Spring Migration

So fellow travelers, I am always writing in my head and taking mental snapshots, even when I cannot take a physical photo (for example when driving on a major interstate highway in a torrential downpour.)  When it pleases the whimsy of the gods, the words stick in my mind long enough to record.   Today I was so blessed.



Strands of geese flying

weaving wide nets to hold all

hopes for springs return.




Sanctuary rules

So fellow travelers,  sometimes the best response is to meet a challenge head on, as it is presented. My response came as a poem. ( Progress for me, not long ago it would have been a angry rant.)


Those Not Welcomed


There were little girls in rocking chairs

nursing bruises, crying silent tears

hiding in fear of being found.


There were bigger girls in dark tunnels

filled with monstrous noise, scarcely breathing

for fear of what might be found.


There were creative muses who crashed

and nearly burned

scorched by fears unnamed.


There were daughters whose pain

rang loud and threatened to loosen

vital grip of precious, loving hands.


There were mothers, who had to face

what all mother’s fear most and

let go of children loved no less for having four legs.


There were voices raised with promises

to push fear aside with hope and prayer

words of genuine comfort.


These voices were gentler yet stronger,

kinder yet more powerful

loving and more enduring than fear.


They filled a sanctuary made for beautiful creations

with an authentic spirit beyond beauty

and they would not be silenced.



Harlequin Duck

And now for something completely different.


First a new greeting.  While I hope my readers are indeed blessed and it is always my intention to be a blessing, I have come to feel we travel this path together and so a new greeting for the trails ahead.

So fellow travelers, in times of better weather I am an amateur bird nerd.  Now I know the creative group administrators prohibition on the use of self deprecating terms such as “amateur,”  but trust me I am no expert.  I could go the route of calling myself a would-be birder, but birding is not something I would do, it is something I actually do, albeit with less precision than those who post the Bird Alerts which I subscribe to.  Hence the title of this post.

“Harlequin Duck…still at lock 6 Oswego”  6:55am  Oneida Birds.

This is the cryptic message that pops up on my email alerts. Cryptic unless one birds, which I do although generally in better weather. Another reason why I consider myself an “amateur”  because had the sender been the recipient of this alert, the Birdman of Bville, as he is known, would never let a silly thing like sub zero windchills and slick Lake Effect covered roads prevent him from dashing out to Lock 6 Oswego  to locate the harlequin duck.


This began innocently enough about a decade ago when I made a spontaneous decision to go on a guided walk at a nearby nature center.  It was a chilly spring morning, a small but eager group had gathered in the community room where a naturalist gave us some simple guidelines and helpful tips for the trails we would be walking.  As we set out it was clear from the quiet conversation that most of the group were fairly knowledgeable about the birds we might encounter.  One friendly grey haired woman seemed startled at my revelation this was my first birding expedition.

Conditions were nearly perfect for birding.  It was a windless, sunny morning, the trees not yet leafed out, allowing easy viewing of any feathered denizens.  While it was easily a month before peak migration, our guide and many group members were keenly focused on searching out any FOS sightings.  (Like many pursuits, birding has its own set of acronyms;  FOS  stands for first of season.)  At various points along the trail, the group would stop and listen intently, training their binoculars in the direct of each call.  “Tree sparrows in the birch tree, about 2’oclock,” someone would whisper quietly and one by one others would quietly chime in “Got it,  about a third of the branch out from the trunk,”  “Yes, oh,  just hopped one branch down.”

I managed to sight about half of the birds before they retreated out of range. At one point we were treated to the graceful swoop of a Great Blue Heron as it arced directly overhead towards a dead tree in the nearby bog.  ” Sometimes they nest here,” my greyhaired friend  spoke so reverently,  I simply nodded respectfully.


