Dog's Life: Humane
Helping “rez” dogs
Dogs may be our oldest companions, but around the world, far too many are homeless, with an average life expectancy of three years. This brutal fact is compounded by canine reproduction rates, which result in tsunamis of puppies who suffer the same fate.
In southern Alberta, Canada, homeless “rez” dogs are now getting a helping hand from the Dogs with No Names project, brainchild of animal health technologist Lori Rogers and veterinarian Judith Samson-French. In 2009, they designed a pilot program to reduce the population of homeless dogs on two First Nations reserves in southern Alberta by implanting a contraceptive under the skin of females. To date, volunteers with the project have successfully implanted more than a hundred dogs and prevented the birth of hundreds of thousands of pups.
To support this effort, Dr. Samson-French has recently published a new book, Dogs with No Names: In Pursuit of Courage, Hope and Purpose; 100 percent of the profi ts go to the project. Go online to order and to find out more about their work.
News: Guest Posts
Overcoming fear, Learning to trust again
Many dogs, rescued from the trauma and abuse of puppy mills or hoarders, need lots of extra TLC before they're ready for their forever homes.
Lacking social skills, having lived with fear, pain, and hunger, some remain overwhelmingly fearful even after being removed from their deplorable conditions and given physical, medical and emotional support. Their psychic wounds can cause them to cower, retreat from a loving touch, pee submissively, even growl or bite to keep humans and other animals away.
Such behaviors, while understandable, make them a challenge for shelters already overwhelmed with dogs needing homes. Fearful dogs often become part of a revolving door problem, being returned to shelters by adopting families ill-equipped to deal with the behaviors. Or worse, they may be euthanized because they can't be placed.
ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has created a flagship program that will attempt to fill the gap between rescue and placement for the most severely traumatized dogs, the fearful ones. The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J. opens this week.
"For some animals, the reality is that after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, the rescue is just the beginning of their journey to recovery," said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "The ASPCA recognized the need for a rehabilitation center that will provide rescued dogs customized behavior treatment and more time to recover, increasing the likelihood that they will be adopted. We partnered with St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center and identified the unique opportunity to utilize their space and collaborate with their behavior and care experts for the rehabilitation of victims of cruelty and neglect."
To start, dogs rescued from animal cruelty investigations will be eligible. To help reduce these dogs' fears and anxieties, the rehabilitation team will gently introduce them to unfamiliar sounds, objects, living spaces and real-life situations that a normally socialized dog handles with aplomb, but can induce trauma and extreme stress in this special population of dogs.
The ASPCA has funded this project for two years. The work done at the Center will become part of a research project, studying and evaluating methods for rehabilitating undersocialized, fearful dogs. The findings will be shared with animal welfare organizations and other researchers nationwide with the goal of helping shelters and rescue organizations rehabilitate abused and fearful dogs coming into their own facilities.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A spider scurried across my face and the ropes around my ankles bit into my skin as I was lowered head-first down the steep, dark culvert. It wasn’t much bigger around than I was and it was set deeply into a steep hillside. It was intended to divert water around a remote home and I couldn’t even see the dog yet as the pipe curved slightly about 20 feet down. I felt a little claustrophobic at not being able to move much in the tight space but I could hear him whimper and that motivated me to keep sliding downward on my belly. I had never even met the men who held the ropes that kept me from tumbling straight to the bottom but I had to trust that they would keep me safe.
Finally a dog appeared in my flashlight beam. He looked like maybe a Cattledog mix and he growled ominously as I slid closer. He must have been terrified and the sound echoed in the narrow space as he began to back away from me. The pipe was so narrow that I struggled to reach my hand into my pocket and remove some liver treats. I tossed one in his direction and he gobbled it and looked for more. It was critical that he not retreat much farther as I was nearing the end of 60 feet of rope and the pipe went on indefinitely. I tossed a few more treats and slowly slid the catch pole out in front of me. With some careful maneuvering I was able to get it over his head and cinch it to a safe level.
