Random Musings on Dogs, Photography, and the Vagaries of Life

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Castles & Canines: Edinburgh Has Plenty of Both

As a former history major with a passion for all things British and only a week available for travel, Edinburgh seemed an ideal destination. The city, itself, is chock-full of sites and sights. Add to that the 15 or so castles in the surrounding area, and you have a vacation tailor-made for admiring the present and investigating the past.
Preferring a leisurely approach to travel that allows us to “experience” a locale rather than just rush from one place to another, our biggest challenge was narrowing down our list of “must sees.” Having already had the good fortune to tour Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, probably the two biggest tourist sites in Edinburgh, we struck them off our list.
And although our focus was on castles, we did want to allow some time for exploring other aspects of the city. We strolled the Royal Mile, the shop-lined road linking Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse; took a guided tour of Mary King’s Close, a narrow, medieval street now covered by more modern buildings; wandered along the Water of Leith in the city’s quaint Dean Village; and sampled craft beers in off-the-beaten-path pubs.

 Then it was on to the castles!

Our first stop was Craigmillar Castle, something of a hidden gem nestled in parkland on the fringe of Edinburgh. Although it took just 15 minutes or so by bus from Princes Street, this 14th century semi-ruined edifice seemed worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile. Accessed via a modest gate on the side of the road, the castle was invisible from the bus stop. We walked up a path though fields of waving grass, shared only by a man jogging and a woman walking a black Lab, before the castle came into sight. And what a sight it was…so hard to believe we were still within the boundaries of Scotland’s capital city. With the castle almost to ourselves, we spent the next hour or so exploring the towers and ramparts and imagining what life had been like six centuries ago.

Lying fewer than 25 miles east of Edinburgh, Dirleton and Tantallon castles made for an easy and enjoyable day trip. Each had something unique and special to offer to our castle experience. As a Scottish Heritage staffer put it, Dirleton “has the gardens” and Tantallon “has the views."
Dating from to the 13th century, Dirleton Castle was a fortress–residence for three successive noble families…until a siege by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers in 1650 rendered it militarily unserviceable. We were duly impressed by the massive wood “bridge” over a dry moat that served as the castle’s entrance. But, like a Labradoodle named Isaac, we were captivated by the colorful blend of perennial blooms in the gardens, which date largely from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and include the world's largest herbaceous border according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Like Craigmillar, Tantallon Castle is invisible from the main road. After parking the car, we walked along a narrow lane between fields bordered by hedgerows to the small ticket office/visitors’ center before finally catching our first glimpse of this formidable14th-century stronghold. It took my breath away! 
Perched on a promontory overlooking the Firth of Forth, Tantallon is haunting, romantic, and ruggedly beautiful in its own right. It also offers spectacular views of the rugged coastline and Bass Rock, home to more than 150,000 gannets at the peak of the season.

To the west of Edinburgh, on the way to Stirling, lies the Palace of Linlithgow, birthplace of both James V and his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. Its role as a tranquil retreat from affairs of state came to end when it was destroyed by a fire in 1746. Today, the shell of the palace and the adjacent park and lake provide a tranquil setting popular with walkers, picnickers, and tourists.

A bit further from Edinburgh, in the village of Doune, lies a castle of the same name. Smaller than some of the others, it nevertheless has a long history, serving as home to Robert Stewart, the 1st Duke of Albany and ruler of Scotland, in all but name, from 1388 until his death in 1420. It also just happens to have been Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and more recently a location in the pilot for Game of Thrones and the fictional Castle Leoch for the TV adaption of the Outlander novels. Kind of cool.

Much larger than Doune Castle—or any of the other castles we visited, for that matter—was our final stop: Stirling Castle. Situated high on a volcanic crag, Stirling served as a well-protected royal residence complete with a chapel, a vast great hall, and opulent living quarters designed to proclaim James V’s power and sophistication. The outer walls provide sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It made a fitting end to our Scottish journey. 

While the wealth of castles made for a truly memorable experience, anyone who knows me will tell you that dogs play an important part in my life, whether at home or "on the road." Anywhere I go, I find myself walking up to complete strangers and asking if I can greet--and perhaps photograph--their dogs. And Scotland was no exception. Here are just a few of the many cute canines I met:

Izzy, a border terrier who lives at our Edinburgh B&B, The Guest Room, headed the canine welcome wagon.

Sadie, a rescued beagle mix from Sardinia, was among the tourists on the Royal Mile while am English spaniel played fetch with a plastic bottle nearby. 

A husky mix pup and a Chihuahua enjoyed a stroll on the riverside path in Dean Village.

