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.
Instead, Tuttlemondo and “Miss Lori, the dog lady,” as Weise became known, brought services to those who needed them. They delivered food, took dogs to the vet, bought some from abusive owners and housed them in kennels that Tuttlemondo built behind Modernica. They solved the licensing problem by providing their business address, and paid the fees to license more than 300 dogs. Today, Josephs is one of only two Skid Row clients. While they continue to work with the homeless, there are far fewer Skid Row dogs, thanks to their successful spay/neuter campaign.Gradually, DDR’s focus has shifted to low-income owners in Watts, Compton and South Central LA.
But Weise still keeps an eye on Skid Row, where she often brings dinner to Josephs, who walks unsteadily as the result of an old gunshot wound. Josephs now lives in an alley, in a fenced industrial yard. His new outdoor “spot” has a bed, running water, TV,DVD player, a microwave— and plenty of space for his adopted “kids,” Twiggy and Lizzy (mixed breeds), and Freeway (a bouncy Pit Bull).
“I don’t know what I’d do without ’em,” Josephs says.He finds it easy to explain why so many have crept into his fold over the years:“I got some kind of magic with dogs.” He has rescued hundreds,Weise says.“And he’s a lost a few too,” she adds gently, giving him the dinner she has brought.
“You need to call Social Security,” he reminds her. “I will, I will,” she assures him.
One day in 2003, as Weise was walking by a business near Modernica, the owner called out that he had found a dog for her. He led her to a beautiful blue Pit Bull chained in the yard.
By now,Weise was very familiar with her canine client-base.Most were Bully breeds, raised on street survival. Some were trained fighters. All were unpredictable.
She called Tuttlemondo, and together they walked “Blue” to the factory, where their dog Sinbad greeted him. In a flash, Blue went from calm to crazed, lunging so violently at Sinbad that they knew he would kill him. Jumping in,Weise and Tuttlemondo wrestled Blue into a kennel. Locked inside, he exploded, spinning and rocking the frame. The powerful dog then tore a hole in the military-strength kennel, nearly ripping off the door.
Shaken, they rushed him to a vet for boarding, and wondered if it was time to quit.
That same year,Weise’s husband of 14 years moved out, unhappy with her new “calling,”which entailed a seven-day, riskfilled work week. Her beat now covered some of the most dangerous streets of South Los Angeles, where several Skid Row clients had found housing. Weise and Tuttlemondo had a kennel license and nonprofit status.But a huge challenge remained: The dogs were uncontrollable. And unadoptable. There had been fights to the death. Their decision to keep the dogs separated only deepened their distress. Weise was plagued by fears of fights and of failure. Then a law was passed prohibiting the homeless from sleeping on the streets.As their owners were arrested or forced to move on,more dogs were in need of rescue.
One afternoon, a friend convinced Weise to take Blue to meet “dog whisperer” Brandon Fouche of Canine Communications. Arriving at his South Central LA facility, she was surprised to see a pack of Bully breeds playing together. Fouche, a fit black man in his forties known for whisking uncontrollable dogs off to the mountains and returning them transformed, asked her what her dog knew. “Sit, down, heel,” she answered. Fouche told her, the animal shelters would be far less crowded.Aggression is among the 10 reasons dogs are abandoned in Los Angeles, according to data compiled by rescue organizations. Come back in two weeks, he said, and Blue will be running with the others.Weise didn’t believe him. Still, when she saw Tuttlemondo, she told him how inspired she was by the meeting with Fouche. Perhaps it was a turning point.
Two weeks later when she arrived to retrieve Blue, there he was, romping with the pack. “I had tears in my eyes,”Weise recalls.
They brought more dogs to Fouche for rehabilitation. His methods, which focus on the dog’s nature as a pack animal who craves order, help poorly socialized dogs “learn to judge their own aggression,” Weise says.
One day, Fouche turned down a dog.
“You’re gonna do this one yourself,” he told her.
“She’s too aggressive!” Weise complained. Lulu, a stubby white Pit Bull with one blue and one brown eye, was always picking fights.
“You can do it,” Fouche insisted.
