News: Shirley Zindler
Dog to the rescue
June 21 is “Take Your Dog to Work Day.” For those of us who treasure our dogs company, being able to have our companions with us on the job is such a bonus. I’ve been blessed as an animal control officer to be able to bring my girl Breeze, a rescued Doberman, with me to work. On a rough day in the field, just being able to reach over and stroke Breeze’s silky coat can make the day bearable. I provide a soft bed next to my desk when I’m in the office and she’s expected to lie there quietly while I work. Of course, sometimes when there are several employee dogs wanting to socialize, we do allow them a play break. In the truck, she snoozes between calls and gets a potty break when I take mine. She doesn’t leave the truck unless invited and I take every precaution to keep her safe.
When we have our dogs join us at work, It’s critical that they be clean and well-behaved, and that we protect them from well-meaning but pushy or in-your-face people. Make sure your dog is comfortable with strangers and always expect that people will do silly thing to dogs. Even the nicest dog can bite so make sure your dog is enjoying any attention from co-workers or customers.
An added bonus to having Breeze along is that sometimes a scared stray will come to another dog but not a person. If my offers of treats, sweet talk and toys haven’t done the trick with a loose dog, sometimes bringing Breeze out is all it takes. On a recent call, two 5-month-old hound mix pups were dumped far out on a rural road. Sadly, one pup was killed by a car the first day, while the terrified and traumatized littermate wouldn’t come anywhere near people. He had taken up residence in an empty shed, but the minute I pulled up he took off through the pasture toward the nearby forest. Breeze was sitting next to me on the seat watching the pup intently. I got permission from the property owner and then took Breeze into the pasture where the shed was. Breeze loves everyone and is sort of the social greeter with dogs and people everywhere she goes.
The pup stopped at the sight of Breeze. With his tucked tail and hunched posture, he was the picture of dejected loneliness. I unclipped Breezes leash and said “get the puppy, Breeze.” She raced across the pasture, eager to meet a new friend, while the pup watched warily. As she reached him his tail began to wag and he curled his body into a submissive gesture of appeasement as she gave him the sniff over. Feeling more confident, the pup began to kiss her muzzle and press himself as close to her as he could.
As soon as I could see that they were buddied up, I sat down in the grass to be less threatening and pulled out a handful of treats. I called to Breeze, who came running with the pup close behind. I gave Breeze a treat and tossed one to the pup who stopped just out of reach. His body language was still terribly afraid but he clearly wanted to trust. Within minutes the pup worked his way close enough to take cookies out of my hand. In no time at all, he crawled into my lap, wiggling and wagging and soaking up the attention like he could never get enough. I slipped a leash on him but he immediately panicked. Obviously, he had never had one on so I scooped him up and carried him back to the truck with Breeze trotting by my side.
The hound pup was adopted soon after and he was just one of many examples of Breeze’s presence making my job easier.
I’d love to hear from readers who also take their dogs to work. Tell us the best part of having your buddy along on the job (or the worst!).
Culture: Stories & Lit
Standing up for a dog in Haiti
It was a strange place to cry, but I had no other place to go. In Haiti, a 10-by-12-foot classroom in a small schoolhouse served as a makeshift hotel for the evening. I sat down on the end of the bed—a green army cot beside a laminated poster of the human eyeball—and sobbed. My tears lacked the grace of my 35 years; childlike, inconsolable, they were tears of shame. I felt that I’d done something wrong.
I also sensed I was not alone. Chest heaving, nose running, I turned and checked the skeleton on the wall behind me. It stared back with empty eyes, its jaw unhinged in a perpetual state of laughter, or maybe horror.
Then I saw them, or rather, the tops of their heads. All three of my host family’s children were on tippy-toes outside the window, a square hole in the cinder block wall, listening. Their presence made me want to cry even harder, but instead, I forced myself to stop. They’d already seen and heard enough of my Ugly American behavior for one afternoon. I pulled a book out of my backpack and pretended to read.
The incident began with a dog. Or maybe it started with my decision to backpack across the Central Plateau of Haiti. An adventure-travel journalist, I was on assignment to cover the inaugural trek of Expedition Ayiti, a new adventure tourism company. Instead of camping, our small group of Americans and Haitians stayed in rural settlements along the remote route, paying local families for a meal and a place to sleep. The idea was to provide a source of income for some of Haiti’s poorest communities and to foster cultural understanding—or in my case, cultural misunderstanding.
