Across America, groups devoted to specific breeds foster animals and find them new, loving homes.
By Steve Dale
Tossed like trash, the three dogs lay in a heap in a ditch along a highway outside Houston. Luckily, a passer-by noticed and took the dogs to a volunteer at the local chapter of English Springer Rescue America Inc. (ESRA).
The youngest of the trio was in good shape and was quickly adopted. But who would take the others, each about 3 years old? That's if they even survived to be adopted. The malnourished dogs were being treated aggressively for heartworm disease. The female, named Addie, had a broken pelvis. The male, Trooper, suffered from a severe ear infection.
Jim and Denise Basten of Elk Grove Village, Ill., happened to be cruising the Internet in search of two springers. "We both work full time and wanted adult dogs so we wouldn't have to deal with housebreaking, chewing and all that puppy stuff," Denise says. "The idea of rescuing dogs with special needs was appealing -- I'm a nurturing type."
Years ago, if you wanted to save a dog or cat, you'd go to a shelter. These days, there's another choice: purebred rescue. So if you grew up with poodles, or you just like the look of Persian cats, or you enjoy the sense of humor of beagles, you can rescue a pet of that breed.
From Affenpinschers to Yorkshire terriers, every American Kennel Club-listed dog breed (as well as rare breeds and purebred cats) is represented by at least one sanctioned rescue group. Many national rescue groups have a network of affiliates across the country.
Most humane societies and shelters identify dogs and cats they believe are purebred, then contact a local rescue volunteer. Rescue groups rarely take in strays or accept pets directly from owners.
Rescue groups' adoption fees vary, but ESRA's charge of $200 per dog is typical. In the case of Addie and Trooper, the adoption fee covered about 20% of the dogs' veterinary bills. ESRA usually spends $300 to $500 on each animal. Like all rescue groups, ESRA always vaccinates and spays/neuters. "Rescue is built on the shoulders of volunteers," says Marianne Hill of Dyer, Ind., coordinator of ESRA's Illinois chapter.
Addie and Trooper lived with a foster family while being treated. When they were able to make the trip to their new home, a private pilot volunteered to fly them from Houston to Dallas. From there, a volunteer who was driving to Chicago to see relatives took the dogs.
Few rescue groups accept dogs with major temperament flaws, such as aggression. Aside from the issue of liability, why take dogs that may not be adoptable? (And rescue groups have only so many volunteer foster homes.) For instance, some Rottweilers that land in shelters have serious character flaws, because the breed is so misunderstood and often so poorly trained. Barbara Williams, co-founder of Chicago-based Recycled Rotts, turns away about one of every 30 dogs. The reality is that those she rejects are euthanized.
"There's nothing wrong with adopting dogs from shelters," Williams says. "But we have the advantage of observing what a dog is like in an at-home setting. Our volunteers might even work on behavior problems to make the dogs as adoptable as possible.
"We are always seeking foster homes. While these dogs can be rehabilitated, it's you doing the rehab work. At these foster homes, you can determine what a dog's personality is really like. It's difficult to truly get a handle on that in a shelter setting."
Arguably, the single breed most associated with rescue is the greyhound. Says Susan Netboy of Penn Valley, Calif., founder of the Greyhound Protection League: "Racing dogs are given away when they no longer make money because of injury or because they're not winning." Additional dogs are available whenever a track closes, and 13 tracks have closed in the past 10 years.
Last year, 13,000 greyhounds were saved through rescue. No one keeps tabs on how many cats and dogs in all are rescued annually -- but "if there weren't puppy mills, and if people were responsible about spaying and neutering, there would be less of a problem," Netboy says.
"What really gets me are the ridiculous reasons people give up on pets," ESRA's Hill says. "I've seen dogs abandoned because their coat color doesn't match the new furniture."
Netboy is a true pioneer, having rescued dogs for 15 years. She says, "Rescue was slow to take off, because the perception was that you were getting someone else's used goods. Today, that's completely changed. You say 'I rescued a dog,' and you're a sort of hero."
Some might say the heroes are those thousands of dogs and cats who forgive humans for their dreadful treatment and are still willing to be our best friends.