Weaving a Grassroots Safety Net for Homeless Animals

Reader Contribution by Staff
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The term “homeless pets” brings to mind ragged kittens and soulful puppies huddled against the cold, but in rural counties it’s just as likely to mean packs of large dogs roaming the countryside terrorizing residents, killing livestock, and attacking pets. It also means picturesque country roads blighted with the bodies of companion animals — victims of gunshots, traffic, disease and starvation. It means that families enjoying a swim in a creek may stumble upon entire litters that were thrown off the nearest bridge. It means the staff at the county dump dreads Mondays, wondering how many bags squirming with life were tossed over the fence during the weekend. It means any resident can wake up to find one or more animals have been dumped at the end of their driveway. In Pike County, GA, it means all of that and more.

In 2007, Mrs. Deloros Smith was attacked on three occasions by roaming dogs inside her own gated and fenced yard. Her neighbor Don Bailey recalls the incidents leading up to her death. 

“She had called the sheriff’s office after the initial attack, only to be told that deputies could do nothing unless they actually witnessed the attack. On the second attack, the sheriff’s deputy maced a dog that was acting aggressive, and the dog retreated. Upon the third attack, a deputy wounded the dog, and it was captured several days later. Mrs. Smith was hospitalized after the third attack and died from her injuries.”

Despite the outrage following her death, deputies were acting according to the law in a county without animal control ordinances. Even if they had picked up the dogs when she reported the first attack, there was nowhere to house them because Pike doesn’t have a county shelter for lost or homeless pets. Neighboring counties with their own tax-supported shelters will not take Pike County animals. 

After the initial uproar, her death faded into old news. Except for Don Bailey.Don founded Friends of Pike County Animals in her memory to work toward animal control and a shelter in Pike County. He became a familiar face at public events — handing out fliers, setting up a booth displaying newspaper clippings telling her tragic story. Passersby could put money in his donation jars dedicated to building a shelter someday. The sheriff’s office gladly shared with him their mounting statistics about aggressive animal reports. The Pike County Journal Reporter covered abandoned pet stories and dog attacks on the front page.

Don brought all that documentation to public awareness workshops, county commission meetings, and when he met individual commissioners. Even though many county residents support his efforts, culture change takes time. Throughout much of the rural South principles of responsible pet ownership, such as population control and fencing are not priorities. After three years the movement seemed hopelessly stalled. Then in July 2010 the photo of a wounded dog jump started it again.

An adult male dog with a gaping shoulder wound was one of five starving dogs found by Paula and Don Nalley at an abandoned mobile home on their road. The Nalleys were still reeling financially and emotionally from the impact of finding three pregnant dogs in their driveway a year earlier. They had seen all three mama dogs through their pregnancies and cared for 21 puppies until they found homes. Since there were no low-cost spay neuter options in the county, the Nalleys paid full price to spay the mama dogs.

During that long commitment, the recession hit.  Don lost his job and Paula’s property appraisals nosedived, but they didn’t quit until every pup had a home. The mama dogs never became tame enough to adopt out, so the Nalleys added them to the pack of other abandoned dogs they had taken in over the years. 

The new family of starving dogs was more than the Nalleys could handle on their own. Paula photographed their plight and emailed the images to all of her friends. I drove over to help. Two young dogs had died of starvation before Paula could return with food. The three survivors roused from the weeds when we drove up. They were beyond pitiful, but it was the adult male who stunned us. Ragged coat colored like a fox hound, he had a broad head, wide chest, and noble bearing out of proportion with his emaciated frame. Despite dragging his front leg with the infected gunshot wound, he carried his big head high and proud. Then he walked to each one of us in turn and lowered it to be patted. We were even more surprised when he trusted us enough to walk into the crate that could have been taking him to his death. As we drove away, I looked back at the wreck of old trailers cobbled together to make a dwelling. Clearly, the family that had moved from there could not afford pets. Most likely the dogs had just shown up, and the family fed them. When the people moved, the dogs were left to fend for themselves again.

Our friend Chris Curry stepped up to adopt the wounded dog and pay his medical expenses. Chris is co-owner of A Novel Experience. More than just an independent bookstore, A Novel Experience offers a congenial gathering place for any group wanting to do something positive. I sent a photo of the wounded dog to the Pike County Journal Reporter, and writer Rachel McDaniel did the rest. The front page story and photos connected with enough people to have a Sunday afternoon meeting at A Novel Experience.

That day we started a grassroots movement to address the problems of pet overpopulation and abandonment. While Don Bailey continued to hammer away at the shelter and animal control ordinances, we divided the problem into four solution areas that we could do something about:

  • low-cost spay/neuter options
  • fostering
  • financial support for low-income pet owners and Good Samaritans who take in homeless pets; and 
  • socialization to make foundlings adoptable. 

This blog will follow our progress toward making Pike County a more humane place for companion animals in hopes our experiences help other communities tackle these problems.

So what happened to the two remaining pups after Chris adopted the wounded male dog? A woman named Lisa Ramos who operated a small, private rescue kennel called Companion Animal Rescue and Education, Inc. (CARE, Inc.) took the two surviving pups and nursed them back to health. The male pup was adopted immediately and went to live on a 90-acre estate in the Northeast. The female pup, Greta, has grown up at CARE, Inc. and probably doesn’t remember her sad beginning. But even though her physical needs are met, life in a rescue kennel is far from pleasant. She stays in her pen unless a volunteer shows up to give her some individual attention and a short walk — at most twice a week. Most weeks she doesn’t get out at all. She desperately wants a family of her own, so I’m including her Adoptapet listing.

Several of us now foster dogs for CARE, Inc. or volunteer there — walking dogs, cleaning pens, socializing puppies, attending adoption events to show off the dogs, photographing dogs for the Adoptapet listings, so many things that Lisa can’t do alone.

Most of Lisa’s time is spent delivering dogs to the Northeast where a long history of spay/neuter and animal control regulations have reduced their pet population. She transports adopted dogs to families along the I-95 corridor through the Carolinas, VA, DE, MD and PA.

Each blog entry will include a profile like Greta’s to introduce our homeless pets to a larger audience. You’ll also meet Coco, the faithful dog who inspired the start-up of our local pet food pantry Coco’s Cupboard. There’s the amazing story of Rosa who went from being a dumpster dog to an autistic toddler’s best friend. Dog trainers Tara and Suzanne of T.A.O. K9 Unleashed who help foster families and Good Samaritans socialize foundlings to make them more adoptable. It’s all about people and pets helping each other in Pike County, GA.