The caller had described hearing a dog barking and whining in the area for a week or so, but had been unable to locate him. He finally found the source of the noise in the long pipe on the hill and being unable to even see the dog, he had called animal control. When I arrived and saw what we were dealing with I was taken back. The pipe was too narrow to even crawl into, and too steep to back out. After brain-storming with the property owner and his friend for a few minutes we decided that the only way was to lower me in by my feet.
Thankfully he had a very long sturdy rope and some knowledge of knots, but it’s an odd feeling to have two men you have never met tie ropes to your ankles and lower you sixty feet down a hole. Still, when I had the dog safely caught, and hollered for the men to pull us up, it was all worth it. The dog scrambled up the slippery pipe after me and then stood blinking in the bright sunlight. I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I watched him taking in the scenery. He looked to be in pretty good shape and had a bandana but no tags or microchip. We offered small amounts of water as he was terribly thirsty and then loaded him into the truck.
Thankfully, a faded and tattered flier on a nearby telephone pole proved to be a match. The shocked owner stated that the dog had been missing for three weeks and they had all but given up. The dog certainly didn’t look like he had been down there for weeks but a visit to the vet confirmed that the formerly overweight dog had lost 15 pounds since his prior visit. The owner explained that they had been trying to get 15 pounds off of the dog for some time. I suppose a trickle of condensation on our foggy nights may have kept him hydrated. I felt a wonderful euphoria for days after returning the dog to his ecstatic owner. A call like this is so rewarding and helps make up for some of the sad, difficult things we see in this job.
Dog's Life: Humane
Mall Adoptions: Shelters expand into retail locations
When Camille Limongelli and her boyfriend Ted Drummond decided to bring a new puppy into their home, they knew exactly where to find one: the mall. Specifically, the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, N.J., an upscale retail paradise that includes everything from Victoria’s Secret to Abercrombie & Fitch, known locally as a puppy mecca. In fact, when the couple arrived, they found themselves among a horde of shoppers jostling for space beside a wall of cages occupied by adorable pups. Soon enough, a love connection was made and 13-week-old “Tibet” was off to his new home in Brick, N.J.
While Tibet is clearly special to Limongelli and Drummond, he’s also special in the evolving world of animal welfare. That’s because Tibet isn’t a typical petstore puppy—he didn’t come from a puppy mill, where young female purebreds are used as puppy-producing machines and live in deplorable conditions. Rather, he and his abandoned siblings were rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico by a San Juan-based animal welfare organization. Moreover, Tibet wasn’t purchased, he was adopted, and this took place not in a pet store, but at the Freehold Adoption Center, a satellite site of the Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA), which serves the northern Jersey shore.
A New Approach
“The concept was that by giving people what they want in terms of the retail experience, you can save more lives,” says Ellen La Torre, director of finance for MCSPCA. “The fact is that if people come to our main shelter and don’t see what they want, which is often a cute, cuddly puppy, they may end up going to a pet store, which just perpetuates puppy mills. So, from an animal-welfare perspective, we figured, why not give them what they want, where they want it?”
While it’s difficult to know how many such retail-based adoption sites are now in operation, variations on the concept are clearly beginning to take hold and grow. The MCSPCA mall site opened its doors in April 2012, about six months after Humane Society Naples (HSN) expanded into Coastland Center, an enormous shopping hub in southwestern Florida. AniMall Pet Adoption and Outreach Center of Cary, N.C., began developing a slightly different model in 2005, using rent-free space in a nowdefunct outlet mall to provide local rescue groups with a centralized location to showcase their adoptables. Three years ago, AniMall made the bold decision to move into 3,000 square feet in Cary Towne Center, where they pay market rate. That move was so successful that the nonprofit plans to expand into 4,000 square feet of space in the same mall this February.
With neighbors like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney, these adoption sites have had to learn to embrace a full retail model, starting with merchandising. Most stock an array of high-end pet supplies, from logo-wear and gourmet treats to dog beds and designer leashes. AniMall specializes in organic and specialty pet foods that contain no wheat, corn or other potentially harmful additives. The sales of these products are critical to funding the overall operation, as well as supporting rescue and adoption efforts.
