The story of how a woman and her ailing dog forever changed the outlook of an anti-cruelty investigator.
By: Aldwin Roman
I first met Mrs. Smith on July 11, 2014. She had called Charleston Animal Society about coming in to have her sick, elderly dog euthanized. As an animal cruelty investigator, I really had no idea that this one little phone call would eventually change the way I see the world. When Mrs. Smith (Maggie) came through our doors later that day, it was hard to believe that what she brought with her was a dog, but it was-- and his name was Rich. All his fur was gone and his skin from the tip of his tail to his crusty nose was red and inflamed. There was a thick crust covering most of his body and his ears were so crusted it looked like reptilian skin. Though I remember vividly what he looked like, it still difficult to put into words. Rich was in a lot of pain and defeated. His head hung low and his walk was at best a shuffle. I could not believe this dog, who was 10 years old, was still alive given his condition.
As a certified cruelty investigator all I could hear in my head was “CRUELTY!” “FELONY!” “JAIL TIME!” My entire focus was on the dog and I had completely shut out that he had an owner. Then I remembered my Pets for Life training I had just completed the year before. It was all about approaching people without judgment to build relationships and trust. I thought I would give this approach a whirl.
I took Maggie and Rich into a separate office and we sat down to talk. Instantly, I could tell he meant a lot to her. Maggie started taking care of Rich after finding him being neglected in her neighborhood many years ago. Recently he had developed a skin problem and she had tried some over the counter medications to treat him but had little success. When she saw his skin getting worse, she took him to the veterinarian. She was able to pay for some of the treatment but could not afford the $500 it would cost to treat him fully. Maggie was on a fixed income with no job and in poor health. She just didn’t have the funds it would take to fix her beloved dog. Out of hope, Maggie decided to bring him to the shelter to have him euthanized. She couldn’t stand to watch him suffer anymore.
After I spoke with Maggie, I told her that I wanted one of our veterinarians to look at him before she went through with her decision. It was possible that Rich’s condition was treatable and if that was the case she could keep him and not have to put him down. Yet even as I was telling her this, the “investigator” side of my brain was telling me that this situation was a case of animal cruelty. Failure to provide necessary veterinary care and causing unnecessary pain and suffering by omission. But it wasn’t that simple in the end. By holding my judgement and really getting the full story, I found that underneath a mask of animal cruelty was a woman falling on hard times, who couldn’t bear to let go of her closest companion. She didn’t want to give him up but she couldn’t afford to fix him. It was a bad situation but there was no malice or negligence.
In the examination, our veterinarian found Rich had a severe case of sarcoptic mange, along with other skin and ear infections. Because Charleston Animal Society had recently started our outreach program, Pets for Life, which provides medical support for pets in the most at-risk areas of our community, we were able to provide treatment for Rich at no charge and even better, he could stay with her while going through treatment. Maggie had to bring Rich to the shelter twice a week for a month to get medicated baths. She never missed an appointment. She never missed giving him a dose of his medication no matter how much he fought her. She never gave up on him.
In just one week we could all see Rich starting to improve. Maggie was watching her dog come back to her one strand of fur at a time. The better he got the happier she became. She just couldn’t believe that he was getting better after she thought she was going to lose him for good. I will never forget when she told me, “Thank you for helping us. If Rich had died, I’m sure I would have died too.”
After one month Rich had a thin coat of fur covering his whole body and now he stood up shoulders raised, head up, and mouth open with a grin like a champion. He continued on his medications for a couple more weeks and continued to get better. One year later, Rich’s hair was so thick, we had to help Maggie give him a trim.
I remember showing off his new haircut to all the shelter employees, saying “Hey do you remember Rich?” When I showed them the first picture I had taken of him over a year ago, most people didn’t believe it was the same dog. Rich even made a special appearance for a kids camp to help them learn how compassion and non-judgement can make a difference.
An Unexpected Turn
While she was grumpy in her own, delightful way, I always looked forward to my time with Maggie. But in early November, I got a call from Maggie and this time I could sense something was wrong. She had cancer. It was terrible news and yet her main focus was making plans for her dogs (Rich and Bear) and what would happen to them if she passed. We found Bear a new loving home, but she couldn’t stand to let Rich go. Soon, Maggie was hospitalized with stage-4 metastatic stomach cancer. There was no treatment. Having visited her home many times, I knew Maggie had no family to make medical decisions. In the hospital, she refused to talk to her doctors or case worker. She would only speak with me, my Pets for Life colleague, Kristin Kifer, and Maggie’s close friend Martha.
Weeks went by and Maggie was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. Seeing her condition worsen day-by-day, I called her nurse and asked if we could bring Rich to visit her one last time. Thankfully, the hospital made an exception, and allowed a visit. I will always remember bringing Rich up to her room and laying him on her bed. By this point Maggie had lost consciousness and could not be woken up. We place her hand on his fur so that she could feel him one last time and so that he could say goodbye. I know she knew Rich was there, but I could tell Rich was having a hard time understanding that Maggie was there.
All the medical equipment and cleaners were covering up her smell. We brought out Maggie’s purse to pull out some pictures and Rich started furiously sniffing it. I think that’s when it hit him where he was. And just as he had done for years and years, he lay next to Maggie and faced the door to her room and kept guard. Rich kept watch over and protected his mom until the very end.
Maggie passed away peacefully the following morning.