Sunday, May 17, 2009

The going gets 'ruff' for PAWS New England

Back in 2005, Kelly Parker and her husband began actively searching for two dogs to adopt. Both had had dogs when they were children, but found that no shelter would give them one now. The list of rejection reasons: they were graduate students without enough money, they rented an apartment, and in one unusual case, the organization told Parker, “Well, if we let you adopt two dogs, that second dog might not get along with the first dog.”

Finally, Parker became fed up with the excuses and decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘I’ve watched Disney’s Lady and the Tramp,’” Parker says. “‘I know there are dogs in pounds somewhere, and I’m going to find some who needs help.’”

Ironically, if it weren’t for all those rejections from dog shelters, Parker would never have become the savior to hundreds of canines around the country. While scouring the internet to find her future pets, she stumbled upon a PetFinder message board with pictures of dogs about to be euthanized. “I looked at this website and the hardest decision of my life was trying to narrow it down to which two to take,” she says.

It was what she calls “the turning moment” in her life.

With the help of a few other passionate dog-lovers, Parker founded PAWS New England, a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts that rescues unwanted and neglected canines from shelters with an 85 to 90 percent kill rate. Most of these dogs are considered “highly adoptable,” but are put in the shelters due to overpopulation issues. In a country where 4 million to 6 million dogs are euthanized every year, PAWS has changed many lives, both human and canine.

But PAWS can’t save every dog in need even in the best of times, due to a lack of money, time and homes for dogs. And now with a struggling economy, coming up with resources has proven even more difficult.

“We do have to decide, ‘Ok, we’re going to take you but not you.’ And that is gut-wrenching,” Parker says. “I live for the day we have an endless budget and the resources to take all of them. But we have to make sure we don’t over exceed the amount of dogs we’re capable of taking care of.”

Since the recession began, more and more people are being forced to sell their homes and consequently, get rid of pets.

“It’s almost like a double hit for us because more and more dogs are ending up in shelters and there’s much less funding coming in as donations because no one has extra cash anymore,” says Christen Kotch, PAWS volunteer coordinator. “The good news, I think, is that sometimes people may not be able to contribute financially but I’m still finding that the world is full of great people who want to help. If they can’t help us with a monetary donation, they are more than willing to put their heart and soul in it, open up their home, put their time into fostering, and that’s fantastic.”

According to Kotch, the number of volunteers has continued to grow despite the economy, and certain services have reduced their fees for PAWS. “We just have to work a little harder and be a little smarter,” she says.

PAWS is an animal rescue, not a shelter. This means the dogs are chosen from high-kill shelters mostly in the southern states, where overpopulation is greatest, and transported to New England, but they do not all live in one central site. Once the animals arrive up north, about 50 percent are adopted immediately by families that have already seen their pictures and researched the dog. The other 50 percent go to foster homes to await adoption, which frequently only takes two or three weeks.

The organization is a full-fledged operation now, with dozens of volunteers, and on average, 110 dogs under its care. But it started out as something much smaller: postings on Craigslist. Parker connected with Traci Wood, a like-minded dog lover who lives near several of the southern shelters. Wood began visiting the shelters and selected dogs to rescue. The two women then started listing the dogs on the internet and received a great response from interested adopters. And eventually, as more people became involved, the rescue developed its own website and became an official non-profit. Dozens of passionate dog-lovers help keep the entire operation running smoothly.

But even with all the help from others, PAWS still struggles to stay afloat at times. The rescue pays for the dogs’ medical bills, food and supplies to ease the burden on foster parents. An individual visit to the veterinarian often costs $2000 to $3000 alone, and the average donation from the public is only $50.

“You’re constantly saying “Well, I only have the finances for ten dogs, but really, what’s one more?” Parker says. “If a rescue isn’t running in the red, you’re not doing something right. It’s endlessly rewarding but also endlessly disappointing.”

But there are certain moments that make all the stress and heartbreaking decisions worth it. For Parker, it’s picking the dogs up from transport when they arrive in Massachusetts each week.

“You go there and all these families are meeting their dogs for the first time, or there are other rescue groups picking up their dogs at the same time. It’s just kind-of a funny, tingly, happy feeling,” she says. “The transport days are where it’s like ‘Okay, this is why I project myself.’”

For Kotch, the rewards affect her entire family. “Knowing that we are saving dogs on a daily basis brings such a feeling of hope and reinforces the belief that we really can make a difference and make the world a better place. Aside from raising my family it is without a doubt the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” she says. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to know that I helped to bring that smile to that person’s face and I helped bring that wag to that dog’s tail.”


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