By JORDI MATSUMOTO
Photos by SONIA HUANG
(video to follow)
Sometimes, animals are lost.
Other times, animals are abandoned.
Volunteers at Downtown Dog Rescue witness both, over and over and year after year.
And for Lori Weiss, co-founder, the work began more than 10 years ago - she started by helping one homeless man, named Benny Josephs, and his beloved pit bull "Iron Head." Soon after, hundreds of dogs young and old would follow. The organization has been focused not only on furry creatures left behind, but on their homeless owners as well. In fact, it's the only such program in California dedicated to assisting homeless dog owners with all that their responsibilities imply - from licensing to vaccination to crisis care - for the dog's entire life span.
Within its mission, a unique dynamic has developed.
For once in a while, those who are homeless will come across a dog and “adopt” it. Yet because the men and women are without shelter, they cannot offer a true haven. This is where Downtown Dog Rescue comes in and establishes what Weiss calls “the safety net.” By reaching out to this particular population and gaining individuals' trust, the group has been able to help microchip hundreds of dogs. Microchipping essentially establishes the organization as a co-owner. So if a dog is impounded, or if a homeless owner is unable to continue caring for his or her charge, Weiss and her team can stepn and try to save the pooch from being put down.
At the same time, members of Downtown Dog Rescue have been regularly offering an adoption event. It is held every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Petco in Pasedena. For some of the animals, adoption is the final, celebratory step in a long journey.
"I read so much about crisis in LA - at City Hall, in the schools, everywhere. But what tugs at me the most are the animals. They don't have a chance to speak up," said Sam Sanchez, a waiter from West Los Angeles. When I found out about the rescue groups, I was thrilled and grateful. I got my older relatives to go and we picked out your average, adorable mutt whose parents had lost their home to foreclosure. We need more families with open arms. We desperately need more families with open hearts and arms."
Stepping in to help with local needs is the Association to Save Abandoned Pets, or ASAP, which also lends a hand in helping the homeless and their dogs around downtown L.A. and in Southern California. The group touts free checkups with area vets, “all expenses-paid.” It even offers a $20 reward to any homeless person who brings in a dog.
Dogs discovered in alleyways, behind buildings, wandering between the nooks and crannies of downtown seeking food and safety can be brought to different parts of Southern California for rescue, rehab and the longed-for dream of adoption.
Angel's Heart Dog Rescue is such a place.
Janet Cook, organizer, has heard plenty about the list of "wants" of potential dog owners.
“It shouldn’t smell too much.”
“We can’t have one that sheds.”
“A calm one would be best—one that doesn't bark a lot.”
This list is similar to the one that some people have for an ideal significant other. The difference is that we seem to have greater control in our search for the “perfect dog” vs. our search for the “perfect mate.” Specialized breeders might provide the right mix of characteristics for any future dog owner. After all, who is not tempted by the prospect of a perfect match?
Cook tries to avoid the temptation. In many respects, she is an agnostic when it comes to picking the right pooch. She works hard to rescue abandoned dogs for her shelter near Riverside. At any given moment, she houses between six to 10 animals. Her group is small compared to some of the larger shelters in Southern California, yet it's still an integral part of a network of rescuers.
Nationally, the issue of abandoned dogs is of epidemic proportions. While a number of different potential solutions have been proposed, population control in the form of spaying and neutering has gained public favor. Calls for the end of dog-fighting - a practice that among other consequences has brought on overbreeding -also have been heard. The topic of rescues has stayed away from the spotlight, supporters say, partially because it lacks the glamour of some of these other approaches.
Yet when it comes to Cook's work, there is a certain novelty to her stories. Take, for instance, a recent addition to her brood, Addison.
Addison is a pit bull, or “pittie” as Cook likes to call them. She rescued Addison from a proverbial death row for dogs - the Department of Animal Care and Control’s tally for euthanization. When DACC workers found Addison, her right hind leg was severely broken. By normal veterinary standards, she would never walk again.
Because of a lack of resources, the DACC euthanizes dogs in much better condition than Addison. So broken leg or not, she was probably headed for doggie heaven in the coming days.
Cook gave Addison a second chance. However, bringing her home was only step one. Recovery proved a long and arduous step two.
In the months after Addison’s rescue, Cook would shuttle the pittie to the veterinarian’s office countless times. It took three surgeries to fix the leg. And the operations clearly did not pay themselves. Cook paid out of pocket for the initial procedures and the vet volunteered to cover the final one.
Even after the ordeal, Addison still has a long road ahead of her. Shortly after her last surgery, she began rehabilitation, undergoing hydrotherapy, which involves using a special underwater treadmill. See video. She is currently using the treadmill to get strength back in her leg, and so far it's working. Addison is intermittently walking on her leg without any assistance.
Few people outside of the rescue community get to know the true nature of abandoned dogs. For example, to the general public, pit bulls carry a very negative stigma. Yet the reality may surprise those who are willing to go out and meet the dogs first hand. Cook can talk all day about how sweet pitties are, and Addison, well, speaks for herself.
Ultimately, it's not easy for potential dog owners to take the leap of faith in adopting a dog from Angel’s Heart Dog Rescue, Downtown Dog Rescue, or one of the many generous rescues surviving on shoestring budgets across Southern California. Despite numerous incentives, including voluntary adoption fees, free sterilization and vaccination, and free training, many opt to go a different route.
But for those who reach out to rescue, it's life-changing. Cook, for one, cannot imagine abandoning the mission.
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