Elizabeth Kiernan slammed the trunk of her little sports Mercedes after fetching out some dog biscuits and a sack of old newspapers, but you understand she is president of the Animal Rescue League.
"What about that other sack in the trunk?" I asked, "don't you want me to get it out?"
"Oh, no, no, thanks," she said, and I sensed (from the quick way she slammed the trunk) she had not meant me to see it in the first place.
"The sack says Racoon Repast," I said.
"Er. Yes," she said.
We entered the Rescue League's shelter at 71 Oglethorpe St. NW, minus the big sack, and I was a bit surprised at the building (which is pleasant-looking) since I had heard of the financial traumas the League had gone through when they had to move from their ancient quarters at 71 O St.
"Skidmore, Owings and Merrill did it," my guide said. There's a lot of glass and fancy devices for keeping the lions and rabbits separate, and special ventilation equipment and skylights and a loading dock and a fenced paved place for the ambulance (an area large enough to house, temporarily, all the goats the damned farmers let loose on the Mall, for example).
"The League started in 1914," said Kiernan, whose mother, Elizabeth Darlington Simpson, was herself an early president of the League. "Horses were a big thing then."
There are old pictures showing beat-up old mules getting fed, and they used to have a Christmas party with ample oats and apples and (perhaps as an afterthought) cocoa for the guys that made their living with horsecarts. You don't see so many mule carts on K Street nowadays, and the holiday party is no longer a capital tradition, but they still receive 12,000 animals a year, both strays and animals brought in by owners who for one reason or another no longer will keep them.
"If we can place one in 10 or one in 12, we're doing well," Kiernan said, handing some meat to a monster cat (awaiting adoption) that she thought was charming.
The rest are killed, by a painless hypodermic injection. There are other systems, of withdrawing oxygen or using poison gas, that Kiernan has no truck with, considering them barbaric -- which, of course, they are.
Everybody knows that cats are all alley cats, though cat people think up fancy names for them, and if you find one all covered with tar (as a friend of mine did) at an industrial park, and take it home and clean it up and feed it well and call it a nice kitty, it is amazing how gorgeous the creature looks in a year. Just like the little wench in "My Fair Lady."
But few people know the same improvement is common in mongrel dogs. There was a really sad specimen at the shelter for three months. Nobody wanted him except a few guys who were suspected of wanting the mutt for dog-fighting (and the League is pretty cagey who it lets have dogs -- you don't have to be middle-class or fancy, but you can't be the sort of bastard that would sell it to a laboratory or abuse it).
After three months with no takers, the Kiernans took it, and it now presides over their house off Massachusetts Avenue with considerable lordliness.
It looks like a cross between a doberman and a boxer, though the Kiernans identify it as a Shropshire terrier.Beau is the name, and Beau is the right name.
"There we were down on O Street," said Kiernan, "with the city preparing to condemn our place to make a school playground. And where in the '70s, with no building fund, were we going to find land we could use or could afford? It took us five years hunting around.
"Finally we found a whole acre right off North Capitol Street, and one day -- we were sick, wondering where money was going to come from -- just like the movies, the mail brought a brown envelope. An old lady, who had never been interested in the shelter that anybody knew of, left us $125,000 just the amount to buy the new lot."
Kiernan shook her well-coiffed white hair in acknowledgement of Providence:
"Canon [Charles] Martin once said if something really needs to be done, the means will be found. That's true, don't you think?"
"No," I said.
Kiernan noted this second opinion, dismissed it, and went on:
"We get no government money. We do get gifts (thank God) and we have built up a small endowment fund that pays a third of our operating expenses. The rest we get as we can. Meet Mr. Souders, who has been with us 32 years."
James H. Souders, a stocky man of endless experience said:
"Bassets are the most intelligent dogs. More than any others. I used to have bassets."
"People think Bassets are stupid," I said, "though God knows they're lovable."
"The most intelligent," he went on, "and you take old Baskin. He was sort of a mascot here. The only bad thing about bassets is they like to wander around if they get out.
"Old Baskin did. But I never worried -- of course this was in the old days, down on O Street. He'd just get in a cab. Sometimes real late at night. The cabs knew to bring him on home. They'd honk, and I'd go out and pay the driver. Baskin was the kind of dog that just got a cab when he needed to."
