Just a little over a year ago, on New Year’s Day 2016, while most of us were recuperating from the night and week before, Spencer Kelly was counting dogs. “When we first entered the residence, we saw about 20 in the foyer, then took a right into the kitchen and encountered another 20. Every room we went in, we just kept finding more and more.”
In total, 66 dogs were seized and transported to the Montgomery County Animal Services & Adoption Center that day. There were small dogs, large dogs, healthy dogs and sick dogs, but there was one dog that Spencer couldn’t get out of his head – an aging, overweight pit bull named Elmo with skin allergies, arthritis and a large, mast cell tumor on his leg. “There was something about his face and those big, soulful eyes that made me gravitate to him as soon as I walked in that door.”
Sixty-six might not sound like a lot, but if you’re the shelter trying to assimilate them, that number is staggering. Each dog had to be assessed medically and behaviorally, then housed separately from the main population and held awaiting trial. Out of the total, four dogs were so sick they had to be humanely euthanized while the others were started on intensive medical and behavior plans. For the next four months, in between his duties as an Animal Care Supervisor in Montgomery County, Maryland, Spencer would set aside time each day to visit with Elmo. “I wanted so badly to adopt him, but just wasn’t in a position to do it at the time.”
In April, Spencer learned that Elmo, along with some of the other 66, would be transferred to a shelter a few hours away in Western Maryland to, hopefully, find their forever homes. “Even then, I kept tabs on him. The shelter out there would send me updates and it all seemed to be going so well.” Spring turned to summer and during that time, Spencer transitioned to a new position as an Animal Care Officer in the hopes of preventing situations like the one that landed Elmo in the shelter.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Montgomery County Animal Services & Adoption Center, it’s the gold standard of Maryland shelters. A $20 million-dollar eco-friendly facility with special HVAC systems to reduce disease and radiant floor heating to provide added comfort for the animals that’s located on rolling hills with walking paths, fenced exercise runs and staffed with full-time vets and animal behaviorists. And unlike many municipal shelters, this one falls under the auspices of the Department of Police so also includes a full-time animal cruelty investigator on staff. And if Spencer Kelly is any indication, it’s staffed with some of the biggest Softies around.
One evening in late August, Spencer found a message on his phone, “You’ve got a surprise waiting for you.” The next morning when he arrived at the shelter, he came face-to-face with Elmo. I asked, did he recognize you? “I’d like to believe he did,” said Spencer, “but I don’t know because the truth is, he’s such a loving guy, he’d be happy to see anyone.”
Of course, the most pressing question was – how did a pup adopted hours away in Western Maryland end up back where he started? Investigators soon pieced together the answer. It turned out that Elmo’s original adopter could no longer care for him so re-homed him to a friend. The friend lived in Western Maryland, but worked in Montgomery County so would bring Elmo along and drop him at his mother’s each day. One day, Elmo got loose and was eventually picked up by Animal Control. “We contacted the owner and you could tell he really cared about Elmo, but with his long work hours, he wasn’t sure he was the best fit. When we assured him that we’d be able to find him a really good home, he decided that would be the best thing for Elmo.”
Those assurances were easy to make because Spencer Kelly knew that if it was up to him, Elmo would never be without a home again. And yes, as you probably already guessed, Elmo’s last name is now Kelly and he’s gained two four-legged siblings and a set of very involved grandparents. In fact, Spencer and his parents take in fosters from the shelter and Elmo pre-approves each one. “Sometimes a shelter dog won’t respond to humans, but they will respond to another dog. Elmo is that dog.” It seems Elmo has a special place in his heart for little dogs and a major crush on a Pomeranian that lives next door.
We’d like to say the future is now looking bright for Elmo. He’s got a family that adores him, a very important role helping others and so many fans among the shelter staff that when he comes to visit, you’d think Brad Pitt just walked through the door. But there’s one detail we mentioned earlier that could impact his future. When Elmo was seized a year ago, they found a mast cell tumor on his leg – a tumor that’s gone untreated until now. Once the adoption was official, Spencer and his family started meeting with specialists to determine the best way forward. It’s a tricky operation and a costly one so the family is weighing their options. “Elmo is the gentlest, most loving dog I’ve ever known and whatever time he has left, I want it to be the best. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that’s the case.”
Any shelter worker or animal control officer will tell you – they’re both jobs where you never know what’s going to walk through the door. We’re thankful for the ones like Spencer Kelly who not only take the work to heart, but allow it to follow them home.
Cover photography by Virgil Ocampo