Arts & Culture » Culture

Shelter Dogs

An adventure with an orange-dot pit bull at the Berkeley Animal Shelter.



I could find many reasons not to go there. I could use my lunch hour to go for a run. Maybe I should just stay at my desk and work through lunch.

It's a depressing place. I should go home and play with my own pets. Still I go. I head down University Avenue in Berkeley, turn left on Sixth Street, and right at the green sign that reads "Berkeley Animal Shelter."

As I near the shelter on Second Street, I see volunteers walking dogs along the sidewalks. They have a distinct look about them. Perhaps it's just that they are not in a hurry. They're walking slowly without an agenda, or waiting, pausing while a dog sniffs the breeze or sits contentedly in the sunshine.

I park my truck opposite the shelter. I am not an organized person — I open the glove compartment and search for my volunteer tag. I riffle through my work bag. I look under the car seat where it has fallen. I take off my work badge and clip this one onto my belt. I lock the car door and head inside. I only have an hour.

To the left of the entrance door to the shelter are a row of metal lockers. They're the night shelter deposit boxes for stray and abandoned animals. The shelter workers empty them from the opposite side in the morning. They find, dogs, cats, rabbits, even chickens inside. Lately with the downturn in the economy, more animals are dropped off after hours to wait alone until the shelter reopens.

The entrance door to the shelter has a window. Volunteers are taught in training to look through the window first before opening it to see if there's another dog heading out. I find myself checking even though I don't have a dog with me. I sign in, pet the shelter's house cat that is curled up in a basket at the front desk and take a key from the dish. With this key I can unlock any cage. I could set them all free. But that's not what they need.

After two months walking dogs, I have my favorites. I like the pit bulls with their sad eyes and stocky bodies. There's Regina with the "happy tail" — a misnomer if there ever was one. The shelter dogs get so excited to be chosen to go for a walk that they wag their tails frantically, hitting the cement cage walls. The tips of their tails become raw and frayed and their coats become splattered with blood.

Regina is not new to the shelter, though she's doing well. She's not depressed or showing any signs of kennel rage. When I take her for a walk she doesn't pull, doesn't lunge for other dogs; she's content to sniff and smell the fresh air. I like Blue, too. He's been at the shelter longer than Regina, but like Regina he's adapted well. When I open his cage he's easy to collar. He's patient as I try to snap a prong collar around his thick neck.

And then there are the twins, Prudence and Penelope. They've grown up in the shelter and share a cage. They're happy and playful, and I think surely someone will take them. But as I walk through the kennel, I see their twin faces pushing and nuzzling at the cage to get my attention.

I've had a bad day at work and I hope the shelter will help keep me grounded, help me see what's really important. I open the door that leads to the rows of cages. I recognize Tom, a regular volunteer who seems to be there every day, wearing his floppy REI hat. He's leaning back against the weight of a large, gray pit bull as they head out to the Berkeley Marina. I ask him if Blue or Regina have been out. These two are both housebroken. They will wait to be walked before they pee or poop. The shelter staff and volunteers make sure they get out first thing in the morning and late in the evening right before the shelter closes.

Unfortunately, this day both Regina and Blue, my regulars, have already been walked. As I walk through the shelter, I see the faces turn toward me. I see them trot from the back of their cages to the front hoping I stop and unlock their cages. Volunteers badges are color-coded; new volunteers are given green dots. With a green dot you can walk small dogs — Chihuahuas, terriers, poodles — as long as they're not so freaked out and so fearful that they might bite. But I need to read the volunteer notes clipped to the outside of the cages to see which ones have already had a walk, which ones are difficult to collar, which ones are dog-reactive. But to get close enough to read the notes gives the dogs hope that they're going be taken out. So I glance out of the corner of my eye and try not to make eye contact.

I feel for them all, but I especially like the pit bulls, with their big square faces and expressive soulful eyes. Dan, another volunteer, says he'll help me collar a black and white pit bull at the far end of the shelter that needs to go out. His name is Jupiter. He's an orange-dot dog, which means he's easygoing, with no aggression, but still a little more difficult to handle. I've never walked him.