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.
Animal welfare in Cuba is a daunting challenge. On my recent trip to Cuba, I had the honor of meeting Nora Garcia Pérez, the founder of Aniplant, an animal care and protection organization in Havana. Nora has dedicated the past 28 years of her life to the animals of Cuba: from big ventures like founding Aniplant and promoting animal welfare on Cuban radio and TV, to smaller efforts like traveling around Havana in a little yellow Fiat with the passenger seat removed to make room for two street dogs who sleep in the car every night.
Aniplant, or Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas, is located in Centro Havana, not far from the University and only steps from the beautiful Malecón sea wall. Aniplant seeks to eliminate the suffering of Cuban animals through sterilization campaigns to reduce the number of strays, public education to promote the need for good veterinary care and animal health, facilitation of dog/cat adoptions, and hands-on intervention in cases of animal abuse.
If you’re a dog lover and have ever been to Cuba–or to any third world country for that matter–you know the helpless heartache of seeing painfully thin and sick animals on the streets. And while Cuba is a highly educated, healthy and empathetic population, their lack of resources is a tremendous problem. Often, people simply do not have the means to properly care for animals. That means that many dogs/cats go without spaying/neutering, resulting in unwanted animals roaming the streets in search of food and shelter. The Cuban government collects strays from city streets, and almost all of those dogs/cats are immediately euthanized by poisoning or electrocution. Aniplant’s main mission is to reduce the number of strays by providing as many spay/neuters as possible. They have performed nearly 5,000 sterilizations each year since 2012 and are currently trying to expand operations throughout Havana and all of Cuba. Like everything related to Cuba, it is complicated. While Aniplant is the only animal protection organization permitted to function in Cuba, there are ministries and permissions to deal with and there are the obstacles of getting medical supplies and donations around the U.S. embargo.
The Aniplant location at 128 Principe is home to 19 dogs: 16 adoptable ones and 3 waiting to be on their way to homes in the UK and the USA. The dogs have the run of the back areas of Aniplant–the kitchen, a play area outside and a little room just off the courtyard. There are employees at Aniplant who work to train and socialize the dogs, and to prepare their meals of rice and meat. A veterinarian and vet tech are also on staff for routine procedures and emergency care. And every Friday, hundreds of pounds of meat for dog food are delivered to Aniplant to be sold to the community for fundraising. The place is immaculate, colorful, lively and upbeat–the receptionist sings on occasion and offers tiny cups of strong coffee to those waiting patiently for services. Dog and cat owners chat with each other and hold their pets close in the tiled lobby. Potential adopters check in at reception and discuss the adoption application process. And every now and then, the dogs break into barks or whines as a visitor makes their way back through the courtyard.
I spent several days at Aniplant, photographing and videotaping and will have a short multimedia piece to share with you soon. In the meantime, if you are moved by this story, please consider a small donation to the Aniplant Project. Considering that veterinarians in Cuba make only about $250 a year, any amount of money donated will go a long way to helping the animals. Donate to Aniplant. Nora’s wish list also includes a truck or large van to take the Aniplant spay/neuter clinic on the road and a small animal ventilator. If you, or anyone you know can help with those items, please contact me.
As many of you know, I’m a dog lover and have an on-going project documenting the work of people who rescue dogs. And I love Cuba. I love walking in Havana, photographing the elegant decay and witnessing the extraordinary changes happening there. I love meeting the people, getting to know their hopes and worries, and always admiring their persistence, creativity and resourcefulness. So this month, I decided to overlay these passions and dig a little deeper into the stories of the rescued dogs of Havana, Cuba and those sheltered by museums.
Street dogs are commonly seen in Havana, picking through the trash or teetering down the sidewalks. It is heartbreaking and frustrating. But in a country where food can be hard to come by for people, perhaps it is not unusual or unexpected. One thing that has surprised me is that many museums in Old Havana have taken on the role of sheltering dogs.