We’d arrived earlier that afternoon in the tiny village of Lamarre after a seven mile hike. I was dozing in the schoolroomturned- hotel when a dog disturbed me. The rest of the group had gone to check out a church built by American missionaries. Feeling sluggish in the 100- degree heat, I stayed behind. I’d been napping for only a few minutes when the dog began to bark. I shifted in the cot so my back was to the window, yanking a pillow over my head. It didn’t help. I heard scuffling in the dirt beneath the window, a boy’s voice, a dog’s yips, more barking and then a dog’s cries. I winced. It was clear my nap was over.
Pushing open the wooden door, I stepped outside into the humid heat. Instantly, a layer of sweat formed on my brow. Around the corner beneath the window, a boy of about seven, my host family’s son, struggled with a skinny orange dog. It was a horrid game of tugof- war. The boy yanked a rough piece of twine he’d knotted around the dog’s hind foot. The dog alternated between trying to pull his leg back and letting himself be dragged, crying and whimpering all the while.
I yelled “Hey!” or something to that effect. Startled, the boy dropped the string and looked up. The dog limped away. The boy moved to chase him. I stepped between the two. “Stop it. Can’t you see you’re hurting him?” I said.
The boy didn’t understand. In rural villages, children speak only Haitian Creole, not French, and certainly not English. He lunged for the dog. I backed off. The dog scampered around the back yard, licking at the twine tied around his foot, which the tug-of-war had cinched down painfully.
My work wasn’t done. I needed to get the twine off the dog. But every time I moved toward him, he scurried nervously away. The boy watched, having found an even better source of entertainment than bothering the dog. I caught the dog once, but when I touched his back foot, he nipped at me. I cursed out loud. The boy giggled. By now, his mother and two sisters had come out of the house to watch the action.
The dog and I went round and round the back yard, each time garnering more laughter. The few scrawny chickens scattered. The goat tied to a tree bleated in alarm. Frustrated, I stood and faced my human audience, wiping the sweat and grime from my forehead. I knew they wouldn’t understand, but that didn’t stop me. “It’s not funny,” I said. “This dog is hurt.” More laughter. I searched each face for a sign of compassion. Their eyes were empty.
Finally, I caught the dog by the scruff of his neck, and he nipped at me again. I began to shout at my host family. I don’t remember exactly what, but it was aggressive and accusatory and, due to the language barrier, irrelevant. The dog was the only one who seemed upset. I let go of him and burst into tears.
The mother ducked back inside her concrete home and emerged with a leg bone—part of the soup we’d later be served for dinner. She lured the dog easily, and I realized that he belonged to the family. She untied the twine and shooed him away. I waited for her to look at me, for a moment of understanding to pass between us. But she didn’t. It didn’t.
I retreated to the schoolroom to finish crying. My clothes, soaked in the pungent sweat of adrenaline, stuck to my skin. I was disgusted with my host family, but more so with myself for losing it over a dog. What’s worse, a bored sevenyear- old abusing his dog or an Ugly American throwing a fit because of it?
A week later, I returned home to Boulder, Colo. During my time in Haiti, I’d lost 10 pounds and found an intestinal parasite and a heat rash. It was a challenging trip, on many levels. After a few days, the weight came back and my digestive system recovered. The rash, along with the nightmares of impoverished people in a ravaged landscape, faded. But the incident with the dog stayed fresh.
I thought a lot about suffering, specifically the relative amounts felt by animals versus people. The Haiti dog was suffering, and I’d wanted to alleviate that. But could I really blame my host family for their indifference? They had been dealt more than their fair share of suffering—scarce food, rudimentary shelter, parasites, cholera, devastating natural disasters. My concern with animal pain was a luxury their culture couldn’t afford. Who cares about a dog when you can only feed your family two meager meals per day?
I was ashamed of my behavior, my cultural insensitivity. And even a bit guilty about my privileged perch at the pinnacle of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” My basic needs are so well satisfied that I have nothing better to worry about than lofty concepts like self-actualization and animal suffering.
