Almost 8 million dogs and cats enter U.S. shelters each year, and almost 50% of them will not come out alive. The cycle is horrific. Dogs come in abused, neglected, heartbroken, sick, old, pure-bred–with one thing in common…they are unwanted and unloved. It is hard on the animal-lovers who work for the shelter. It is hard on anyone who loves animals.
What many people don’t realize is that about 35% of abandoned animals are pulled out of shelters by rescue groups. Rescuers go deep into the shelters looking for adoptable dogs. They find foster homes, they provide food and vaccinations and spay/neuters. Their own homes are usually brimming with wagging tails. They sell t-shirts for medical care fundraisers. They network to find just the right family for each dog. They organize transport to move dogs all over the country, to get them to homes where they will be loved and taken care of. Their phones buzz with incoming texts, emails, messages…about the dogs they’ve saved, or about dogs that are urgently in need of a place to stay before time runs out.
Rescue groups operate all around us. Rescuers seem to lead double lives…working full time jobs, raising families and giving the rest of their time, hearts and homes to the dogs they save. It takes a great human to traverse through this bittersweet cycle. Rescuers experience extreme joy when opening a shelter cage to save a dog, only to turn around and have their hearts broken when they look into the eyes of the desperate dogs still in their kennels. And there is pain–anger–when they walk to the front of the shelter, only to see a line of people dropping off unwanted pets. It takes a hearty soul to care so deeply, to do so much, to function so effectively around “humanity” and to give so much of their lives.
This is the story of Kelly and Judy: special souls who are dog rescuers in this never-ending stream of unwanted and abused animals.
Rescuers make life or death choices. Every day. Rescue groups are responsible for saving about 35-40% of the dogs brought into shelters, pulling those considered adoptable and transporting them around the country. But it is hard. There is compassion fatigue from witnessing all the sad, scared eyes, all the life behind those bars. The dogs are desperate for someone to slow down, to look, to touch, to acknowledge that they are alive. 2013.
Rows and rows of metal cages, filled with barking, terrified dogs. Almost half of the dogs who enter a shelter will never make it out. Judy walks the rows looking for the right dogs to fit open foster homes. These trips to the back pavilions at the shelter can take hours as rescuers talk to each other and shelter staff/volunteers and network the dogs across social media. 2013.
Rescue groups go deep into the shelter to look for dogs to save. The back rooms at the shelter are sometimes loud with barking, and sometimes eerily quiet. There are all kinds of dogs at the shelter–pure bred and mutt, small and large, old and young, stray and owner-surrendered. Strays are held for a minimum of 3-5 days in case someone comes looking for them. Because no one is going to come for owner surrenders, they may be euthanized immediately if space is needed. 2013.
Some dogs cower in their cages–terrified, trembling, heartbroken and confused, and maybe shattered forever. These dogs seem to not want anyone to look at them, to see them, matted and dirty. They will not look up and shrink into the corners. 2013.
“Are you ok?”, Judy asks. Judging from his scars, he may have been used in dog fights. Judy walks through the pavilions asking this again and again. Sometimes it is a question. “Are you ok?” Sometimes it was a statement, willing them to be ok when options looked bleak. Even if she spent only a second with each soul–that little moment, a smile, a kind voice…It means everything…to the dogs…and to Judy. This dog, we later learned, did not make it out. He was euthanized to make room for the steady stream of unwanted dogs. 2013.
During the summer of 2015, Canine Influenza ripped through Chicago’s Animal Care and Control. Dogs were categorized by the severity and stage of their illness, and rescuers’ visits to the various pavilions were sequenced from healthiest to sickliest so that the healthy dogs stayed healthy by being visited first. Disposable yellow gowns and rubber gloves were required, and had to be changed between pavilions to lessen the spread of the virus. The shelter had an added layer of sadness–to see the dogs shivering in their kennels, too tired and sick to move, to hear the hacking coughs in the sickest pavilions, to know that most of these dogs were not going to make it out alive. Rescuers continued to do what they could to pull dogs and find fosters who could accommodate dogs who had been exposed to the virus. Rescues had to be isolated for two weeks or more to avoid spreading the virus. 2015.
Dogs are introduced to other dogs of different sizes, personalities and gender to see how they react. Rescuers hold their breath–hoping for tail wags and play postures. If the dog acts aggressively, he will go back in the cage, with a slim chance of ever making it out of the shelter alive. 2015.
After a full day of work, Kelly stops by the Chicago shelter to check in on potential rescues. She leads a Pit Bull out into the yard for a little fresh night air, some exercise and a temperament test. It is estimated that 30-35% of the dogs euthanized are Pit Bulls. Unchecked breeding and the vilification of the breed has led to shelters overflowing with these powerful yet often untrained and frequently abused dogs. 2013.
At CACC on a Sunday night, we came across these 3 bonded girls. The white one on the left was the designated watch dog…protecting her siblings by positioning herself in front of them, or over them, and snarling like a fierce dragon. The other two seemed to want to say “hi”…but big sister wasn’t having it. As we left the shelter that night, these 3 were getting rescued. The white one had given up being the strong one…and leapt into the arms of the rescuer. Surprisingly, chihuahuas are one of the breeds most often dumped at the shelter. 2015.