So Weise started taking the incorrigible Lulu everywhere. Socialization “boot camp” lasted two solid weeks. Then, before releasing her into a group with a few of the calmer dogs, she walked her up and down the stairs of the three-story warehouse until the potbellied Pit nearly collapsed. It worked. One fight-free encounter led to another. Today, when the group gets raucous, Lulu tattles by barking. “She will kill the fun,” Weise says. “Lulu is more than ready to be adopted out to the right owner.”
The experience transformed Weise as well. Soon after her first successful rehabilitation, she says, “I began to implement programs no one had seen before.”
The Power of the Pack
Every day after work, Weise opens the kennels behind Modernica and about 20 “Bullies”mob together. The yard resembles a preschool, with a plastic pool and other fun fixtures. The dogs tangle, Lulu referees and Weise does her best to stay out of it. Play is expressive and an outlet for normal aggression within the pack, she says.When natural behaviors are suppressed, dogs become stressed, often acting out with greater aggression.“The trick is judging the limit, and what all the barks and growls mean.”
Unlike rescue facilities, she argues, shelters resemble prisons. The structure isolates dogs, reinforcing their problems and lowering their chances of adoption. She also notes that dogs with low-income owners are more often abandoned because their owners are more affected by fines and fees. Vets in poor neighborhoods have been known to charge very high rates, and neglect to tell eligible owners about free city services, Weise says. In other cases, people have actually chosen homelessness over housing that refuses pets.
When people call DDR, intending to relinquish a dog, volunteer Sandy Dragoits first asks, “What will it take for you to keep your dog?” The many answers to that question have helped inform Weise’s unique programs.While the usual menu of services is offered, there is nothing usual about distributing thousands of hip-hop flyers on gang turf that beckon homies to “Pimp Your Pit” and “Get Fixed or Die Tryin’.” Or hosting block party–style events in places like Watts, or Compton; a city only ten square miles in size that’s home to over 57 active gangs. “People told me it would be a disaster,” Weise says of the first large-scale spay/ neuter event in 2002—“and it turned out great.”
Rosalie Bardwell, 67, a steely Compton volunteer, says that while they are able to manage the crowds, neighborhood reception is sometimes chilly.The notoriously tough city is even less welcoming to outsiders. It may be hard to get the keys to the restroom, says Weise, who often hears comments suggesting she doesn’t belong in a certain neighborhood.“Dog people are dog people,” is her standard reply. She admits that, in some cases—like the time she unwittingly walked in on a drug deal—fear has forced her to leave dogs “in terrible situations.”To deal with these circumstances, she relies on volunteers— her “street soldiers”who know the community. “They’re my eyes,” she says. She’s also learned to practice the “buy-in,” which simply means paying someone for help or information (like distributing flyers).Weise, a rap music lover who finds locations for events from songs, counts rapper Unkal Bean among her allies.Her low-income volunteers attend weekly adoptions, tell her about dogs in trouble, and talk each other into spaying and neutering. Pit Bull breeders are the toughest sell, but Weise takes their unwanted dogs, as well as their concessions: “For what you do, you’re all right.” Recently, the Humane Society’s Chicago dog-fighting division approached Weise, wanting to duplicate her urban programs in other cities with a “Pit Bull problem.” Her advice to rescue groups seeking streetcredibility: “Realize that you are the one who needs the education. Otherwise, there will always be the wall.”
The wall is thick with language, cultural and religious differences, in addition to issues of mental illness. Some owners don’t “believe” in spaying. Others take pride in their dog’s aggression. Weise favors outreach over preachy reform. “I try to set an example,” she says.“Through the dogs, I can promote social change.” She bets her own money on it through housing deposits, rides to appointments —even paying the salaries of homeless people she employs at Modernica.
Finding Safe Havens
Some ofWeise’s clients rehabilitate dogs. They do so even when the comfort they bring to a dog’s life is missing from their own. Jo Barker,who lives in South Central, has recently undertaken “back-to-back rescues” and facilitated her first adoption— a family who took in a sweet Pit Bull that Barker rescued from a violent neighbor. Barker doesn’t go looking for them. “The good dogs always find me,” she says. And they are never just dogs. They are the “coffee hound,” the “pogo stick,” the “Dachshund who saved himself...”
