I wrote this short story for an advanced creative writing assignment, during the final year of my undergraduate studies. There was a limit of 2,500 words.
The brief was to write in a completely different style to usual – I chose to craft a serious, hard-hitting piece because humour tends to find its way into all of my writing and I wanted to show that I could create serious fiction, too.
My intention for this piece was to illuminate the plight of dogs who are severely mistreated through the horrific crime of puppy farming.
© D.E. Kendall
My heart thundered so powerfully it was all I could hear. Beads of sweat rolled down my temples. I’d never been called to action before; it was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. However, exhilaration soon fell to oblivion as we opened the doors to hell.
That flimsy mask they’d provided wasn’t enough. The pungent cacophony of smells cracked the air from my lungs, like an airbag in a high-speed collision. I could taste the acrid air rushing to escape through the door that hadn’t been opened in over a week. The heat rising from mounds of faeces suffused the atmosphere.
We coughed and spluttered our way into darkness. As one of the others braved a search for the light switch, the pounding of my heart faded, giving way to an orchestra of high-pitched cries and desperate whining.
Suddenly, the room was illuminated, and my heart stopped at the sight.
Crates were piled on top of one another, from the filthy floor to the crumbling ceiling. In those crates, stood in inches of waste without access to food and water, were puppies.
Despite their dire situation, the gorgeous little creatures scrabbled to the front of their cages, tripping over each other in the excitement of seeing humans. I can still hear their tiny tails frantically hitting against metal bars. Those living, breathing, sentient innocents were treated worse than murderers; trapped, in a prison to house the fancies of the fashion-conscious.
The horror that such a disgusting, loveless world was all those dogs had known streamed uncontrollably from my eyes. Although, I didn’t want to appear emotional among the heroic volunteers, so I blamed tears on the burning fumes that permeated the plastic goggles they’d loaned me.
There were no words.
‘Come on, everyone. Let’s pull ourselves together and get these babies out of here.’
It took all the strength we could muster to follow orders instead of collapsing in desperation. We organised ourselves into a human conveyor belt, methodically passing pet carriers back and forth. As a fresh pet carrier reached the end of the line, one person was allocated to fill that carrier with puppies and pass it back along the line of volunteers to be loaded into the vans.
Two hours later, we’d successfully retrieved forty-nine live puppies of varying ages, three nursing mothers, two pregnant mothers, and eighteen dogs, in various states of decomposition, who hadn’t survived however many days without food.
My latex gloves hadn’t endured the operation, and my once colourful outfit resembled that of a chimney sweep. As we trundled along winding country roads, the van I travelled in would’ve been steeped in silence if it weren’t for the rhythmic ticking of windscreen wipers, and the cries of frightened puppies. I watched the heavily laden van straight ahead and thanked myself for not volunteering to drive.
An hour later, we arrived at the veterinary centre. They’d been primed for our arrival, as five vets and nurses were lined up outside the entrance, peering eagerly from under their umbrellas through pouring rain. Without time for introductions, we directed the vets and nurses to each van, working in seamless synchronicity to get the surviving puppies and their mothers to safety.
I was on bathing duty. The stench of some of the puppies was so vile I had to borrow a nose clip from fellow volunteer Alex, for whom the operation was sadly workaday.
Some of the puppies were so thin I worried I might break their fragile bones if I scrubbed too vigorously. I’m not an expert on dog breeds, but from what I could ascertain, most of the dogs we rescued were French Bulldogs, Cavapoos, and Pug-types. They were so unaccustomed to human contact, that needle-teeth pierced my hands and arms repeatedly as I fought to keep the wriggly, pot-bellied babies in place to apply shampoo.
For a fleeting moment, I found joy in the cheerful faces of those squirmy bundles of bubbles, as I revealed the true colours of their patchy coats and rash-red skin.
Then, a trainee vet handed me a bedraggled, underweight adult dog whom I was informed was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She was muzzled and growled ferociously with what little might she could, as I gently teased matts from her tangled, dirty coat. I lightly ran my hands over her and noticed her mammary glands were boiling hot, swollen, and raw, though she hadn’t yet given birth. The vet-in-training said she was scanned and due three puppies anytime, but she was already suffering severe mastitis because her previous litter were still young enough to feed. She snapped her head around and smacked her muzzle into my arm, squealing in pain as I ran the hose carefully along her side.
‘I’m so sorry, Girl. I have to do this, it’s for your own good. I promise it’ll be over soon. Please, just stand still.’