Greatly extended hours are another component of the new retail model. Like their mall neighbors, these adoption sites are typically open seven days a week, and in the evenings, as late as nine. On “Black Friday” 2012, the Freehold Adoption Center racked up $600 in sales between midnight and 8 am on its way to a record-breaking $2,695 day. And AniMall is so serious about building customer loyalty that it recently launched a rescue-rewards program, where up to 6 percent of every sale is donated to the rescue group of the client’s choice.
The adoption sites have also become adept promoters. Last summer, a fashion show at Coastland Center paired adoptable dogs with runway models wearing styles from tenant collections, and was so popular that it is being restaged this year with a “Furry Valentine” theme. “It’s really nice to incorporate [the animals] into these events because it makes it fun for the whole family,” says Melissa Wolf, Coastland Center marketing manager and herself the owner of a rescued Doberman. “We have had some wonderful events here … that showcased many of our tenants and also helped many pets get adopted.”
The sum of these retail efforts—from sales and promotions to convenience and creation of a loyal customer base— supports the main goal: saving the lives of animals.
By the Numbers
The Coastland Mall adoption site placed 775 puppies in its first 12 months, essentially increasing Humane Society Naples’ total adoptions by nearly 40 percent and putting it on track to reach 3,000 in 2012, up from 2,200 in 2011. HSN executive director Michael Simonik says that the organization reaches out to high-kill shelters in rural parts of the state that don’t typically do many adoptions. They pulled 1,300 animals from death row last year alone. HSN also showcases adult dogs under 20 pounds, a size limit dictated by the site’s cages, which were constructed by the space’s previous tenant, a pet store. In both Florida and New Jersey, the animals are housed on-site, but are cycled back to the main shelter if they have not been adopted within about 10 days.
AniMall has facilitated about 5,000 adoptions over a six-year period using a variation on this model. Rather than representing a single group or shelter, it serves as a central resource for about 50 local organizations, including breedspecific dog groups, sanctuaries, shelters and animal-control facilities, and a host of specialized rescue outfits for animals ranging from llamas and pigs to rabbits and reptiles. Most of these groups pull their animals from local high-kill shelters, where the euthanasia rate averages about 70 percent. AniMall gives its members blocks of time on weekends and high-traffic days to showcase their animals to prospective adopters.
“We have a very active rescue community here, and people are doing great work, but they are very spread out. We wanted to support their efforts by bringing everyone together in one central space, and providing what they need most, which is exposure,” says Jeremiah Adams, executive director of AniMall. “So here, we can give them space in a high-traffic mall.”
Much of that traffic is actually driven by AniMall. “We have become a destination stop,” he says. “We don’t rely very much on walk-in traffic anymore. People are coming in specifically because we are here.”
“One of the best things about the setup is that we are educating the public,” says La Torre. “People come in saying they want to ‘buy’ a puppy, and that opens the door to talking about adoption and where our puppies come from and why they need our help. It’s almost as if you can see a light bulb going off in their heads.”
“People were telling us that there would be a lot of impulse buying, but we actually have fewer returns from the Coastland site than we do from the main shelter,” said Simonik. “People worried that our donations would dry up if the shelter profile was lowered, but now we have many more donors because so many more people know about us. It’s 100 percent positive feedback.”
Even at the mall, potential adopters are subject to the same requirements they would face at most shelters or through most rescue organizations. These typically involve questionnaires, reference checks and either proof of home ownership or written permission from a landlord to have a pet.
