When it comes to the assiduous and often heart-breaking world of animal and pet rescue, a one-eyed boxer named Tess might just be the perfect poster dog.
In March 2006, a human named Allison Connor learned about a puppy mill bust in Clay County, FL, that left dozens of boxers, Great Danes, German shepherds and other breeds without homes. Connor immediately took to Tess, three-and-half and pregnant, and brought her home to treat her malnutrition and constant eye irritations.
When they were old enough, the puppies were adopted out, and eventually Tess lost her left eye to ocular cancer. But she had found her forever family in Connor and her husband, Jerry, and now spends her days tugging at stray socks and loping around the yard.
“She’s just the goofiest,” reports Connor.
Tess inspired her owner to become a certified volunteer with the Boxer Aid & Rescue Coalition, Inc. (BARC), a Jacksonville-based organization that searches shelters all over Florida and Georgia for boxers and finds them homes. Connor will often leave at a moment’s notice to drive as far as Orlando to pick up a dog in time to save it from being put down. Sometimes she’ll bring it home to meet Tess (and her passel of yard mates, including several rescued pugs and a French bulldog) to foster until a permanent home can be found.
“There’s just so many sad stories,” she laments, adding that 25 percent of reported dogs in shelters are pure-bred.
Connor has also volunteered at Savannah Chatham Animal Control, establishing a working relationship with Officer Jodi Lewis to keep track of any boxers that come through the local shelter. But like many volunteers, she wishes she could find safe refuge for all the dogs, including the mixed breed mutts who tend to be passed over for adoption and rescue.
“I had no idea about the pet overpopulation in Savannah before I got involved,” says Connor. “It’s just endless.”
Those involved in pet rescue, foster care and adoption already know that there are far more dogs and cats than there are homes for them. Efforts to pull from local shelters and save as many healthy pets as possible come from a variety of different groups, several who have had clashes with Animal Control in recent years. The inefficacy of the previous incarnation of the volunteer program (it was rebooted in May) and not having time and space to interact with the animals have been among the complaints.
Rather than focus on the negativity of the past, however, those groups are channeling their energy into cooperation. Representatives from at least nine local animal rescue groups met earlier this month with the intention of forming a formal alliance that would collate information about dogs and cats at shelters and allow groups to reach larger numbers of people to take them in.
Members of GRRR (Georgia Rescue, Rehabilitation and Relocation), One Love Animal Rescue, Save-A-Life and Coastal Pet Rescue as well as breed-specific Grateful Goldens, DREAM Dachshund Rescue, Retired Retrievers and BARC held their initial gathering on June 3 and plan to meet monthly.
The Savannah Rescue Coalition is still in its nascent stages (even its name is unofficial), but organizer Karrie Bulski says it’s an idea that been a long time coming.
“It’s been an idea that been going around for years. We would see dogs in the shelter that would fit with specific rescue groups, and no one was contacted,” recalls Bulski.
“I saw that we could be much more effective if we were all the same team.”
Last year, Bulski helped found One Love Animal Rescue along with fellow shelter volunteers Dana Bertagnolli and Vanessa Lewallen, acquiring the necessary license to pull dogs and cats directly from Animal Control. With their own growing pack of volunteers and foster families, they have saved an estimated 500 dogs and cats since last September.
“We have a soft spot for special needs,” says Bulski, referring to broken bones and other injuries that can categorize an animal as “unadoptable.”
One Love also takes in dogs with Demodex mange, a mite that leaves a dog’s skin raw and sick-looking. “It’s easy to treat, but treatment doesn’t always take in the shelter because the animal is stressed,” says Bulski. “We pull them and focus on healing them.”
A marine biologist and geologist at the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, Bulski researches black gill disease of shrimp. But outside the lab, it’s the furry creatures that have her heart.
“I never thought I would have my own rescue, but it’s amazing to take these little guys in,” she says, adding that she is currently fostering seven dogs, including three 8-week old puppies that are “healthy, vaccinated, bouncing around and looking for their forever homes.”
With a mission of saving as many lives as possible, Bulski says the first goal of the coalition is to compile a database of all the groups, what kinds of animals they take as well as the requirements of local and regional shelters and their accompanying pull fees. Paramount is the creation of a common Facebook page and/or website where everyone can share photos of available pets.
Once information about all of the possible venues of rescue within the coalition has been gathered in a spreadsheet, Bulski plans to pass it out not only to local Animal Control but shelters in Bryan, Effingham and Liberty counties and well as the Palmetto Animal League in South Carolina.
“Anyone who is willing to help, we’re willing to work with them,” she assures.
Also part of the coalition is the Humane Society of Greater Savannah, different from the other organizations in that it has its own holding facility that adopts out more animals than the rest combined.
“We’re very supportive of this collaboration,” says HSGS Executive Director Lynn Gensamer.
“In the non-profit world, resources are finite, and this will hopefully prevent duplicating efforts and reduce competition for donations and volunteers.”
HSGS accepts only surrendered pets (as opposed to strays that are under the auspices of Animal Control) but sometimes is still forced to euthanize animals that are not adopted back out to other homes. But by carefully staggering intakes, the managed admission shelter has not euthanized any animals due to lack of space since March 2013.
While HSGS doesn’t operate on the premise that every single animal is adoptable, Gensamer supports the coalition’s long-term goals of community education and animal training within the shelters. Volunteers willing to work in the shelters, foster and train pets at home and help with social media are always needed.
“With enough help, many more animals can become adoptable,” she says.
Gensamer, Bulski and Connor all reiterate that the best way to reduce the number of euthanized animals is to prevent them from going to the shelter in the first place.
“We need tougher spay and neuter laws, and we need to enforce them,” says Bulski. “Savannah is a very loving community, and if people knew how many animals are euthanized daily, they might take stronger roles.”
The first official event for the Savannah Rescue Coalition will be to take part in International Homeless Animals Day on Aug. 16. It will be the 23rd year that the International Society for Animal Rights (ISAR) has sponsored candlelight vigils and community events to “enlighten the public, elected officials and the media to the tragedy of pet overpopulation.”
While details about the local gathering have yet to be determined, members are already brainstorming ideas to make it fun as well as educational, including dog handling workshops, pet portraits and dog yoga. Bulski encourages interested people to check the One Love website as plans unfold. (oneloveanimalrescue.com)
Even though it’s just the beginning of the collaboration, Connor has high hopes that more animals might be as lucky as one-eyed Tess. After 18 years in Savannah and dozens of dogs rescued, she calls the coalition “practically a requirement at this point to move forward as a community for best practices of animal welfare.”
“If we keep our eyes on its goals, we are going to making a big difference.”
Next week, Part 3: Can Savannah become a No-Kill Community?