Her favorite part of rescue is the first few days,“watching them crash into relaxation,” then “seeing the refreshment growing slowly into trust and watching them open up…shedding the bad skin and learning new things.” They’re grateful, she feels, “for being given a softer touch in life.”Then there’s the “pure noisy happiness when ‘mommy’ comes home.”
But in 2003, Barker, then 42, had no home. “My whole family’s world came crashing down,” is how she describes her pitch into homelessness.Her son moved in with his girlfriend and Barker’s four dogs stayed in the yard of an acquaintance.“ They were the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night before going back to the shelters,” she says.
She lived this way for three years,moving from shelter to motel to the experimental Dome Village in downtown LA. She was able to keep two of her “kids” (Dekota, a Shepherd-Chow, and Daytona, a Pit Bull), while Weise—whom Goodwill Industries contacted on Barker’s behalf —took the others.When Daytona later died of leukemia, Barker was crushed, and Dekota felt the loss as well. Barker insists Dekota cried, showing her attachment to her lost companion by adopting Daytona’s habit of overturning her food bowl with her nose.
Then Boxer came roaring into their lives. The handsome but headstrong young Pit Bull had spent his life chained to a tree, taunted by cranks. Unable to keep him, his owners gave him to Barker. At the same time, Dome Village was closing its doors, although there wasn’t much to close. According to Barker, the 250- square-foot fiberglass domes weren’t even affixed to the ground. “Living there was real close to living on the streets,with all the druggies and molesters—knowing anybody could put a fist through the walls, pop open the door and climb through the window,” she says. But it was a roof. Now residents would be back on the streets, or in Section 8 housing— provided they abandoned their dogs. It began with “staff telling the residents they had to give up their dogs for housing,” Barker says.
Just as Barker was taking on the belligerent Boxer, she began a fight to help residents keep their dogs. She dedicated herself to legal research, unearthing documents which showed that under the Fair Housing Act, a homeless person’s dog can be considered an “emotional support” service animal. Such dogs are permitted in Section 8 and other federally assisted housing programs. The sticking point was finding landlords who would willingly accept them. The battle between staff and dog owners raged for months, until the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was called in. LAHSA’s plan was to post the dogs on “Craig’s List” for fostering. Panicked dog owners redoubled their efforts, Barker says, and a flurry of letters were mailed in protest.
After three months of contention, an agreement was finally reached.Residents would not have to choose between keeping their dogs, or a roof over their heads.
Now Barker faced a new struggle with Boxer. She called Weise, and an intensive training session began. She walked Boxer, whom she describes as “a very angry, confused, undisciplined dog,” up to six times a day.Weise waited for a call for backup, but it never came. Today, she says, the difference in Boxer “is like day and night.” He can play with other dogs, and likes some people. She admits that, “without Jo, he would probably be dead.”
To assist with his deprogramming, Barker had him neutered.When Boxer returned home after the surgery, Dekota was ecstatic. That’s when she knew Boxer could stay. “Dekota had accepted him, even with all his bullying vigor,” she says.
They now live in a house in a rough South Central LA neighborhood, where Boxer is learning trust and stability—no easy task, considering his rough beginning. Pit Bulls, Barker says, have especially keen memory retention.To get such a loyal but strong-willed breed to take a submissive role in the family means “controlling a very dominant framework within that type of dog.”
She says he is slowly learning about “other people’s blankies,”her canine code for people in their yard behind their fence. She also mentions a toilet paper fetish and the “modifications” he made to her best wool sweater.
At night, things are easier. Boxer loves to snuggle and “pretends he is a rotorooter crawling under the covers.” She credits Dekota for calming “this devildemon.” He’s finally grasping the difference between what’s okay and what’s harmful, says Barker.
Boxer’s strong urge to protect the home he finally found isn’t altogether unwelcome for a woman living alone in one of LA’s toughest neighborhoods.“He loathes crackheads, heroin addicts and obnoxious drunks,” she says. He also dislikes people who approach them too quickly, especially at night.“He is my bodyguard and house protector,” she says, confessing her belief that it has something to do with the distinct coloring on his shoulders— in the shape of angel wings.
Weise, who sees dogs with similar markings all the time in her work, has a more earthly view of the 70-pound Pit Bull. “Everything Jo has is special,” she says. “She loves that dog.”