My last day as a DOA volunteer was on a cool, cloudy Thursday morning, a week and two days before I flew back to California. I biked my usual route through Sloterplas park and down Ookmeerweg, wondering what random series of events would happen on my last day. Would the hose nozzle break again so I would make the return bike soaked? Would one of the dogs in my assigned kennel have a particularly bad, dirty day? I couldn’t believe I had been with DOA since September. I was ready to give my last day my all as much as I was ready for it to be my last. Finals were weighing on me, I still had one more 9 a.m. class to get through on Friday, and I couldn’t even begin to start thinking about saying goodbye to everyone, and to my year abroad. Of all the chapters of my Amsterdam life I needed to close, I knew ending my time at DOA was going to be a bittersweet relief.
Of course, before dropping my things off at my kennel, I went to say hi to my favorite, Nessie, a spry, sweet-natured brindle Staffordshire with a white powdered nose. She was curled up in her bed when I walked up to her door, her kennel neat and tidy as always. I sat on the floor, back against the wall as she got up, stretched her short legs, and presented her big velvety face for pets, eventually rolling to the ground for belly rubs, gnawing on a tennis ball clutched between her outstretched front paws. Nessie flipped back onto her belly and shook her whole body, front to behind. She started to curl her nose in a lowercase growl, head tilted so as to cast me a grudging side eye. I gave her a final scratch under her chin before letting myself out for the 9 a.m. meeting. “I’ll come back, Ness, don’t worry. We’ll go on a walk.” She stared me down, jowls resting in a perpetual frown until I fulfilled my promise.
I’d signed up to clean one of the usual A kennels. I was excited to see who would be keeping me company on my last day, since so many dogs cycled in and out every week. There was a huge chocolate lab with cartoon eyes, a piebald pink-nosed herding dog with a toothy smile, a long-legged Dalmatian with floppy black ears. One of the kennels was occupied by a duo of short-legged, fluffy Shih Tzus, one black, one white, both with crusty muzzles and old-man beards. Another kennel had a dynamic trio, two of the typical small, white, fluffy, outspoken despite their size, dirty-pawed variety, and a long-haired Chihuahua mix cowering behind them, trying to avoid my gaze. I made friends with the chocolate lab, how could I not when he begged so efficiently with his round and innocent Disney eyes, and the herding dog, who was as sweet as he made himself out to be.
I finished up the inside and the outside (the toilets) in good time. At the meeting, I’d been signed up to walk Nessie and a black lab who was maybe ready for a walk but mostly needed socialization. I went to the lab first. I greeted her and her timid roommate, a spotted spaniel, while constantly glancing around their messy kennel so as to avoid eye contact that might make them more nervous. The lab was much friendlier than her buddy, who ducked away outside as soon as I pulled out the leash and collar. Unlike most labs I know, this little girl sat obediently while I leashed her and stayed right by my side as she followed me outside her kennel. From the looks of her, I figured she was from the influx of abused and disheveled labradors from breeders who were recently busted. The second we reached the courtyard, her initial confidence immediately waned. She started at every rustle or snap, stopped every couple of steps to sweep her surroundings, and though she walked well when I did manage to coax her onward, she always regarded me with a wary side eye. I decided to take her to the fenced-in fields, where she could wander off-leash and build confidence, and perhaps see that I wasn’t there to lead her to some terrible, dark place. She loped around the yard for quite a while, all graceful with her long limbs, her wet black nose hovering just inches off the ground, always holding me in a side eye. I stayed on the wooden bench, minding my own business, keeping her within sight but without making it explicit to her that I was watching. She seemed content with this arrangement, me always five or seven feet away from her, sitting perfectly still, eyes to the sky, while she tracked circles around the margins of the yard.
Eventually another volunteer with another dog appeared to request the fields. I approached the lab with the leash, slowly but firmly, and was pleased to see how easily she let me slip it around her neck. We walked stride in stride back to her kennel, where she was welcomed back by the spaniel with furious kisses on the cheek and a nudge outside. They both disappeared into the outdoor kennel without another look to me.
Finally, it was time for me to see Nessie. I was very sad going into our last walk together. Ness was the first dog I walked when I started volunteering. Ness had also been at the shelter much longer than I had been a volunteer. She was known and loved by every staff member. More than anything, I wished I could take her home every time I visited. If I lived in Amsterdam full time, she surely would have already been mine. I tried not to think about my leaving as I walked towards her kennel. For her, it was just a regular Thursday noontime walk.
I reached her kennel, the door already cracked open. Ness wasn’t there, and I spent several minutes walking around the shelter, checking every yard, every outdoor kennel, looking for her. I thought someone might’ve taken her for a long walk, or a photoshoot, and I fretted I wouldn’t properly say goodbye. It was already past noon, and I couldn’t stay searching for her forever.