Kiernan broke biscuits for a golden retriever, and for the Samoyeds and (numerous biscuits by now) a yellow cur ("I call her a blend," said Kiernan) named Princess. Pharaoh, a Dane was to be seen a block away on the horizon, being walked. There were a number of pups.
"There were whelped here," said Kiernan of some fuzzy white ones. "We don't have much trouble placing puppies." If the bitch is brought in pregnant, there are facilities for whelping. She is not put down with her pups for the sake of convenience.
"Once an owl was found right in the middle of Delacarlia Parkway," Kiernan said. "A great big one, that couldn't fly. The vet observed it a few days and said there didn't seem to be anything the matter with it, except it was not old enough to fly, even though to us it looked full grown.
" a board member took it and kept it on her porch. All the other board members went and got haircuts and brought the trimmings -- you know owls need a lot of hair and fur to digest properly -- and the owl came right along. After a bit it flew perfectly well and was released in a good place."
In the car again, Kiernan said the sack labeled Raccoon Repart was to be delivered to a lady who feeds birds and took on raccoons while she was about it. Her friends (for the lady does not eat two tons a day) bring her scraps to help out.
"Usually cats in trees come down," she said, sailing along, "but once we got a call about a pitiful kitten near St. Albans School, and since it was in some ivy way up there we thought it might have got caught somehow. Needless to say it was a weekend, and I couldn't find anybody at the school with a ladder -- I thought we might borrow their ladder.But as I went past there to take a look, my heart almost stopped. There old Canon Martin was up on the ladder (largely towards heaven) after the cat. Why he didn't break his neck I don't know. Our insurance doesn't let us use ladders, too dangerous. We use cat poles."
"Isn't he a director of the League?" I asked.
"Yes," said Kiernan. But he wasn't then. He has those English bulldogs and has had them for a thousand years. The females are always Cleopatra and the males are always Marc Anthony.
"Oh," she suddenly cried, "look there, I know that dog. It's a [rare breed, which will not here be identified] and that's the female. The male was at the shelter. The owners got divorced and she took the bitch and he took the dog, then he brought it in for us to find a home for. I called him once later to check just what shots the dog had had. He was one of the rudest men imaginable."
"Probably why she divorced him," I said.
"Well, it was all very involved, with the dog, but it finally worked out. I've never met the wife, but that's who it's bound to be, right over there. I think she'd think it strange if I stopped -- she's never heard of me, even -- so I won't. But I know all about her dog." s
When she was a little girl, Kiernan's family had a farm out near Herndon. Her grandfather used a spur railroad to commute.
They had lots of animals and lots of guests. The old gentleman was a successful lawyer. He had come here from South Carolina and liked to be nice to Baptist ministers who, in those days, had fine families and good appetites and he was forever bringing batches of them out from town.
He had a white handkerchief fixed to the train to signal he was bringing guests. That gave the family a little warning. It was a rather peaceable kingdom with all the kids and animals and Baptists and plenty of fried chicken.
"You saw the prayer engraved in the wall above the lobby reception desk?" asked Kiernan. "It's one of Albert Schweitzer's, asking us to remember the animals."
He had pelicans, of course, that followed him like pups in Africa. It must have cost money to feed the various animals he was so fond of. Prim persons probably liked to complain, even in Africa, the animal food money should have gone to poor humans.
It's usually the prim who reproach the Schweitzers of the world for wasting money feeding pelicans. The prim lead noble lives, of course, while old Schweitzer lived it up among the lepers and the desperately poor all his life, abandoning himself to such gaudy entertainments as playing Bach alone at night on a lousy jungle-rotted piano, and spending no doubt millions on his pet pelicans.
The prim are quite right. Animal lovers are terribly wicked and extravagant.
"Old Lance," said Kiernan, holding the picture gently. "What a dog he was. From the shelter, of course. You can see his back paw. Some guy with a meat cleaver chopped off most of his pads. He was so hurt, and we thought he'd have to be put down. I asked what his name was and somebody said it was Lance. And when he heard it he wagged his tail like mad."
"So you wound up with him," I said.
"What a dog he was," she said, without a tear. A dog gets you, way past tears, towards alleluias. Hell, even a cat does. CAPTION:
Illustration, no caption, by Susan Davis for The Washington Post