Elsie, a Labradoodle pup, and Robby, a senior Dachshund, socialized with diners at an outdoor eatery in Doune.

A golden retriever and a Brittany enjoyed swimming in the Allan Water near Stirling.

And a Westie named Hannah enjoyed strolling the parkland adjacent to Linlithgow Palace while young black Lab Orla took a well-earned break after working on her "manners" with a trainer.

Sadly, our interactions with these charming ambassadors of Dogdom are now just a lovely memory. So...where to next?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

When We Make Animal Adoption a Chore: An Insider's Perspective

As I methodically and meticulously filled out the multi-page adoption form, diligently answering questions ranging from where my dog would sleep and what food I would feed her to how and where I would play with my dog and who would care for her when I’m away, it never for a moment crossed my mind that my application would be denied. Why would it?

I’ve been involved in the animal welfare world for quite a while. I’ve volunteered for one local organization for more than a decade, fostering dogs and serving on the board…first as a member at large and then as vice president. For the past four years I’ve worked at a private, non-profit shelter, helping promote and publicize its mission, accomplishments, and adoptable animals. And I’ve donated to and participated in fundraising efforts for still more local, regional, and national animal welfare organizations.

Natasha & Boris
Over the past 25 years, my husband, Mark, and I have shared our hearts and home with six of our own dogs. From Boris and Natasha, siblings of an unplanned litter, to Tango and Samba, rescued from a home where children were tossing the week-old puppies like balls, to current “fur kids” Ceiligh, now 12, and 2-year-old Fletcher…we’ve loved them all and tried to give them the best possible lives we could. These lives have included obedience and agility classes, hikes in the woods of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, forays to local parks, and romps on the beach and in the surf on Hilton Head Island. We’ve dealt with a variety of medical issues, ranging from incontinence, luxating patella, and ruptured cruciate ligament to seizures, degenerative myelopathy, and hemangiosarcoma. We’ve celebrated our experiences together and mourned those that have passed.

Given our experience and commitment, Mark and I believed we were ideally equipped to welcome another homeless canine into our pack. So when a friend brought to my attention a 3.5-month-old puppy available for adoption from a local rescue group, we decided to check her out.
Having introduced 17 foster pups to prospective adopters over the years, I knew the drill. At least I thought I did.

So when volunteers failed to greet us as we approached, showed virtually no interest in us, and made no effort to converse with us, I was surprised. Still, we liked the puppy and thought she’d be a good match for us so we applied to adopt her. And, confident that we’d quickly be approved, we set up a crate in our bedroom, bought some new puppy toys, and started puppy-proofing our house.

It didn’t take long for the expected email to arrive, But when I read the contents (We can't proceed with your application. You could not have signed our contract, which stipulates that dogs must not be off leash except in a contained area. We are sorry for your disappointment.) I was stunned

What?! Where had they gotten that impression that we couldn’t sign a contract stipulating that our dogs not be off leash except in a contained area? I was sure nothing in my application could have led them to that conclusion. Surely it was just some sort of mistake or misunderstanding.

Determined to get clarification, I responded, explaining that we had not and would not let our dogs off leash except in our yard, which is enclosed by a 6-foot privacy fence, and that we would welcome a home visit to check our living situation.

Two days later I received a cryptic message that said only:

I believe there were several pictures of dogs off leash on a property and at the beach.

Not exactly the response I was expecting and one that left me more confused than ever. What pictures were they referring to? So I asked.

A day later they wrote:

We were given this, your blog, which shows your dogs on a beach???

Ahh, at least now I understood. The photo at the top of my blog does indeed show Ceiligh strolling along the beach. And, yes, it does appear that she is “leashless.” In reality, however, she was attached to a 30-foot-canvas leash, which I removed from the image for artistic reasons.

I explained this and included several photos of Ceiligh and Tango taken at the beach that day, which clearly showed their leashes.
The next day, I received what seemed a somewhat grudging message notifying me that we could proceed to the next step of the adoption process.
Finally! I felt vindicated.
But a feeling of having to defend ourselves had left my husband and me with the proverbial bad taste in our mouths, so we chose not to pursue the adoption.
Fortunately, while engaging in our multi-day online “conversation,” I’d discovered that three litter mates of the puppy we were interested in had been rescued from the shelter by another rescue group…the same group we’d adopted our dog Fletcher from 18 months previously. And the members of this group were thrilled that we were interested in adopting another dog from them! They welcomed us enthusiastically at their adoption show (where Fletcher had a joyful reunion with is foster mom) and said, of course, we could adopt the puppy. So despite the fact that their adoption fee was higher, we were happy to pay it…and will likely continue to support them. Talk about good marketing.

