I'd been with the animal shelter about five years when she and I met. An emaciated mutt fiercely protective of her pups, she had long silvery fur tipped with black and soulful collie eyes. I called her Athena.

When she hungrily tore a rawhide treat away from the pups, she was moved alone to the next run. "Food aggressive," decreed the shelter manager.

Now, hearing her litter but unable to see the pups, Athena grew increasingly frantic.

One day I opened the cage door, slipped a leash over her head and let her out. She raced toward her offspring. Then, satisfied they were safe, she let me take her outside.

For three hours I observed her behavior. My co-workers and I tugged at her ears, draped ourselves over her back and put our fingers in her mouth. She rewarded us with tail wags and canine kisses. Returning Athena to the kennel, I told her: "Tomorrow afternoon I'll give you a nice bath and a good brushing. And if nobody adopts you by tomorrow night, then I will."

The next morning I arrived at the shelter and couldn't find her. Had she found a home already? I searched the runs, but they were all filled with other strays and give-ups.

Poking my head into the break room, I asked hopefully: "Did Mama Dog get adopted last night?" Nobody made eye contact. Finally, someone choked out a reply. "Manager put her down yesterday."

Andrea K. Slaugh, Bealeton, Va.

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