No amount of coaxing, bribery, or begging calmed her. The poor dog began to thrash and growl and scream at me not to touch her. I called for a nurse to help, but it was no use; the dog was too terrified and in far too much pain to cooperate. It wasn’t long before the nurse admitted defeat on my behalf and whisked the dog away to be sedated.
After a seemingly endless night, the others staggered out of the veterinary centre at around six the following morning, though I stayed for another hour. Every dog had been checked over by a vet, they’d been medicated, they’d all had some lovely food donated by the public, and they were all cosy in spotlessly clean veterinary kennels and cages, complete with fresh, fluffy blankets.
However, the veterinary centre was not homely, and there wasn’t space for all those dogs to stay indefinitely. So, the search for foster homes began. Any dogs who couldn’t be found a foster home would have to be moved to rescue kennels that had space, which, for some dogs, meant travelling hundreds of miles.
I wished I could foster. But my job was so hectic I was hardly ever home. In fact, I only assisted with the puppy farm operation because covid prevented my first holiday in years from going ahead – plus, my vet friend, Ali, had persuaded me to help.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the operation and felt I hadn’t done enough. So, I drove the two-hour journey to the veterinary centre a week later, unannounced, to offer my time. Upon my arrival, I was met by Alex, who was loading pet carriers of puppies into a van.
‘Morning! Can I help?’
‘Hey. No, I’m fine, thanks. These are the last two litters. Ali managed to conjure a miracle somehow and found foster homes for almost all these guys!’
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ I said. ‘I’d love to help, though. Is there anything I can do?’
‘Ali did say they’d had difficulty finding somewhere for one of the adults,’ Alex slid the van’s side door shut. ‘But it isn’t looking good. Lost her pups yesterday. And, even under heavy sedation, she bit Rita’s arm. They’re debating whether to put her to sleep.’
‘That’s terrible,’ I detected an unintentional wobble in my voice.
‘These things happen, unfortunately.’
Judging by the tone, I imagine Alex detected the wobble in my voice, too.
‘I’ll find Ali.’ I said with a smile, hoping Alex wouldn’t think me soft. ‘Safe trip.’
‘Thanks! Take care.’
Alex climbed into the van, slammed the driver’s door shut, then drove away.
I rushed into the building to be greeted by Rita, the receptionist with a perfect lilac-grey perm. ‘Hello there, Lovely. Looking for Ali?’
‘Hi. Yes, please.’
‘Lucky thing, having a friend like you taking time out of your important job to help.’ Rita’s wrinkles crinkled as she smiled behind bright red lipstick. She then shuffled piles of paper around the desk, ‘Ali’s in consult room one.’
Fortunately, I hadn’t forgotten my way around since those months of work experience during my gap year a decade previously.
I discovered my friend wrestling with an angry Yorkshire Terrier who refused to have his temperature taken.
‘Alright, there?’ I couldn’t help but giggle.
‘No.’ Ali didn’t look away from the aggressive little dog.
‘Need a hand?’
Growls escaped the toothless creature’s curled lips.
‘Yes, please. Hold his head still, while I try getting the thermometer in.’
I cautiously wrapped my hands around the ferocious dog, careful to avoid his grin in case a tooth still lurked. I imagined the dog had a gremlin’s name, like Stripe or Mogwai.
‘Don’t be fooled,’ Ali warned. ‘He may look cute, but he’s a feisty little git. He can still cause some damage, even without teeth.’
‘No problem, he’s under control.’
‘Thanks. If you could stroke his head or something, it might distract him long enough for me to get a decent reading.’
‘What’s his story?’ I asked. ‘Is he a rescue?’
‘Yes and no,’ Ali replied, reading numbers on the thermometer while trying desperately not to let it go. ‘Bruce here is about seventeen. His owner has Alzheimer’s and recently went into a home, though the guy’s family didn’t want to take Bruce on.’
‘That’s so sad.’ I loosened my grip for a second and Bruce took a snap at my hand, grabbing my thumb in his mouth and crushing it like a vice. I choked back a tear of pain.
‘It happens.’ Ali removed the thermometer, cleaned it, then retrieved Bruce so I could shake off the pain pulsing through my thumb.
‘Have you found somewhere for him?’ I scowled at Bruce, who looked far too pleased with himself.
