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.