Kelly takes Betty Page back into the shelter after a brief and brisk winter day walk around the grounds. Construction had begun to update kennels in the Chicago Animal Care and Control facility. The new kennels are larger and the pavilions have more natural light. However, during construction, there are fewer open kennels for homeless dogs. 2015.
“Peep” came into the shelter with one eye dangling. Judy and Kelly committed to her rescue immediately and her eye was removed in emergency surgery. The next day, her painfully matted hair was shaved. A few weeks later, Peep lost her other eye to infection. When she healed, Peep was adopted. She is now living happily ever after with a family who adores her. 2014.
Kelly stands in the hall at Chicago Animal Care and Control. She is making final arrangements for foster homes for these two lucky dogs who will walk out of the shelter tonight with her. The Pekingnese will go to a breed-specific rescue group. The dignified little dog standing was grossly underweight and had been shaved to treat his dry skin and matted hair. He had been surrendered by his owner in very poor condition. Four months later, he is still getting healthy in a foster home. 2015.
Betty Page peers out of Judy’s car. She had just been rescued from the shelter by Kelly, and is keeping an eye on her savior. Kelly and Judy are both texting to see who has space for Betty Page tonight. If no one does, Judy will take her home for the night. Judy and Kelly pull 2-4 dogs a week from the Chicago shelter. They meet in parking lots near animal hospitals or pet stores to coordinate and move the dogs to available foster homes. 2015.
Hilde left the shelter with just a generic standard issue rope cord. First stop was a pet store to get her very own collar and leash, toy and treats and a stash of food. Rescues do everything to get a dog into a good foster home. They want and need successful and repeat fosters. Fostering gives a dog a chance to get healthy, get socialized, and learn house rules. Fosters and rescues pay close attention to dogs’ personalities and needs so that potential adopters enter into the arrangement with no surprises. 2015.
Otis is a pet shop boy. Ruby is a rescue and is a little mentally askew. Many rescue groups take only the healthiest and youngest animals from the shelters to control costs and to prevent having unadoptable dogs. Other rescue groups take the dogs that speak to their hearts and may specialize in a certain breed, or the seniors, or the physically handicapped. 2013.
Rescuers have an intense, all encompassing love of dogs. Their homes are often full to the brim of wagging tails, clicking toenails, water dishes and crates. 2013.
Dog rescuers collect crates…from donations, yard sales, pet supply store sales, etc. The crates are bleached and readied for trips to the shelter or weekend transports. 2015.
Kelly takes one dog out for a run in her backyard while she checks emails, texts and social media posts for rescue-related information. Rescue is a daily, hourly, constant occupation for rescuers. Everything is about the dogs, for the dogs. 2015.
Every weekend, dog rescue teams move dogs across the country in a series of one to two hour relays. Why transport the dogs? Some areas of the country don’t have as many unwanted dogs and so the dogs pulled out of Chicago’s shelters have a better chance of being adopted elsewhere. Sometimes dogs are going to a breed-specific rescue in another state. Dogs travel with their paperwork and specific instructions for feeding and caring for them on what may be 2 to 3 days of 12 hour drives in a series of cars. Transporters have prearranged meeting places to switch the dogs from one car to another, and walk and feed/water them before getting on the road for the next leg. For transporters, it’s a time to meet one another and enjoy the 3-10 dogs they transport. For the dogs, it’s life saving. 2013.
There are strict rules during transport to ensure the health of the dogs. Puppies are often “no paws on the ground” if there is any chance of parvo. Dogs just out of the shelter can have many problems including worms or stomach/bowel issues due to stress and change of diet. Rescuers, transporters and fosters are diligent in monitoring the samples in order to treat any sickness. 2013.
Rescuers often have a lot of dogs in their homes. Some are theirs, some are fosters, some are only passing through for a night or two. There are rooms designated to isolate new guests who may be sick or scared. There are crates and cages for private time. And everything needs to be cleaned between occupants. 2013.
Judy and Kelly look at a place on a rescued bulldog mix. Although they both work in marketing, Judy and Kelly have enough experience with rescue that they can quickly identify health issues and can better work with the vet clinics who donate time and treatments. 2013.
Two groups made a 160 mile road trip to meet in the middle of Indiana. Traci and her friend/friend’s son came from Ohio with a couple of old boxers who had been rescued by Judy and Kelly the year before. Mr Belvedere had been frail and malnourished when he was pulled from the shelter. After almost 2 years in his hospice foster home, he is pleasingly plump and happy. Though he had not seen Judy and Kelly since his rescue, he recognized and greeted them with zeal at the meeting place in the empty parking lot. He will live out his life with his foster. 2015.
Avery entered the shelter as a cruelty case, with all of her legs broken and toes crushed. While Avery’s casts were on, Judy carried her outside several times a day and made sure her movements were restricted so that her young bones could heal. Sadly, almost 3 years later, Avery is still available for adoption. http://www.adoptapet.com/pet/11244516-brooklyn-new-york-american-pit-bull-terrier-mix
“Peep” came into the shelter with one eye dangling. Judy and Kelly committed to her rescue immediately and her eye was removed in emergency surgery. A few weeks later, Peep lost her other eye to infection. She was adopted and lives happily ever after with a family who adores her. 2014.
Atticus kisses Judy. He once was a rescue. Now, Judy belongs to him. She adopted him and he graciously shares his home with a stream of fosters. 2013.