After being approved as adopters, Limongelli and Drummond took Tibet home. Intrigued by his origins, they have since educated themselves about the terrible situation for abandoned animals in Puerto Rico and have connected with All Sato Rescue, the group that originally saved Tibet from the streets. “It has been a wonderful experience and we appreciate all of the people who work so hard to find these animals homes,” says Limongelli. “Tibet is the most loving dog we have ever met—he is the perfect addition to our family.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Transformed by volunteering, Nora Livingstone helps others do the same
Four months after hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, college student Nora Livingstone decided to drive from her home in Toronto to New Orleans to assist at an animal shelter during winter break. Livingstone, a double major in environmental studies and anthropology, thought she’d be walking and grooming dogs who had been separated from their owners during the flood, in an otherwise comfortable setting. The experience wasn’t what she expected. “Up in Canada, we had no idea how bad things had gotten in New Orleans,” Livingstone, now 29, says.
Her first clue to the chaos came when she entered the city. Beside the road, a dead horse hung from a tree. “Everyone was too busy helping themselves and their families to deal with the horse,” says Livingstone. “It sort of set the precedent for the rest of the week.”
The section of the city where Livingstone had signed up to volunteer didn’t even have full power. She spent her Christmas vacation working up to 20-hour days at a makeshift animal shelter at Celebration Station, a former fun park. She slept on a cot alongside other volunteers in a second-floor loft overlooking hundreds of displaced cats caged on the floor below. Outside, chain-link fences separated the runs that housed about a hundred homeless dogs. “At that time, there were still houses on top of houses,” Livingstone says. “There was tons of debris. There was no food. There were stray dogs everywhere.”
Livingstone’s volunteer work in New Orleans was difficult, both physically and emotionally. Each morning, she fed hundreds of dogs and cats, and cleaned just as many bowls and litter boxes. She picked up countless piles of dog poo. By the time she had completed the breakfast routine, it was time to feed the animals dinner, and the whole process started all over again. The sheer number of dogs meant that she could only spend a couple of minutes with each. “I cried every day,” Livingstone says. “There were some dogs who were just so bewildered and scared. The hard part about working with animals is that you can’t rationalize with them. You can’t explain what happened, and that things are going to be okay. All you can do is lie down beside them and pet them.”
Despite the challenges, Livingstone considers her time volunteering in New Orleans as some of the most rewarding in her life. The sadness she felt was tempered by the joy of witnessing daily reunions with families who had come to claim their lost pets. She learned that in many cases, people had had their pets taken from them by authorities who prohibited them at human shelters, or were forced to leave their animals behind at gunpoint by the National Guard during evacuation. “I realized that the work I was doing was helping not only animals, but also people struggling to make their families whole again after a really awful situation,” Livingstone says.
While she didn’t know it at the time, her experience planted the seed for what would become her life’s work. Six years later, Livingstone co-founded Animal Experience International (AEI), a travel company dedicated to providing animal volunteer opportunities around the globe.
But before the idea for AEI could materialize, Livingstone would return home to Canada and finish university and a post-graduate program in Outdoor Adventure Leadership, which involved activities like canoeing and kayaking. Unsure how to combine her education, her outdoors experience and her love of animals into a career, she headed to Nepal in 2007 for another round of volunteer work. She hoped to find some direction, or at least the same satisfaction she had discovered in New Orleans.
While in Nepal, Livingstone volunteered at a medical clinic and as an English teacher. She noticed that dogs were not treated the same as they were in the west. Dogs in Nepal guard homes and gardens, and are not typically considered pets. Most Nepalese believe dogs are the reincarnations of bad prophets —humans fated to live as dogs as punishment for past misdeeds.
One day at a bakery in Kathmandu, Livingstone discussed her observations with a British woman she’d just met. The woman had been living in Nepal for more than 30 years and told Livingstone about a groundbreaking dog clinic, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). Shortly after, Livingstone showed up at KAT’s door and offered to volunteer. She wound up spending several weeks at the center, which aims to improve the lives of street dogs through vaccination, injury rehabilitation and spaying/neutering. After dogs are treated, experts at KAT evaluate them for pet potential, and keep those with promise at the shelter for adoption instead of returning them to the streets. “I loved being there,” Livingstone says. “A place like KAT is so rare in Nepal. I wanted to find a way to get more people involved, to let more people know about it.”
