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Observation Hour

I thought it would take more than the promise of seeing a few dogs to incentivize making a trip to El Cajon in the middle of a heat wave. The temperature climbs one degree for every mile I travel east from my home. El Cajon is 20 degrees away, which meant I was driving into a 108-degree inferno. I blasted the air conditioning in my car and refocused my thoughts on the cuteness that awaited me.

My friend Katie, who knows about my soft spot for dogs, invited me to check out the kennel and dog-rescue organization for which she volunteers. It wasn’t until I pulled up in front of the Barking Lot that it occurred to me that — despite all those animal fundraising galas and pet expos — I’d never stepped foot inside an animal shelter.

The reception desk was empty, but nearly a dozen dogs were there to greet me on the other side of a short wall. I stepped in and allowed them to jump and sniff at me, all the while amazed that these creatures were just hanging out with each other in the front room, as though they were old friends. I stared in awe at the one dog that didn’t seem interested in me — a slender, snow-white husky with ice-blue eyes. Four puppies whimpered for attention in a cage set on a tall shelf. I put my hand to it and let them lick my fingers. That’s when Katie found me.

Apparently, Katie’s volunteer work was very hands-on: her black running pants and red Barking Lot T-shirt were covered in dog hair, and she wore black latex gloves to protect her hands from I-didn’t-want-to-think-about-what. “Is it okay if I don’t hug you?” I said. Katie smiled knowingly and nodded. Then she led me through the door to the first of two giant dog-storage rooms.

The barking began before we we’d fully crossed the threshold. The room was filled with chest-high cages, each containing at least one, but more often two dogs. “All the dogs you see in here were rescued from death row,” Katie shouted above the barking. “Well, at least 95 percent of them; some are from Mexico. A shelter went bankrupt in San Bernardino, and because they have no public funding, they’ve been putting dogs down fast. We have volunteers driving down as many as they can get.”

Katie led me down an aisle between cages to a play area that she needed to clean so she could make a video of some puppies that just arrived; she’d post it on the website she maintains voluntarily. As we winded our way through the room, I was vaguely aware that I was avoiding eye contact with the dogs.

I stood by and watched as Katie shoveled shit into a bucket and then mopped the concrete with bleach. “You just stepped in a poo smear,” I said.

“Why do you think I keep these sneakers on my porch?” Katie smiled. I made a mental note to disinfect my sandals when I got home.

When she’d finished shoveling and bleaching and hosing down, Katie fetched a blue animal carrier and brought it to the play yard. “These are the three Good Fairies,” she said as she opened the small door to allow three tiny white dogs to come bursting out and scamper around as they explored the area. “Fauna, Flora, and Merryweather.” She turned on the recorder in her hands and introduced them again.

“What’s the deal with their hair?” I said.

Katie stopped the recorder. “Well, I can’t use that now,” she said.

“Oops, sorry. But, seriously. Like, that one’s got a bald spot or something.”

“They’re a mix of wirehaired and Jack Russell terriers,” Katie explained. “And they’re just puppies — the hair can be thin in areas, but it should get thicker as they get older. Though they won’t get much bigger, they’ll always be little ladies.”

“Cool,” I said. “Sorry to screw up your recording, I was just wondering. I mean, they’re so sweet, their names suit them and all — just not my aesthetic preference. You know me, I’m more drawn to the big fluffy ones with sad eyes.”

While Katie returned the Good Fairies to their temporary barking spot, I decided to check out the other pups in residence. I read the names and breeds marked on the cages. They explained why all of these dogs looked so different than the purebred pooches I was more accustomed to seeing. There was a corgi/beagle (a ceagle? Borgi?), a terrier/pug, and a Labrador/Rottweiler. Only the pit bulls, of which there were many, bore an obvious resemblance to each other. But there was one aspect that every dog shared: a raised brow and expectant gaze as I drew close. It’s the ones that didn’t bark, but simply lifted their heads and stared, that tugged most at my heartstrings.

“How can you be here every week and not want to take all of them home with you?”

“I already have two dogs,” Katie said.

“It’s just…it breaks my heart.” I tore my eyes away from a striking St. Bernard/husky mutt named Beethoven.

“We’re always looking for volunteers.”

“Yeah, I don’t do well with poo,” I said. “But let me know if you ever need help with affection time. Or, better yet, if you need someone to sit off to the side and watch them, like an observation hour. I could collect data about their behavior or something. That’s more my speed.” Katie laughed, but I sensed she was also disappointed.

When I got home to David, I was feeling morose. We’d had the discussion a hundred times, and we are in agreement that we’re not ready to have a pet, for myriad reasons. I wasn’t sad because I wanted to bring one of those dogs home — I was sad because I didn’t want to.

“I feel so bad for all those dogs,” I said after I’d finished briefing David on my excursion to El Cajon. “I think Katie would have been happy if I fell in love with one and took it home. Am I a bad person?”

“I feel bad for orphans,” David said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt one.”

“Oh, I see,” I said, defeated. “We’re both terrible people.”

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