For some people, there are those moments in life when you know just what path you’re destined to take. For people who love and care for animals that path is often clear. There are animals out there who need your help to find their “forever” homes and you know you need to help them find their way.
Take Linda Coletta, for instance. Coletta is President of Houndhaven, Inc. and a retired attorney. Almost ten years ago (as of December 9th), Linda and her husband decided to purchase a property with the specific goal of rescuing animals to give them a second chance at the “precious” life they deserve. For Coletta, the purpose of rescue is to reclaim life that is otherwise going to be destroyed. With that, the Houndhaven, Inc. operation was born.
According to their website, “Houndhaven, Inc. rescues dogs and puppies from euthanasia at kill shelters. We care for them until they can be placed in loving homes or with another rescue group. We believe that these lives are precious, and we are strictly a no kill organization. Our mission is life.”
Since they opened their operation, Houndhaven has rescued over 650 dogs; including the most in one year of 117 in 2008. They have adopted every dog rescued with the exception of four who were euthanized for temperament issues and three others who died from natural causes. The longest they have held a dog was approximately one year due to multiple surgeries (two eye surgeries and one knee surgery) that were performed. The average adoption time for most dogs at Houndhaven is within five months and the shortest in a matter of hours.
In writing about specialty-breed groups, Melissa Bell points out that animal rescue programs have been around since the 1950s, but “. . . it has only been in the past decade that organizations have cropped up for nearly every breed and those breeds’ mixes. The groups foster dogs to ease crowding at local shelters and offer would-be pet owners more adoptions to adopt.”
There are many rescue groups throughout the country dedicated to the animals they save and finding them their “forever” homes. For that reason the adoption process may be strict in the hope a permanent match will stick. Wrote Bell, “The rescue organizations for specialty breeds are usually run by volunteers fiercely dedicated to the dogs they care for. Most rescue groups put prospective pet owners through a rigorous application process. It can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months and cost between $100 to $500. Puppies tend to fall on the pricier side. The dogs will be vaccinated, neutered and house-trained.”
Houndhaven is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) classified organization. They are funded strictly by donations and some grants (including PetSmart Charities), and operate entirely by volunteers (including the Disney Volunteer Program). Volunteers are needed at the shelter daily and at PetSmart on weekends for adoption events.
In talking about the importance of rescue organizations, Linda Coletta states, “Rescue is literally a life-saving opportunity for the animals.” Without these organizations the animals might be dead.
Given their importance, the question has sometimes been raised about the lack of regulation within the rescue industry. For Houndhaven, Linda proclaimed they must be in compliance with zoning regulations, provide annual reporting (if seeking funds), and registration with the Florida Department of Agriculture as well as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a nonprofit entity.
Coletta emphasizes that Houndhaven, like other rescue organizations, is at the mercy of both their volunteers and donors. She invites people to the Houndhaven shelter to see what they do and to get a feel for those animals that the organization takes in to help.
A rescue really is a temporary sanctuary for animals rescued because of circumstances often beyond their control. However, according to Coletta, a lot of animal control agencies will not work with rescues they don’t consider “reputable”. She believes rescue organizations shouldn’t be government regulated if they’re not receiving government funds. That notwithstanding, Coletta also believes that you must be aware of rescues that are out of control with overcrowding and poor conditions that allow animals to suffer.
Rescue is sometimes a slippery slope where people with good intentions get in over their head. They just can’t resist the hopelessness in the faces of the all too many animals that need to be saved. The following are just two examples of what can happen when rescue efforts go bad.
Last spring, the Orlando Sentinel reported that “. . . operators of Mid-Florida Retriever Rescue were charged with 261 counts of animal cruelty when Polk Animal Control officers in Florida found the dogs in their filthy home were malnourished, infested with fleas and in poor health. Among the 261 dogs were 35 puppies.”
Last summer, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) assisted in the removal of almost “. . . 400 cats – including numerous kittens – were discovered living in desperate conditions . . . Many were suffering from health problems, including upper respiratory disease and eye infections, and have tested positive for Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).” Said Tim Rickey, ASPCA Senior Director of Field Investigations and Response , “This was one of the worst cases of animal hoarding this area has seen. These cats were removed from a “sanctuary” known as the Animal Friends of Elk and Cameron Counties.
Moreover rescue facilities, or sanctuaries as they may be known, aren’t always a welcome addition to the neighborhoods they locate in. In Tavares, Florida Lake County commissioners granted a permit to the Animal Preservation and Education Sanctuary (A.P.E.S.) “. . . to house the captive exotic animals, which cannot be returned to the wild . . . Their sanctuary shelters five tigers, two leopards, two lemurs and seven siamang apes, rare, long-armed and acrobatic primates native to southeast Asia. The small apes also belt out loud hoots, which annoy at least one neighbor.”
