- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

You've heard of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society, but what about Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue? Alley Cat Allies? Ferrets Are No. 1 Placement and Rescue?

Washingtonians thinking of volunteering free time to helping animals have more choices than Dalmatians have spots, especially if they focus on the hundreds of animal rescue organizations networks of huge-hearted volunteers who, without any brick-and-mortar facilities aside from their own houses, seek to care and find homes for unfortunate animals.

They're so much smaller and lesser-known than organizations like the SPCA that they resemble somewhat the creatures they seek to help lean, existing one day at a time and starving for attention.

"We don't put money into publicity because we need it for vet bills," says Joanna Harkin, founder of the Alliance for Stray Animals and People (ASAP). "Cats don't read brochures."

Rescue groups take in animals that are abandoned or injured, or those handed over by people who can't (or won't) care for them anymore. Animals are given their shots, spayed or neutered, and given to volunteer "fosters" who socialize and just plain love them.

Volunteers interview potential adopters with detailed questions (How long are you at work each day? Do you have other pets?), and even visit their homes. If there is a match, the adopter can have the animal for a fee, usually ranging from $100 to $300 to cover expenses. Rescue groups note that these fees are actually less than the cost of obtaining a pet from traditional means.

Because animal rescue groups have little overhead and no salaries to pay, all of the money goes directly back into the organization. The groups run entirely on adoption fees, donations and love. Volunteers, most of whom have full-time jobs, still contribute countless hours to phone calls, adoption fairs and fund-raisers.

Deb Sharpe, communications coordinator for Northern Virginia's Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART), has a new baby and a lot of sleepless nights. Yet she helps out.

"I believe in HART so strongly. You know you're doing the right thing working for a group like this, so you don't mind," she says.

Although rescue groups are many, they are far outnumbered by abandoned pets of which there are 10 million to 15 million in the United States each year, according to estimates by the pet store chain PetSmart Inc. Five million of those animals are euthanized.

Some traditional shelters put down unwanted animals after a certain time period, not out of callousness but simply due to a lack of space and resources and people willing to adopt them. Animals with severe medical needs have little chance of survival.

Animal rescue groups, on the other hand, work on a "no-kill" principle. While their philosophies may differ, generally rescue groups and shelters cooperate and even help place each other's animals. Along with generous veterinarians and pet supply stores, each does its part to help.

Whether it's for something furry, feathery or scaly, an animal rescue group awaits help from those with the time and inclination. Here are just a few.


The Alliance for Stray Animals and People: To Joanna Harkin, being called the "cat lady" is a high compliment. With ASAP, this one-woman cat crusader has devoted her one life to making sure that every stray, abandoned or feral (wild) cat she encounters gets a chance at its nine lives.

This night, in an alley in Northeast, she and volunteer Katherine Howard straddle a stagnant puddle and try to coax a twitchy tabby to come forward and eat from a mound of food they pour through a chain link fence. The cat is crouched low and small in the middle of a dirt lot near two collapsing brick houses. Rats scurry in the shadows.

"Come on big boy, that's a handsome fella," Ms. Howard calls to the cat, who eyes her, debating, while his two friends, a skeleton with yellow fur and a tiny black puff, look on from a stoop behind him. Finally his hunger overtakes his fear and he scurries forward and gingerly begins to eat. Soon after, his friends join him, and the women leave. They will return tomorrow night.

"I never set out to do this, but it's really become my ministry in life," Ms. Harkin says.

These nighttime feedings are just one of ASAP's programs. They also place abandoned cats and trap ferals for relocation to a special farm on the Eastern Shore. ASAP accepts cats from anyone and anywhere especially places like this, rotting houses where cats have little food or water and are easy prey for cars, dogs, even people.

A legal secretary and part-time real estate agent, Ms. Harkin began the group 15 years ago when she found abandoned cats in properties she was showing.

"People die or move and leave their cats behind," she says. "They consider them disposable. But cats can't fend for themselves outside, especially in an urban environment. They can't live on rats and trash, especially if they were originally someone's house cat."

She has received much support from pet stores like PetSmart and Petco. Both stores have national programs to donate money to animal charities, and Ms. Harkin shows ASAP cats at Petco on Connecticut Avenue NW and at Pet-Smart in Potomac Yards.

The Potomac Yards PetSmart is ASAP's home base, where Ms. Harkin keeps cats in the Adoption Center, a separate enclosure where potential adopters can meet them. PetSmart provides the food and supplies, ASAP volunteers come and feed the animals, and vets provide treatment at a discount.

