By Debra White

In mid-October 2001, a sprawling shopping complex including a two-level mall known as Chandler Fashion Square, opened in the East Valley area of Phoenix to rave reviews. Critics said malls were fading away and questioned whether the new mall would succeed. I shrugged off the doom and gloom. Someone always nitpicked, didn’t they? To keep my mind off rumblings about an impending American invasion of Afghanistan, I drove to the new mall to see it for myself. I grew up in New York City and shopping always relieved my stress, even if I didn’t buy anything. As a teenager, I visited a Rolls Royce showroom in a ritzy neighborhood wondering what it’d be like to own such an expensive car. I’m a senior citizen now and still wondering. A pedestrian car accident in 1994 threw me out of the workplace, ending my social work career. Reduced to a skimpy budget I learned to live simply. I could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo gasped. On that first visit to the Chandler mall, I rode around on my motorized scooter (result of the accident), mostly window shopping. I passed the puppy store on the second floor and my hackles rose. As an animal lover and the owner of rescued dogs, I knew the truth behind that purebred puppy yapping in the window. I spun around, rode the elevator to the first floor and left in a huff. I refused to shell out what little money I had in a mall with a pet store. Mall pet stores procure puppies from the notoriously filthy, unsanitary and cruel puppy mills, massive operations where female dogs are bred around their cycles. Dogs including puppies are treated like cheap crappy merchandise, not like the family pet. Veterinary care, regular food and shelter from inclement weather are scarce. Puppies often arrive at the pet store riddled with disease or even dead. The Chandler puppy store was typical of all mall pet stores demanding sky high prices for purebred puppies that frequently had inbred conditions like hip dysplasia. Maybe in 2010 or 2011, I joined a feisty but dedicated group of volunteers who picketed outside local malls with pet stores including Chandler Fashion Square which, by the way, I’d stayed away from since that fall day in 2001. Because the mall was private property, we gathered on public streets holding signs saying things like “Mall pet stores buy from puppy mills” or “Adopt, don’t shop.” Hordes of car drivers honked in support as they pulled into mall parking lots. Now and then, someone got out of their car to inquire about our protests. We educated them about the nature of pet stores and the harsh reality of puppy mills. Due to work and school schedules, we only met on weekends for a few hours. The sizzling Phoenix summers where daytime temperatures easily spike above 110 degrees confined pickets to cooler winters.

In 2012 the unthinkable happened. The Macerich Corporation, owner of dozens of shopping malls across the nation including Chandler Fashion Square, stunned the animal rescue community. Once a pet store’s lease expired it would no longer be renewed. That surprise announcement was the slow death of at least some mall pet stores. The Simon Corporation, another corporate mall owner, didn’t join Macerich. Still, shelters and rescue groups were overjoyed with the decision. One by one, mall pet stores folded. More emphasis was directed towards rescued pets through dogged determination. There’s a long way to go, however. Millions of dogs and cats enter shelters every year and not all of them are adopted.

The former pet store at Chandler Fashion Square became an adoption center, an extension of the Arizona Animal Welfare League, a private shelter where I’ve volunteered since 2008. In 2014, I moved closer to the Chandler mall and started to volunteer there on a weekly basis.

I start my day at the mall by parking in front of Dillard’s department store. Why? Just habit. Before COVID walloped us, I always arrived about an hour before my shift. I plopped myself down at the Wildflower Bread Company, a local chain of restaurants serving up good healthy food at reasonable prices, and read some of the free available newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Arizona Republic or the Wall Street Journal. Wildflower featured a bread of the month and put out a plate of bread samples for customers like me to snack on. For an hour or so, I read through the newspapers and nibbled on bread slices. I then rode my scooter through Dillard’s for the elevator to reach the second-floor adoption center. Breezing through Dillard’s sidetracked me down memory lane. As a high school student, I worked at Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan from 1970-72. I was a waitress in a long ago closed restaurant called the Dutch Treat. The greasy food was hardly a treat, but I was proud to earn a modest salary at the tender age of sixteen. Every Saturday late afternoon as I walked out of Macy’s I watched fancy women in high heels and dresses at the cosmetic counter having blush, eye-liner, lipstick, etc. carefully applied by make-up saleswomen so they’d look inviting for their evening dates. My boyfriends only took me to the movies or to eat burgers and fries at cheap diners. Fond memories of my years at Macy’s linger after all these years. I regret that so many chain stores buckled because of COVID and on-line shopping. Nothing can replace the department store. Nothing. I loved my years at Macy’s.

