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After Loss, A Life-Changing Summer

HSUS vice president Nancy Perry finds comfort in giving a stray dog a second chance

  • Nearly being hit by an SUV and then pulled from the highway by a stranger would rattle any dog.

  • But this one somehow knew she was safe.

  • And she made herself right at home. Nancy Perry/The HSUS

by Nancy Perry

Summer 2010 was marked by upheaval and loss for me. Since my dear dad passed away in 2007, I’d been worried about how my mom in California would manage. I couldn’t tear myself away from the work that had captured my heart 15 years ago, here at The HSUS in Washington, D.C. Helping to pass laws protecting animals has been my life’s calling.

So we kept close with frequent visits and nightly phone calls. It was during one of those calls soon after Mother’s Day this year when I realized we were at the crossroads I had dreaded. My mom told me she no longer could climb the steps up to church (all five of them) without being winded.

A few days later, I was on a plane … and a few months later, I was still in California, working remotely and helplessly watching her decline. On July 1, my mother slipped away, and my life was forever changed. The despair and emptiness I felt were pushed aside as I attended to the blur of decisions before me.

My husband, Jon, and I decided we’d drive the 3,000 miles back to the East Coast so we could safely carry my mother’s precious tea cup collection and other sentimental items home. While packing the car, I told him to leave enough space for any animal in need of help that we might see.

A shaggy, black dog staggering in the road

Sure enough, while rounding the corner of a mountain pass on day two, we saw her. A shaggy, black dog staggered into the opposite side of the divided highway, eyes glazed and head down, as though she’d lost all hope and was beyond noticing the danger she was in.

Despite the cement divider blocking my path to her, I instinctively reached to open my door. But my husband held me in my seat, pointing to a break ahead where he could make a U-turn. I closed my eyes and silently asked for a miracle.

Would she trust a stranger?

As we headed her way, an SUV in front of us swerved around her, leaving her alive but in peril. Hazards blinking, we blocked the outer lane with our car, forcing the semi-trailer truck bearing down on her to move into the other lane—another near miss. She walked listlessly in the path of more oncoming traffic.

There was no other option. I flung the car door open and crouched, calling to her in a friendly, high-pitched voice, as though I knew her.

She turned to me and seemed to snap awake. Her tail wagged, then flew between her legs as she ran to me. She let me pet her, and I scooped her up like a baby and ran for the car, worried she would struggle free. Instead, she closed her eyes and leaned into me, her bones jutting into my hands like sticks. I jumped into the car and yelled “Let’s go!”

The lottery of dog rescues

Later my husband asked me why I felt such urgency in that moment—after all, I’d gotten her into the car and closed the doors. The truth was that some part of me just couldn’t believe my luck: I’d won the lottery of dog rescues. She CAME to me. She wanted my help. And she trusted me without question. These seemingly impossible but necessary ingredients all poured into this moment and flooded me with a thrill instantly followed by a blind terror that something would not allow this outcome. I’d gotten so used to losing when death lurked at my doorstep—but this girl was in my arms and she wasn’t leaving.

I examined her as she slowly relaxed in my lap and then fell asleep. She appeared to be in no immediate danger, though the ribs and spine poking through her fur told me she was painfully underweight. A dried, swampy smelling mud covered her, and some of her fur was falling out. I emptied my coffee cup and filled it with water, and she drank with enthusiasm.

Calling all vets

We were almost two hours from the nearest town, and it was already 5 p.m. We called a friend, whose quick web search located a veterinary office with a vet tech willing to meet us later that evening and give her fluids, flea treatment, and some basic tests. They warned us not to feed her en route, since starving animals can become sick if fed too quickly.

While she spent the night at the vet’s, we made space for her in the backseat. We fell asleep that night with a huge sense of responsibility and many questions: Would she be OK? What should we do with her? Where did she come from?

The next morning, newly bathed, she greeted us with much tail wagging. The staff’s message was clear: She had no tags or collar and no indication she had ever worn one. She didn’t have a microchip. She clearly had not been well cared for. They knew of no one who’d lost a dog like her and didn’t think any local resources would be right for helping us place her. Their eyes begged us to take her with us.

A new traveling companion

We put her in the back of the car and considered our options while we drove. Missing Ellie, our own dog back at home, we enjoyed taking turns spying on this new dog as she stretched and grunted with contentment, curling around the boxes and making herself comfortable.

For me, the meaning of this journey had shifted. I went from dwelling on my loss and grief to focusing on this new charge. Jon commented on the change, remarking that there had been no tears since the dog joined us.

Anniversary gift

The next morning, almost to our surprise, we remembered that it was our wedding anniversary. As we turned on to the interstate, we wished each other a happy anniversary. Jon said, ‘I don’t have anything to give you this anniversary,” and I smiled and said, “Actually, you do.” We laughed, agreeing that this very sweet dog, who came to us in such a dramatic fashion, should come all the way home, so we could see if she might fit into our household.

Second chance at life

The rest of the trip, we pondered names for our shaggy black dog. Finally, Jon said, “I think we should name her Summer, as a reminder of something good that happened this summer—our silver lining.” And so she is. Our first dog, Ellie, has accepted Summer as her sister and playmate, as have our cats.

I have found great comfort watching this floppy, adorable pup with a heart of gold embrace her second chance at life with all her being. Summer has changed our lives, just as we changed hers.  

Nancy Perry is Vice President, Government Affairs, for The HSUS

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