But despite all the help, bills are still hefty. Donations are imperative.

"I owe about $25,000 in vet bills every year," Ms. Harkin says. "But if you begin weaving, God will provide the thread."

For "Dolley Madison," a tiny, skittish cat miserable with fleas when she was found, the "thread" was Jim Sullivan of Arlington, a portfolio manager with the General Services Administration. He was behind one of ASAP's 300 adoptions last year.

"Dolley was a mess," Mr. Sullivan says. "She was missing fur and growled whenever you tried to pet her. But we could see she was intelligent. Now she is sweet. She purrs, climbs into your lap. In fact, we may adopt another one."

The "P" in ASAP stands for "People," the poor or homeless to whom Ms. Harkin provides modest assistance in return for their help in the care and feeding of her alley cats. She has even helped people pay their rent.

"We're a ministry to people as much as animals," says Ms. Harkin. "This is another way animals bless people's lives, by giving them something to feel good about, a job to do."

Royal Flowers assists Ms. Harkin with the care of seven or so cats on the block where he and his mother share a house. Each week she delivers bags of food to him and pays him for his services. In return, he feeds and waters the cats, who adore him for his attention.

"See how he loves me?" Mr. Flowers says proudly, as a black kitten trots around his ankles, pausing frequently for a scratch. "This one loves to just sit and let me scratch his ears."

Besides cats and people, ASAP has helped the occasional dog or lizard.

"A handyman had alerted us to two geckos left behind in a crime scene," Ms. Harkin says. "A man had shot his girlfriend in his apartment and was arrested. We gave the geckos to a reptile rescue and they were adopted out. They hadn't had food or water for two weeks, and no heat. But animals were saved; that's what we do."


Greyhound Welfare: Some rescue groups focus on one special dog breed that needs an extra hand. Takoma Park's Greyhound Welfare seeks to help dogs for whom, before groups like this existed, little remained but euthanization once their racing careers were over.

"Euthanization is a fact for all unwanted dogs, all unwanted pets," says Kopal Barnouin-Jha, president of Greyhound Welfare. "But greyhounds have been overbred. Rather than lobbying against greyhound racing, groups like ours remain neutral and work in cooperation with tracks to take in their retired dogs and find them good homes."

Each month, volunteers drive up Interstate 95 just north of Baltimore to meet a truck bearing dogs from racetracks in the Northeast. They are brought back to Maryland, vetted and taken by fosters who help the dogs adjust to new environments.

"We try to get to know the dogs so we can make good placements," says Ms. Barnouin-Jha, who has a doctorate in geophysics and works as a research scientist. "The dogs have been in crates most of their lives. They've never walked on wood floors, gone up staircases, or seen other animals. Our fosters make them into pets, and they adjust wonderfully, especially to other pets and children."

"People think greyhounds are aggressive or need a lot of exercise," says Maureen Sampson, a Greyhound Welfare volunteer staffing a monthly Adoption Day at the Rockville Petco. "But they are so sweet and loving. And they really don't need any more exercise than any other dog."

Ms. Barnouin-Jha is pleased with the group's success.

"We started in 2001 and in the first year adopted out 85 dogs. We have 25 volunteers now and this year we've placed 25 in the first three months."

Once adopted, the greyhounds enjoy lives like they've never known before, and the only racing they do is when their new owners meet Sunday afternoons for weekly "fun runs."

Ms. Barnouin-Jha laughs about one particular dog's kibble-to-caviar story.

"Beemer," she says, was a skinny black dog. "He was missing all this fur and hated being left alone. But his adopter put all kinds of effort into him. Last I heard, the guy went on vacation in Bermuda and took the dog with him."


Lab Rescue: The Labrador Retriever is the nation's No. 1 dog; 155,000 were registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC) last year. But popularity poses problems. Overbreeding has led to expensive health issues. And Labs, while friendly, are large and energetic.

"People are impulse shoppers. They get dogs for all the wrong reasons," says Walt Galvin, volunteer coordinator with Lab Rescue of the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac. "They underestimate the commitment with a Lab. You have to train them. We get calls all the time saying, 'This dog is out of control!' But the average dog needs only about two weeks of solid training."

He cites "Chuck," a black Lab adopted by a couple outside Philadelphia.

