Rescuing America

It’s not easy fostering a dog, especially during fire season. But it’s worth it.

mara feeney, america

When our eighth foster dog was delivered and introduced as America, I thought it odd. My partner, Deborah, and I had fostered a string of dogs with names like Scout or Princess. Who names a dog after a country? I wondered. I didn’t know any dogs called Canada, Sudan, or Belize. We tried nicknames: Meri, Ami, Rica. Nothing doing. But if we said, “America, come!” she’d rocket straight to us. Trained with a shock collar, I suspected. Obey or get zapped.

America had spent four years living in a kennel at a hunt club, where a volunteer urged us to liberate her. We never learned the details, but America seemed sad and withdrawn when she arrived. She had an oozing gash on her cheek, which had swollen to the size of an apple. I tried not to think how those wounds resembled the kind you might get from a swift kick in the chops.

We never learned the details, but America seemed sad and withdrawn when she arrived.

We soon discovered that America feared men and boys. When our neighbor Joe dropped by with his grandson, she went nuts, lunging and barking. We also learned she had severe leash aggression. She would snarl at any dog blocks away until we learned to divert her attention with treats. Soon she began to welcome the appearance of men or dogs because bits of jerky would miraculously appear.

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Deborah and I had been fostering German shorthaired pointers for years, since our beloved Uli died in 2014. I’d wanted to bring a new dog home immediately; I was aching to get my hands in fur again. Deborah needed time to grieve, so I suggested fostering. What better way to honor Uli than to help others of his breed who got into trouble?

NorCal GSP Rescue, a Bay Area nonprofit, finds foster homes to serve as the bridge to new lives for GSP shelter dogs. It’d provide the harnesses and collars and pay for training and vet care. All we had to add was exercise, food, and love. We became serial fosterers—that is, until America adopted us in 2016.

America was with us for a good half year before she abruptly dropped her baggage and mellowed. We marveled at her transformation and informed the rescue group that she was ready for adoption. It advertised her sporting a red, white, and blue scarf.

As we awaited adopters, America became sweeter with every passing day, like onions caramelizing. We were surprised no one wanted her. Perhaps it was her history of snapping at dogs and growling at men. Soon we realized that she didn’t want to go anywhere: she was campaigning to stay with us, starting every day with a full-body wag.

“Do you think we should keep her?” I asked Deborah.

“She’s a good dog, easy to care for. But she loves you most. You can decide.”

I couldn’t force America out after she’d learned to be the perfect guest. We adopted her.

mara freeney, uli, german shorthaired pointer
Uli as a four-month-old puppy (left) and as an adult.

Years passed, and soon we’d owned our Sierra foothills property for a quarter century. There’s always been a fire season with a peak running from midsummer into fall, but the season becomes more prolonged and more frightening every year. We now face evacuations to escape flames, smoke, and power outages. Having a big hunting dog in tow is challenging when seeking shelter, but we found a motel in Folsom that didn’t mind large dogs. It was on the American River, which seemed appropriate.

America died of cancer in mid-March 2020, just as the pandemic started in earnest. Lousy, rotten timing. It was easy enough for Deborah and me to isolate on our acreage, but we missed canine companionship. We returned to fostering.

We were caring for a GSP named Bruno in August 2021 when the Caldor Fire exploded 10 miles from our home. Fortunately for us, the winds blew it toward Lake Tahoe and away from our home. It would consume a quarter million acres before it was done. We tried to carry on as “normal” while monitoring smoke levels, news bulletins, and fire maps. We fed, walked, and snuggled Bruno. We drove him to vet visits, nursed him after neutering, and tuned up his house manners until he was ready for adoption.

Eventually, we arranged a meet and greet with a family interested in Bruno. Even though the Caldor Fire was still burning, it wasn’t too smoky. Mom, Dad, two tall boys, and a reddish dog named Ruby emerged from their car. The dogs sniffed each other and began to romp on the lawn. When Ruby finally tired, Bruno approached the parents. As Mom squatted down to greet him eye to eye, Bruno thrust his head onto her shoulder, closed his eyes, and sighed, as if to say, Home, at last! Next, he collected ear rubs from Dad. The boys came over to join the lovefest, remarking on Bruno’s “awesome” spots and patches and the “rad” spread of his big paws. Bruno was busy licking the oldest son’s neck as I snapped a photo.

