This month’s column was supposed to be about something entirely different, but a fateful meeting in front of Safeway changed that, as well as my life.
Rocket DogI saw a woman with a beautiful blue nose pit bull and stopped to say hello. “There’s a dog that looks just like him at San Francisco Animal Care and Control,” she said, “and they need to find him a foster home or he’s going to be put down.”
I raced down to ACC, where one of the volunteers informed me that Pali Boucher of Rocket Dog Rescue had managed to get the pit bull, named Shiloh, a two-week reprieve at the neighboring San Francisco SPCA.
Several years ago, Bruce Bellingham wrote a cover story for Northside San Francisco about Pali and her efforts to save unwanted dogs. Without a facility, dependent on a network of volunteers willing to foster, and driven by her own unbelievably big heart and tireless tenacity, Pali has saved the lives of thousands of dogs. Even when her house burned down several Christmases ago, it did not stop her – she is the only hope and the guardian angel for dogs that otherwise would never make it out alive.
Pali and I arranged to meet at the SF/SPCA. She explained that Shiloh’s owner “had to move” and left him at the shelter. When he came loping around the corner, all wiggle butt and big pittie grin, I was baffled as to how his owner could simply discard him like a piece of trash. I would live in my car before I would give up Jazzy – but then, for me, pets are a lifelong commitment. Unfortunately, for many people, they are not.
The bad economy and escalating foreclosures have increased the already over-capacity population at shelters to unmanageable proportions. Pali, who works with shelters across northern California, says she doesn’t have enough foster homes to help all the dogs in need. Pit bulls are, as they always have been, the majority – over 60 percent of shelter dogs are pit bull mixes. But now, Pali is seeing purebreds and “hybreeds.” When she calls the Sacramento shelter (the notorious “Doggie Auschwitz”), she has her pick: “What do you want? Golden retriever? Labradoodle? Portuguese water dog? Puggle?”
Pali asks if I want to come with her across the street to ACC. The dogs at ACC are not the chosen few watching television, chewing toys, and peering at prospective adopters through shiny glass windows at Maddie’s Center, the SF/SPCA’s privately funded multimillion dollar glamour slammer. These are society’s castoffs – the stray, abandoned, elderly, unsocialized, abused, and neglected. They are housed in nearly windowless rooms that smell of defecation, surrounded by cement floors and chain link fencing, and unlike the dogs at the “no kill” Maddie’s, they are on borrowed time. And Maddie’s, though they have many empty rooms, is very selective about the dogs they will take – and they’d rather not take pit bulls.
We head down the first kennel lined with cages. The minute the dogs see us they began to bark; it’s deafening. They are starved for attention. When you stop to say hello to one, the dog in the next cage whines and pokes his paw through the cage, chewing at the wire, begging to be noticed. In this room are the dogs dumped by their owners or picked up as strays. Pali reads off one card after another: “Owner surrender; found in Hunter’s Point; family didn’t want anymore; owner lost house; owner had to move …”
Among the many pit bulls, we also see purebred German shepherds, a Scottish terrier, and a pair of beagles left by backyard breeders after they made all the money they could. Next to them is a purebred dachshund. “Oh, you’re new!” Pali says, reading his card: “Family couldn’t keep.” The dog timidly wags his tail – he has no idea where he is or why he is there.
The staff at the City-run ACC does the best they can with what they’re given, which, in stark comparison to Maddie’s Center, isn’t much. Each dog gets food, water and a blanket, but no televisions or toys or heated and cooled glassed-in rooms. Some of the dogs are never allowed out of their cages – no walks, no socializing. The only affection they get is from their keepers during feeding – and from Pali. Then they are expected to pass a battery of temperament tests just to stand a chance of being put up for adoption. The tests include taking their food away with a big, fake hand to see if the dog will bite (which is a death sentence). Living in deplorable conditions with the deafening din of desperation – a veritable doggie insane asylum – it’s a wonder any animal at ACC ever passes. Some don’t; and even for some that do, there’s simply not enough room. That’s where Pali and a few other select rescue groups come in. “ACC is wonderful about letting us come in and spend time with these dogs,” she says. “And we get as many out as we can.”
