of things.

It was the ending of that story, however, which I read over 40 years ago that I will never forget.  Wolf had saved a stray mongrel from a horrendous death at the hands of some delinquent boys, who had tried to drown her.  From then on, Wolfie had designated himself her protector, as he was wont to do with the weak and vulnerable.  Although his masters eventually were able to find another home for Undine, the homely, simple-minded cur, Wolf continually rescued her from her chains and cage, in which she was confined.  After one such liberation, Undine decided to stop right in the middle of the railroad tracks to scratch at a flea.  When Wolf noticed that she wasn’t behind him, and saw her sitting there foolishly scratching, oblivious to the roar of the oncoming train, he immediately knew the dangers.  He had seen a dog cut in half by a train when he was younger, and always took heed of his masters’ warnings, and never crossed a track without looking in both directions.  Wolf barked a warning to Undine, who blithely continued to scratch stupidly at her ear.  Oh, Wolf knew the risks only too well for himself, when he ran onto the tracks, and swung Undine to safety with his powerful jaws.  And Wolf was smart enough and precise enough to spring back to safety and miss the wheels and the wagon of the oncoming train.  But there was a small piece of metal jutting out from the train.  Wolf was dead, courageously sacrificing his life for a “useless cur.” There were many witnesses to Wolf’s gallant death.  These were the words I will never forget.  “And yet,” commented an editorial, a few days later, when a hundred newspapers all over America had told the tale of Wolf’s shining death, “and yet people speak contemptuously of ‘dying like a dog!’”

For those of us, who have ever felt unloved and unappreciated at least at some point in our lives, how Wolf’s fearless chivalry and selfless heroism, serves as a source of encouragement and as an inspiration.

When I had bonded with Shadow and I let myself fully love her the way she loved me, I was so happy.  I remember standing in the park, my heart overflowing with love and joy.  I don’t care, I said to myself, I really don’t care, if I don’t’ have a husband or children, or family.  Yes, I had felt lonely so much of the time.  But now, I knew I would have this amazing dog in my life for the next 15 years.  Her love and her companionship filled my life to the brim.  I was so grateful.

We had such wonderful times together. Everywhere I went, she went.  If she couldn’t come into a store, she would wait in the car.  She visited friends with me.  If she wasn’t welcome, then neither was I.  She was the center of my life.  After my twelve- hour work day, I wouldn’t leave her in the evening to go out.  How could I be happy, knowing she was sad and alone?  I tried hiring dog walkers for her.  They all told me she would lie in a catatonic state on the floor and barely raise an eyebrow when they came in.  She refused to go out with them.  She lived for me.

And I lived for her. She was my constant companion.  She always sat on the passenger side of the car.  I loved the way she would turn towards me and look directly into my eyes, her face filled with joy and expectation when she realized where we were going.  I wanted her life to be filled with that joy.  It was never a chore, only a pleasure to take her to all the open spaces, woods, fields, rivers and beaches that Fairfield County had to offer. We went to the beaches where she would meet her friends. playing with them, or even better, racing along the water’s edge chasing the seagulls.  At one particular beach, there was an area with a lot of trees and squirrels.  This was one of her favorite places.  She loved to stalk those squirrels.

When her life ended abruptly, one year later, killed by a car….my world shattered. My life was lying by the side of the road with hers.  Any mother who has lost a child in a tragedy can understand the grief that I felt. Love is love, no matter whether for a child or a dog.  There were no words for the anguish in my heart.

With no place to turn, my heart sought refuge in the dream of Lassie, my childhood heroine.  I asked myself, “was it really so wrong to buy a collie?”

I couldn’t.  My inner voice wouldn’t let me.  I had fought so hard for the homeless.  As the volunteer vet for a local rescue group, I knew all about the hauntingly sad eyes that peered out from filthy cages.  I had always encouraged my clients to rescue.  I knew that for every dog that someone bought, a different one would be condemned to death. There are only so many homes to go around.  In this country millions of dogs are euthanized for lack of a home.  Many people cannot bear going into shelters because it is too painful.  It is worse for the dogs and cats.  Closing one’s eyes does not make it go away. If we claim to love dogs, we need to think about their situation and what we can do to help them, and not focus on the discomfort that it causes us when we see their reality.

I knew I couldn’t buy a collie. Who was I really if my thoughts, words, and deeds were not in harmony?  I could not respect myself if I didn’t practice what I preached.  And I did know that outer appearances made no difference at all.  What we ultimately fall in love with is the essence, the inner spirit of the dog or cat or person.  It was only that my heart was breaking and I was looking for something to hold onto.

Marcie Fallek D.V.M., C.V.A.