On my first trip to Cuba I saw a fat little dog wearing a business card and sleeping near Fototeca in Plaza Vieja. On subsequent trips, I saw more of these dogs with business cards…in front of other museums, in front of Havana’s University, and wandering around the old plazas…dogs who generally looked healthy and happy. So, on this trip, I went looking for these card-carrying dogs to find out more about their lives and the people who care for them.
These are the five dogs of Museo de la Orfebrería (Museum of Metal/Silver Work), a quiet courtyard museum on Obispo near Plaza de Armas. They are cared for by Margarita Garcia and Odalys Valdéz, who work at the museum as guides and security. The dogs spend their days napping in the shade of the courtyard, or lazing on the sunny bricks in front of the museum. During the day, they greet visitors politely–without fanfare or dogged attention. And they keep Margarita and Odalys company during their 6 day shifts working 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In return, Margarita and Odalys feed them and keep fresh water on hand. The dogs are sheltered in the museum– partially in the role of protecting the museum from thieves–but most definitely to save the dogs from a hard street life.
After noticing a few strays outside who seemed to pace by regularly–as if looking in…one more time…for an opening, for an invitation, I asked Margarita if there were ever more than five here. “No. Only five. We cannot feed or have more. But these five? Good for them.” And good for Margarita and Odalys and all the guides who care for these precious little souls.
This post is all about the dogs at The Heart and Soul Animal Sanctuary. Yeah, yeah, I know that my project is about the dog rescue organizations and the people who run them…but I find all the dogs and puppies so distracting! All those personalities, those smiling faces, and all the wagging tails and busy feet–it’s too much for me sometimes and I only want to sit among them and play. So, today, it is all about the dogs…and maybe a horse too. I hope you enjoy the characters. Hug a dog today…and everyday!
And please — Volunteer. Donate. Foster. Adopt a shelter dog.
In March, I spent some time at the Heart and Soul Animal Sanctuary, a rescue located on 100+ acres outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founder and Director, Natalie Owings cares for, and lives among, over 200 animals–dogs, cats, rabbits, wedding doves, horses, chickens, guinea pigs, ducks, llamas, alpacas, goats…. If any animal in the area needs a home, a meal, and some compassion, this is the place.
For the abused, neglected, sick or starving animals who have found safe haven here, this can only seem like heaven. Many of the animals are rescued from shelters in the area. And will stay here until adopted or transported to another state for adoption. Some may live out their days here.
About 30 dogs have the run of the Giant Doghouse and surrounding grounds. While they are fenced out of spaces for some of the other animals in order to keep the peace, they have ample selection of beds (inside, outside, in the sun, in the shade) and can help themselves to kibble anytime they are hungry. There are no cages, no leashes… and no fights. Every creature here is loved, respected, and safe …and they know it.
Please take a minute to visit the website: http://www.animal-sanctuary.org/
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about going with Judy early one morning to transport 10 rescued dogs on a 60 mile segment of their journey to Minneapolis. A rescue mission that felt good…happy…exciting. I had held a parvo-surviving puppy. She was lucky to be alive. Lucky to be out of the shelter on that sunny day and lucky enough to be healthy and on her way to a rescue. I felt her little heart beating, felt her tiny breath–felt her sigh as she gave in to a few minutes of sleep. I was happy and full of hope holding that little dog…so, so full of hope.
Later that day, after the transport was complete, we went to animal control…a place where hope is hard to feel. This is the place where almost half the dogs who walk in never come out alive*. This is the place where so many people who love animals have the sad job of collecting unwanted, lost or abused dogs and cats. This is the place where volunteer doctors and staff work tirelessly to save animals, and yet have to euthanize many healthy and treatable animals simply because there is no more room. This is also the place where rescuers go to begin their work, where saving a dog begins. They identify dogs for rescue, posting and sharing snapshots to network the many homeless faces, hoping that just maybe someone somewhere will fall in love and they can pull a dog out of there. Rescuers go to Animal Control often, especially when they know their fosters have room to squeeze in just one more.
