Buster the dog was a hot mess on a rainy day. I was driving south on Rutledge Avenue last Thursday morning when I saw him following a woman down the sidewalk. When she sat down at a bus stop, Buster pranced a couple of laps around the covered bench, seemingly oblivious to the spitting rain that rolled off his already soaked and matted white curls.
I pulled over, walked to the bus stop, and checked to see if the dog had a collar. He didn't. A bus pulled up to the curb, and the woman Buster had been trailing climbed aboard, but Buster trotted up behind her and got shooed away at the door. Then he walked in front of the bus and sat down in the street, refusing to budge as the driver leaned over the dashboard to see him. I ran out to pick him up before he pulled any more stupid stunts.
I had seen stray animals downtown before and passed them by, so don't think I'm some animal-rescuing saint. In fact, I only picked this one up because he looked so clueless that I knew I would feel guilty leaving him there.
At the time, I didn't know Buster's name; that would come later when I got his microchip scanned at the Charleston Animal Society. All I knew was that this friendly little dog seemed ill-equipped for life on the streets. He looked like some sort of mixed poodle breed — actually, he looked like a slightly shaggier version of Tennyson, my sister-in-law's cockapoo (a cocker spaniel-poodle, with the former's floopy ears and the latter's curly locks), who was once himself a stray and is now a handsome lapdog.
I rubbed Buster down with old newspapers from the trunk of my car, blockaded him into the backseat, and then headed back to my office, where my co-workers kept knocking on the door to coo and fuss over him. Buster must have felt like an infant king in a manger as magi came in one by one to shower him with gifts of kibble, mashed bananas, and breathless adulations.
Someone suggested that I take some pictures and put an ad up on the Charleston Craigslist Lost+Found forum, so I did that and placed another in Pets, just for good measure. Then I put the picture on charlestoncitypaper.com because, well, I can do that.
My boss said Buster couldn't stay in the office for long, what with the near-constant whimpering and the wet-dog smell, so I put him back in the car, drove out to Rutledge Avenue, and tried knocking on a few doors. No luck. So I headed up to the Charleston Animal Society on Remount Road, where the receptionist helped me put a makeshift collar and leash on him and then directed me to a counter where one of the employees could scan Buster's back and see if he had a microchip. The tiny radio-frequency emitters, which can be as small as a grain of rice, have become a standard part of the modern pet-adoption procedure, and they can be used to get lost animals back to their owners. But veterinarians still recommend collars and tags, even for indoor pets, because people who find strays don't always know to check for a microchip.
As I waited in line behind a man who was picking up a giant brown dog who had run away from home, Buster happily ran circles around me, forcing me to switch the leash back and forth between my hands to keep from getting hog-tied. I read a poster on the counter that said one in three pets will get lost in its lifetime and thought of my two cats back home, who had lived most of their lives indoors and would likely be even more inept than Buster at surviving in the wild.
The good news was that Buster had a microchip, which gave us his name and the owner's phone number. The bad news was that, when the clinic worker called the phone number, the person on the line said she had given Buster away several years ago and had no contact information for the new owner. Neither the old nor the new owner had thought to update the information on the chip, a painless edit that a clinic employee later told me could have been done for $10 to $15 (for more tips on transferring a pet to a new owner, see the bottom of this page).
And so I found myself with a dog living on my screen porch. One of the veterinarians at the Animal Society had warned me not to let him near any other pets, as he hadn't been checked for fleas or infectious diseases, so he wasn't allowed inside. While I was at work, Buster peed on the towel we had laid out for him, so my wife tried to take him for a walk in the yard, but he expressed little interest in being outside again. Once he was safely back on the porch, he took a runny dump on the tile floor.
That afternoon at the office, I tried to find someone who could tell me what to do with a stray pet. I got in touch with Lauren Lipsey, the public relations manager at the Pet Helpers adoption center on James Island. After I shared my story with her on the phone, she told me the microchip-scanning step should have been my first one.
