Community: My Childhood with ARF
by Mahalia Nicholas
My Mother, Veronica’s, first animal rescue was of a tiny, pink bunny that she and her Mom kept warm in the oven in a box of cotton until it was big enough to have run of the house. He earned the name Peter Crappertail and lived a large and long life. He had the habit of sleeping in the laundry basket. The first rescue I remember was shortly after we moved to Cowan Street. Some scoundrel dumped a litter of puppies in the kudzu just down the road from our house. Ma distributed all of the puppies amongst friends and acquaintances except for one. The runt was bleached white by the sun and had some sort of skin condition afflicting his tail which caused all the hair to fall out. We named him Possum, and he lived with us until I was away at college. He even had a short-lived career in theatre. He made a cameo in a production of Of Mice and Men during which he peed prodigiously on the stage.
I don’t remember exactly when Veronica’s involvement with ARF began. It must have been some time in the late seventies or early eighties because I was old enough to walk the larger foster dogs down the hill from the house to the Sylva Library on Saturday afternoons for the weekly Pet Shows where folks gathered to adopt or surrender beasts of all sorts. It was at these Pet Shows that Veronica first flexed her still dubious ability to surmise the breed mix of a mongrel puppy. I remember one puppy in particular that she decided was a pure Saluki. That poor dog grew up to look like a cross between a wolf hound and sickly goat. Susan Clements, Sandy Annabelle, Donna Summers, Sarah Hatton and Georgia Hickes are all faces I remember from those days. The County Animal Shelter was built around this time, most likely as the result of the pressure of these amazing advocates. The Pet Shows moved to the Ingles parking lot for many years before landing at their permanent home with heated buildings (!) at Bridge Park.
An enormous benefit for me of Veronica’s involvement with ARF during my childhood is that there were always puppies and kittens about that needed love and playtime. Neighborhood kids were always dropping by to lend a hand in the playing department. I’ve been sorting through boxes these past few weeks, and I’ve found more photos of animals than I have of people, and there are animals is most of the people pictures too! Fosters lived in the kennel off the garage, on the back porch and eventually in the dog lot the folks added on. The claw foot bathtub in the downstairs bathroom played home to dozens and dozens of litters of tiny puppies and kittens over the years as Veronica discovered her knack for bottle-feeding abandoned tiny babies. The tub also once housed a nest of baby wrens. Its oddest occupant by far was an injured blue heron who spent the night there before being taken to a wildlife rehab facility.
My Father, Karl, waded into Caney Fork with Veronica to rescue that particular heron. And he was a partner in many other rescues. I remember once calling Ma on her cell phone to ask Pops a question; she replied that he wasn’t available because she had sent him head-first into a storm drain after some stranded beast. Pops tirelessly cleaned more cat boxes than any human being should have to, walked a whole array of geriatric dogs in the rain, toted cages to and from and, in more recent years, drove van loads of dogs and cats to points north and south for adoption. His partnership and patience with Veronica promoted her assistance to and advocacy for the animals. The animal count at my folks’ house is currently nine cats and three dogs– a precipitously low number compared to historical counts. We don’t need any more right now, but it does feel strange not to come home to cages on the porch and babies in the bathtub. I’m grateful for Veronica’s involvement with ARF and all those stray beasties. I learned compassion, observed selflessness and fierce commitment, and got to play with lots of animals throughout my childhood. I’m sure all the beasties are grateful too.