While ten sanctuary neighbors signed a petition in support of the A.P.E.S. permit, one expressed opposition to the noise, a negative effect on property values and a fear of escape. The neighbor wrote, “We do not want to live near a zoo. How in the world are you going to sell a house with this down the street? It cannot be done . . . These animals are within view of the road and, of course, anyone can hear them screaming. The potential is there (of an escape). It would just take someone not closing the gates, not having safety measures in place, a hurricane, tornado, etc. These things happen more often than we would like to believe.”
Granted exotic and domestic animals may present different concerns, but each is representative of the careful need to provide resources for any type of animal that has been displaced.
According to the Animal Rescue Association of America (AnRAA), there are nearly 20,000 rescue organizations in the United States. However, “. . . until now, there has been NO association to help standardize the animal rescue industry, provide listings and outreach to shelters.”
The AnRAA website further states, “There is no group that works harder than animal rescuers . . . all on a volunteer basis, yet there is no national forum to help them and honor them. The animal rescue industry is one of the few left with NO national association . . . until now. Key members of the Association have personally been involved in breed rescue for almost ten years from start-up to multi-state coverage. They understand the complications that are involved and have formed the Association to help. Currently there are no paid positions . . . all of us are volunteers.”
AnRAA offers members a certification process in which they “. . . provide detailed information regarding their operations for verification by the Association’s Certification Board. The Association rigorously reviews their information and contacts selected individuals involved in their rescue operations to confirm that their practices conform to the Animal Rescue Code of Ethics. These organizations have earned the designation of “C.R.O.” (Certified Rescue Organization). Others can look to them as hallmark groups within the industry. The annual renewal ensures continuing compliance.”
It is still a matter of discussion, and perhaps debate, whether animal rescue organizations need to be formally regulated, live by certain agreed upon rules and ethics, or just continue to self-police themselves without perceived outside interference.
What is clear, however, is the continuing need for doing our best to provide a positive highway to travel for those animals we find in trouble. Last month, in an Orlando Sentinel article by Amy C. Rippel, Rae Davidson, president and founder of German Shepherd Rescue of Central Florida, lamented the plight of some four-legged friends. He said, “We have become a throw-away society. We get a pet today and when we don’t want it next week, we dump it.”
Coletta believes that God gives everyone a heart for something and for her that heart is for animals. She saw what wonderful dogs they had when she volunteered at animal control and perceived these animals needed an advocate to show how great they are, but at the same time she was distressed by volunteering at a kill shelter.
Understand that governmental animal control agencies have to take any animals that are brought into their shelter, but rescue organizations can screen the animals they choose to take. For instance, Houndhaven screens for temperament before accepting a dog into their care.
Ultimately, says Coletta, rescue organizations provide the community with somewhere for animals (such as strays they don’t want to be euthanized) they feel compassion for to go to other than animal control. Animal rescue is important to people on a personal level because they have an opportunity to help and be part of the solution. It provides an outlet for unwanted pets or those that people can’t keep.
Sometimes rescue organizations can provide more resources and time than animal control when they’re overwhelmed by the number of animals in their shelter. Despite any differences that may exist between a government and non-government organization, they need to work together to fulfill the mission of helping animals in their community.
Coletta notes a “great” relationship between Houndhaven and Lake County Animal Services in Lake County, Florida. Animal Services will call on Houndhaven as one of the rescue groups they work with, but most importantly each organization helps the other on behalf of the community they serve.
Whether you go to a rescue organization or animal control to adopt, they both are temporary guardians of animals that have been found, turned in or removed because of people. In the book ONE at a Time: A Week in an American Shelter (Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer), one of the chapters talks about the reason people surrender their animals to a shelter.
“The voluntary surrender of companion animals is, to many people, the most incomprehensible part of the homeless animal problem. Many guardians just can’t conceive of willingly giving up their animal friends, for any reason, especially knowing that it could lead to the animal’s death. Some of the reasons given for surrendering animals seem almost unbelievable, but spend a day behind the receiving counter of an animal shelter and you will almost certainly develop a disheartening awareness of the lesser side of human nature.”
It is indeed a sad statement about our society and the diminished value some people place on companion animals. “Surrenders blatantly demonstrate some of the basic attitudes that create the need for animal shelters in the first place: a lack of commitment by some people toward the animals they have taken into their lives; a disconnection from an animal as a living, feeling being; an unwillingness to be inconvenienced by an animal’s needs; surprisingly unrealistic expectations about how an animal will fit into day to day life; the quintessential attitude of disposability.”
Coletta cites the typical reasons why dogs are given up, to include the following:
- Allergic to the dog;
- Getting divorced;
- Had a baby and now have no time for the dog anymore;
- Owner didn’t anticipate the puppy brought home would turn into a larger dog;
- Unrealistic expectations for the breed of the dog adopted or purchased; and
- Owner dies without prior arrangements made for the pet.
Of course, there’s also the truly stupid excuses like the color of the dog’s fur doesn’t match the color of the owner’s couch. Animal shelter and rescue organization people have seen and heard it all to the point that nothing about human nature and how that nature perceives companion animals surprises them anymore. They often have to hold their tongue to hide their anger and sadness about the unspeakable fate too often thrust upon these innocent four-legged souls.
