“Collecting Starfish”

I lure Karen to my house for the interview with the promise of a home cooked meal. When she finally arrives—late because of a …

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I lure Karen to my house for the interview with the promise of a home cooked meal. When she finally arrives—late because of a dog-related emergency—I am not surprised. Karen is a groomer and the director of a small local foster-based rescue that focuses on saving and rehoming dogs and cats in the area. She is single, having traded her husband “in on an Australian Shepherd a long time ago,” and rarely stands still for more than a moment. In fact, once she enters my home, her vibrant, animated personality erupts out of her rather short frame. As she speaks her eyes are bright, her hands gesture, sometimes wildly, and her face is expressive.

“I have puppies!” she exclaims happily. She is from Texas, but her slight drawl is barely noticeable in North Carolina. “There was a litter dumped at the vet’s office. Sarah called and asked if we have room for them. I just finished divvying them out to the puppy fosters.” I idly wonder how many, but Karen’s already answering, “Eight puppies!” She gives herself a happy little shake, looking very much like a puppy herself. “Boxer and shepherd or something; fuzzy little things. And I had to pick up that beagle from the shelter. Man,” she uses her signature term of address, “I don’t know why he was still there, but I promised him last week I’d spring him from jail when his time was up.”

She attacks the chicken pot pie with the same enthusiasm that she shows in everything she does. Her life revolves around and is devoted to rescue. A vast majority of her time is spent either moving animals to and from foster or to the vet, doing computerized paperwork for adoptions, or taking care of the number of fosters that go through her house. There is no time in her schedule for home cooking. I know; I’ve been to her house. Her refrigerator contained boxes of animal vaccines and an industrial sized half and half for her coffee. Her freezer held only the small wrapped body of a puppy that had died and needed to be taken to the crematory.

While discussing her path to rescue—she was once an accountant before she traded up to her first Aussie—she asks me if I’ve heard the story of the girl and the starfish. I have, but I let her retell it.

“A young girl,” she begins, “was walking along a beach filled with starfish that were stranded. She would stop every few steps, pick up a starfish, and toss it back into the ocean. An older man watched her for a while before he said, “Why are you bothering to throw back the starfish? Look how many there are, you will never make a difference.”

“The girl looked up at him with a determined glint in her eye, picked up another starfish, and tossed it into the ocean. “I made a difference for that one,” she replied.

“That’s how I felt,” she says. “I’m terrified I’m going to one day die and there will be a dog that I could have saved, but I won’t be there.” She talks about the need for awareness and the frustration of having so many lives slip away with her powerless to save them all. “Starfish,” she says as she nods. “That’s how we came up with the slogan for T.A.R.A.: One by one…until there are none. That’s the goal. Last year we rescued over 900 animals.”

Her dinner and her stories are interrupted by her phone ringing. She sighs, “I have to take this.” After a moment she places her hand on her brow and wearily says, “Mother of God.” After assuring the caller that the dog was fine, she issues directions regarding a dog’s care. She gets another phone call and three texts before she is able to return her attention to dinner.  In five minutes she has triaged a dog with a cold, calmed the terrified foster, sent a volunteer with medicine, arranged for another dog to move between fosters, and set up a meet and greet for a potential adopter. When she returns to her meal she is smiling.

Karen talks about how hard, emotionally and physically, rescue is and thoughtfully considers tripling the pay her volunteers receive. “Yeah, man,” she says, “from now on, everyone gets three times the puppy kisses.” She talks lovingly about the many dogs that she has come to know in over twenty years of rescue work; about Jet, her beloved Aussie who died from a disease he couldn’t fight, even with her help; about Ana, the puppy she nursed through a horrible case of canine parvovirus; and about the adopted dogs who return once in a while with their new families to visit and say thank you.

Finally, we push away from the table and go outside to sit the back yard so she can have a cigarette and look at the stars. “You know, man,” she says, “I’m just trying to collect the starfish.”

~Originally written for a school project; posted here slightly edited.

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