As we headed back towards the main trail,  a clear but distant call stopped everyone in their tracks.  Binoculars scanned the trees.  The call came again and from the murmured comments it was evident this was one too tough to claim without an actual sighting. “Anyone have it yet?” our naturalist asked.  I had managed to sight a bird  in a tree although it appeared closer than the call seemed to be coming from. Having only a handful of birds I knew by sight, all I knew was it did not match any of the birds I knew and it was not one we had seen yet that morning.  “Is it the brown one in the small tree next to the birch?”  After some redirecting, several other people sighted the bird. “That’s a Northern Waterthrush!”  “You sure?”  “That’s not what we heard, but this is closer than…” and the call came again from a further distance.  No matter, the bird at hand was worth two of the distant callers.  No one turned their scopes away from my finding. A brief discussion and the team confirmed the identity.  “Great spotting,” the naturalist complimented me.  I nodded and smiled a little.  Pure chance I thought, I had never even heard of the Northern Waterthrush.

Back at the center we encountered a group of birders coming in from another trail.  As everyone exchanged notes, the other birders were clearly excited at the news of the Waterthrush sighting.  Taking careful note of its location they headed out, one of them asked “Who had the eagle eye this morning?”  ” Our new birder did,” the naturalist pointed me out. “Nice find for a first trip, keep it up.”  Suddenly I knew this first sighting would not be my last.  Far from it, within a few years I would find myself on a 24 hour adventure I had never even known was possible.  But that is the making of another post.

Northern Waterthrush

Travel well my friends and remember “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Peter Lawrence Berra.

What a Difference a Year Makes- conclusion

So blessed readers the story of my journey as a rescue volunteer continues.  As previously noted, rescue work is a volatile and fractured topic to write about.  Proceed with caution.


No one looks back at the past with unclouded vision. While time often brings insight which helps us understand what has occurred, it also tempers our perception into selective memories.  If a dozen people recounted their story of  the rescue’s beginning years I know, with the exception of a few key details, the versions would vary a great deal.  One reason is at least for the first two years the operations were run with an opaque  style of communication.  At times, the staff and even the board members had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. It was not obvious at first, but became more evident as time went on.

This is a very common scenario when a new organization begins to outgrow it’s founders capacity to manage operations. Progressive directors reach out, delegate and create a support system which can adapt to meet the needs of the growing organization, a choice which requires trust and a willingness to relinquish control.  Easier said than done.  Frequently as organizations become more successful they reach a point where growth is so rapid it becomes overwhelming.  If those in charge cannot adapt to this growth and provide a clear sense of direction,  things spin out of control. Chaos ensues which in turn makes it even more difficult for directors to give up control. When people put their heart into creating something with a genuine desire to make a difference, meet a need and do so with their own resources, one cannot blame them for holding on. It takes faith to step back and let others in and some rescuers are better off keeping their operations small enough to manage individually. I have seen several individually operated rescues succeed because they are small self-contained systems.


I can see now, there were parallels in the scenarios at home and at the rescue.  While our family circumstances were not chaotic there most definitely were power struggles over control issues which impeded progress for a while.  In many ways the time I spent at the rescue was one way I could have a sense of accomplishment.  I would spend hours cleaning crates, chipping away at the mountain of nasty smelling laundry, hauling trash, scrubbing outdoor runs, washing food bowls and mopping floors. Then we’d walk dogs for hours in cold Lake Effect snow bursts, in pouring rain, in wilting humidity,  many evenings  with just a handful of walkers to walk well over forty or fifty dogs.  I would come home exhausted, throw filthy clothes into the laundry (my shelter shoes stayed quarantined in the garage) take an immediate detox shower and collapse in bed. Still, I went to sleep knowing I had made a difference if only for one day.


A key difference in the two situations was I sought outside help at home.  It was met with resistance at first, but became a blessing as the focus began to shift from blame and drama to each individual taking responsibility for communication and healing.  In return I was able to draw clear  boundaries which allowed me to take time at home when needed and allow for my time at the rescue.  My family came to understand the importance of  my work at the rescue as an expression of a genuine compassion necessary for my peace of mind.  It was harder to set that boundary at the rescue, but I stuck to my resolve. I got more support than negative feedback, but the negativity was at times harsh enough to leave me questioning my sanity in staying. Always there were those faces and wagging tails in the crates and pens calling me back.  I promise in good time to share some of their stories here. They deserve to be heard.