She liked the fact that I had put an ad on Craigslist, but she cautioned me to be wary of the responses I got. Some folks are just out to make a buck, claiming lost pets for free and then selling them for profit. Even worse, others have been known to troll Craigslist looking for "bait dogs" to help train their fighting dogs. So she warned me to keep the listing brief and vague and to ask for identifying details from anyone who contacted me.
Lipsey said the most effective way to reconnect a dog to his owner was also the most old-fashioned way. "Just make signs and hang them up in the neighborhood you found the animal in," she said. So the next day, I drove around downtown during a lunch break to tape flyers on signposts and electric poles.
She also said it wouldn't hurt to call in a found-dog notice to all of the local pet shelters — Pet Helpers on James Island, the Charleston Animal Society in North Charleston, the Frances R. Willis SPCA in Summerville, and the Doc Williams SPCA in Moncks Corner. She pointed out that Buster's owners might not even live downtown. A few weeks ago, she said, a family had lost their Jack Russell-chihuahua mix at the Petco on Savannah Highway and found it more than two-and-a-half miles away on the peninsula.
Finally, I asked Lipsey how long I should hold on to Buster before turning him over to a shelter. She recommended that I wait two weeks, although I later got in touch with Charleston Animal Society Marketing Director Kay Hyman, and she told me to bring Buster down to get cleaned up and placed in the shelter as soon as possible. Once a pet goes through intake, the shelter is required to hold onto it for five days so the owner has one last chance to come and claim it. After that, it goes up for adoption.
As Buster camped out on the porch with our cats eyeing him suspiciously through the window, e-mails and calls poured in. Several people said they thought the dog belonged to a woman who owned three dogs and was rarely home to take care of them, but the woman herself never called. Another man called looking for a lost bichon frise. A half-dozen dog lovers offered to adopt or foster Buster if the owner was never found.
Finally, that Friday afternoon, I got a call from a Charleston Animal Services employee who said that an elderly woman who lived near Rutledge Avenue had reported a similar dog missing. I stopped by the woman's house, and she told me she had adopted Buster from an animal shelter about four years ago after her son died and left her alone in the house. She said she was taking in her empty trash can that Thursday morning when Buster slipped out the gate and made a run for it. She stood on the front porch calling him, unable to give chase, but Buster only looked over his shoulder — defiantly, she says — as he trotted off through the neighborhood.
Fortunately for the owner, Buster didn't wander far.
On May 12, Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach Services on Johns Island will host a vaccination and microchip clinic from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Rabies and distemper vaccines will be free, and microchip implants will cost only $15.---
What to do with a pet you can't keep
Sometimes a pet is too much responsibility. Sometimes you end up moving to an apartment that doesn't allow animals. Sometimes you just can't afford to feed another mouth.
Whatever the reason, it hurts when we have to part ways with our animal friends. Still, there are some important steps you should take to ensure your pet is making a safe transition when you hand it off to a new home or shelter. Lauren Lipsey, director of public relations at Pet Helpers, gives the following pointers:
• Look for potential new owners within your social network. "Obviously, it would be best if you knew the person," Lipsey says, especially in an age when dogfighters have been known to prowl the Craigslist Pets page. Spread the word that your little friend needs a new home, and put a notice up on Facebook.
• If you go the Craigslist route, ask to tour the house of any prospective adopters. See if you're comfortable with the living conditions and make sure everyone in the household meets your pet. You don't want the family to find out the next day that someone is allergic or that your pet is bad with kids.
• Update your pet's microchip to reflect the new owner. This can be done through any microchip lookup service for a small fee, and your local pet shelter can help you out. Remember: A microchip is not a GPS tracking device; it just lets people know how to contact the owner.
• If you want to put your pet in a shelter for adoption, call early. Many shelter services have a waiting list when they get too full, so let the staff know ahead of time. Your waiting period could be anywhere from a day to a few weeks.