This Los Angeles Shelter Program Is Revolutionizing Animal Rescue

Written by: Dr. Katy Nelson

August 7, 2014

There’s a groundbreaking program in Los Angeles that’s making a huge difference in the lives of people and pets – and changing the way we think about rescue. Anyone who’s been to their local shelter knows it’s easy to walk the kennels, see the faces of the “strays” and “owner surrenders” and come to the conclusion that people are horrible – but in reality the story is much more complicated. In her 16 years working in the community, Downtown Dog Rescue founder Lori Weise realized that the pet overpopulation problem in our country is not so much a pet problem as it is a people problem – more than that, it’s a poverty problem. In response to this, Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR), with the support of Found Animals Foundation and in partnership with the South Los Angeles Shelter, launched the Shelter Intervention Program in April 2013. The goal? To intercept people surrendering their pets, address their challenges, and whenever possible, help them keep their pets out of the shelter.

The Result? In the first 9 months of the program, 2,041 pets were kept in their homes and out of the shelter! 

That’s 2,041 pets who didn’t need to be in the shelter, leaving space open for those pets who truly do need to be rescued. The best part is that this model is already spreading! After seeing the success at the South L.A. Shelter, Kerry Lowe Armstrong, a volunteer at L.A.’s North Central Shelter, started a non-profit organization, Home Dog LA, and began running an intervention program there. They started small two days  a week, but thanks to teamwork and sharing resources, the program grew to three days, then more, and now the North Central Shelter Intervention program is running very similar to the one in South LA. Collaborations like this save lives!

Here’s a handy graphic that shows the main reasons pets enter the shelter.

Did you know that the average cost to keep a pup out of the shelter is $50?

Imagine if the tax dollars spent to house, feed, and euthanize pets in shelters was instead spent on providing low-income communities with the resources they need to care for their pups! Shelters would be way less crowded and rescue groups’ resources could be spent helping pets who truly need homes.

In South LA, almost 50% of pets land in shelters because they weren’t spayed or neutered.

Sometimes, all it takes is a conversation (free of judgement!) to help someone who may be opposed to spay/neuter realize it’s the healthiest option for their pet. Other times, the conversation is easy – families want to spay/neuter and vaccinate their pets, but lack the funds. When this pup’s devastated owners were told they either had to neuter their pup or surrender him, and they didn’t have the money for the surgery, DDR helped them with the cost so this happy family could stay together!

For low-income pet owners, unexpected vet bills can be a an overwhelming obstacle.

This 7 year old pup (on the left) was adopted by his family in 2009. They love him dearly, but when an old injury (he had been hit by a car way before they adopted him) progressed to paralysis and seizures, they felt overwhelmed and considered surrendering him. With already limited resources, they were spending 50% of their monthly income on vet visits and still getting no answers. DDR is now paying for his seizure medication and rescue partner Noah’s Bark donated a wheelchair. This family who once felt hopeless now has the community and resources to help care for their beloved handicapped pet. High paws for teamwork!

Iliana the pit bull (on the right) lives with her parents Stephanie and Brian and her dachshund sister under a bridge in downtown L.A. Although homeless, the couple always puts their pups first. Stephanie said she found Iliana about a year ago being beaten by a group of men on the street. In her words, she told them: “This is not your dog any more. It’s mine.” The two have not been apart since that day. The family walked into North Central shelter as a last resort when Iliana was vomiting blood and all the vets they visited were closed. Afraid they couldn’t afford the vet bills, Home Dog L.A. sent them to a low-cost vet clinic and helped cover the cost. Iliana made a full recovery!

Think twice when you hear about the senior dogs “dumped” at shelters.

It might be hard to imagine, but many pup parents have never heard of humane euthanasia. For others who struggle to make ends meet each month, even the small cost to have a senior or terminally ill pet euthanized by a private vet is out of their budget. Knowing only that shelters put animals to sleep, and not wanting to see their pup suffer any longer, they bring their pet to the only place they can think of. Buddy was one of these pups. A beloved family member for 18 years, Buddy could no longer stand up on his own. His family wanted to take away his pain and thought the shelter staff would know how to do that. When DDR offered to pay for humane euthanasia at a private vet, the family was overjoyed. Instead of spending his final days alone and scared in a metal cage, Buddy was surrounded by a circle of love as his family stayed with him through the whole process. Most pup parents want to do right by their fur kids, sometimes they just don’t know how.