"Chuck's family walked him past a playground every day. The owner trained Chuck to climb the slide and slide down for the kids. Now Chuck, this amazing dog someone just tossed aside, is loved by an entire community."

Many of Lab Rescue's homeless dogs come from rural communities, where large dogs are often let out to roam and get lost or injured.

"Rural shelters struggle because there are a lot of bigger dogs and fewer people to adopt them," Mr. Galvin says.

Again, dogs are vetted and placed in foster homes, where foster parents go to great lengths to train and socialize them. "Most fosters are dog knowledgeable," he says.

Lab Rescue is tough on potential adopters for good reason.

"Our adoption coordinators are tough, they'll run a drill on you, test you," Mr. Galvin says. "For us, the dog comes first, not the people."

But even if you fail the test, you can still help Lab Rescue with its Dine for Dogs program. Visit any Glory Days Grill location Sunday through Thursday nights until May 29, and 10 percent of your bill is donated to the charity.


Northern Virginia Reptile Rescue: Dennis Desmond became fascinated with reptiles as a child. He met Rita, his wife, at Oregon State University and knew they were meant to be when she would go out hunting for species with him.

"I think God smiled on us. The animals brought us together and have kept us together for 19 years," says Mr. Desmond who, with Mrs. Desmond, founded Northern Virginia Reptile Rescue, a herpetological haven.

Although the Desmonds work full time for the government, the animals have always been their first love.

"When I was in the Army, wherever we were camped, I was always going out hiking late at night and looking for species. The guys thought I was crazy."

Even the Persian Gulf war didn't deter him.

"I looked for snakes all over Saudi Arabia," he says.

The couple began the rescue from the basement of their Alexandria home. Specially outfitted with 28 extra electrical outlets for heating and UV implements, the facility currently houses more than 60 turtles, tortoises, pythons, boas and lizards.

"We have quite the electric bill," Mr. Desmond says with a laugh.

As with standard animal rescue groups, the Desmonds take in injured and abandoned species, and those for which people can't care anymore. They then find suitable adopters who understand reptile care.

"These are not easy pets. A cracked tortoise shell has to be wired shut and can take years to heal," says Mrs. Desmond. Simon the savannah monitor and Princess the iguana both suffer from metabolic bone disease caused by inadequate care. And then there is the litany of human cruelty turtles thrown in the road and run over, lizards left in cold garbage bins. One tortoise wears a cracked shell painted with nail polish.

"The stories don't even amaze me anymore," Mr. Desmond sighs.

But there are happy stories, too. The Desmonds last year placed Tommy, a 27-pound snapping turtle raised from a hatchling by a woman whose health was deteriorating.

"This lady swore to me that this turtle wandered around the house at will, ate Chinese dumplings and knew his own name,"Mr. Des-mond says. "She would hold him in her easy chair and sing to him. I didn't believe any of it, but sure enough I saw it myself. He would even sit on command."

Tommy now thrives a with a Louisiana family with a large yard and pond.

The Desmonds get about 35 applications a week and thoroughly screen potential adopters to weed out children or dealers. Between adoptions, they work to educate students and the pet industry about the reptiles' hardships.

"Reptiles are imported by the thousands for retail sale," Mr. Desmond says. "Only 50 percent of those even survive the trip. They are packed like doughnuts without food or heat or water. And most of the ones that do make it will die from improper care."

If reptile care is so difficult, why bother?

"Some of them really do make good pets," says Mr. Desmond. "Corn snakes, geckos and bearded dragon are good beginner pets. They are good for urban environments, condos. They can be kept in confined spaces. They don't need exercise, and don't cause allergies."

Not that the Desmonds like parting with their animals.

"These are our children," says Mr. Desmond, who coos at his creatures as he shifts their lighting and cleans their cages. "They have personalities. Just like mammals, they feel pain and fear; they respond to touch."

"It's amazing to think of their evolution," Mrs. Desmond adds. "These animals have been around for millions of years and have hardly changed."

It's not uncommon for rescue groups to help each other out. It was the Desmonds who took in ASAP's geckos from the scene of the shooting.

"We got them healthy and adopted them out," Mr. Desmond says. "They're doing really well now."

But while rescue groups enjoy their work, they would rather not have to do it at all.

"We'd love to say we have no dogs," says Lab Rescue's Mr. Galvin.

"Prevention spaying, neutering could make our group unnecessary,"Ms. Harkin says. "And that would be fine with me."

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