Surely I wasn’t the first person to lament such things. During a restless night in Boulder, I turned to the soothing search engine of Google. I typed “animal ethicist” and found Dr. Bernard Rollin. It turns out that one of the world’s experts on the ethical treatment of animals teaches at Colorado State University, an hour away in Fort Collins. Desperate for closure on my experience in Haiti, I sent him a long, late-night email.
Dr. Rollin called me the next day, which surprised me. His response surprised me even more. He told me that abuse of animals is a hallmark of an abused culture … But that doesn’t make it right. “What you did was absolutely the right thing to do,” he said. “Not only as a 21st-century American, as a human being. Why should an animal be allowed to suffer to gratify the whim of some child who hasn’t been taught any better?”
His forceful words that morning served as a literal wake-up call. I realized what was really keeping me up at night: I was trying to justify my host family’s behavior, telling myself that it was somehow acceptable, and that I was the one who was out of line. Dr. Rollin turned me around. Animal suffering shouldn’t be tolerated just because the person abusing the animal has also suffered. Nor should my privileged position in the world be reason to feel guilty about passing judgment on those in a less fortunate culture, or acting on my own ethical responses.
Dr. Rollin told me that Americans are so afraid of being labeled culturally insensitive that they become overly tolerant. “Even if an entire culture condones an unethical behavior, you should try to educate individuals out of it,” Dr. Rollin said.
I couldn’t take back my outburst in Haiti, but maybe that was okay. Maybe it was appropriate to show my host family how upset another human being was over animal suffering. Dr. Rollin perhaps put it best: “The last thing I’m worried about is offending people. We’re not here to be loved. We’re here to leave a better world than we found.”
Maybe that family is still talking about the crazy American woman who tried to help the dog. Maybe those three kids will hesitate before abusing their dog again. And maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will step in someday, the way the crazy lady did.
Published by CreateSpace
Dogs, cats, ducks, horses, goats, roosters, deer, snakes—animal control officer Shirley Zindler has seen (and helped) them all. As she makes clear in this collection detailing her experiences, working with the public and making a positive difference for animals can be a challenge, but it’s one that she’s embraced wholeheartedly. After reading this book, you’re likely to look at your beleaguered local “dog catcher” with a new respect.
Dog's Life: Humane
Bark n’ Bitches: LA’s First Humane Pet Shop
Lush red walls and vintage furnishings are the first clues that this is no ordinary pet store. When a dozen dogs scramble to the door for introductions, it’s clear you’ve entered a retail hybrid: a hip, humane petshelter boutique.
At Bark n’ Bitches in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, the retail store supports a rescue shelter, and the rescues snooze amid high-end merchandise and artsy black-andwhite canine portraits. This pet shop/ shelter model is the brainchild of self-described “dog-aholic” Shannon von Roemer, who credits her adored Pit Bull/Lab mix Jimi with inspiring LA’s first humane pet shop. “Jimi is really the one who awoke me to the abandoned-animal crisis in LA County,” says von Roemer, who estimates that she has saved about 2,000 dogs in seven years. “I thought, if I’ve been given the gift of this store, it is my responsibility to do something for this community, which is in so much trouble.”
Jimi was muddy and homeless when von Roemer rescued him from a park near downtown LA’s skid row. When Jimi died in 2007, she created the rescue organization, Jimi’s Angels, in his honor. Two years later, she began to populate her retail pet store with rescue dogs.
Now, von Roemer personally scours high-kill shelters weekly and handpicks dogs for her shop. She says she can spot a highly adoptable dog in “2.2 seconds,” but her heart breaks at the many pups she must leave behind.
Once inside Bark n’ Bitches, dogs stay until they meet their human match. Adoptions aren’t automatic, however. Potential owners interview with store staff and fill out a threepage application that asks about their other pets, travel habits and whether they intend to install a doggie door. Adoption fees range from $350 to $450 and include grooming, a vet visit, a microchip and an online training program. Von Roemer rewards clients who adopt with a 10 percent lifetime discount and a one-time, 20 percent off shopping spree.
Bark n’ Bitches is ahead of the curve, even in trendy Los Angeles. Just last fall, the LA City Council banned the sale of dogs from commercial puppy mills and required pet shops to offer dogs from shelters and rescue organizations. Von Roemer thinks the city’s decision and the success of her hybrid store shows that rescue dogs can look forward to better days. “I believe when people are given the options and are educated, they will do the right thing,” she says.