I had a hunch I hadn’t missed her when I spotted two volunteers and a trainee exiting a run attached to the daycare kennels, and sure enough, doing sprints up and down the dirt walkway, from gate to gate, was Nessie. “Nessie!” I called her name and she skidded to a halt, excitedly throwing herself up against the fence. I let myself in, because she obviously couldn’t, and I happily fitted her with a sparkling blue beaded collar and leash. “How pretty, Ness,” I crooned. She sat back in the dust, angled her head to so proudly show off her beautifully adorned neck. When I stood up, all regal poise was abandoned as she lost it again, absolutely psyched to go for a walk.
The second we were outside, heading down the driveway, Ness lunged for the weeds and started munching like she was an herbivore who hadn’t eaten in days. She then proceeded to throw all of it up on the sidewalk just as we turned left down the street that ran next to the farms and fields. I chided her as if she were my dog, “Now, what did we learn?” In response, she offered a wide grin and pulled me forward with all her front-heavy weight.
We took the road that wound past the shelter and the dog field and into a neighborhood of little farm cottages, weedy gravel driveways, overgrown dewey gardens, black and red chickens roaming grassy yards that waved like the ocean. Nessie was particularly startled by the sight of two huge white sheep posted up under low-hanging tree branches right next to the road. She gave me a “What the heck?” look and just moved past them.
The two of us wandered down a side path that curled left through more farmhouses, more yards with ducks and chickens, more vegetable gardens enclosed by low brick walls. Nessie was usually a great walker, and that day was no different. She stopped and started naturally, burying her nose in weeds, meandering down the embankment, propping her front paws up on a broken fence to survey the field with a trained eye, looking right over the mallards clustered in reeds right beneath her. Though she was easily much stronger than me, Nessie never pulled too hard, only when something demanded immediate investigation. Otherwise, she trotted nicely next to me, and I liked to pretend that I wasn’t a volunteer and she wasn’t a dog without a home; that I was her owner, just out for a stroll through the fields with my sweet staffy, just the two of us.
We completed the circle and made the right turn onto the main road, started walking back the way we came. Ness paused on the edge of a particularly long field, so long I could glimpse the faint high rises of Nieuw West at its farthest point. Plodding straight towards us, right up to the gate, were two black horses, with shaggy manes and large swaying heads, ears perked forward. The two of them, nearly identical, reached the gate and raised their eyes to scan me up and down, before turning their attention to the clearly more interesting passerby, Nessie. Close behind the twins was a smaller brown horse with a jagged white blaze tracing down the center of his face. He sniffed the fence and glanced at Ness for only a minute before traipsing by, head lowered to keep grabbing at the shorn grass. I was delighted to see an even smaller pony trotting up to the gate, ginger-coated, a bit round, with an afro of blond hair floating about his face. The three of them, two majestic black horses and a fluffy haired pony who came up to about their knees, stared at Ness with intense curiosity, like she was their long lost friend.
Ness did not know what to make of it. While I gave them all nose rubs, she paced behind me, taking a few steps forward, then jogging back, not letting any of them out of her sight. I could tell she wanted to investigate (after all, these were unfamiliar and investigation was mandatory for new things) but their sheer size clearly threw her off. The pony was her first milestone. He was just standing around, not facing anything in particular and seemed not to care whether or not she said hello. Ness bravely approached the fence and he extended his hairy nose to meet hers. They exchanged sniffs and glances and both decided that was good enough.
One of the two black horses was intent on meeting Ness, even after his twin had decided she preferred to go back to eating. He nudged me several times, giving me an imploring look with his deep black eyes until I scratched his nose. Ness feigned interest for a while, sniffing around the weeds, the yellow wildflowers, my dirty tennis shoes, the metal gate, until her sniffing trail eventually led to the curious black horse. He stuck his tongue out at her playfully as she gathered intel on him via a long and deep sniff. That was all of their encounter, but he seemed just happy with it, and Ness walked off with me clearly pleased with herself, but all the more happy to be on our way.
Saying goodbye to Ness was hard, but after the fulfilling walk, the chance encounter with unlikely friends, it was a little easier than I thought it would be. Our walk ended just as it always did. Ness hopped into her kennel and lapped up water until a small ocean pooled around her bowl. I undid her leash and collar, sat down on the floor, back against the wall, and gave her lots of hugs and pets. She offered me her head, let out a big yawn, and carried her decrepit tennis ball into her bed. I left the kennel just in time to let a staff member in, “Time for a photoshoot Ness!” I saw Ness get up and stretch, tail wagging, ready for her next outing.
Volunteering at DOA really helped round out my experience in Amsterdam. It offered an escape from exhausting social and student life, allowed me to carve out a space for myself in which I could help change the lives of unfortunate animals, little by little. I would recommend this experience to anyone who loves animals and doesn’t mind taking time out of their morning to do some dirty work, make local friends, and make a difference in these animals' lives by just being a companion for a day. I’ll never let go of how great of a walk I had with Ness on my last day. It might’ve been just another, perhaps more interesting, walk for her, but for me, it was an unforgettable memory from my last week in Amsterdam.
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My name is Emma Basco and I am originally from Sacramento, California. I am currently studying literature and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love to read on the beach, doodle on post it notes, paint with watercolors, and unearth new cafes and restaurants. My hidden talent is that I can make an excellent pot of noodles from packaged ramen.