April 30 is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day, a day devoted to raising awareness of the millions of animals waiting for homes in shelters across the country. Adding a companion animal in need of safe harbor to our lives has many benefits, as this essay illuminates.
Imagine, if you will, Shrek, the green swamp-monster cartoon character, only tan—the color of a corn chip. Then imagine Shrek as a dog, a 70-pound Pit Bull to be exact, warty, wide and smelling like a can of farts. (I guess in that way Shrek stays the same: super-stinky.) Doing this simple exercise will give you a mental picture of Frito, our late dog whom I often referred to as mi rey. My king. Frito was stubborn and, in many ways, gross, but to me he was regal, and I loved him.
We adopted Frito from A Purposeful Rescue, one of my favorite rescue groups ever, which is the highest praise I can offer, having been involved in the animal-shelter world as a volunteer and/or foster mom for more than a decade. When this giant Pittie came to us at 11 years old, waddling, wagging and wonderful, his body was already 75 percent dysfunctional. Arriving in the midst of a pandemic, he filled a space in our home we hadn’t even known was empty, a void we didn’t realize existed.
There was so much excitement about him and the taco-printed pajamas he came with. We bought him dog beds, but he insisted on sleeping on our sofa, which required me to lift his enormousness onto it because watching him try (and fall) was no fun. In the mornings, we had to lure him off that sofa; it was as though he was hell-bent on soaking up every moment of comfort he’d missed during his entire stray-dog life. Then I had to give him weekly antifungal baths, tenderly rubbing the areas on his body that were crusted and hurt. He required raw food to correct the intestinal havoc that was his gut.
I didn’t expect all that effort to bring me closer to him, to mean so much in such a short time. I didn’t expect to fall so hard and so fast. I didn’t expect all the gross stuff to be almost enjoyable, or at least bearable, as I got to know the soul of this dog.
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We knew that adopting a senior dog would have its challenges: extra vet bills, not a lot of time left, again with the farting. I knew these things because I’ve spent countless hours as a shelter volunteer tap-dancing outside of kennels, trying to sell people on adopting a pet I adored, a pet I hoped every day wouldn’t be euthanized for no reason other than “life sucks.” I knew the ins and outs of shelters and rescue, of bringing a new personality into the home, how it’s never perfect and never as easy as you’d like it to be. And yet, as they say in the Twelve Steps, “Self-knowledge avails us nothing.”
Frito was like an animated pillow, always lying around, getting some pep in his step only when the kibble came out. That was precisely what made him so endearing: his chillness. His slowness reminded me to slow down as well, which is no small feat. When my family and I spontaneously decided to move to Texas, we had to fold Frito into the car like a pretzel. When we arrived, he immediately detested the heat. (Why did we plan a move to Texas in August, again?)
But my boy endured, he licked me in gratitude and remained so nice, so decent that he could have been trusted with a baby bunny. What’s important to me now isn’t the antifungal shampoo or the way he tumbled down stairs and freaked me out. What’s left is what I feel when I think of Frito. And I suppose that’s what counts.
Cancer took him in October 2020—he came and went during quarantine—and I still cry a lot. But what he did for my family was priceless. He made us laugh, all day, every day. He both frustrated us and inspired us to overcome that frustration, to try again to be kinder, more compassionate, more tolerant. In that movement from not-my-best-self to a better self, in that movement upward, that’s where faith is. That’s where hope is. That’s where you meet yourself and discover someone you can be proud of.
That we opened our home to a Shrek-like Pit during the hardest time we’ve ever collectively known as a nation makes us proud not only individually but also, as a family. Together, we hold the memory of Frito and we feel shiny. We smile as though we’re carrying a light inside now, as if we’re connected by the echoing sentiment of, “We did this.” He deserved more time. But we did what we could.
As April 30 approaches, the fine day that is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day, I’m asking you to consider the love of a senior pet. I’m asking you to invite heartache into your life, to watch a dog or a cat struggle and help them succeed, and to enjoy whatever time they have left—days, weeks, a year—as you brace yourself for the inevitable loss. For us, for Frito, it was only six short months, but every time we opened our hearts, he gave us more than we gave him. A home and a family is a lot, no doubt. But perspective and service, purpose and finding in yourself a whole new reservoir of love? That’s deep.
Do yourself a favor and check out your local shelters and rescue groups for senior pets who need a home. They may not be around long. They may not be easy. They may not be the exact breed you want, the exact color, they may not be perfect. But that’s what makes any relationship worth it, the very imperfections you have to work to overcome (including your own). It will make you proud, that I can promise you, even if your house smells like a swamp for a while.
Dignity and honor are worth earning. They make you hold your head up higher. It’s a royal feeling, really. All hail Frito. All hail the king. Mi rey you forever will be.