News: Guest Posts
Really need you
I’ve always had a soft spot for old dogs. The gray muzzles and cloudy eyes get to me every time. One of my own dogs, Rocky, a rescued Pug/Chihuahua mix, is quite elderly at around 14 years of age. He recently had a couple of major seizures and became completely paralyzed from the neck down. A day of intensive care at the vet gave a poor prognosis. He did not seem to be in pain so I made the sad decision to bring him home for the family to say good-bye and then have the vet come to our home the next day.
Strangely, Rocky was coherent and did not seem upset about his predicament. I turned him every few hours and offered water which he lapped with help. The next morning I propped him up and offered a little breakfast which he managed to eat. I then took him out and held him up by his favorite bush where he peed before I settled him back on his cushy bed. I held off on calling the vet since he seemed comfortable. To my great joy, over the next several weeks he regained most of his function and returned to his previous frisky, happy self, even racing on the beach again.
Each day with Rocky is a blessing but I see many elderly dogs, in the course of my work as an animal control officer, who are not so lucky. They sit in shelters, unwanted and unloved. It’s heartbreaking to see these old souls peering through the chain link at the world or sleeping the day away alone.
Old dogs deserve to spend their last days snug in a cozy bed, getting their ears scratched and having walks and playtime with someone who loves them. I often foster shelter dogs who need some care before going to a forever home. Usually these are moms with litters, orphaned pups or dogs needing some behavior modification. I recently fostered two darling seniors who were left behind in a foreclosed home. Maggie the Beagle and McKenzie the Chihuahua sat forlornly at the shelter, day after day. They had a heated floor, cushy blankets and good food but they were depressed and overlooked on the adoption floor.
Maggie at maybe 10 years old, was overweight and grouchy with dogs other than McKenzie. Little McKenzie, who was probably closer to 15 years old, was tiny, underweight and very frail. She was also prone to nip if startled. The volunteers and staff adored them and I promoted them shamelessly to my friends and on Facebook but still no takers.
Finally I packed up the two old girls and took them home to foster. I have four dogs of my own so it was a challenge with Maggie’s dog issues and I worried about fragile McKenzie in my busy household. One wrong footstep from my Great Dane would probably kill her. Still, I made it work.
I fell in love with the two sweet old girls and the judicious use of X-pens and separate dog yards kept everyone safe and happy. Maggie’s issues improved as she settled in and tiny McKenzie especially stole my heart. Had it just been her, I would have kept her in a heartbeat. The two were incredibly bonded though and after all they had been through I couldn’t bear to split them up. They were actually pretty easy and after a month or so I found a delightful home for them with a sweet woman who had seen them on the web. I dripped sappy tears of joy as I watched them drive away.
A month or two later I ran into them at the beach. Maggie and her adopter had both lost a few pounds and looked fabulous, while little McKenzie had gained muscle and was stronger. All three looked incredibly happy which made my day.
It’s on my life’s list to adopt an old dog someday, after Rocky passes and my younger dogs settle down. I want to bring in some old, neglected dog and pamper them for whatever time they have left. Sure they aren’t going to be around as long but people are starting to understand how much easier they can be and the rewards of adopting them. For some people who can’t make a 10 or 15 year commitment, it’s a perfect fit to give a dog the life they deserve for a few months to a few years.
I would love to hear from readers who have fostered and adopted old dogs. Share with us the joys and difficulties of bringing a senior pet into your home.
Dog's Life: Humane
People Who Matter: Emelinda Narvaez, founder of NYC’s Earth Angels
Emelinda Narvaez, an animal rescue advocate working in both Manhattan and the Bronx, has become a familiar face to people visiting the city’s pet stores. She calls her rescues “earth angels,” and fittingly, that is also the name of her animal-rescue group. Narvaez Emelinda, who says she’s rescued over more than 10,000 animals over a span of 45 + years, was a nurse in a Bronx hospital. Until she retired about 15 years ago, she (and her late husband, who helped her) devoted evenings and weekends to animal rescue. Since then, it’s become her fulltime occupation.
A long-time admirer, I always dropped something in the donation box when I saw her in front of one of lower Manhattan’s pet stores. Then one day, I sat down and asked her to tell me more about herself and her work. That particular day, she had a terrier-mix puppy and an adult Poodle, as well as an elderly Chihuahua and a Shih Tzu who were not available for adoption; she felt the two seniors were too fragile to weather a big change, so she was caring for them herself. As we talked, she continued to work, answering my questions as well as those asked by passersby interested in her “angels.”