An idea formed once Livingstone returned to Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a company that connected standout animal sanctuaries, shelters and conservation programs around the world with interested travelers like her? The vision stayed in the back of her mind even as she took a job as volunteer coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. It was there that Livingstone met veterinarian Heather Reid, who helped bring her idea to fruition. Reid shared Livingstone’s passion for travel and her interest in volunteer work with animals. One step ahead of Livingstone, Reid had been considering what it would take to create international animal-based volunteer experiences for other veterinarians. “My brain practically exploded after talking to Dr. Heather because it was just so obvious,” says Livingstone. “I’m passionate about volunteering and encouraging others to volunteer and travel and stir up their lives, so why not get paid to live my dream while helping other people live theirs?”
In 2011, the two women founded AEI, launching it in March with five trips, including one to KAT, the dog clinic where Livingstone had volunteered in Nepal. Within a couple of months, they had 20 travelers signed up. In June, a volunteer tourism portal, GoVolunteering.com, picked up some of their trips and blasted them out to more than 13,000 subscribers. A few months later, AEI’s client list doubled. “We knew there was a market for this,” Livingstone says, “We were just surprised at how quickly it took off.”
Animal-based organizations from all over the world started contacting AEI to create volunteer travel programs at their locations. But Livingstone has been careful to add trips slowly. One of AEI’s core values is to partner with only the best and most effective organizations; Livingstone or Reid visits each before adding it to the lineup. After one year of operation, AEI offers 26 trips to locations ranging from Canada to Thailand and Australia. Travelers can choose to volunteer with dogs, cats, bats, turtles, monkeys, elephants, parrots, bears, leopards, tigers, crocodiles and kangaroos, among others. “People have been knocking down our door, which is both inspiring and a little overwhelming,” says Livingstone.
AEI travelers can also customize the length of their trip, from two weeks to two months, with longer options available. One client signed up for a full year working with orangutans in Sumatra. Her cost of $4,390 includes accommodations, meals, transportation, travelers’ insurance—everything except airfare. While $4,390 seems like a bargain for a full year abroad, Livingstone recognizes that money is the biggest inhibitor to international travel. She and Reid have devised aggressive fundraising techniques for clients, as well as a scholarship program. “If someone is inspired enough to go on one of our trips, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them there,” says Livingstone.
Trips also include cultural experiences and sightseeing excursions. Both Livingstone and Reid want AEI travelers to experience the natural and manmade wonders that draw tourists to the destinations where they are volunteering. But they are also clear that AEI trips are not typical getaways. “We’re not offering a vacation,” Livingstone says. “This is not going to a resort, this is work. But it’s work that’s transformational— through the animals you work with, through the family you homestay with, and through the community you live in.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I recently read an article about a study from UC Davis, showing an increase in some cancers and joint problems in Golden Retrievers that are spayed or neutered as opposed to intact. As a shelter worker, this is so concerning. There are endless studies showing many health and behavioral benefits to spaying and neutering. It’s critical to look at the overall benefits to neutering before deciding to keep a dog intact based only on a limited study of one breed. As a shelter worker I have seen Intact dogs who are relentless in their pursuit of a mate. Digging out, jumping fences, chewing through walls, I've seen it all. Unaltered dogs roam more, get hit by cars more, fight more, bite more, and cause more human injuries and even fatalities. Intact females are prone to mammary tumors and pyometra and intact males can get testicular and perianal tumors. According to one veterinary study, 80% of unaltered males will develop prostate disease. Urine marking is a common problem in unaltered dogs.
My champion Borzoi was un-spayed because she was a show dog. She developed a pyometra at 6 years of age, had to have emergency surgery at great expense and was ill with a nasty pseudomonas bacterial infection for a long time afterwards. She didn’t fully recover her former health for nearly a year. She also got along wonderfully with our spayed female dog except when she was in season. Twice yearly, they had to be separated as they were prone to fight. After she was spayed, they never had another issue. Another un-spayed show bitch that I owned was so snappy and difficult for several months at a time around her seasons that I actually considered euthanasia. Thankfully I decided to spay her to see if it would help. It ended her show career but she was a delightful happy girl after that and lived to a ripe old age as a beloved pet.