Most “strays” in shelters have a more complicated back story.

Sometimes the unthinkable happens, pups get out. Maybe someone asked a friend or family member to watch their pet for them, only to discover their “trusted” pet sitter took their BFF to the shelter instead. Maybe the fence is broken or the gate was accidentally left open. Imagine the relief of finding your lost fur baby at the shelter…followed by the sinking disappointment when you’re told you owe $100+ for the redemption fees and you’re broke until payday. This is a reality for many pup parents. When these folks came up short for the redemption fees, donations from shelter intervention supporters saved the day.

People from all walks of life need a helping paw from time to time!

Just look at those happy faces…reunited and it feeeels so good!

“I knew you’d never leave me!”

 Sometimes communities come together to mend fences (literally).

Reuben’s dogs Mona and Shadow kept getting out from his yard because of a gap in the fence – they were eventually picked up by animal control and brought to the shelter. Home Dog L.A. helped Reuben with the fees to get his dogs back and also offered to fix the fence so the dogs can not get out again. Ready for the pawsome part? One of the first people who received help from the North Central Intervention program, Jarvis, came out to fix the fence for Reuben. Pet parents are so grateful for the helping hand that they pay it back tenfold by helping others.

“I’d rather be homeless than give up my dog.”

How many of us have spoken those words? Let’s be honest, most of us will never find ourselves in such a difficult position (thankfully). No family, especially one with children, should willingly choose to live on the street. If you only saw Rocky’s kennel card, you’d think he was the result of a “heartless” owner surrender  – in reality he has a family who loves him very much. His owner, on a very low income, had paid a pet deposit for Rocky, but her landlord suddenly changed the pet policy. Unable to afford to move, she tearfully came to the shelter to surrender him. DDR shared the story on Facebook, a pro-bono lawyer stepped up to help, and this 3 year old pit bull is back with his family who loves him.

On the very first day of the North Central Intervention program, this woman arrived in tears to surrender her 10 year old Chow. After living in the same home for 37 years, her landlord suddenly said she had to pay a $200 pet deposit – which she couldn’t afford. It was the program’s first day and they had no funding yet, but Kerry Lowe Armstrong wrote a check out of her person account to cover the pet deposit and this senior pup is back in his home where he belongs.

“There are no bad dogs.” – trainer Larry Hill

For first time pet owners or anyone with limited resources, an unruly pup or sudden behavioral issue can be too much to deal with. Emilie adopted Scoobie (on left) from the shelter but became distressed when Scoobie started exhibiting aggression with her female pitbull. In a pawsome example of communities coming together, North Central Intervention counselors told Emilie about a low-cost class taught every Sunday by Larry Hill of Puppy Imprinters. Emilie and her whole family went every week and Scoobie graduated with flying colors! Shadow and Cartoon (with trainer Larry Hill on right), were also about to be surrendered for fighting at home. Like Scoobie, they are now working it out thanks to Home Dog L.A. and Puppy Imprinters. That’s three pitbulls not sitting in crowded shelters and two happy families able to stay together!

The moral of the story…

Yes, many times animals end up in shelters because of cruel and irresponsible pet owners – but more often than not, if you bother to talk to people surrendering their pets, you’ll find that there are so many good, caring pup parents who just lack resources and feel like they’re out of options. We can all learn a thing or two about compassion (toward both pups and their hoomans) from this program.

The Shelter Intervention Programs rely on the generous donations of their supporters. Visit their websites to learn more and donate to Downtown Dog Rescue and Home Dog L.A.

Follow along with Downtown Dog Rescue and the North Central Shelter Intervention Program on Facebook for more pawsome stories, and most of all, please consider trying out a program like this in your own community!

(all images courtesy of Downtown Dog Rescue and the Home Dog L.A.)

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Written by: Dr. Katy Nelson

August 7, 2014

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