Confessions of a Chronic Dog Adopter
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Confessions of a Chronic Dog Adopter

Comedian Carol Leifer tells how she wound up with seven rescue dogs -- and why she's not ashamed to be known as "the crazy Chihuahua lady."

My favorite time of day is right before bedtime. The sounds of peace abound: The dishwasher hums in the kitchen. The baby monitor crackles lightly with static as our boy sleeps soundly. And the only sound from the maniacs is their soft and rhythmic breathing -- their go buttons finally turned off.

The maniacs would, of course, be our pack of seven rescue dogs. Nothing is more beautiful than watching the rise and fall of those furry little bellies at rest. But as I look at them all splayed out and scattered around our bedroom, I often wonder, How the hell did one dog ever become seven?

The short answers are: I'm weak and very susceptible to big lonely eyes. We've got the room. I work from home. And animals make me supremely happy in a way that nothing else does.

Our first adopted dog came from a Chihuahua rescue center in Burbank, California. We noticed his big, floppy ears right away. The name card on his kennel read "Julius." That was both my grandfather's and my partner Lori's grandfather's name.

We inquired about Julius's story and were told he had been found wandering outside USC at about the same time we'd attended the funeral of our good friend, the actor John Ritter, a proud USC alum. It was uncanny. Which brings me to the first thing I learned about animal adoption.

Lesson 1: You have to be open to the signs.
We played with Julius, took him for a little stroll, and then checked out a couple of other dogs as well. But we decided to think about it for a couple of days and head back home. Before we left, however, something told me to go back in and look at Julius one last time.

I knelt down by his kennel and asked point-blank, "Should we come back for you, buddy?" He cocked his head with this sarcastic look like, I'm in a cage at a dog rescue. What do you think? But then, lest he give the impression of being too much of a smart-ass and squash the whole deal, Julius reached out to me through the bars with his paw. It was a done deal. And it was then that I picked up the next truth about animal adoption.

Creating Little Miracles

Lesson 2: There is a mutual "meant to be" moment.
When we went back to the Chihuahua center for our second rescue adventure, we met Linda, who'd been deemed "unadoptable" by the city shelter she'd come from.

After a year of behavior modification at the rescue center, that description couldn't have been less accurate. Quiet and terribly shy, Linda was a heat-seeking missile in search of a warm lap. We sat with her a while in a beat-up old swing, then decided to take a break.

Lori and I headed off to get some sodas, then turned around for another look. Sure enough, there was Linda, seriously staring us down. Where you going, ladies? She intimated with a quizzical look. Was I crazy or were we not seriously hitting it off back here? We decided to take her home right then and there.

Lesson 3: It all changes in the car.
Once that engine starts, animals know that things just got really good. Already right at home, Linda -- renamed Shelby -- commandeered Lori's lap and helped to steer the car home.

Our third rescue happened unexpectedly -- but then, aren't they all unexpected after dog number two? We were at a Hanukkah party and who else happened to be there but the gal who ran the Chihuahua rescue center. She had brought along this little black-and-gray Chihuahua.

Lori and I looked at each other from across the crowded room. Our eyes said: "We can't. We shouldn't."

But it was the first night of our Festival of Lights. (When in doubt about adopting a dog, check the calendar. A holiday makes a great permission slip.) So we came home with little Maccabee -- the brightest light in that year's menorah.

We decided to go hard-core for our next addition and so journeyed to a city shelter. It was an experience I wasn't quite prepared for: rows and rows of animals whose eyes it is nearly impossible to look into because you know what they don't -- that most will never get a second chance.

In the midst of this horror story I saw the coolest dude of cell block B -- Shagster. Even though he was in a cage with four crazy hyper dogs, this scruffy terrier was just lazily resting his head on crossed paws while letting out a big old yawn. The attitude just slayed me. Here he was in Treblinka, and he was just hangin', just chillin'. And I thought, if this dog could have this perspective here, I was definitely stressing about way too much stuff in my life.

Lesson 4: You'll gain important insight from your animal.
Lest you think we're absolutely wacky, I just want to state for the record that adoptees five and six weren't supposed to stay with us long. A local rescue group sent out an e-mail stating that two 15-year-old Chihuahuas had to get out of their shelter ASAP -- the next day was E-day (the E being "euthanasia"). Could someone foster them temporarily?

I started strategizing immediately about the pitch I'd give to Lori. And, of course, I ran to the calendar to see if mid-July had any major holidays.

Word came back straightaway: "No. Absolutely not."

"But it's just that -- "

"I don't care. We have quite enough dogs, thank you. Besides, I'm onto you. I've already checked the calendar -- and only the French celebrate Bastille Day, Carol!"

"But these dogs aren't to keep. We're just a way station for the next few days until they find a permanent home."

I knew I had her there.

So off we went to the North Central Animal Shelter. And I must say, watching that big red E euthanasia placard fall into the trash as we left the shelter was a pretty amazing feeling.

Way station? Yeah, right. Of course they never left.

Important Discoveries

Lesson 5: Fostering is only a heartstring away from adopting.
Last month brought our latest addition. We went to the shelter to help some friends adopt their first dog. However, by now it's pretty clear to everyone but us that you can't put Lori and me in a shelter for longer than two minutes without our leaving with something breathing. (Even if it's an overworked volunteer, they're still getting in that car!)

So, on this trip, we saw a little Yorkshire terrier puppy in a cage right near the entrance. He was impossibly adorable -- the kind of dog that people cluelessly go to a pet store and shell out three grand for. His intake sheet said he was a stray, but I pulled myself away, really giving it the old college try.

"I have to have him."

What? Who said that?

"I'm absolutely smitten with that puppy," said Lori. I couldn't believe it. "Sweetheart, you're supposed to be the one with all her marbles, here."

"I just feel a connection to him. He reminds me of Murphy." (Murphy was Lori's first dog, who had passed away.)

"I completely understand, but this puppy will be adopted in a second. We should take one of the harder-luck dogs."

"He's still homeless."

How could I argue with that one? Especially when my pocket calendar showed that Valentine's Day was at the end of the following week.

And that was how Albert, named in honor of the great Mr. Einstein (since they share the same wild hairstyle) came to complete our lucky seven.

Now, I've done some pretty spiritual things in my life. I've watched the sun rise over the Acropolis, in Athens. I've hiked in the red rocks of Sedona and felt the power of the mystical vortices. I've seen Barbra Streisand live on her farewell tour, twice. And yet none of those experiences comes close to what I've felt when I've adopted an animal.

This world seems so out of control at times -- and you can feel absolutely powerless to have a hand in changing any of it. But when you adopt an animal, you create a little miracle. You right a little bit of what's gone wrong on this harebrained planet of ours. You feel like every superhero rolled into one, because you took something dark and awful and made it light again.

From When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, by Carol Leifer. Copyright (c) 2009 by Carol Leifer. Published by arrangement with Villard Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.