So…our adoption story has a happy ending and we have a new canine companion we love!

But we also have a better understanding of why people—good people who want to do something positive for a homeless animal—can get turned off by rescue organizations and the whole adoption “thing.”  They get tired of jumping through sometimes arbitrary hoops; they get frustrated and angry when they’re ignored, dismissed, or treated condescendingly or even with suspicion; and all too often, they end up buying a feline friend or canine companion from a pet store…something none of us in animal rescue wants. Every animal that doesn’t get adopted prevents another animal from being rescued from a shelter where it remains at risk of euthanization when space runs out.

I’m not saying that animals should be placed in just any home. We owe it to the dogs and cats (and bunnies, guinea pigs, etc.) we’ve rescued to do our best to ensure that they go to homes were they will be safe, cherished, and cared for.

And I understand how easy it is to become attached to the animals we care for and how emotional the process of letting them go can be. One of my most painful fostering recollections was hearing a puppy cry and scratch at the inside of her new home’s front door when my husband and I left…even though I knew her new family would love her always.

Nevertheless, we must avoid the trap of thinking that no home can be as good as ours, that no one can love the animal as much as we do. As a speaker from the ASPCA once said at a conference I attended, those of us in rescue often get caught up in trying to find the “perfect” home instead of trying to find a “good” home. And while we wait for perfection, another shelter animal dies.

We also must remember that even after interacting with potential adopters, reading their applications, and perhaps checking references, we know only the smallest bit of who those people are. I can remember once being concerned that a couple interested in one of my foster puppies wasn’t spending a lot of time sitting on the floor of the pet supply store playing, petting, and cooing over the dog (which is what I would have been doing). Fortunately, I decided that was no reason not to approve their application. Thank goodness. Although they weren’t publicly demonstrative people, these people adore their dog!  At some point, we just have to take a leap of faith.

Are there people who shouldn’t have animals? Absolutely.

Should we adopt an animal to everyone who wants one? Absolutely not.

But we can and should treat every potential adopter with respect and courtesy. We should applaud their desire to give a homeless animal a home and, unless they give us reason to believe that they would not love and care for animal to the best of their ability, we should encourage them, educate them (especially first-time pet guardians), and guide them in choosing a companion best suited to their personalities and lifestyle. 

And perhaps we should acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to adoption. Rules are important, but sometimes breaking them is the right thing to do. While my husband and I don’t allow our dogs to run on the beach or hike mountain trails unleashed, I know some extraordinary dog guardians—including a couple of professional dog trainers—who do. They have trained their canine companions well and knowand trust—them to respond to commands even in the face of irresistible temptation. Rejecting the applications of such people would only deny a homeless dog an amazing home. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should never miss an opportunity to leave every person we interact with feeling positive about our organizations and about the concept of animal adoption in general. The results if we don’t can be unfortunate on so many levels.

We can miss out not only on good adopters but also on potential volunteers and donors. Our organizational reputations can suffer.  But the real tragedy is that we may discourage people from trying to adopt an animal not just from our organization but from any organization at all. And when that happens, we fail homeless animals everywhere.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It Matters

The shelter where I work recently took in several dogs from Korea. They were rescued by Humane Society International from a dog meat farm, where canines are raised as agricultural animals for human consumption.

Surprisingly, the adult dogs seem remarkably friendly and social. Sadly, the puppies are a different story. They cower, growl…and threaten to bite, requiring the use of thick blankets to pick them up and handle them. It’s impossible to ignore the emotional, psychological pain in their eyes.

Still, where there’s life, there’s hope. And we all hope that, at 2 to 3 months old (we’re guesstimating since a thorough physical exam was made impossible by their fear aggression), that they are young enough to overcome their mistreatment and lack of human socialization. Only time will tell.

On a larger scale, will the rescue of a couple dozen dogs from Korea do anything to curb the dog meat trade in Korea or other countries? Unlikely. But as expressed so well by the late naturalist, poet, scientist, and humanist Loren Eisley in The Star Thrower*, that doesn’t mean that this rescue didn’t matter.

In fact, for these few dogs, nothing in their lives will ever matter more.

*Once, on ancient Earth, there was a human boy walking along a beach. There had just been a storm, and starfish had been scattered along the sands. The boy knew the fish would die, so he began to fling the fish to the sea. But every time he threw a starfish, another would wash ashore. "An old Earth man happened along and saw what the child was doing. He called out, “Boy, what are you doing?”  “Saving the starfish!” replied the boy. “But your attempts are useless, child! Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one! You can't save them all, so why bother trying? Why does it matter, anyway?” called the old man. The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, “Well, it matters to this one.”