The leadership help needed at the rescue just took longer to come into place and only did so after several incongruous attempts. In the meantime, I did my best to keep a flow of volunteers coming in and to provide them with simple training that focused on basic safety guidelines.  Still, I could not be at the rescue to supervise new volunteers all the time, so there were inevitable problems.  I made every effort to learn from those mistakes and improve the training each month. I kept careful records of the rate of intake and retention, trying to find ways to prevent burnout and improve the quality of interactions between the dogs and volunteers.

In the end  what matters is a good fit was found. The board has taken responsibility for all  financial and developmental decisions, setting consistent policies and providing  clear, open communications with the staff and volunteers.  In a little over a year, new leadership has brought the rescue out of disarray and into order. From time to time I encounter someone who had a critical experience during the early years. I encourage them to revisit the rescue and see how progressive change has been. The number of dogs taken in is under careful control, which allows the team to keep the rescue clean and provide good quality care. Dogs arrive off efficient transport programs, often with care bags and foster home “bios” that can help match dogs and potential adopters. The rate of return is much lower and post adoption issues are fewer.  The turn around time from arrival to adoption for the majority of the dogs is only a few weeks.  The rescue reaches out to provide more opportunities to help local dogs in need, an important goal for any successful shelter.


The volunteer program has grown tremendously.  Training is more comprehensive and consists of several sessions. Volunteers have color coded lanyards which correspond to their level of training and experience.  Beginning volunteers walk dogs with easier temperaments, dogs that require a more savvy handler have color coded tags so volunteers know which dogs match their experience and training levels.  Those TLC dogs I wrote about?  the tough love cases?  They get their own team of volunteers and training is provided for both the dogs and their handlers.  Just a few days ago, an announcement was posted indicating the rescue is making the volunteer coordinators job a paid position, thanks to a generous donors funding. The future looks bright.

Even in the best run operations, not everything goes perfectly. There are always voices of criticism. From time to time a dog comes through the rescue which for a variety of reasons can not be adopted. (The concept of no-kill sheltering is vastly misunderstood, I am not going to address it now.)  Its hard on everyone, especially the staff who really put their heart on the line for the tough cases. Until more societal changes occur to address the reasons we even need shelters in the first place,  this work will test the courage and stamina of the most determined crusaders.

 I take full responsibility for the choices I made and blame no one for the consequences.  Things at home have worked out well, there is a sense we are closer for having weathered a few storms. I sense the same is true at the rescue and  I am grateful I was welcomed back after a years distance.  Oh and those faces and wagging tails are as compelling as ever.


Photo Notes: special thanks to Sarah Miraglia and Carolin Booth Murphy for allowing me to use some of their fantastic rescue dog photos. All of the dogs pictured were placed in good homes, through various local rescues.  The brown girl in the top photo is my “granddog” Coffee adopted in Philly. She’s playing with one of our former fosters, whose story I promise to write soon.  The valentines photo is a boy named Bowser who passed away from cancer while living with his foster mom.  It is of some comfort to know he was loved deeply in his final days.

Of Jamaican dogsled runs

So blessed readers, a little change of pace for this post, prompted by an Olympic moment and 12 days of Lake Effect snow.


Out of sheer desperation, a few weeks ago I spent the better part of the day shoveling a path through our back yard, along our neighbor’s fence to get to the street behind us where I walk our dogs. My neighbors kindly let me “cut through” their yard as my house is on a busy thoroughfare with a 45 MPH speed limit.  By this time of year its made more dangerous by snowbanks that completely obscure the shoulder.  We have a good sized  fenced area in our backyard where the dogs can run but it doesn’t replace the physical and mental stimulation of a good walk. Most days we fit in a good mile or more. Even the “short” walk around the quieter street behind us is a good half mile.