The article mentioned that neutered dogs are more likely to be overweight causing stress on the joints. While it is true that intact dogs may burn more calories fretting and looking for a mate, this is a feeding issue, not a neutering issue. All dogs should be kept trim and fed properly for their needs regardless of altering status. Excess weight is also a cancer risk. Ethical breeders are going to neuter dogs with joint problems and keep those with good joints for breeding which may result in a skewed study.
I would be interested in knowing more about the way the study was conducted. As shelter workers, we often see dogs surrendered to the shelter to be euthanized when they become sick or infirm with issues including cancer and hip dysplasia. Often these dogs are unaltered. The level of responsibility that goes along with extensive veterinary care often includes neutering, so of course neutered dogs will see the vet more for other issues as well. Unaltered dogs are commonly surrendered to shelters for behavior problems such as roaming, barking, urine marking etc. Many of these issues can be improved on by neutering. The article mentioned the fact that service dogs were affected. Unaltered dogs are not suitable for service work as they become distracted by potential mates. Could the work they do assisting people be a factor in causing stress on the joints?
The number one cause of preventable, premature death in companion animals in this country is euthanasia due to overpopulation. If people decline to alter their pets, this number will certainly climb. I have the greatest respect for those highly dedicated and ethical breeders out there, but for the rest of us there are endless, well-documented veterinary studies showing many health and behavioral reasons to neuter our pets.
For more information on the study see Joanna Lou's post.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Even though I work mostly out in the field as an animal control officer, and love it, the animal shelter is still my baby. Almost every day I walk through at the beginning and end of my shift to check on the animals. As I passed through one of the small dog areas recently, I noticed an adorable terrier mix puppy in a cage. The puppy begins to growl as soon as he sees me. Teeth showing, eyes dilated, body tense, the pup makes no secret of the fact that he will bite. I open the cage and he growls louder. I talk softly to him, then offer a cookie that I always have in my uniform pockets. He threatens to make mincemeat out of my face but finally leans forward and sniffs the treat cautiously.
He continues to glare at me as he reaches for the tidbit. “That’s a good boy, you’re such a good boy” I croon as he chews. The body visibly relaxes and I scratch him under the chin. He licks my fingers and wiggles closer. A moment later, the puppy crawls into my arms, snuggling as close as he possibly can while his tail whips in delight and he covers me with kisses. In less than two minutes, we’ve gone from “Get away, I hate you, I’m going to bite you” to “I love you, I trust you, don’t ever leave me”. I’ve seen it a thousand times and yet it never fails to move me. I cuddle him close and promise him a better life, swallowing the lump in my throat and marveling again at what a gift dogs are.
Of course, sometimes it takes hours, days or even weeks for a scared dog to come around, and a few never do, but most improve quickly with patient handling. My own Great Dane, Tyra, took longer than most to trust, but now she’s the happiest girl around. It always warms my heart to watch a dog blossom into a confident pet.
The puppy’s initial behavior is so understandable. Abandoned, terrified and in a strange place, his response was completely based on fear. As soon as he felt safe, his reaction changed. Over the following days of his stray hold period, I visited with the pup daily. He greeted me happily each time, with a wagging tail and soft, wiggly posture. The pup had been vaccinated, wormed and flea treated on intake and as soon as his stray hold was up, he was vet checked and neutered. Once on the adoption floor, it only took a few days for him to be adopted by a loving family. This is what it’s all about, I thought, as I watched him go out the door in the arms of his new adopters.
