We found Handsome, an elderly Golden Retriever, in a small rural shelter in December 2013. He had been surrendered there and was listed as very thin and a little timid. “I am looking for someone to love me and to build my confidence again,” his profile read. “I am very loving and gentle. Please come meet me and give me a chance to show you who I am.”
He was thin alright, and weak. I rode with Handsome in the back seat for the two-hour drive home, his head resting on my lap, as my husband watched us through the rearview. “I don’t know,” he said. “Poor guy might not last six weeks.”
And yet, we knew what we were in for. The previous year we had adopted Annie — a 12 year-old chocolate labrador surrendered by the family she had been with from puppyhood — because a woman named Debbie, a tireless, rescue volunteer made it her mission to find Annie a home, and eventually found us.
Annie had lived only eight months, but they were joyful and comfortable months, and we were ready to give Handsome the best of whatever time he had left as well. All thanks to dedicated people like Debbie, and small-town shelters.
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Animal rescue groups, even those with recognizable names, do not spring up out of whole cloth. They are born of hard work.
Donna Callahan, director of Anderson County’s Humane Society, was just 20 years old in 1978 when a woman named Ann Garrison discovered the local warden kept the dogs he picked up in a barn, and once a week or so he either killed them or sold them to medical labs.
“Ann led a group of mostly women, and she was relentless,” Donna recalls. “She went to every court hearing demanding change. And while the court finally agreed to let me take over Animal Control, they could not pay me or provide me with a facility beyond a concrete pad with chainlink around it at the old sewer department.”
But this new “facility” was no more tenable than the old one. “That’s when I took over all but one stall in my father’s barn,” Donna says. “We built kennels for the dogs, letting the cats and kittens roam free inside, and when somebody donated a trailer load of food, my dad graciously let me take over his garage as well.”
Volunteers met every month at the library and raised money with events like bake sales on the courthouse lawn. And while Anderson County eventually found a building in which to house animal control and hired a paid officer, there was still no place dedicated to finding permanent homes for the animals they brought in.
Donna and others soldiered on, working weekends and holidays, and after filing 501(c)(3) paperwork and receiving a small grant, they were finally able to erect a small building up the road from the Wild Turkey Distillery, the place we know today — 40 years after Donna first took over her dad’s barn and garage — as the Anderson Humane Society.
Donna is 60 now, and while she would be the first to dismiss any credit, I think it is fair to say her life’s work has been taking care of the most vulnerable animals in this small, rural county, and with little money. Every dollar here is so very hard to come by.
I recently stopped by to see her following a weekend fund-raiser, the annual rummage sale. She gave me a big hug, showed me a set of little pink dog sweaters a friend had dropped off, and introduced me to her latest arrival.
“This is Hope,” she said, her voice catching as she got down on the floor to cuddle with a gray-faced, elderly beagle no one had claimed after being picked up as a stray. “Older dogs, you can just see it in their faces, that look of ‘I’m not supposed to be here, I’m supposed to have a person.’ These are the ones who tug at me the most.”
They tug at me, too.
Handsome, the sweet old guy we did not think would last six weeks, is about to celebrate his fifth Christmas with us. He limps around a bit, but he is healthy, loves ice cubes and begs for truck rides. We still have no idea how old he is, but no matter. It turns out he needed so very little: a family, an enzyme to sprinkle on his food and Debbie, his angel on earth like Donna Callahan.
Teri Carter is a writer in Lawrenceburg. Reach her at KentuckyTeri@gmail.com.