Coletta also points out that often rescue organizations don’t know the stories behind a surrender because the dogs have been released to them from animal control. Not every companion animal comes with a full background story to relate, but what Coletta has regularly discerned as the problem is people don’t know how to handle their dog. She accentuates this is a problem that could be resolved by training.
Leigh and Geyer stress in their book “. . . a critical need for education and information. Many shelters are realizing that their role must change, and change rather profoundly: as much as finding new homes for homeless animals, shelters need to find ways to help animals keep the homes they already have. They must help potential new guardians understand the commitment they are making before they bring an animal into their lives. Many shelters are working at becoming resources to their communities, providing the much-needed education, information and assistance that will help prevent surrenders.”
Of course giving up an animal is not always the choice someone wants to make, but instead becomes an agonizing decision due to circumstance. In this economy, as Coletta rightfully states, losing your job has become a major factor in giving up your dog. This is a “very unfortunate” situation dictated by factors beyond your control. Animals have become yet another victim claimed by a faltering economy.
An article from Diane Pomerance, author and animal behavior expert, was posted last month in the Orlando Sentinel offering suggestions that might help you to keep your pet in these tough economic times, as follows:
- Do not be afraid or embarrassed to let friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow church or synagogue members or other members of the community know of your circumstances and ask for help.
- Contact both local and national animal welfare and rescue organizations and ask them if they know of low-cost veterinarians or food pantries for pets (many rescue organizations receive help and donations from stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, PetSmart, Petco or dog and cat food manufacturers) that offer pet food to those who need it. Check with local pet product stores and see if they will sell you pet food from torn, damaged or extra pet food bags or cans.
- Discuss your situation with your veterinarian and seek health care for your pet that is truly essential and critical to your pet’s health and well-being.
- Ask your vet for a viable and affordable payment plan. If your vet is unwilling to provide a reasonable payment plan, seek referrals from animal welfare or rescue organizations for reputable low-cost veterinarians.
- Limit or quit spending on unnecessary toys or accessories for your pet. Often a pet’s favorite toy is a tennis ball, Frisbee or cardboard box – something extremely inexpensive and simple.
- Rather than paying for pet grooming, groom your pet yourself. If you are unable or unwilling to do this, contact a local animal shelter or rescue organization and find out if a volunteer can provide this service for a reduced fee.
- Scale down whenever it is possible. Rather than hiring a pet sitter or taking your pet to doggie or kitty day care, ask animal-loving friends, neighbors or family members to do the job.
- Check with your local Meals on Wheels to find out if pet food is available through this organization.
- Keep your pet safe and healthy by providing clean water, nutritious food and exercise. In cold and hot weather, keep your pet primarily indoors.
- Keep on keeping on, and take it one day at a time. Although it may involve some intricate financial juggling on your part, do your best to obtain help and advice from as many resources as you can.
What truly breaks your heart, as Leigh and Geyer so aptly describe when an animal is being handed over to shelter staff, is watching that “. . . exact moment when the animal comprehends what is happening, when he finally realizes that his guardian is leaving and he is staying; the exact moment when the confusion in his eyes is replaced by understanding, and then turns to panic, desperation. Sadness, that will turn to grief as the days unwind, while he waits for another chance that may or may not come.”
But there is hope. Ripley is the tale of a small dog found in a ditch in Louisiana with no back story on how he got there or managed to survive. He was taken in by My Heart’s Desire, a private rescue in Houma, Louisiana.
“His fur was so badly matted and infested with insects, including cockroaches, that he hardly resembled a dog. He was subsequently named Ripley, because no one could believe there was a dog underneath.” Following a massive makeover from which emerged a purebred poodle estimated to be only two years old, his story caught the attention of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Said Tim O’Brien, Vice President of Communications for Ripley’s, “Ripley the dog is what Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is all about. It’s unbelievable that a dog could even be in this condition, let alone survive and go on to potentially become a great pet for someone.” Ripley’s donated to the rescue because in their business it’s just one of those stories you just couldn’t believe.
Perhaps one of the comments to Ripley’s story put it best about the lessons animals teach us and thanks for the people who rescue them. “Animals always give us lessons about loyalty, friendship and the best way of thanking a loving action. They don´t know anything about hating or other negative aspects of Human beings. LOOKING at his amazing eyes and transformation, One only can say: Thank you to those Angels who took him and rescue him, and thank you to him for being alive to share his life with someone else.”
Help your animal shelters and rescue organizations do the job they do each and every day on behalf of your community and the animals they serve. Donate your time and whatever financial contributions you can for those animals so much in need for a kind word, a kind hand and finding their “forever” home.
When all is said and done at the end of the day, rescuers should remember these words from Jim Willis found on the Houndhaven website. In what he calls The Animals’ Savior, Mr. Willis writes, “I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter, the cast-offs of human society. I saw in their eyes love and hope, fear and dread, sadness and betrayal. And I was angry. “God,” I said, “this is terrible! Why don’t You do something?” God was silent for a moment, and then He spoke softly. “I have done something,” He replied. “I created you.”