words: Marla Cantrell
Images: Amber Neal
A winter wind whips across the parking lot of HOPE Humane Society in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on this Friday afternoon. Twigs skitter, a wayward plastic bag puffs like a cloud, and a movie ticket, torn in two, flies like a sparrow.
Inside the warm shelter, more than 300 pets wait, hoping for their forever homes. Duke and Dutchess are among the crowd, an unlikely dog duo who’ve been here for more than four months.
Amber Neal, raven-haired, smiles as she stops to pet an orange and white cat who slumbers on a nearby counter, before sharing the story of the furry couple. As the transport director of the Humane Society, she’s met every animal in the shelter. Each pet causes her heart to pang. She wishes she could take them all home, but her house is nearly at peak capacity right now: a cat, four dogs, two foster dogs.
The plight of Duke and Dutchess gripped her, following her home at night, greeting her when she woke in the morning. “It’s a love story,” Amber says, with none of the irony you might expect. When they arrived, it took the staff only a short while to understand that Dutchess wasn’t about to spend one night without her beloved Duke. Dutchess is a big girl, middle-aged, probably part lab, part Staffordshire terrier, and she grew anxious when separated from Duke. Duke, a small miniature pincher mix, whimpered, so mournful it sounded like grief.
So, the two got their way, and when Amber passed their kennel, there was Duke, sleeping atop Dutchess, the couple forged in slumber, united against a world that had turned against them in the time they’d lived on the street.
There are things about Amber’s job that are easy. She walks by a passel of silky puppies that look as new as springtime and feels a jolt of hope. The pups will likely find good homes with soft beds and people to love them. A dog with a pedigree and an outgoing disposition is a good bet.
But Duke and Dutchess didn’t seem quite as promising. Perhaps if they were separated, they could find their forever home. So that’s what happened, and soon Dutchess was adopted, much to Duke’s chagrin. It was as if Dutchess could feel the angst of her sweetheart, could imagine him at the shelter, not knowing what to do without her. After a while, her new family understood they couldn’t keep her and brought her back.
Which made Duke a little giddy. There was his girl, the one who held his heart, tagging along with him when the volunteers walked them, eating beside him when their food was brought. The shelter wasn’t exactly a home, but it was a good safe place.
When Amber would greet them in the morning, Duke would rise from his spot atop Dutchess, jumping up and down, his small feet making contact with Dutchess’s back, and she’d look at him as though this bouncing was part of their relationship she was happy to tolerate.
Still, Amber continued to worry about the two, wondering if someone out there would take them both. So she took their photo and posted a message on the shelter’s Facebook page, describing the pair, their particular love, their inability to be apart.
The post generated interest. People shared the story of the two lovebirds, hoping to find the perfect fit. As of this writing, no one has adopted Duke and Dutchess, but Amber holds out hope that their forever family is out there somewhere. “We never stop trying,” she says.
Which is the mantra for all who work here and love this mission. The no-kill shelter takes in pets who are in dire circumstances. Maybe their owners have passed away. Maybe they’ve been dumped by the side of the road. Maybe they’ve had to eat rocks to fill their bellies. The stories will break your heart.
Amber’s heart does more than break. It opens wide. She’s been working with the shelter for more than five years, and time after time, she’s been drawn to the least adoptable.
“My oldest boy is Bear, who was a senior Lab. They were cleaning his kennel one day, and I walk in and see this giant, hairless dog whose eyes are crusted over. I sat down next to him, and he put his paw on my leg, and then his head on my lap. I knew he was supposed to be mine, so I took him home. He had heartworms and food allergies, arthritis, dry eyes, seizures.” Amber smiles, “He can only eat salmon, which gets expensive, but I love him. He’s my soul dog.”
The mood shifts suddenly, and Amber says, “No dog deserves to be in a shelter. They deserve a home. In my job, I help transport animals to states up north where they don’t have the same animal problems as we do. I keep up with the animals we take, finding out when they get a home.” She waves her arm across the space, “We really are a village here. The staff, the volunteers, the people who foster pets. In the summer, we had 150 in our youth program who volunteered. Working here can be hard—seeing animals who’ve been abused for instance. But there’s happiness too, watching an animal find a home. Hearing from the people who adopted them, bringing families together.”
The talk turns again to Duke and Dutchess, the couple who’ve tugged at Amber’s heartstrings. “What I want for them is to find a home where they can live out their days together, to be happy. Where they won’t have to worry about food or love, where they won’t spend another minute on the street. Where they won’t have to battle the cold.”
There has been much speculation about animals and whether they feel love in the way that we do. Amber has never doubted it. She sees love everywhere, every day, in the eyes of the sweet dogs who wag their tails when she bends to pet them, despite having just come from devastating circumstances. She sees it in cats who climb in her lap, ready to take another chance on someone. And she sees it in Duke and Dutchess, whose story before they landed at HOPE Humane Society remains a mystery. What she’s sure of is that their love is as real as the sky above, the ground below. As sure as their steady heartbeats as they sleep together, Duke cuddled against Dutchess, the two just fine as long as they’re together.
As of this writing, Duke and Dutchess were still up for adoption. You can call the HOPE Humane Society at 479.783.4395 if you’re interested in taking this mighty duo home. Or, you can stop by the facility at 3800 Kelley Highway in Fort Smith, to see all the other great pets that need homes.
HOPE Mobile Adoption
February 16, 10am-6pm
PetSmart | 4900 Rogers Avenue
More than 20 dogs will be on site, and there will be cats as well, ready for adoption at a discounted rate.