I sign-in at the mall adoption store and check out all the new arrivals. Some weeks we have a dozen puppies needing attention and a few sad looking older dogs and cats bewildered by confinement in a cage. Maybe they wonder why their owners surrendered them. Sometimes, I wonder too how a ten-year-old dog or cat suddenly became a bother. To the dogs and cats (usually the older ones) I say that someone will come for you. Someone always does, even if it takes weeks. For the older dogs and cats, both staff and volunteers comfort them with cozy beds and snacks. We try to make their stay with us as pleasant as possible.

As a volunteer, I have a list of duties to keep me busy. I tackle the laundry first. Once I load a machine with soiled rags, towels or blankets, I check to see what else needs cleaning. An empty cage is a sign that a dog/cat has been adopted. That makes me smile. I grab the disinfectant and wipe down the cage preparing the space for the next homeless pet. There’s always another dog or cat ready to occupy the space. Always. Dishes, oh the dishes. The sink is filled with food bowls or toys soaking in disinfectant. I rinse them off and place them on a rack to dry. I check the clock. If it’s time for the second meal, I load up a big bowl of kibble, one for puppies and one for adult dogs. Most dogs, especially the puppies, wag their tails and yip with delight when I dish out the food. Some can’t wait and dig their little heads into the bowls of kibble. For those on soft food, I open up a can and scoop some into a dish.

I look into the cats cages to make sure their food and water bowls are full. I spot check litter to make sure it doesn’t need scooping. One week, I heard a desperate meow. I followed the source until I saw a cat with no food in her bowl. Maybe she was a stray and didn’t get enough to eat or maybe she didn’t get enough food in her prior home. I filled her bowl. That satisfied the pretty puss.

After feeding time, I’m ready to take adult dogs in the yard, a small fenced-in area outside the back entrance. There, I sit and let the dogs take care of business or wander around. Some like to play fetch. In the summer, it’s smothering hot outside despite covering and sprinklers. I sometimes fill our little pool with water so the dogs can splash around. Once back inside, I sniff for poop. We don’t take the puppies outside because they aren’t fully inoculated yet so they eliminate in their cage. We clean up as soon as we notice waste inside. Sometimes, we place puppies in an open enclosure inside the store called the “pit.” Visitors adore puppies and everyone wants to pet them. Even before COVID, we always asked people to please use hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of disease. We want to keep our animals and our customers as safe as possible.

Over the years that I volunteered at the pet adoption store, I absorbed much about mall operations. Take the loading dock for mall deliveries at the rear entry. It buzzes with activity almost all day, every day, except Sunday. UPS, FedEx, Staples and other drivers pull up to unload goods. Employees enter and exit through the back entry as well as hang out there to smoke. Our fenced in dog walking yard is adjacent to the loading dock but unfortunately next to a designated smoking area. Because it’s outside, the rancid smoke usually doesn’t bother me. Or the dogs. Once in a while, the opening and closing of truck doors scares timid dogs. So does the racket from the cardboard recycler, a huge monstrosity of a machine that crushes cardboard boxes. Employees arrive every few minutes lugging empty boxes they toss into the big machine. Once they close the door the machine emits a loud grinding noise as it compresses the cardboard. Later on, it’s picked up by a recycling company to turn into more cardboard. Since we’re in a locked yard, dogs can’t escape. I try to comfort them, however, saying the clamor won’t hurt them. Thumping music from cars waiting to pick up employees irks me, however. To me, it’s not music like a soothing violin concerto but just obnoxious noise. I can’t wait until the employee comes out so the driver leaves. My musical tastes are from a different era.

