She has been threatened with guns and knives. Dogs she’s saved have killed one another. Prisons and shelters steal her clients. But Lori Weise “can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.”
The 42-year-old cofounder of Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR), a nonprofit affiliate of Friends for Animals in North Hollywood, is a believer that good things happen in bad neighborhoods, every day. With her “get things done” approach, Weise is helping to make a difference by bringing free services to communities the city ignores. Her block party-style spay/neuter events, hosted on the rough and tumble streets of Compton and Watts, are just one example. South Central Dog Club is another. Evidence that her work is being noticed arrives in the form of grants and awards, and a stream of glowing letters, like this one she received from Apple Valley Animal Control after she paid the $90 fee a woman couldn’t afford to claim her old Shepherd, who was facing euthanasia.
“Thank you, Lori…She came in to say good-bye and left with her beloved dog. The dog was so excited—he was talking and whining up a storm the minute he saw her. Makes it all worthwhile…”
Broken Dreams, Broken Lives
The idea of rescuing dogs conjures up images of wagging tails and grateful kisses. But Weise has another story to tell. It’s about dogs and people living in Third World conditions in the seventh-richest city in the world. It’s about a place where people’s belongings fit into a shopping cart—a place where tails don’t always wag. Why would Weise, a soft-spoken, college-educated furniture-factory manager, choose this beat? Why—in a city that worships appearances—would she shun makeup, jewelry and loose hair (she’s already given up TV and movies, since she says that what she sees on the streets is more than she can deal with visually)?
For the dogs, of course. DDR is the only organization in California—if not the United States—founded to assist the most forgotten sector of the American pet world: homeless dog owners.
It began in 1996, when Weise and Richard Tuttlemondo, managers at Modernica furniture factory in downtown Los Angeles, decided to do something about the suffering dogs that swarmed the streets. Their plan to spay and release the females led them to the nearby Skid Row—a 50-square-block urban dead zone where the sun rises each day to a congregation of thousands: people in wheelchairs getting high, half-naked prostitutes, men selling themselves for crack, a sea of bottles tilting.
They ventured into these homeless encampments looking to capture dogs, but learned they would first have to capture the hearts and minds of the people who lived there. Many of the “strays,” they discovered, had owners.
Iron Head, an older Pit Bull, never strayed far from New Orleans-born Benny Josephs. Josephs was Weise and Tuttlemondo’s first link to Skid Row’s dog-people. He had found Iron Head with a burn mark on his head, as though he’d been hit with a frying pan. He told them he was afraid of the big black dog at first, but soon they were sharing a cardboard “double-decker”; Josephs slept on the upper deck and Iron Head rested below—like a bunk bed.
As Weise gradually learned, the life of a “road dog” is a journey filled with hazards. Road dogs trade the anguish of confinement for the dangers of the street. They may pay for their freedom with their lives, Weise says, but none of these dogs would survive LA’s overcrowded shelters. (In 2001, Iron Head was killed by a stray, who then claimed his territory.)
For the first seven years, Tuttlemondo and Weise confined their efforts to Skid Row, where they encountered the many problems homeless owners face. Necessities were scarce. Dogs couldn’t be licensed if their owners didn’t have an address. Homeless shelters and Section 8 housing don’t accept pets. Disease was rampant. Some dogs were abused, or kept solely to aid panhandlers.“The situations were just slightly above awful, ”Weise says, admitting that initially, they wanted to take the dogs away from these conditions. But, considering that there were too many dogs, that most were highly unadoptable and that the owners objected, separating dogs from homeless people who’d been caring for them didn’t feel right.