Catherine Johnson: I understand that you were born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and raised in the South Bronx. Where did you get your gift?
CJ: Did you have any favorite animals growing up?
We lived across from St. Ignatius church in the Bronx, and every Sunday at the end of the mass, the priest would recognize my family’s work with animals. He would also let the congregation know they could adopt one from us, which is how we found homes for many of our animals.
When I was around 15, I realized that we needed to be more formal about these adoptions. So we started having the person adopting fill out an application. We developed a screening process—that was my idea.
CJ: What were your early years working in rescue like?
CJ: What do you consider to have been the worst crisis period in the city’s history?
[In 2009, the public housing authority prohibited residents from keeping purebred or mixed-breed Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers, as well as any dog (with the exception of service dogs) expected to weigh more than 25 pounds when full grown. This ban affected residents of approximately 178,000 public-housing units.]
Dogs should be fairly assessed. Behavior has nothing to do with a dog’s weight. Of course, there is no place for a vicious dog in any apartment situation. But a policy for evaluation on a case-by-case basis needs to be put into place.
CJ: How could our state government help city shelters?
I also think they should be more proactive in letting people know they can foster an animal. Most people don’t know that’s an option.
The best thing the government has done within the last 10 years for the rights of people and their pets was the law that allowed owners to keep their pets after three months, regardless of what the lease states.
[Section 27-2009.1 of the NYC Housing Maintenance Code essentially says that if the owner of a multiunit rental has a lease prohibiting pets but doesn’t object to the presence of a tenant’s pet within three months, the lease provision is considered to have been waived.]
CJ: Where do Earth Angels’ animals come from?
I have cancer, which is in remission, and lupus, but I think my work heals me and gives my life meaning and purpose. I truly believe that. And I have a son and a godson whom I adopted and raised. They are both homicide detectives and I am so proud of them. My family of animals and my sons keep me going.
CJ: Do you have one particularly memorable story from your rescue work?
CJ: What keeps you going?
Also, the angels that I have had in my life: my mother, father, sister, brother and husband. I had a strong family. And I could not have done this work without a woman who helps me, Judy Ross. When I am no longer alive, I hope to still be of help; my will states that my house will be given to an animal rescue group working in the Bronx.
CJ: How would you describe the bond between a rescued animal and the person who takes that animal in?
Editor's Note: There is going to be an adoption event and fundraiser for Emelinda this Sunday, June 2 from noon to 3 pm at one of NYC's finest dog parks, Stuyvesant Square Park. Her friends and admirers are hoping to raise enough money to buy her a new van to replace the very old one she uses to transport the animals. If you are in NYC, do try to attend. See their flyer for this event.
Coming on June 1 and 2
The Maddie's Fund is hosting an adoption extravaganza sponsored—so get ready for another memorable Maddie’s Pet Adoption Event. Their fourth annual event is sure to be one for the record books. On June 1 and 2, 2013, more than 200 shelters and rescue groups from eight communities across the nation (see complete list here) will participate in the adoption event, which will place thousands of pets into their forever homes. Maddie’s® Pet Adoption Days is America’s biggest FREE pet adoption event. Yes you can adopt priceless dogs and cats free of charge.
Maddie's Fund® decided to expand this year's event to include adoption sites across the U.S. because of the continued success of Maddie’s® Pet Adoption Days on a local level. Every year, the number of adoptions has increased with a total of 6,722 dogs and cats adopted during the event's three-year history.
This event is being held to increase awareness of shelter animals and their need for loving homes, and to shed light on the tireless efforts of the shelters and rescue organizations across the country that work so hard to save the lives of countless dogs and cats every.
What is also so great about this, besides it being free to adopters, is that it’s also a fundraiser for shelters and rescue groups because the Maddie’s Fund will pay organizations $500 per regular adoption. And it even will sweeten the pot for those who adopt out senior dogs, or pets with medical condition. So it will donate $1,000 for each adoption involving a dog or cat who is seven years of age or older or who has been treated for one or more medical conditions and $2,000 for each adoption involving a dog or cat who is seven years of age or older and who has been treated for one or more medical conditions (a list of medical conditions can be provided upon request). This is a remarkable generous act from the good people at Maddie’s Fund. So hopefully this year is the perfect time for you to expand your family by adopting from one of these organizations, but for you to show your support for their good work by adopting during this event. Everyone, including the dogs and cats, win big with this one.
