The Humane Society, Dogs, and Dog Culture with Wendy Rawlings

Wendy Rawlings with a black dog

Wendy Rawlings has worked with the Humane Society of West Alabama for the last ten years but tells me that it isn’t “a glamorous job.”

“They live in a house [in] a residential neighborhood,” she says, laughing, “you can imagine how thrilled the neighbors are.”

The house keeps fifteen to sixteen dogs at any given time. Every day, one volunteer is responsible for making sure the dogs are fed and given water. The dogs are let out in playgroups. Rawlings says, “A lot of dogs soil their cages, so you have to go clean their cages and refill their water and give them some affection.”

She says, “A lot of shelters are like jail, but we don’t mean for it to be that way. [Dogs] have to have very regimented ways of [behaving]. You have to make sure everything is done around the same time, because dogs like routine, but it’s like prison insofar as there are constantly new dogs coming in as old dogs [are going] out, and some dogs decide that they don’t like each other, so you have to prevent them from interacting. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a prison before, but you often have to go into an area and shut a gate before you open another gate. It’s sort of like that, because dogs are pack animals.”

She tells me she’s been bitten before: twice, by the same dog. I ask her if they were bad bites.  “[A dog] once bit my hand [while my friend was visiting me for Thanksgiving],” she says. The second time, the dog bit through her shoe.

When I ask her why she chose the Humane Society, she says it is because they are a no-kill shelter. She states that Metro Animal Shelter does not have such a policy. “Metro, they don’t kill because they want to, they kill because they have to. We’ve got a real spay/neuter problem in Alabama [and] the rural South. A lot of people believe that their dogs don’t have to be spayed, and I don’t know if that comes from people having large pieces of property, so they can have a lot of dogs running around.”

Rawlings continues, “I feel bad for Metro, because they have to manage all stray dogs, but I just didn’t want to be in an environment where I had to watch dogs get put down. It’s just too painful for me.”

Once a month the Humane Society has a “Meet the Dogs” event. Usually, they meet in front of Pet Supplies Plus on McFarland Boulevard. She tells me, “[People] come and meet the animals, and a lot of people want to do same day adoptions because they fall in love with little, fluffy dogs, but we don’t let them do that; they have to fill out a formal application.”

Each of the dogs up for adoption costs seventy-five dollars. They are dewormed, spayed or neutered, and up-to-date on their shots. “But it’s a little bit sad,” she says, “because a lot of people still buy from breeders. I probably work at least once a week at the shelter—every time I go in, another dog has left and another dog has shown up, and a lot of people think they’re mutts, but they’re not all mutts; we get a lot of pure bred dogs: puppies, adults.” I suggest that many people probably wouldn’t think to look at a shelter for a purebred.

“Or they want the dog’s papers or something, which I think is ridiculous,” she says. She asks if I have pets of my own. I tell her I used to be more of a fish guy, until my boyfriend convinced me to get a cat last year. She laughs and says, “That’s good. Fish don’t really count; they’re more decorative.” I can’t say I disagree. When a fish dies it feels like it’s only a knick-knack that’s broken.

I ask if she’s ever written about her volunteer work or seen something and thought to herself, “I’ve really got to write that down.” She started a blog a while ago, and she’s written a few posts about dogs. Most recently, however, she’s been working on an essay titled “What Dogs Might Mean in Alabama.” She started noticing that a many African American people will cross to the other side of the street when they see her walking her three, big, black dogs, but that white children and white adults will pet the dogs or not notice them at all. She once told a man, “They’re fine; they’re friendly. They don’t like other dogs that much, but they love all people.” The man told her all he saw were three sets of sharp, white teeth.

Then Rawlings began researching and came across some images. “Those images from Birmingham in ’63 of police dogs, German Shepherds, told to sic the African Americans doing the sit in, and I was thinking about the history. It’s not the dog’s fault, because those dogs were trained to fight protestors. I wondered if that could have anything to do with [it], and I don’t know if that’s the case.” She continues, “Now that’s not true about all black people that see my dogs on the street. I talked to a couple of my black friends, and one of them grew up in a low-income neighborhood where a lot of dogs ran free, and I live in an upper-income neighborhood, and everyone is libertarian, and they just let their dogs run free through the neighborhood, which is illegal. So it may be a class thing as well of a race thing.”

She says people have told her that their parents saw the family dog as a protector. “I think there are a lot of cultural [factors], too. We have an Iranian student here in the MFA program, and she just wrote an essay for my class. I didn’t know this, but dog-ownership is illegal in Iran. If you’re caught with a dog, the police can blow its head off. So she comes to Alabama, where everyone in the program is dog crazy; we all own dogs, and her religion taught her that dogs are filthy, so she has a huge, cultural taboo against dogs, but she’s kind of charmed, because this is such a big dog-culture. She’s in a time of great conflict.”

I ask her about her dogs. She says they’re retriever-mixes. “They’re two sisters about the same size,” she says, “and their baby brother. He’s littler. He can sit on my lap. He’s like a forty-two pound lapdog.”

They’re all Humane Society dogs. She got Jynx, the first dog, after 9-11. Rawlings had just moved to Alabama from New York to be a professor, and her husband was away at another university. All her friends were in New York, and she didn’t want to be alone in the house. A couple of years later the Humane Society called her. They couldn’t get rid of Nana, Jynx’s litter-mate. “Are you willing to take her?” they asked. She was. “A few years later we got Buck,” she says. She only named Jynx; Nana and Buck knew their names by the time she got them. “Living in a shelter is traumatic enough,” she says. “I mean, imagine, if at age three, everyone suddenly said, ‘Your name’s not Matt anymore! It’s Milton!’”

She tells me that Buck kept being brought back to the shelter. They took him to many Meet The Dogs events, where he would charm someone with his tilted jaw and snaggle-tooth, which Rawlings thinks is an injury caused by a human. She says, “He was afraid of men, and he would automatically pee whenever a man approached him. We call it fear peeing. Finally, when he got taken back the fifth time, I said, ‘I gotta take him home.’”

I ask if Buck was afraid of her husband, and if her husband knew to stay away from him. She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head back, says,” Oh yeah. He peed all over our carpets. He’s totally rehabbed now, though. He was three then; he’s nine now, and he doesn’t pee around any man. He knows people won’t hurt him.” She laughs, “I’m sorry; that’s such a cornball story, but it’s all true.”

I ask her what kind of animal she’d want to spend the rest of her life as.

She tells me she’s sorry, “I have to give a boring answer for this one. I’d have to say a dog or a porpoise,” she says. “Porpoises are very smart,” she says, “and my nickname was porpoise when I was a kid, because I grew up on Long Island, and we swam a lot. When we swam I wouldn’t get out of the water. Dogs, though, they’re just lazy wolves. Dogs descended from wolves. Dogs are the ones that figured out that you could hang around humans and get scraps of food. I wouldn’t be too thrilled about hunting in the wild. I would much rather sit by my owner’s knees and get food.”