This family had completed our entire screening process: application, telephone interview, home inspection. Check, check, check. The in-person meeting was the last step, but our rescue group discouraged adopters from taking a dog home immediately. They were to sleep on the commitment. If they decided to move forward and the foster home approved, a contract would be prepared. Once the adoption fee was paid, we’d arrange delivery.

I excused myself when my cell phone rang. It was a recorded message from the Amador County Sheriff’s Office, announcing that our property was now in the Caldor Fire evacuation warning zone. The southern control line was not secure. Winds were going to change direction and become gusty. They couldn’t guarantee our safety. We should prepare to leave immediately.

I returned to the group to report the news. The family insisted on departing immediately, so we could get on with whatever we had to do.

“Too bad they couldn’t just take him now,” Deborah said.

I knew evacuating would be hard on Bruno. That boy had never been to a city. He didn’t know about traffic or crowds. And he did not do well with transitions. He was a COVID pet, bought by a family when the pandemic began. We were Bruno’s third foster home in less than two months. Each move raised his anxieties. There’d be nights of pacing, panting, and whining before he’d settle down. It seemed a shame to disrupt his world just when he’d met an ideal forever family.

I checked our local message sites. Already, neighbors were loading horses into trailers and rounding up chickens to take to emergency shelters. We decided to leave sooner rather than later, when the narrow, rural roads might be clogged with slow-moving vehicles and panicked drivers. We tossed our important things (computers, cell phones, passports, wallets) into the truck. Then we loaded Bruno, his dog bed, medications, and kibble.

I received a text from the family saying they definitely wanted to adopt Bruno. They were willing to take him that night if that would make things easier for us. Their home happened to be on our way to Sacramento, so I called the foster coordinator and asked whether, given the circumstances, an exception could be granted. She made some calls and got back to me quickly. The higher-ups approved. I called the family to convey the good news.

bruno meeting his new adopting family
Bruno meeting his new family.

Bruno was playing with Ruby in his new home 50 minutes later. We felt relieved, although we missed Bruno’s goofy presence as we drove away.

Over the next few days, I received messages from the family, including photos of Bruno nestled on his bed by the fireplace or asleep on the sofa with his legs splayed in the air. He was doing fine.

I was in a grocery store when my phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I said, bracing for spam.

“Hi—have you lost a dog?” a woman asked.

“No! Well, maybe…” I said, realizing that my phone number was still on Bruno’s collar.

“Can you describe the dog?” she asked.

“Male, white with brown spots, solid chocolate-brown head?” I guessed.

“Bingo!” Bruno had somehow scaled the seven-foot fence in his new backyard to go explore the neighborhood.

“He’s very friendly!” the woman said. Fortunately, she knew the family that had taken him and promised to get him home safely.

Taking care of abandoned dogs is one small way of repairing holes in our social fabric.

The predicted shift in wind patterns never materialized, and we returned home within days. Our neighbor Al had left a message: His Sicilian donkeys had been attacked by a mountain lion. Rosie escaped with claw marks down her back, but Buddy was gone. Al warned us there was a monster on the loose. With so much habitat destroyed by fire, the wildlife was disrupted.

It was frightening to think that a mountain lion could kill a donkey that weighed more than me. What if Bruno had been attacked? Were we putting dogs in harm’s way?

I logged on to the rescue website. Bruno’s adoption was finalized. On a whim, I looked up Sprig, our very first foster, and was astonished to learn he’d be 14 years old now. I contacted his adopter, a young woman who took him to work every day at her grooming and boarding business, and learned that Sprig had died a year earlier. Her heart still ached; he’d been her life. He’d also become an emotional support dog volunteering in a children’s cancer ward. We felt so proud of him.

Sprig had needed rescuing when his home had burned to the ground one Christmas. The family couldn’t cope. They drove away, leaving their pets behind.

Such tragedies happen all the time. People lose jobs, homes, spouses, health. Taking care of abandoned dogs is one small way of repairing holes in our social fabric.

Climate disasters occur on a dramatic scale now—everywhere, not just in California, where I’ve established my home and a sense of community. Deborah and I learned to live with earthquakes in San Francisco and rattlesnakes in the foothills. Now we’re adapting to annual wildfires. Resilience is essential, no matter where home may be, no matter what life serves up next.

Of course we’ll continue fostering. Giving pets like America, Bruno, and Sprig a second shot at the good life seems well worth it. We humans luck out, too.•

Mara Feeney, originally from Canada, has lived in Northern California since 1980.
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