I volunteer about 20 hours per week at Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas, Calif. (which happens to be the first solar-powered humane society in the U.S.). We have a very successful callback program that involves calling and/or emailing every adopter of a dog from our shelter at four to five days, six weeks and three months post-adoption. We give advice on shelter-dog transition and training issues and answer any questions the adopters may have. We also have a chance to see if the adoption is working out or if, as is the rare case, the dog is not a good fit for the family. If we cannot help the adopter, we are able to encourage the adopter to bring the dog back to the shelter so that a more appropriate placement can be made. We enter information from our communications in the shelter’s computer system so that anyone who looks up a dog in the system can see how things are going in the home.
The callback program is very rewarding for those of us who make the calls (and emails); we share the joy of the new adopters, and of the dogs, who get out of the shelter and into loving homes. We also are able to help people help their new companions adjust, which can make the difference between a success story and a return. We get many compliments on this program.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Dangerous Job
As animal control officers, we put our lives on the line every day trying to make a difference. We go in with other law enforcement to dangerous situations, drug busts, domestic violence, murders and other crimes. We deal with aggressive animals and unstable people. Often we are called in because someone has lost everything, their money, their home, their pride. When we arrive to take their animals it can be the last straw.
The recent shooting death of a fellow animal control officer in the Sacramento area is a grim reminder of the dangers we face every day. Officer Roy Marcum was called to a home where the owner had been evicted the previous day and left some pets behind. I've lost count of how many similar calls I have responded to. As Officer Marcum approached the home, he was shot and killed by the former resident. Officer Marcum was described as a devoted animal lover and was there to help. What a loss for his family and the community.
I've been bitten, kicked, scratched and run over in my years in animal control, but the human encounters have been by far the scariest. I have been threatened, had the wall punched next to me and gone into homes with armed suspects, all to try and make life better for dogs and other animals. I wear a bullet proof vest and carry an asp, pepper spray, a shotgun and a rifle. I hope they will keep me safe.
Dog's Life: Humane
Singer helps Nashville’s homeless dogs.
On a sunny late-autumn afternoon, two bark-happy Chihuahuas, Jade and Coco, sprint across the grass and jump on Emmylou Harris. We’re in the spacious back yard of Harris’s Nashville home, which doubles as Bonaparte’s Retreat, a fostering service for unwanted dogs.
“Good girls,” says the legendary country singer, gathering the two dogs close to let them nuzzle and lick her. “Both of them were abandoned. The night we rescued Coco, she gave birth to five puppies.”
Harris also introduces us to Trooper, a black Lab; Preacher, a blond mixed-breed; and Gabby, an affectionate six-month-old puppy who, after spending her whole life at Nashville Metro Animal Control, has an eager handshake for everyone who comes close.
Finally, there’s Sally, a sweet, shy Terrier mix Harris describes as “a survivor and a heartbreaker.” Prior to coming to Bonaparte’s, Sally lived the first eight years of her life at the end of a five-foot chain in someone’s yard, with zero love and affection.
“Our mission is to take dogs who’ve run out of time,” says Harris. “This is a great situation compared to where they’ve come from. But it’s a halfway house. We do try to give them the royal treatment while they’re here, but they’re still in limbo, waiting for a home.”
Founded in 2004, the facility is named after one of Harris’s especially beloved dogs. “Bonaparte had this really friendly demeanor,” she says. “He was kind of a Poodle mix. Loved people, very sociable, loved other animals. I got this idea to take him on the road with me, and he was terrific. He loved the traveling, the bus, hotels, backstage. Of course, once you have the experience of having a dog on the road with you, you don’t realize how lonely you’ve been without one. So he went everywhere with me. He was my constant companion for 10 years.”
When Bonaparte died suddenly in 2002, Harris was devastated (for her most recent album, All I Intended to Be, she wrote “Not Enough,” a tribute to her traveling buddy). Not ready to think about replacing him, she channeled her love of animals into finding companions for others.
“I had this big yard, and I had seen an HBO special called Shelter Dogs that Cynthia Wade did,” Harris says. “I was very moved, and I thought, I’ve got the room—I could foster three or four dogs. So that’s where the idea came from. We took in our first dog in July 2004. Eventually, I felt some kind of call that I needed to focus on the dogs at Metro Animal Control. Nashville Humane does wonderful work—they’re a no-kill shelter. But at Metro, the dogs are on a very short time period before they’re euthanized if they’re not adopted—they’re on death row, so to speak.”