The place is a maze of “pavilions”, rooms separating the animals into those ready for adoption, those being held as “evidence” for court cases, those in medical care, or those simply doing their time in hopes that someone will come looking for them before their 5 days are up. There are no outside windows in these rooms full of cages. The rooms can be loud with echos of barking, crying dogs. Or the rooms can be silent…like the air has been sucked out of the place, like dementors have been there.
Today, we were there to look for a couple of dogs that had been posted online for potential rescue, to temperament test another. I followed Judy and her scrap of paper with the cage numbers. All those sad eyes on us. All the life behind those bars. Some of the dogs desperate for you to slow down, to look, to touch, to acknowledge that they are alive. Other dogs cowered in the cages, terrified, trembling, lost and confused, and maybe broken forever. These dogs seemed not to want anyone to look at them, to see them, matted and dirty, shrinking into the bright orange tile and concrete corners.
It is hard to witness. I tried to concentrate on photographing Judy with the dogs, on learning what she was looking for when she studied their paperwork. I followed her–her golden ponytail, her scrap of paper with the cage numbers, her voice. And I watched her…I watched her muster her spirit, her smile, her hope in this hard place. I watched her giving hope to each of those shelter dogs. “Are you ok?” she asked each of them with a smile. “Are you ok?” Sometimes it was a question. Sometimes it was a statement, willing them to be ok when options looked bleak. Whatever it was, even if she spent only a second with each soul–it mattered. That little heartbeat of a moment, a smile, a kind voice…It means everything…to the dogs…and to Judy.
It is a cruelly hard job for animal lovers to work in this place, to remain hopeful, to not give up at the sheer magnitude and the never ending streams of needy faces. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the dogs.
* Most current (2011) Asilomar Accords records from CACC: “Jan 1 holding 863 dogs. Thru 2011: Took in 11,115 dogs. Adopted out 943, Transferred out to rescues/other organizations 3,407, Returned to owner 1,355. Euthanized/Died in care: 5,477. Dec 31 holding 793 dogs.” (corrected math on records shows 796 dogs remaining.) Please see www.asilomaraccords.org for more information on shelters in your area.
I spent a perfect July day with three dog rescuers and twelve happy rescued dogs. Yes, 12. It can be a little tricky at first when three packs come together…there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, tails and toenails moving in all directions, sniffing and more sniffing, and sometimes some curling lips and a little flash of teeth. But with the exception of Fancy Pants–an alpha female who could just not handle having another little lady in her house–the 12 came together for a grand Sunday afternoon.
It’s remarkable, really. These rescued dogs have been through untold trauma. Stuff that we can never know or fully grasp. They’ve been abandoned, neglected, abused, starved…the list of horrors is unending. Their trust in humans has been breeched, and their hearts–and sometimes bones–broken. Their experiences sometimes leave them with extra quirks–foibles, peccadillos. It takes a special person to reach through all that and to give these broken dogs the unconditional love, care and dignity that brings them back. They need restoration, some normalcy in their lives so that they can be considered for adoption.
The rescue people watch the dogs carefully, learn quickly…and accommodate these newly lucky dogs better than any restaurant or hotel I’ve ever seen. They know who needs a little extra space, who needs to eat alone, who is afraid of slick floors or won’t go down stairs, who wants the pool filled, who appreciates a rug in the sun, who likes to chase and who likes to be chased, who needs which pill when, who likes ice cubes, who’s not feeling well, and who may need just a little extra cuddle today.
I think the dogs know how lucky they are to have been pulled out of hell and into the orbit of these compassionate people. The dogs grow healthy, confident and hopefully forget all the bad things that happened before their rescue, before their foster, before their forever homes. And while they may never lose those little quirks, they do learn to love again.
The quirks and foibles of rescued dogs. From July 28, 2013 visit.