Our last snowstorm, which gave us an unprecedented third snow day of the school year, was followed by 12 straight days of on and off Lake Effect. The back yard became impassable, especially for the small foster buddy residing with us.  Bone chilling wind chills and paw freezing single digit temps made trips to the local dog park impractical.  When a stubby little beagle leaps on top of a German Shepard sized dog house to get closer to those pesky squirrels, things have reached a point of desperation.


Then I saw an interview with Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon of the Jamaican Bobsled team.  I love the Olympics and while I often sit chanting ( like a few of my fellow Bedlam Farm Creative Group members) “Don’t fall, please don’t fall” through most of the figure skating routines, I find snowboarding and ski jumping thrilling to watch.   Trust me I don’t actually ski;  I tried and all I did was fall down hill.  Even curling is mesmerizing, calming the nerves after a intense hockey battle.  I owe my devotion to bobsledding directly to the Jamaicans.  Just the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team is magical, as proven by the “Cool Runnins” phenomenon of 1993  ( wow has it really been a decade?  Indeed it has.  I looked it up.)

So when Winston replied to the interviewers question about the obstacles his team faced in getting to Sochi  ( years of qualifying attempts,  on going funding problems and yes the lack of snow in his home country)  by stating ” Ya man, dat is life ya know.  Obstacles dey are dere and ya jest gonna go over dem and through dem because ya got an eye on da horizon and when ya got somethin to accomplish man ya dont let obstacles get in da way.” His words spoke directly to me.  I knew what obstacle I needed conquer. If  two guys from Jamaica can show up and compete against the odds of lost luggage, scarce funds and no snow,  then a couple feet of packed Lake Effect wasn’t keeping me from walking my dogs, dont ya know man.

I grabbed a shovel and headed out.  After about a half dozen carefully paced bouts,


lasting about  15 to 20 minute apiece,


I managed to clear a run from my pond patio to my neighbor’s driveway.


I ate lunch, bundled up the dogs in their coats and harnesses, loaded my pockets with necessary poop bags and we headed out to the run.  I wish I could have captured the excitement of my little pack when they saw those walking harnesses come out.  Even better, the looks of almost disbelief when we veered to the right of the fenced yard and headed for the newly shoveled path along pond patio. Both of them turned to look at me as if to say ” Really?  we’re going OUT THERE?”  and like a bobsled out of the starting gate they were off , barreling down the run as if they could smell the gold medal squirrels at the other end.

ems squirrel 80dpi

Photo note:  Squirrel’s best “Bring It!” pose courtesy of Emma Rahalski’s 2008 Beaver Lake Nature Center photography contest portfolio.

Happy trails readers and remember “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Peter Lawrence Berra.

What a difference a Year makes: Part 2

So blessed readers the story of my journey as a rescue volunteer continues.  As previously noted, rescue work is a  volatile and fractured topic to write about.  Proceed with caution.

It is a sad fact of our society that thousands of healthy adoptable animals are ethuanized everyday. For every life saved by rescues, there are hundreds lost.  It is a Sisyphis Rock which rescues relentlessly push up a slippery slope of societal complacency, and ignorance as well as political indifference and breed biases.  Dedication is a minimal requirement.  To persist in rescue work, one needs the emotional resiliency of rubber, the mental strength of tungsten and an unlimited resolve of compassion. It is not for the faint of heart and anger is a common but draining side effect.  It burns through good intentions like lava.

I hold no one but myself responsible for the choices I made. The desperation of rescue work is like quick sand, the more you struggle the deeper you sink. One day a quote from the DaLai Lama came across my Facebook feed.


That was the moment I knew I had to walk away to find those answers for myself.