We would love to see a photo of the dog or cat you adopt during this adoption weekend, email them to me, and we’ll publish them online and perhaps in the next issue of The Bark!
For the complete list of participating groups and their locations, click here .
About Maddie’s Fund
Maddie’s Fund® is a family foundation endowed by the founder of Workday® and PeopleSoft, Dave Duffield and his wife, Cheryl. Maddie’s Fund is helping to achieve and sustain a no-kill nation by providing solutions to the most challenging issues facing the animal welfare community through Maddie’s® Grant Giving and Maddie’s InstituteSM . Maddie’s Fund is named after the family's beloved Miniature Schnauzer who passed away in 1997.
News: Shirley Zindler
What you can do to help
I had a recent interaction with a small injured dog that touched me deeply. The entire episode lasted maybe 5 minutes, but I keep thinking back to it. I was putting an injured rabbit in our shelter vet clinic when I spotted a forlorn looking little dog lying on a thick blanket. His entire rear leg was shaved and a long row of sutures ran the length of it. His cage card said fractured hip, and listed a number of medications to help pain and infection. One of the shelter technicians told me that he had come to the shelter as a stray after being hit by a car and had surgery to repair the injury. I opened his cage and spoke to him. The big brown eyes were soft as I stroked his head and rubbed his ears. He was hesitant to move much but wiggled a little closer when I stopped stroking for a moment to look closer at his injury.
A bowl of untouched canned food sat near the dog and I offered it to him. He sniffed politely and turned away. “Come on Buddy, you’ll feel better if you eat something” I coaxed, scooping a little onto my fingers. This time he took a few bites before licking my hand and lying back down. I stroked him a few more times before heading out to finish my paperwork. When I glanced back he was watching me intently.
I haven’t been able to get the little guy out of my mind and a phone call to the clinic confirmed that the dog is doing well. He will go to a foster home to be pampered until he heals up and is ready for adoption.
In thinking of what to write for Be Kind to Animal Week, May 5-11, it occurs to me that anyone reading The Bark magazine is likely already doing just that with their own beloved dogs. Still, many animal lovers want to do more and just don’t know the best way about it. Bark readers may be pampering their own dogs while lamenting the difficult lives other dogs are living, isolated on chains or other unfortunate situations.
Adoption is the best way to give an unwanted dog the life he deserves but if you are unable to add another pet there are still plenty of things you can do to make a difference. Fostering a dog until he/she is ready for adoption can be so rewarding. The little guy I spoke about above will need weeks of cage rest while he recovers. Some feeding, cleaning and meds several times a day, along with some cuddles, are all he needs. It’s something that could even be done before and after work.
Volunteering to walk dogs, groom or just cuddle a frightened dog is another way to make life a little sweeter for a homeless dog. Donations of money, blankets, toys etc can go a long way, as can educating friends and neighbors on the needs of dogs and the benefits of spay and neuter. “Like” your local shelter page and share a pet in need on FB.
Yes, it can be hard to see an unloved animal, but the rewards of helping them are so worth it. Find a way to make a difference today.
Dog's Life: Humane
Rescuing neglected dogs from neglected streets
On the edge of the American Rust Belt, the once-prosperous city of East St. Louis, Ill., collapsed with industry in the 1960s and ’70s. Anyone with means moved away, siphoning off more than half the city’s population. Those who remain live in a landscape of fallendown buildings, burned-out houses, strip clubs and urban prairie with one of the highest crime rates in the country and countless free-roaming pet dogs and unwanted strays, nearly none of whom are spayed or neutered.
Although she was born in the city during its heyday, PJ Hightower has lived in St. Louis, Mo., for more than 30 years, and she rarely had cause to wander the dilapidated neighborhoods across the Mississippi River, until the route to her sister’s new home took Hightower through the heart of the street dogs’ territory. She began carrying food in her car on visits and going out of her way to deliver it to the dogs, eventually making trips for the sole purpose of feeding them. “It’s just one of those things that sort of mushroomed,” Hightower says. This was in 1995.
