Each year we put together a team for Paws on Parade to help raise money for the Bangor Humane Society.
Don’t worry, its not until fall…I am not hitting you up for donations or asking you to bring your pets to walk yet.
When I moved to Maine in 1992 and worked with Dr Benson at Broadway vet. When I interviewed with him, he told me that they did some volunteer work for BHS, and would I mind volunteering some of my time? When I was a high school student, I had volunteered at a local high-kill shelter, and I told him that I would be glad to help in any way as long as it wasn’t a high kill shelter.
A few months later, he called me at 9pm on a Sunday night and told me it was time to put my money where my mouth was. There had been a seizure of a puppy mill in Greenbush, and there were lots of dogs that needed exams and treatment.
That night I saw the front line of the difficult job that the shelter workers experienced. There were dogs that had mange, severe untreated infections, worms, pregnancy with poor nutrition…these dogs were sweet, but totally neglected and used for production of money for the owners. We went about treating them, found many homes (several of you reading this gave homes to those dogs), and I started a relationship with the Bangor Humane Society that continues today. I have taken criticism through the years as some have had negative experiences there. I have also watched the different employees/volunteers/board members/executive directors struggle with compassion fatigue, new staff, lack of support and trying to find homes for too many animals.
Throughout these 20 odd years, I admit that some leadership has been better than others, and that sometimes I wish it was a no-kill shelter. That discussion is another whole blog entry for sure, and the reality in my opinion is that there is a need for minimizing euthanasia because of overpopulation, the discussion must start earlier than when the shelter gets a surrender. The sheer number of animals surrenders nationally, and even locally means there would have to be a lot more financial support to make no kill shelters a common reality.
But I am not sending this to you to stir that pot.
I am sending this to commend the team at the Bangor Humane Society for dealing with a difficult situation with dignity and respect.
About 5 months ago, I was doing a spay day at the Humane Society when they brought me a dog with the worst skin I think I have ever seen in my life. It was a springer spaniel that the owner had surrendered because they could not control the skin problem and could not afford the diagnostics to get to the root of the problem. Chiefton was a 4 year old spaniel that constantly scratched, had no hair on most of its body, flaky skin that literally caused piles of dead skin to be left in a trail behind him. He was sweet, but I have to admit I petted him with gloves the first time I examined him because the skin was so thickened in places it resembled elephant skin.
The first vet to look at him had prescribed a hypoallergenic diet and they were having problems with compliance as he snuck into other food. That day I recommended that they stay on that food alone, but also add treatment for mange. Although I was not able to find mites on a skin scraping, they are difficult to find in some cases, so it made sense to me to treat anyway.
A month or two later the staff brought him over to me at the clinic because he wasn’t improving. By now, many of them were getting attached to him and since I had ruled out mange and other infectious diseases, I felt better about touching him myself. When I petted him he looked like he was the happiest (albeit elephanty) dog in the world. I did a few more tests, added some more skin meds (remember I just went to the dermatology conference and was excited to use my new knowledge) and sent him back.
In the second week in March, I saw him again, and again he had no improvement. I had a long discussion with the Operations Manager and the tech.
We always have to be cognizant of cost in veterinary medicine, because as you know, Anthem will not answer our phone calls. But in shelter medicine it is particularly important because the money is donated and has to cover the vet care for a lot of animals. Even with the discount that we give BHS, the next step was a skin biopsy to find the root of the problem.
They talked to Suzan Bell, the executive director and decided to go forward. I suspected that Chiefton may have an immune mediated skin disease (Pemphigus) that would require lifelong medication. But at least an adopter would know what they were getting into, and we could make him presentable so that potential adopters wouldn’t run away.
That day I took 3 skin biopsies with Chiefton under anesthesia, and we sent them to a veterinary pathologist. When we got the report back, it was not pemphigus, but extreme allergic reaction. The allergens were likely inhalant, contact and food. In short, Chiefton was allergic to much more than his food. In addition, he had several secondary infections. We started him on steroids, antibiotics, anti-fungals. After a few weeks he was better, but not much.
A lifetime on medications, or with the pressure of eliminating all allergens from this sweet dog’s environment would be a challenge for even the most dedicated owner. More importantly, I could not relieve Chiefton’s constant itching without adding medications that would slowly compromise his immune system. They asked me what I thought, and I was at a loss.
A few days later, Suzan called me and said that they had a meeting of the staff to discuss what to do with Chiefton. They had an emotional discussion and had decided, unanimously, that to prevent a long life of suffering that they would put him to sleep.
The problem was though, that they were too close, and asked if I could do it.
On Friday, Chiefton and a bunch of the young people who worked with him brought him to me. Because he was on an earthy crunchy, but tasteless diet for the last 5 months, they decided that they would give him steak and hamburgers for a day before their visit.
I gave him a shot of my very best drugs and as they took effect, we fed him cat food and petted and snuggled him. Each of the staff gave him a hug and we all had a tearful moment.
I left the clinic after that and I just sat down to write them a note about how much it meant that they gave him a second chance, got attached, got together as a group to try to decide the best thing in a hopelessly difficult situation.
As I was writing the note, I thought about the challenges that those in shelter medicine face, and how they precede those who struggle with them, and will go on after each of us say uncle.
But the secret is to stay engaged while the responsibility lies on your shoulders.
Last night I saw “Our Town” at the Penobscot Theater in Bangor. It was beautiful. It captured the role we all play in a community that existed long before we came on the scene, and will exist long after. From birth, to our life, to death we struggle to make sense of it all. For me, the play was about the relationships that we share with those that we love. Sometimes tragedy happens and we try so hard to make sense of it.
Maybe the real reason we are here is to handle the challenges the best we can.
Maybe it isn’t black and white
Maybe its about the relationships that we are lucky enough to be part of.
To the folks at Bangor Humane Society…
Thank you for giving Chiefton your heartful best
Thank you for trusting me as we went through it
Forgive me for not being able to fix him.