The crisis at home was a wake up call to examine my priorities. Something had to give. Family, including my own dogs, had to come first.  I filed a final report with the board, asked them to find a replacement training coordinator and drastically scaled back on my rescue hours.  The manager assured me they would have someone in place within a few weeks. Three more months passed. Regardless of some  criticism for my decision to scale back, I held fast to my resolve. Most of the core team were understanding, stepping in take over some of the volunteer training.

Suddenly, there was another change in staff.  When a new manager was hired, I asked for a meeting. To move forward this little local rescue would need to get a firm control on supply and demand, limit the drain on meager financial resources, expand their fund raising and community outreach programs and address basic training needs for the dogs in their care.  Without significant change, the same systemic flaws would continue to stall progress. The new manager had a lot on her plate, even as dogs in need of new homes kept coming in to the rescue. Still, she took the time to meet with me and listened intently to my observations.  It was the first time I knew within any certainty there was hope for the future.  She had the experience, determination,  organizational and interpersonal skills needed to guide the rescue out of crisis mode. I gave her a copy of the report I had written three months prior, a report I would later discover the board members had never received.  I promised to stay on long enough to guide her and a new coordinator through the basics of the training intake and scheduling system I had established.  In return she promised to address as many of the points in my outgoing report as she could.


I was so relieved  after our first meeting I sat in my car and cried.  I had felt increasingly torn between pressing family concerns and the needs of the rescue.  I had been spinning my wheels  trying to resolve an impossible conflict. Extracting myself from the web of responsibility was not as simple as just walking away. I made friends at the rescue, four and two legged ones. I would not turn my back on my friends. I believed in the vision the core team had for a haven where dogs in need of homes could wait safely in good care.  Simply spending more time at home was not the answer to the family concerns either. I realized I needed to regain my sense of direction at home and clarify the purpose of my volunteer efforts at the rescue.

Fortunately  within two weeks of our meeting, one of the board members stepped up to take over the training program. We began working together immediately. At least the training system was functioning well enough to keep a small flow of volunteers so vital to the daily operation of the rescue.  It was the best I could do, I was leaving it in reliable hands and new coordinators would bring new direction.


Six weeks after that crucial meeting,  one year after I started as training coordinator, two years after walking my first dog,  I dropped off my file of volunteer forms and training materials. I walked several of my current favorite dogs, helped clean crates and washed a stack of bowls before leaving at closing.  “See you soon,” the night crew said. I knew they would not. I knew I had to make a complete break to regain my focus.  It would in fact be just over a year before I returned.

And what a difference that year would make… ( to be continued)

Photo Notes:  My handsome walking companion, Bruno was adopted into a loving home soon after the photo was taken.  You can follow his facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bruno/446392132058234

What a difference a year makes: Part 1

So blessed readers this post has been a few months in edit mode. Its a significant part of my journey and its telling was a challenge.  Rescue work is a volatile and fractured topic to write about.  Proceed with caution.


About three years ago I was looking for a way to keep active during the long, cold Central New York winters.  I chose to become a volunteer dog walker at a small, independent dog rescue.  I know myself well enough to realize while I might get lazy about keeping a resolution to stay fit, I would never go back on a promise to a pack of homeless dogs who waited in kennels.  My youngest daughter (then 13 yrs old) and I went through the required training  which  back then was comprised of some background information, a quick tour of the facility and one trial walk session.  Yep…here’s a leash and start walking.

That winter,  much like this year, turned out to be a brutally cold and snowy winter. It didn’t matter.  The worse the weather got, the more likely I was to bundle up and drive across town to walk those dogs. I knew only a handful of  the hardiest volunteers would show up on those nights. Without us, the single staff person on duty would be walking dogs until well past 10pm to ensure every dog got a break before closing up for the night.

The rescue was a new organization and only recently moved into the small building.  As with many rescue programs, this operation began with one person and a single rescue ( a female beagle and her litter of pups.)  I remembered seeing the story on the news the year before.  When I joined, the operations were expanding rapidly. Perhaps a little too rapidly.

