September 24, 2023

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Kennedy: ‘Miss Clara’ soothes nervous, older dogs at McKamey Animal Center

At the animal shelter where she volunteers, Clara Register is known as “the dog whisperer.”

She goes by “Miss Clara,” a nickname she got as host of the “Romper Room” television program, which aired on WDEF-TV 12 here back in the late 1960s.

Register, 80, drives from her home off Hixson Pike to the McKamey Animal Center about six days a week. She always arrives carrying a bag of cut-up hot dogs.

She specializes in soothing the nerves of small, older dogs who often land at the shelter afraid and cowering. Some have lost their longtime owners to death, she said, and others have been found on the streets with no known backstory.

“Usually, they are in the back of the kennel, shaking,” Register said last week in an interview at the facility on North Access Road. “I just open the door and sing a song or tell them a story. … I sing the ‘Alphabet Song’ and songs from the ‘Sound of Music.’

“‘Do-Re-Mi’ is a good one, and I tell them stories about other pets that have been adopted.”

Once the little dogs warm up to her, she swaddles them in blankets and sits with them near the front door of the center, like a grandma cuddling a baby.

“What happened to you? How did you get here?” she asks the tiny dogs, who tilt their heads trying to understand her questions.

More than 50 years of working as a literacy coach and school teacher have given Register a natural empathy for small people … and animals. At 5 feet tall, she knows what it’s like to be tiny.

“The big dogs, when they are on their hind legs, they are taller than I am,” Register said.

Leaders at McKamey say Register’s loyalty and compassion are crucial to the center’s operation.

“You can tell when somebody comes in to volunteer, how much they care,” said Lauren Mann, director of advancement at McKamey. “It just radiates out of her. She’s always here. She cares about our mission and every single animal that comes in.”

Register cares so much, in fact, that she warns a visitor that she may burst into tears at any moment while talking about the shelter, which has hundreds of animals under its care. Sometimes, Register takes one of the tiny dogs home for a night and always gets choked up when she brings it back to the shelter.

This summer the shelter has been packed, with some pets being housed in pop-up kennels in the lobby area. So far this year, 2,149 animals have entered the shelter’s care — although that figure does not represent the facility’s current population, as some animals have been adopted — and adoption fees have been lowered to $15 throughout August to help make adopting easier.

Register is recovering from hip surgery, so the staff at McKamey made a small grocery cart with blankets and decorations. “Miss Clara” uses it to roll the little dogs around the shelter. A sign on the front of the cart says “Miss Clara’s Dogmobile,” and it is decorated with plastic flowers and greenery. Also attached are a waste scooper, a horn for beeping, a pair of scissors and a brush.

She generally bonds with a handful of small, vulnerable dogs. On a recent visit, her main charges were Nacho, 10, Delaney, 8, and Tazz, 5. The good news is that small dogs tend to get adopted quickly (Delaney and Tazz had already been adopted by press time) unless they have behavioral problems. By calming their nerves and making them easier to handle, Register actually speeds up their placement.

It’s good for the dogs, but Register said she gets a little heartache any time one of her little friends is adopted. One of the vets at McKamey once consoled her with the observation, “Don’t worry, there’ll be another dog tomorrow.”

And when the new little dogs need a friend, Miss Clara will ask them warmly, “What happened to you? How did you get here?”

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645.