The Rescue House

The Rescue House

In 1999 our 6-year-old daughter declared that she wanted a dog—a real dog, a dog-dog, not some wild, jumpy puppy with razor teeth. At a humane group’s kennel, we fell in love with Haskell, a middle-aged yellow Lab who’d been found wandering in a park. Haskie never jumped. He was a canine gentleman, regal and loving, though slightly reserved, as if having been abandoned once had taught him not to risk giving his whole heart again. He bore other scars from his mysterious earlier life; he stole food, scarfed garbage, and, most problematically, tried to kill any small dog that got too close. We learned to make shrieking retreats from clueless neighbors, drawn by his sweet face to urge their tiny off-leash terriers to “go say hi.” Once the crisis passed, we’d apologize, adding, “He’s a rescue dog. He has issues.”

Everyone understood. Later, that’s how I explained the house.

Who buys a home with cracking walls, low ceilings, a dead front yard, and rooms painted mustard and psychedelic green? With a battered, crooked kitchen that looks like an old ship’s galley, and a dining area so dark that a light sensor bulb always shines? According to the child, who by then was eight, parents who were heartless and possibly insane. When we closed escrow in late 2001, she was inconsolable.

Of course, the rational explanation was money. My husband and I craved something bigger than the post-war cracker box we’d owned for a decade, something with character, on a street with less traffic and more trees. Since we hoped to find all these things on the combined income of a state school professor and a freelance writer—in West L.A—our quest was essentially hopeless. Then, maybe a year into the hunt, a 1920’s “fixer” we’d considered buying until we read its terrifying inspection report reappeared on the market, all shiny from a remodel by a developer who’d also doubled the price. Instant epiphany: We could afford our dream house by sort of buying it on time—taking something no one else wanted and gradually making it nice.

Fixer Upper from Hell: No one else wanted the place we bought. A well-dressed crowd arrived at the first open house (“charming storybook country!”), took one look, and split. It wasn’t just the lurid paint. The house was actually two dwellings, one a 1930’s cottage, the other a 1920’s English that had been located elsewhere, condemned in the ‘60s to make way for the Santa Monica Freeway, and moved; a large den joined them.
Aesthetic oddness abounded. The rooms sprawled backwards, following a sloping lot down, down, down, and nothing matched. Some exterior walls were stucco, some shingle, some wood. Floors were mahogany in front, oak in the rear; there were two heating systems and three styles of window.

“Improvements” made by the sellers, professors who’d won appointments elsewhere then rented to a succession of hard-partying students, made no sense, either: a sad single line of track lighting in the darkest room; a bidet wedged into a bathroom barely big enough for its toilet. What the realtor called “settlement” cracks in a bedroom wall turned out to be evidence that the house was slipping off its foundation.

But it was twice our current 1,000 square feet and set back far from the street. In a central courtyard, shaded by a towering (neglected) pine, the city seemed to retreat. And it was old. My childhood, passed in the bland pastel rectangles of a post-war SoCal tract, left me longing for the solidity of age, and, along with the murk, this house was rich in “vintage” detail—fireplaces, built-in bookshelves, curving plaster walls, and leaded-glass windows. Yes, the place was falling apart, but I’d been hooked, the way one can be at an animal shelter, when out of the desperate, barking hordes one pair of eyes locks in. Before me stood an unloved mongrel of a home, facing bulldozer death and pleading for a chance to become the house of my dreams. I wanted it to save it.

The Rescue House 02

Before: Carol’s dark kitchen.

Living in Funk

Most people who take on a rescue house have deep bank accounts or DIY skills; we had neither. “Gradually” fixing our place turned out to mean years of living in funk, with brief, furious bouts of renovation whenever we got some extra cash or credit. In 2002 we raised multiple ceilings, painted the mustard and green rooms, and added moldings, skylights, French doors, and an immense dormer window overlooking the courtyard.