With more space, more dogs could be rescued.  The organization did not however have the systemic or financial structures in place to manage the expansion. All they had was a fiercely dedicated staff made of one full time vet tech and two part time kennel assistants and a handful of  passionate volunteers willing to endure almost any level of chaos to keep saving lives. The core team of volunteers were a tight knit group often at odds with the rescue’s founding director.  As a student of organizational dynamics (part of my training in pastoral counseling) I recognized the rescue was at a critical development point. As so often happens on my journey I found myself in the middle of a firestorm. Only this time there really were lives at stake.  I would come home thinking about the faces behind those crates, the simple souls who had no choice but to trust us to get them out of there and into better circumstances. There was no walking away from this battle.

Good intentions are not enough to make good happen.  Right action (a concept gleaned from my studies in Buddhism) is not always obvious and compassion does not always guide the passionate.  In an organization divided by dissent and suspicion (often well founded) it was not easy to gain the trust of those in charge nor was it always obvious who really was in charge.  Decisions would be made, policies implemented and within days be “over ridden.” The rescue was spinning from crisis to crisis, a kind of frantic energy vortex that sucked everybody in.  People tolerated the insanity because at the end of the day there were those faces in the crates and pens haunting our thoughts.


Over the course of the next two years, my involvement increased exponentially. I progressed from walking dogs a few hours a week to spending entire weekends cleaning kennels, doing laundry, feeding and bathing as well as walking dogs.  I started helping the volunteer coordinator run orientation sessions and eventually was asked to fill the position of training coordinator.  I talked with my family about the increased time commitment the program would require. I had no idea how seriously I was underestimating what it would entail.

Within a month I found myself spending ten hours a week screening emails, scheduling as well as conducting orientations and training sessions, processing forms and responding to follow up communications.  The BIG problem was I didn’t have ten hours a week available.  I had a full time job ( still do thankfully), ran the Mom taxi between activities in my daughter’s very busy schedule and we had own dogs to care for.  Two nights a week I would throw dinner together, a meal I myself would not eat (if any was left) until after 10pm. I was gone the better part of at least one day every weekend.

I stuck with it, because, like everyone else I told myself those dogs needed us.  The core group of volunteers became increasingly aware things were not as they seemed. Verbal assurances given about changes being made were never acted upon. A series of operations managers came and went within a few months. The number of dogs at the rescue reached a dangerously high volume.  Volunteers burnt out quicker than we could train them.  Dogs and volunteers were injured.   Many of us sensed we were enabling a unhealthy revolving door, yet no one wanted to be responsible for making waves which might shut the rescue down.

Always on our minds there were those faces in the crates. It wasn’t the ones who came and went within a few weeks.  It was the TLC dogs as I called them, the Tough Love Cases, who remained month after month for various reasons. One had a bad leg, a couple were senior dogs, several were great with people but extremely dog aggressive ( a behavior which only increases in a kennel situation.) With no trainer on staff, the TLC dogs had no program in place to improve their chances for adoption. Whenever the rescue was close to a breaking point, something would happen to pull people back in, like the day we lost one of our long term residents to sudden seizures.


Sadly it took a family crisis in my own home to bring me back to my senses.

To be continued…

Note: The dogs pictured in the first two photos have found wonderful loving homes; they are doing well and occasionally come back to visit with us.  Sweet Winnie, pictured above passed before she found her home.  A rescue favorite she had her own special room at the rescue and was greatly loved by everyone.  Often in the evenings she would serenade us with her “singing” as we made preparations for closing.  Her portrait still graces the adoption area and her songs remain in the hearts of many.

Sunny Thoughts

So blessed readers,  a little haiku inspired by my friend Jackie Campbell from the Bedlam Farm Creative Group.  You can find her original Haiku here http://quiltofmissingmemories.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/20-days-and-counting/  Now I am off to our (indoor) Regional Market to find myself a sword of hope!