She progressed from simply feeding the strays — she hasn’t missed a single day since 2001 — to rescuing dogs in need, sometimes working with other rescue organizations, although more often on her own and with the help of friends and neighbors.
“She takes the same route every single day,” says Amie Simmons, president of Gateway Pet Guardians, the nonprofit organization formed in 2004 to support and expand Hightower’s efforts. “The dogs know she is going to be there. They hear her car and come running.”
Dribble, Nigel, Nina, Nigella, Hank, Aaron, Spelling, Bea, Arthur, Malcolm, Show Me, Blondie and on and on. “She has names for all of them. It’s like she has 200 pets,” says longtime volunteer Rebecca Ormond, who recently directed a documentary about the group called Gateway Guardians (see endnote).
Hightower pours kibble from 50- pound bags onto dry sidewalk or pavement and dispenses giant biscuits (and rubs, to those who will let her). In the summer, she brings clean water, which she’ll set out in cut-off plastic milk jugs. During these visits, she also monitors the dogs — keeping an eye out for trouble, such as when she first spotted Nigella with a flea collar so tight she couldn’t eat. Hightower managed to catch the dog and clip the collar.
“She knows everything about these dogs,” says Gateway executive director Jamie Case. “She knows medical history, heat cycles, where they came from, whose mom is whose, how many litters they’ve had over their lifetimes. That was the incredible thing to me — her knowledge. They’re like her family members.”
Hightower says she’s almost never afraid of the dogs. The day before we talked, she had spied an unfamiliar Pit Bull curled on a loveseat that had been dumped on the sidewalk. “I thought, I’ll just kind of see what’s going on,” Hightower says. “So I start to walk and I could just see his face but I could tell he was doing a total body wiggle … he was super friendly. I put the food on the [nearby] mattress … and before he even wanted to start eating, he wanted to be petted. He was so thin, it broke my heart.”
The East St. Louis strays suffer many of the plagues afflicting strays in the developing world — starvation; tick and flea infestations; heartworm; mange; parvo; cruelty at the hands of humans; attacks by other dogs; and TVT, a sexually transmitted venereal tumor that is usually only found in chronic stray populations. When a dog is too sick to survive on the street, an animal has been beaten up, or a new litter of puppies is born, Gateway Pet Guardians puts out the call for fosters (the organization has no shelter). Then Hightower rescues them, sometimes following them into manholes without first planning how to get out, or slips leashes on dogs who’ve never worn them, or dons long leather gloves and crawls on all fours in dark and decrepit buildings. She avoids breaking up adult packs — she’s seen pack mates left behind who suffer or disappear. With a shelter, the organization could rescue groups of dogs.
Gateway rescues an average of 100 dogs per year, although by mid-June 2010, they’d already pulled 90 dogs off the street — mostly puppies. Illinois law prohibits spaying strays and re-releasing them. Sometimes Hightower persuades residents to let her take free-roaming, “owned” dogs to be altered.
Reaction in the community is mixed. “I’ve never encountered anyone being negative toward us in all the time I’ve ridden [with PJ],” executive director Case says. “There are people who wave every single time they see us driving, and they’re like ‘Hey, it’s the dog lady.’ But then there are people who think we’re the problem. If we didn’t feed [the dogs] they would just die and there wouldn’t be a problem anymore. They don’t realize it’s a never-ending cycle.”
St. Clair County Animal Services director Jim Jacquot, who’s not familiar with Gateway Pet Guardians, says feeding strays, even with the best intent, can create problems, such as inspiring dogs to congregate in certain areas. But, like animal control departments around the country, he lacks the facilities, budget and people-power to tackle the enormous problem. With less than one-fifth of the county’s population, East St. Louis is the source of a large number of dogs — 2,500 to 3,000 a year — that end up in the county animal control.
There’s a definite gap on the ground. “We’re a couple of white ladies going over to a predominantly black community; there is what I consider to be a pretty large communication barrier. I guess I’m naïve. I thought with my background in social work … that I could go in and talk to just about anybody. But I have conversations with people … and we’re not even having the same conversation.”
Simmons and Case are developing strategies to open up a dialogue, beginning by reaching out to neighborhood churches. They’re hoping the documentary, which features people from the community, will also help bridge the gap.