We couldn’t afford to move out during construction, so for months all three of us huddled in one bedroom, hacking from drywall dust. The project was designed and managed by a contractor friend, brilliant but bad with the bottom line, and to whose every suggestion we said “wow, yes.” The result was spectacular, but left us 30 percent done without a dime to go farther. Six years passed before we took on the dead garden. Because the lot had never been properly graded the task required massive excavation and construction of retaining walls, and our money melted into the earth.

In 2010 we tackled the little kitchen, whose electrical quirks and cabinet-doorsfalling- off had become a daily source of grief. The same contractor friend produced a wood-trimmed, sun-struck marvel, roomy enough for cocktail gatherings, with beautiful views of the cleaned-up courtyard through new French doors leading to a new deck. It was a kitchen that matched my dreams, and (again) emptied our bank accounts.

After: Light and airy now–it’s hard to believe it’s the same house.

More years went by. We all got older; our daughter’s high school, then college, graduations came and went. Gradually, the tiny “master” bathroom crumbled, until one day the tub rusted clear through, draining water under the house. We had no choice but to take on the final improvements. Before we gave in and hired our contractor friend again, we got a few other bids. The first man walked through the house, traveling down, down, down to the rear, where he looked in horrified wonder at the claustrophobic room, fitted with its ancient tub and sewer vent pipe.
“It’s a rescue house,” I told him. “It has issues.”

It’s been 16 years since we bought our dream house on time. Haskell the attack- Lab is long gone. His death, in 2004, was brutally sudden, and after two painful, dogless months, we returned to the humane organization where we’d found him and adopted Casey, an eight-week-old chow mix. He also turned out to be a dog with issues, chief among them primal fear of the Goodyear Blimp, which sometimes flies overhead on clear evenings. Pinta, a small Rottweiler found on the streets of South LA, came later. She cowers when we fasten anything around her neck.

My husband and I have lost our parents and grown gray. Our daughter became an adult, got a job, and moved. She’s a traditionalist whose taste runs to neat, two story Colonials, but, over time, she came to at least tolerate the rescue house.

The house today.

It’s become a lovely place—airy and striking, with that huge dormer window framing the nicely trimmed courtyard pine and a front yard that’s a fragrant native plant paradise of hummingbirds and bees. The kitchen is great for parties, the new, sky-light topped master bath is twice its previous size. Around us, our once-modest neighborhood appreciates by the second.

I’m grateful for it all. Given the state of the world and our professions, and how little attention my husband and I paid to making money when we were young, we got far more than we had any right to expect.

The irony is that my fantasies about the house are gone. I’m not leaving anytime soon—we took so much time to re-do the place that I’m damn well going to enjoy it. But during the last remodel, for the first time ever, I thought how nice it would be to chuck it all and move somewhere brand new, with big closets and windows that close snugly, their hinges free of paint. Maybe all the banging and demolition piles wore me out. Maybe there’s no dream home to be had once a child has gone, leaving her parents with empty rooms and creaky knees.

Or maybe, like a lot of people drawn to “rescue,” I got things wrong. The desire to save something seems saintly, but it’s also selfish, a lust for control and power.

Good animal rescuers know that the impulse to be a hero just starts the journey, which is almost always harder than you expect: the “misunderstood” shelter bully turns out to be a genuinely jerky dog; treating the sagging overbred mama runs up four-figure vet bills. The transcendent moment when that cage door opens to freedom inevitably blurs into the everyday. The sad-eyed puppy snatched from the euthanasia red list becomes a dog whose poop has to be picked up like any other.

My rescue house has become the place whose counters I wipe, whose floors I sweep—just where I live. I gripe at its quirks the way I do when Casey yanks me hard in his blind, blimp-induced panic, when the millionth attachment of her leash sends Pinta quivering into a corner; I also marvel at how far it’s come. It’s the foundling I chose and raised, and now it’s mine.

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?



I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.


I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.


We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.








Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times


The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.