The ballad of Zalea: A Saginaw coonhound’s journey to a new shelter


KOCHVILLE TOWNSHIP, MI — The silence might have seemed the sweetest of sounds to Zalea.

Only 30 minutes earlier, the 2-year-old coonhound was cramped tight inside the bottom half of a double-stacked kennel in a different shelter across town. Back there, above her was another dog, joining in the chorus of canine woofs and barks that often concussed the eardrums of occupants and visitors alike at the aging Saginaw County Animal Care and Control Center facility.

But that was then.

Somewhere in between, Zalea was whisked away — along with the old facility’s 80 dogs and 40 cats — to a new setting, where the same cast of canines barely made a sound.

Zalea’s journey to the new Saginaw County Animal Care and Control Center in Kochville Township on Thursday, Aug. 24, was not a lonely one. She was accompanied by dogs that shared her circumstances and humans that sympathized with that shared plight.

The Saginaw News/MLive followed Zalea’s trek across town in an effort to chronicle one of the last dogs to inhabit the former county shelter ... who also became one of the first canines to settle into the new facility.

Zalea’s story began before that day, although her current caretakers don’t know exactly when. Is she 2 years old? Is she 3?

Unless a previous owner comes forward with better information, Stacy Bauer will continue to tell people, “She’s about 2-ish.”

“But she’s still a baby,” said Bauer, a 10-year shelter volunteer who perhaps knows Zalea as well as anyone else these days.

The two bonded over walks in the old shelter’s yard and happily-exchanged dog treats. When Bauer invited the gesture Thursday, Zalea more than once rose up on her back legs, planted her front paws on the volunteer’s shoulders, and licked the woman’s head. Faced with a face-full of tongue, Bauer closed her eyes, smiled with pursed lips and petted the pup’s head in return.

“She’s the most loving, sweetest girl,” Bauer said.

She knew enough about the dog to elaborate on what variety of coonhound Zalea represented. “She’s a tree walker,” Bauer said, referring to the colloquial term given to dogs known more technically as treeing walker coonhounds.

Not many tree walkers spend time at the Saginaw County animal shelter. “Unless it’s hunting season,” Bauer said with a laugh, referencing the breed’s reputation as savvy hunting companions.

Zalea, though, did not arrive at the county shelter during hunting season. She began her stay in a Saginaw kennel this summer, about two months earlier, when she was dropped off there as a stray.

A medical diagnosis revealed she was heartworm positive, Bauer said. A patch of semi-shaved fur on Zalea’s back represented the site where injection medication was applied.

The color of that fur resembled Rocky Road ice cream: A blend of black, brown and white. The shades seemed to blur together whenever she shook out her ears, her jowls flapping loosely beside them.

Zalea rarely barked or howled, even as her peers let loose with sharp, unsynchronized noise.

Her frame was more slender and long than most of her canine companions who departed for their new digs Thursday. Standing up, from paws to pup-ears, Zalea measured about 4 feet. It was a frame that fit with little room to spare in the old Saginaw County shelter’s kennels.

Watching her in those tight quarters led Bauer to insist she serve as the volunteer who ushered Zalea out of the old facility for the last time. So, she did.

RELATED The dog days are over at Saginaw’s old animal shelter. Here’s a look inside the new site.

At about 9:30 a.m., the two exited the rear of the Gratiot building, where they awaited Zalea’s turn to join four of her peers in one of the seven trucks that spent five hours Thursday transporting the animals uptown.

When it was time, Bauer collected Zalea and lifted the dog into a compartment near the vehicle’s rear, unfastening the leash and sneaking in one last stroke of Zalea’s forehead before securing the door.

Later, as Bauer watched the truck depart for Kochville Township, she wiped away tears she attributed to joy.

“This is such a poignant moment for me,” said Bauer, who campaigned in August 2018 for the millage that funded the new animal shelter estimated to cost $11.7 million.

“We fought so hard to get these animals to a new location. All of the hurdles, all of the help; now it’s paying off.”

Zalea’s journey to the new site involved a five-mile ride north, through Saginaw Township and across the busy Bay Road business district. The clouds were grey and a light sprinkle kept roadways and windshields moist along the way.

As the dog-transporting truck neared an entrance to Sam’s Club, the vehicle turned the opposite direction, pushing onto a 300-yard stretch of road that ended at the new shelter’s parking lot. The address: 5615 Bay.

There, the truck parked in a supply garage, where another cast of volunteers and staff awaited the incoming guests.

Lori A. Brown, another longtime shelter volunteer, collected a leash and opened the vehicle’s compartment door Bauer shut 15 minutes earlier.

“Hi, pretty girl,” Brown said, greeting Zalea before lowering the pup to the ground and loosely looping a leash around her neck.

The volunteer then tugged on the line and led Zalea through an entrance and into her new temporary residence. The canine’s head swung from side to side as they crossed territory fresh to her droopy eyes.

At the westernmost corner of the newly-constructed building — which measured 23,000 square feet in size compared to the 7,680-square-foot facility where Zalea spent the previous two months — the pair arrived at a series of hallways that hosted the new dog kennels.

Zalea turned left into a hall that featured windows lining one of the walls, giving her a view of the sky outside and providing some natural light. It was nearly the difference between night and day compared to the former shelter, a converted Rite Aid where dozens of dogs lived in one room, positioned several doors away from the nearest outdoors vista.

At this new shelter, no kennel was stacked on top of another kennel.

Instead, Zalea was placed inside a kennel more than three times the size of her previous abode, its metallic cage standing taller than 6 feet.

The new kennels featured two views of two different hallways; like a front porch and a back porch. Zalea explored the dual space immediately, shifting back and forth through an entrance that connected the east side of her kennel to the western-facing compartment.

Walls separated Zalea from her new neighbors, Hissy and Leland. The rest of her hallmates were Flint, Bayne, Cinderella, Baja, Amelia, Gumbo and Martini.

They were all in place — not a bark shared between them — when Zalea arrived.

One of her neighbors finally erupted in a brief fit of howling as two volunteers arrived with a late-morning offering of food; a serving of chicken and rice-flavored 4Health brand for the hall’s inaugural residents.

Zalea, though, did not make a sound when her portion was poured. Instead, a melody of dry pebbles hitting her shiny, silver bowl — and then piling up — was audible.

She waited until the humans moved their attention to the next kennel before sinking her snout into the fresh mound. The food crunched between her teeth. Like a symphony maestro waving her conductor baton, Zalea’s white tail began wagging behind her, perhaps suggesting a happy harmony inspired by a feast enjoyed in peace.

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