In addition to developing spay/neuter outreach, Gateway is ramping up foster recruitment and fundraising to cover rising expenses (veterinary costs were $22,000 from January to June 2010, with adoption fees covering only $8,000) and to build a shelter. The goal: Move from a one-woman crusade to a sustainable effort.
It sounds like they have some time to complete the transition. Talking to Hightower late one night — the only moment she could spare in a busy day made busier by seven rescue puppies with parvo — she hardly sounds ready to stop her rounds. “It’s just a part of my morning,” Hightower says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m sick, if the weather’s bad. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are; I’m gonna go.”
For ten months, Gateway Pet Guardians’ founder PJ Hightower and volunteers used little pink flipcams to capture an intimate view of their work with East St. Louis stray and feral dogs. Hightower concocted a variety of ways to keep her pinhole camera at her waist as she fed, tended and rescued the street dogs — including a little jean pocket with a lens hole that she pinned to her clothes each morning and a pair of old pants with Velcro strips on them. The results can be seen in Gateway Guardians: A Documentary, which premiered at the 10th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in July, where it won the St. Louis Film Critics Association’s Humanitarian Award. The film will also be shown in the Webster University Film Series (St. Louis) on Oct. 10 and the Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival in Nov. 9, and in other festivals during the course of the year. Buy the video ($20) or find screening details at gatewaypetguardians.com. All film profits benefit Gateway Pet Guardians.
News: Shirley Zindler
I recognized the name on the memo and my heart caught in my throat. Michelle Rowe. Her family had been in the news after her 4 year old son Christopher was struck in a crosswalk by an unlicensed, hit and run driver. Michelle and her 6 year old daughter and 4 year old twins had been crossing when a driver whipped around the stopped cars, hitting Christopher and knocking him 80 feet onto the pavement. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.
I couldn’t imagine what she wanted from me, and as a fellow mother, I choked up at the thought of what she had been through. I called her back and she explained that her daughters’ therapist had suggested getting each of the girls a puppy to give them something positive to focus on after witnessing the accident that killed their brother. My name had been given to her by a co-worker who knew I was fostering a litter of puppies. My first reaction was caution. Puppies are a tremendous amount of work, and I usually recommend against two puppies together. On talking with her at length, however, I found her to be a delightful woman in spite of her heartbreak, and someone who obviously had the resources and ability to care for two puppies and two traumatized children at once.
We arranged for her family to come to our home and see the puppies that were only about a month old at the time, and not ready to go home yet. I felt an instant connection to Michelle and looking into her eyes was a painful reality of the hardest thing a mother could ever experience. The epitome of the perfect family, yet there was a Christopher sized hole there that would never be filled. As much of a dog lover as I am, I knew these puppies could never take away the pain of what this family had been through. Still, as I watched the girls hold out their hands in wonder and then cuddle the puppies close, I could see that just holding them was a comfort.
Over the next few months, Michelle and the girls, and sometimes her husband Jim and other friends and family, came to my home to cuddle puppies from that litter and another litter that followed. We talked about Christopher and puppies and life and death and motherhood. Eventually they chose two sweet female puppies, Chrystal and Oreo, to join their family. I made multiple visits to the home after adoption to help the transition and give tips on training and managing the frisky young dogs.
It could so easily have been overwhelming to deal with housebreaking and chewing and all the other issues of puppyhood but I was pleased to see that the pups seem to be bringing far more joy than stress. Some small problems that popped up were easily addressed with management.
I was invited to attend the sentencing and listening to Michelle and Jim address the court with their impact statements was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. To hear a mother describe what it was like to see her child suffer a fatal injury due to the negligence of another, and a father tell of watching his baby son take his first breath, and 4 years later take his last, left me devastated. Later that day, I embraced my own dogs and sobbed until I had no tears left. I couldn’t understand how the family could go on at all.
But go on they did. As parents they are determined to give their daughters a wonderful life in spite of their loss. A recent follow up visit to the family showed the puppies to be well adjusted and happy. They provide comfort and comic relief during some of the darkest times and continue to be a source of delight as the family navigates through the never-ending process of coping with grief. We shared a heartfelt talk about the ups and downs of life in the year since they took the puppies’ home.
It feels like such a privilege to have shared in some of the healing and to have gained precious new friends while finding a wonderful home for two needy pups makes it all worthwhile.
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