Perhaps the saddest stories are the “custody dogs” held for court cases – mostly mistreated pit bulls, some aggressive, all with owners who are set for trial or already in jail. The dogs serve as living evidence, but once their case is over, they will be euthanized. A huge, handsome blue and white male pit bull with cropped ears comes to the front of his cage, barking and wagging his butt. The tag on his cage says, “Great with people. Dog aggressive.” In other words, a death sentence. Even though there probably is a home for him out there – with someone who has lots of open space where he won’t come face-to-face with other dogs as he would in the City – this beautiful dog has no chance. “There are so many pit bulls,” Pali points out, “so many that we can’t find homes for as it is who are perfect dogs without issues …”
I feel angry as the huge cropped-eared boy licks my hand, because I know that a horrible human – likely a thug, drug dealer or dog fighter – is to blame for his certain date with death. Next to him, a lovely fawn-colored female pit, her teats hanging to the floor, cowers in the corner; shaking, hopeless. Also in the cage is her puppy – an outgoing, reddish whirling dervish who jumps up to lick my fingers. The piercing din of desperation doesn’t phase him; and, because he is so young, he may be put up for adoption. His mother – another victim of a horrid human who didn’t have her spayed, allowed her to breed, and then abandoned her – most likely won’t. I am suddenly overwhelmed and start to sob uncontrollably. Pali puts her arm around my shoulder. “I know,” she says comfortingly. “It’s hard.”
We move on to another room, where a petite female blue nose pit bull cowers in the back of her cage. She shivers uncontrollably, her head covered with wounds inflicted by trying to squeeze into the corner and disappear. She is beautiful – lavender-grey, bulldog head, perfect physique – possibly an English Staffordshire terrier. Pali reads her card: “They found her in a basement where she’d spent her whole life. She’s about a year old and she’s never had human contact. But since I’ve been visiting every day, she’s starting to come out of her shell.” Pali named her Maggie Mae (“I thought it sounded happy, and she needs some happiness …”). When Maggie recognizes Pali, she inches toward the front of her cage. “Do you want to take her to the meet and greet room?” Pali asks. I nod, and she slips a thin leash around Maggie’s neck. At first, the pretty little pittie has no interest in leaving her comfort zone – her cage is dank, but it’s all she knows. She flattens to the ground, paralyzed by fear. With coaxing from Pali, she reluctantly stands up and walks with us.
In the room, Maggie continues to shake uncontrollably. She ignores the few stuffed animals and tennis balls – she has no idea what toys are or how to play. Pali sits on the floor and talks baby talk. Maggie’s eyes are dark, vacant, haunting; she stares up at the ceiling, at the wall, at the door. Pali continues to patiently coo at her and slides closer, taking Maggie’s stunning square head in her hands and kissing her nose. At first, Maggie doesn’t react, but then her distant demeanor, and her nerves, start to melt. She doesn’t know what this kissing thing is, but she likes it. She stops shaking and takes in the love. “This is huge,” Pali says, “really huge …” Maggie’s eyes began to sparkle, and she cocks her head when I roll a ball her way. She noses it, then turns back to Pali for some more kisses. “We’re going to get you out of here, girl,” Pali whispers in Maggie’s ear. “I promise.” Maggie closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, finally at peace, if only for a moment. “This is a great dog,” Pali says, still kissing her nose. “Her life is only going to get better from here.”
I ask Pali where she and her volunteers find the strength to do this every day. “We do what we can,” she tells me, “and then we do a little more.”
When I arrive home that night, I find my own pretty pittie snoring on the bed, blissful, her head on my pillow, with one of her many stuffed toys cuddled between her front paws. Jazzy was one of the lucky ones – thanks to a wonderful rescue called Friends of the Fairmont Animal Shelter, she found a foster home, was put up on PetFinder.com, and wiggled her way into my life, and my heart. I kneel down and give her the biggest hug ever, my arms wrapped around her muscular neck, and I begin to cry into her fur. She raises her head and presses it against my cheek, licking my tears. “You may be getting a foster brother, Jazzyboo,” I tell her softly. She rolls onto her back and yawns, happy blue eyes twinkling; the thump-thump-thump of her tail the only sound in the room …
Now more than ever, foster homes are needed for dogs of all breeds and sizes. To inquire about fostering a dog, or about volunteering, adopting or donating, please contact Rocket Dog Rescue at 415-756-8188 or visit their Web site at www.rocketdogrescue.org.
If you are looking for a pet, please consider adoption through a rescue group like Rocket Dog or a shelter such as San Francisco Animal Care and Control, located at 1200 15th St., 415-554-6364. To view adoptable pets online, visit www.sfgov.org/site/acc_index.asp, or check out www.PetFinder.com.
Help Rocket Dog win $100,000 in the Animal Rescue Site Shelter Challenge. At the Animal Rescue Site, you can click every day to help give food and care to needy animals, and then click on the Shelter Challenge and choose Rocket Dog as your shelter. You can click once a day every day — it’s all free, and every click counts! http://www.theanimalrescuesite.com