On the other hand, I’ve come to know some of the regular delivery drivers. Once a dog did get away from a volunteer. A crew of employees and volunteers mounted a valiant search for the missing dog. I asked a UPS driver with a local route to be on the lookout for our wayward woofer and he said he’d be happy to. Thankfully, a Good Samaritan found the dog and returned it to our shelter. At holiday time, delivery trucks arrive non-stop. Actually, I’m glad because that’s a sign of a healthy prosperous mall even if it creates a ruckus.

COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Few people, if any, saw the encroaching invisible enemy. The mall changed too because of COVID. In late February and early March 2020, crowds at the mall slowly thinned and nearly disappeared. Stores closed one by one. I wondered how much longer we could hold on. Soon, the governor ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses. The mall along with our adoption store shut down for over two months. I missed my routine of snacking on bread samples at Wildflower and reading the newspapers before my shift. I longed to hang out with the staff, volunteers and unwanted pets. Since I no longer held a job, volunteering at the pet adoption center was as helpful for them as it was for me. We re-opened in mid-June to many changes. Initially, we kept the front gate down and only opened it to customers with adoption appointments. Everyone — including staff, volunteers and customers — were required to wear masks. Only one volunteer per shift was allowed as a way to limit the number of people in the store. In the early days, the store was quiet without shoppers parading through mostly gazing at the animals. A few months later, we raised the gate and permitted a small number of people in at a time as long as they wore masks. Now we are more lenient and let in more people. More than one volunteer can work a shift but the mask mandate still stands. That’s created a not so surprising pushback. Let me give you examples. Social media and the press are full of stories about the rabid anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. Some of the dandies shop at the Chandler mall. As a rule, an employee or a volunteer like me is at the store entrance on mask patrol. In the beginning, we charged $2.00 for a disposable mask then we lowered the price to $1.00. Now we give them away for free. We ask visitors if they have a mask they can wear. Some do; some don’t. Some are insulted by the question. I personally heard people say “It’s just cats and dogs” to which I respond that masks protect our health. One man claimed my request was just plain stupid. He stormed away then returned to remind me how idiotic I was. I didn’t take it personally. Another woman with a snarky attitude said she wouldn’t come in our store if I gave her a mask. I said thank you and have a nice day. Now and then I hear people spit out curses as they pass our store that they’ll never adopt from us because you have to wear a mask. Good, keep going. I wouldn’t want to send one of our dogs or cats home with such belligerent people like them anyway. Another man cursed and said he’d never buy anything in our crummy store. I said to myself you probably weren’t going to buy anything anyway. I am aghast at some people’s hostility and level of anger.

The mall is an exciting, interesting and mostly fun place to visit, work, shop and to volunteer. At Christmas time, how can anyone not smile seeing children perched on Santa’s lap. Each week a special adoptable dog can also sit with Santa. Why no cats? Most cats are skittish around crowds and we don’t want a cat to escape inside the huge mall. Security guards patrol the mall for everyone’s safety. They keep order and dissuade anyone from causing trouble. I regret that many malls face extinction from on-line shopping and the behemoth Amazon. How can America be America without shopping centers and malls? It’s our tradition; it’s in our blood. On-line can never replace a day of shopping with your friends or plopping down in the food court for a sandwich or a cup of coffee. I never want to see that day happen. I hope Dillard’s, Macy’s and the few remaining department stores don’t meet the fate of Sears, Nordstrom’s, Brooks Brothers, Century 21 and other retailers that bombed because of COVID and on-line competition. I’d miss the store and its employees. I’d also be sad that another piece of America died and was buried. If the Chandler mall goes, so shall our store. How can we let that happen?

Debra White’s articles have appeared in the Bark, Animal Wellness, Arizona Republic, Social Work, Psychology Today, Airports of the World, American Jails, Indian Country Today, Literary Yard, Academy of the Heart and Mind, and others. She contributed book chapters and wrote book reviews

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