There’s a cautionary tale that every seasoned volunteer of Stray Hearts Animal Shelter has heard about a dog that dislocated its own leg. It was about two years ago, newly hired executive director Jan Gordon says, and it had nothing to do with the abuse or neglect of an owner.
The dog broke his own leg while trying to get out of his kennel during the town of Taos’ annual July Fourth fireworks display.
As an animal shelter, Stray Hearts has a multitude of obstacles, like raising enough money to keep the doors open, ensuring quality of life over euthanasia and a shortage of volunteers. But one of its biggest problems is what’s about to happen in roughly an hour: The town’s official fireworks display.
Around 8 p.m. Wednesday (July 4), volunteers divide their duties between distributing the herbal supplement “Stress-Away” to the some 110 dogs who call the shelter home while another pair stand in the back room, filling a stainless steel bowl with “Stress-Away” spiked hot-dogs. They started dosing around 4 p.m. Other volunteers dash by with leashes, trying to make sure everyone gets one last walk before the fireworks begin. Gordon is making sure all the dogs that have been living in the outdoor kennels are allowed to spend the night in the shelter’s lobby.
Gordon, a recent transplant from Vermont since she replaced former director Dave Noll, has spent her adult life running animal shelters. But she says she’s never seen anything like Stray Hearts. It’s been a baptism by fire for Gordon, who’s only been on the job about a month.
“There are more strays in Taos than I’ve seen anywhere — even Texas. And we would never have had this problem with fireworks being this close to a shelter in Vermont,” Gordon says.
While Gordon understands that the town needs its display to deter the personal and dangerous use of private fireworks, she, along with Stray Hearts’ board of directors, wants the display moved far from sensitive ears.
As it stands, the display is now just blocks away from the shelter.
But for Town Manager Oscar Rodríguez, the solution isn’t so simple. There’s a checklist of requirements to consider, including adequate space for safely setting off the fireworks, in addition to having enough space for the public to safely congregate. That leaves the town with few options, Rodríguez says.
The airport is out, he says, because he can’t think of a single community that sets off fireworks in the approach to an airport. But Rodríguez says he’s not discounting moving the display. Years ago, the town tried to accommodate the shelter’s concerns by moving the display from the Eco Park.
“I realize that’s not far enough. I take these concerns very seriously,” Rodríguez said in a phone interview Wednesday (July 11). “There’s just no other place where they can do the fireworks safely where the public can also enjoy safely and comfortably. What you have here is a community that has weighed all the options and this is what has come out. If there are suggestions, now is the time to discuss it.”
When the first fireworks light the sky, the volunteers scramble into different kennels and getting ready for the worst.
What five minutes ago was a quiet row of kennels is now a cacophony of barking, howling and the rattle of chainlink that signals the start of the fireworks display.
“These dogs are terrorized all for 45 minutes worth of entertainment,” Gordon shouts over the frantic, constant barking.
Excitable dogs like Hauser run in small circles, run and jump the length of their kennels in desperation.
Not everyone is so overt; some shove themselves under their beds or pant themselves to a froth. The volunteers try to spend as much time as they can with the worst cases, sitting on the cement floor with dogs so scared they try to burrow into laps and hide their heads under volunteers’ arms. The others wait their turns huddled in corners. Still more volunteers, including Gordon, make the rounds to each building, passing out hot-dogs spiked with herbal remedies to the waiting dogs.
In the cattery, volunteer and board member Ann Weaver is on her own. As she maneuvers through the maze of kennels, hoards of paws and whiskers strain through the bars for their fair share of affection and comfort. The about 73 or so cats and kittens spread throughout the shelter’s care (many of them in foster homes) can cope a bit better with the fireworks than the about 110 dogs in the surrounding buildings. What stresses them out is the dogs’ reaction to the fireworks.
To Weaver, this is the worst night of the year.
“This is the worst, by far. I can’t think of anything more difficult than this,” Weaver says. “These cats will throw up, they’ll have diarrhea. It’ll take them days to calm down.”
And it doesn’t need to be this way, Weaver says.
“We met with the interim police chief and the assistant town manager in May. And we specifically asked that they move the fireworks display. And we never even got a response back,” Weaver says, shaking her head. “The shelter has asked it to be moved every year. It’s so discouraging. It’s so unfair.”
For Gordon, that kind of response only crystallizes her resolve.
“This won’t happen again here. This is insane,” Gordon says as the building around her howl and bay. “They should come down here and sit in a kennel with a terrified, trembling dog.”
By 10:05, the skies have quieted down, but the sound of the shelter continues well into the night.