Building the retreat—which includes a generous run and a cozy bunkhouse—fulfilled one of Harris’s childhood fantasies. “When I was about 10, I wanted to live in a great big house and take in all the strays in the neighborhood,” she says.
Harris grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, and her love of animals was instilled in her at a young age. “My father had studied veterinary medicine. My grandfather kept hunting dogs. My father’s sister probably took in every stray in her town. I had an uncle who had a dairy farm with horses. There was always a sense of respect for animals. Children learn by example, and of course, they learn by having their own pets. I was lucky that way. I was taught compassion and love for animals.”
Aside from Bonaparte’s current residents, Harris and her mother Eugenia, who lives with her, have five cats and four dogs—all rescues.
With her unconditional love for all animals, how does Harris choose which dogs to take into the limited space of Bonaparte’s Retreat?
“Usually, the bigger and the older, the more—I don’t want to say the word ordinary—but there are a lot of black Lab mixes out there who aren’t Disney dogs. The longer the dog is in a shelter, the more likely they are to develop problems. They go kennel crazy. They can get very aggressive, even when that isn’t their nature. Or become very depressed. It works against them getting adopted.
“I wish we could take more. What we’re trying to do is get more people to foster for us. We’ll pay the expenses, the vet bills, the food, put them on the website along with the dogs who are here on the property, take them to dog adoption events. But physically, if we take more than four dogs, it really starts working against what we can provide for them.”
Dogs staying at Bonaparte’s are pictured on Harris’s website, and webmaster Kate Derr, who oversees day-to-day operations at the retreat, fields calls and emails from prospective adopters. Watching Derr’s gentle way with the dogs, you understand why Harris calls her “wonder woman.”
“Kate does everything,” Harris says. “She will set up a meeting for the person to come and meet the dog. If they’re interested, they fill out an application. Then Kate does a home visit to see if they have a fenced yard, just to check out everything. Then the dog goes for a home visit, to make sure they can get along with other animals there. There’s a three-week trial period. If it’s not a good fit, they can return the dog. Or if we decide it’s not right, we can take the dog back.
“The dogs have had all their shots. They’re usually crate-trained. We let people know if there are any idiosyncrasies about the dogs. And we want to know idiosyncrasies about the people. Because it’s a lifelong relationship. It’s a commitment. We want to make sure that the people are happy and that the dog is going to have a happy home.”
Harris’s rescue efforts speak to a larger problem in Nashville, as well as in many other American cities.
“There are approximately 11,000 animals euthanized at Nashville Metro every year,” she says. “It’s a statistic that’s terrible for a lot of reasons. If we had mandatory spay and neutering legislation, people would do the right thing. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. All around the country, there are communities who have taken on this problem and almost eliminated the unwanted cat and dog population.”
Harris’s animal advocacy recently earned her the George T. Angell Humanitarian Award from the MSPCA, along with a Humane Society fundraiser dinner in honor of her 60th birthday. While she appreciates the awards—and makes it clear that these days, she’d rather be recognized for her work with animals than her music—she knows there’s a lot more work to do.
As Harris sits in Bonaparte’s Bunkhouse, scratching Sally’s chin, she says, “The other side of all this—the heartbreak—is that there are thousands of dogs who are going to be put down. I know that I can’t save them, but it’s very difficult. You can’t put blinders on. I have to say, which dogs have been at Metro Animal Control the longest? And which ones look like they’re suffering from certain conditions that are being exacerbated by them being there? But why one dog and not another? It feels like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ sometimes. I’m haunted by certain faces that I know were there one day and the next, they were gone. It isn’t easy, but the thing that keeps me going are just those few that we’ve been able to place in homes.”
Listen to Emmylou sing “Not Enough”—her tribute to her buddy Bonaparte.
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