‘For a seventeen-year-old Yorkie with anger management issues? Nope.’ Ali scooped Bruce up, walked to the door, and opened it, gesturing for me to walk through into the corridor. ‘But we do have a receptionist here with a fondness for veterans who has agreed to take him home for a few days, while we try to find a vacant kennel somewhere.’
‘Poor fella,’ I said, feeling less insulted about being bitten.
‘We do what we can, but we can’t find every one a loving home, unfortunately. They’re just not out there.’ Ali gently placed Bruce into a freshly prepared cage, where there was a bowl of food, some fresh water, and a cosy blanket ready and waiting. ‘These days people want pretty puppies to boost their Instagram following. For many, soon as the dog matures with behavioural issues they’ve inadvertently created, or the opportunity to get a new puppy arises, their original pet is forgotten. Discarded, like yesterday’s leftovers.’
‘I’m sure some people have legitimate reasons for rehoming their pets though, don’t they?’ I followed Ali through a maze of corridors and operating theatres.
‘Well, there are arguments that sometimes people have to give up their pets. But to my mind, if someone buys an animal, it’s the same responsibility as having a child.’ Ali pushed open the door to the kennels, to be greeted by a chorus of excited barks and yipping. ‘I’ve got provisions on provisions in the event I can’t take care of my dogs. I have relatives, friends, and even an insurance service in place if the worst happens.’
I said nothing. As someone whose parents gave away their dog because their young sister was allergic as a child, I imagined Ali would have had something scathing to say.
‘I assume you’re here to see this monstrosity?’ Ali smiled.
‘How did you know I wanted to see her?’
The spaniel I’d encountered the week before was cowering in a nest of blankets in the corner of a huge, cold kennel.
‘Vets are mind readers, didn’t you know that?’
‘What’s going to happen to her? Alex said she might be put down.’
‘Her puppies died last night, sadly. And they’ve sapped the life out of the old girl.’
We both watched through the glass as the frightened little dog quivered uncontrollably in the corner of the kennel furthest from the door. Her long, matted coat had been clipped to reveal a swollen stomach and protruding hip bones, with back bones poking out from paper-thin skin like the spines of a stegosaurus. Deep mahogany irises were surrounded by the terrified whites of her eyes, as she stared up at me pitifully. The short, course coat should have been shiny and flowing, though all that remained of her white and chestnut patches were some rash-covered sections of pigmented skin.
‘She’s been on a drip and had antibiotics, though at this point, it doesn’t look good. We believe she’d been nursing a litter of two, whom we’ve managed to find foster homes for because they’re “Cavapoos”, which makes them desirable these days. Back in my day, you cross two different dog breeds, the result was a mongrel or crossbreed. Now, people are mixing dogs to order like cocktails.’
‘Will you put her to sleep?’ I couldn’t take my eyes off the trembling little dog.
‘To be honest, it’s looking likely.’ Ali turned to check the clipboard of the kennel behind us. ‘It’s a tough one, because we could be prolonging her suffering. The bloodwork hasn’t been processed yet. There’s a chance she’s suffering from an underlying condition.’
‘Does she have a name?’
‘We don’t usually give names to dogs like her. It’s tough not to get too attached.’
‘I think she deserves a name.’
Two days later, Ali called me to the veterinary centre on the penultimate night of my so-called holiday. As I drove through relentless rain, I envisaged white sandy beaches, palm trees, and the pool I should have been sipping drinks beside in the Maldives.
I had to knock on the entrance doors as the place was locked – not sure why I was surprised, it’d gone ten. Ali raced out of a back room to the doors, opened one, and ushered me through, straight towards the operating theatres. Taken aback, I followed without a word.
Moments after we barrelled through the doors, I froze.
On the table, accompanied by Rita, lay Faith.
‘It’s time.’ Ali spoke softly. ‘I thought Faith would appreciate your support.’
I walked silently to the table, wishing Ali had called me sooner. Perhaps I could’ve saved Faith, instead of worrying about my missed holiday. Should I have taken her home? Would she still be laying here? At least she wouldn’t have spent her last few days alone, in an empty kennel.
As the beautiful, hopeless dog looked up at me, I could see the listlessness in her eyes. She’d given up. She was prepared to join her lost puppies.
My tears soaked her naked ears as I leant down to press my forehead against her.
Ali prepared Faith’s vein for the injection. I smoothed my fingers gently over Faith’s tiny back paws, as Ali nodded to me and steadily pushed the needle in.
I held Faith in my arms as her heartbeat slowed, until long after her eyes had closed.