Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Penny brought me good luck

Penny says goodbye to a place she called home.

We all know what it's like to say goodbye to a dear friend who's moving away. Your happiness for their exciting new opportunity is edged with sadness as the magnitude of what you are losing begins to dawn. You promise to write, to call, to keep in touch. Sometimes you do. More often you don't.

And when the person leaving you has been a life force for your life's mission, the feeling of loss goes beyond the parameters of the average friendship.

I first met Penny Cistaro in 2001, shortly after moving here. I had loaded up a rented RV full of cats and moved from southern California to northern Washington State, where Penny worked as the executive director for the shelter in town.

In any new place I land -- and I've lived in many -- it's not long before I get to know the local animal shelter for one reason or another. This time, it was two feral cats I had found living underneath a trailer outside an engineering firm in Bellingham. I had trapped the cats and called the shelter to see if they would help fix them. Penny met me outside the gates of the Whatcom Humane Society (WHS) to collect the cats and check them in for surgery before the shelter opened.

That was the beginning of a friendship that saw a long parade of animals pass from my hands to Penny's. Cats I found sitting in the middle of the road, not street-smart enough to know any better. Unwanted pit bulls dumped outside my country home. Stray dogs I rescued running on the freeway. Cats who survived the floods of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Even a bullfrog who had been run over in an industrial park.

Though many of the animals didn't get their happily-ever-after endings, something always gave me comfort when an animal's story ended less than brightly. It was Penny's arrow-straight judgment and natural competence. Once the animals I had rescued were nestled safely in her care, I could drive away from the shelter knowing that I could relax. That they would suffer no longer, and be treated with compassion and respect.

The more I saw of this little shelter that could and its fearless leader, the more it inched its way into my heart. Penny, always the master delegator, saw something in me too, and promptly enlisted me as the shelter's ghostwriter. Since then, I have written extensively about WHS -- both the animals that ended up there, and the staff and volunteers who nurtured them along the way.

I've been doing animal rescue for 20 years, and Penny taught me more about the field than any other individual ever has. In particular, she opened my eyes wide to the struggles faced by shelter workers forced to euthanize because of the epic overpopulation crisis. And she taught me not to beat myself up when I lose one. You can't save them all, but you can save them one at a time.

This past weekend was Penny's last one here. Just before she left, I brought her some packing boxes. But in the end, we couldn't even bear to say the word goodbye. By Sunday, she was simply gone.

Monday morning was Memorial Day, and I was back in the shelter again, this time with an injured field mouse. The place felt different without her being there, although I was in good hands with the fantastic crew that Penny has trained and left behind to carry on with the life-saving work. Her spirit remains.

And while our local community has lost a gem, the animal rescue community hasn't. With nearly 35 years of shelter work behind her and a career that spans coast-to-coast, Penny's not retiring from the business just yet. This time, I'm staying up north, while Penny goes south to California. She started work last week in Sacramento, where she'll be running the city's Animal Care Services department.

Congratulations on your new opportunity, Penny. But just so you know, I'm not ready to call this goodbye. I'll be in Sacramento to visit you soon. And if history is any indication, I won't be coming empty-handed.

This is the look Penny -- or PC as I prefer to call her -- gave me when I told her she couldn't leave because I have abandonment issues.

Bellingham dentist and WHS board member Faith Bult comforts a teary-eyed Penny at the goodbye party thrown in her honor at Boundary Bay Brewery, a local hotspot.

Northshore Veterinary Hospital owner Kim Barron, also a former board member, came to the event with her kids in tow to say goodbye to Penny. Kim is also my vet, by the way.

When your mom's a vet, healthy choices come instinctively.

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