Pet-Rescue Underground Railroad Won't Leave a Dog Behind

For its members, that can mean bites, tornadoes of fluff, and nothing left for the mortgage.

Jake, a cattle dog–German shepherd mix, showed up at the Ellensburg shelter in late January with his sister. They had been abandoned, but both were fixed, which meant that someone had once cared for them. This gave shelter staff and volunteers hope the dogs would quickly find homes. Indeed, Jake's sister, the calmer of the two, was adopted almost immediately.

But Jake deteriorated quickly. He began "fence fighting," snapping at dogs in adjacent kennels. Shelter visitors didn't seem very interested in him, and he languished for more than two weeks. "He just kept getting overlooked," says Betsy Hardin, a shelter volunteer.

Had Jake stayed in Ellensburg, which is along I-90, on the other side of the Cascades, he would have been put down. So Hardin turned to her Rolodex of dog rescuers, contacting Judith Swanson in Marysville. Swanson, in turn, put out an APB over the rescue network.

A retired office administrator, Swanson spends most of her waking hours trying to find homes for animals. Last year, she says, her back broke when, at all of 100 pounds, she went one way and a 125-pound foster dog pulled the leash the other way.

Swanson describes her pleas as akin to throwing a pebble in water; the ripples eventually turned up a half-dozen volunteers willing to take Jake, one as far away as Newfoundland. However, none was an appropriate fit for a dog that had begun to exhibit aggressive behavior. Eventually, Hardin had Jake transferred to a shelter in Bellevue.

That's where he sat for a week—a relative eternity in dog rescue. During that time, scores of other imperiled dogs emerged, and the foster homes that had expressed interest in Jake moved on to help those animals. His condition worsened.

Then, in late February, Jake got a nibble. Someone with a male pit bull was interested. The shelter typically doesn't adopt out male dogs to households that already have a male dog, but it was willing to make an exception. To test how Jake would react, the shelter staff introduced Jake to a male pit bull who was also up for adoption. Jake attacked the dog and then attacked a handler when the staff tried to put him back in his kennel. He was euthanized later that day.

Jake entered the shelter system as an outgoing, energetic dog who seemed eager to find his owner. After a month, he was so stressed that he basically went crazy. "I think it was just a classic case of this animal not being able to handle kennel life and losing his person," says Hardin. "Some dogs are just more resilient, and some aren't. They need more than a shelter can give them. He could have been a good dog in the right hands if he'd gotten out of there in time."

The key is getting the dog out of the shelter system and into the rescue network—an under-and above-ground society of animal lovers who pick up where the shelters leave off. It's a world where there are no bad dogs, only bad owners, and where dedicated rescuers will sacrifice their time, health, and mortgage payments to find doomed dogs a home. For most rescuers, there are only two kinds of unadoptable dogs: the terminally ill and the incorrigibly vicious. "You don't give up on a dog," says Swanson. "You just keep trying."

Rescuers share the common inability to refuse an animal in need. One rescuer asked that her last name not be printed, for fear that people might look her up and drop unwanted pets at her door. "I wouldn't be able to say no," she says. "But I only have so much square footage in my house."

"You see people getting in over their heads," says Nancy McKenney, director of's Renton-based foundation, which provides free online listings for rescued dogs that are up for adoption. "It can get out of hand."

Seattle's own stray-pet population has been in decline for years, thanks to leash laws and spay-neuter programs. "We're seeing less and less animals dumped in front of the store," says Seattle Animal Shelter director Don Jordan, recalling the era when puppies might be left in a cardboard box at the U Village A&P. Growing up in the '70s, he remembers packs of dogs running wild in Wedgwood.

So rescuers are now busy importing canine pariahs from regions east of the mountains such as Ellensburg—where there's a greater tolerance for feral animals, "no-kill" rules are for wussies, and dumping a dog in the woods carries less chance of reproach than it would, say, in central Fremont.

Among the many rescue coordinators is Ginger Luke, whose HQ is the Rickshaw, a Greenwood restaurant and karaoke bar she's run for 30 years. There, she sends and receives about 500 e-mails a day. She founded her rescue group a little more than a year ago, and counts 231 "saves" in 2006. She's constantly expanding her network of contacts, now about 2,000, and bombarding them with breathless e-mails ("An Urgent Dalmatian Plea!").

One of her primary suppliers is the Ellensburg shelter. According to shelter manager Paula Hake, the facility's canine euthanasia rate dropped from 70 percent to 8 percent after she hooked up with Luke a year ago. "I reached out and said, 'We need some help.' I tapped into a market that was not over here on the east side. They are definitely more innovative on the west side."

Increasingly affluent and childless, Seattle has a large number of animal-rescue volunteers willing to take unwanted dogs into their homes for months and even years at a time. "It's kind of a treadmill," says Luke of the constant rescue-foster-adopt cycle.

Municipal shelters have limited means to check on how the independent rescue groups are ultimately placing animals. Basically, anyone can file the papers to be a rescue organization, then use a virtual network to move the inventory around. You can be as visible or sneaky as you want to be, taking no-kill to its absolute limit, where no dog gets put down for any reason, ever. Outside the city or King County, where you can build your own kennel or sanctuary, there's even less scrutiny or oversight.

Shelter transfers like Jake frequently arrive with neither name nor identification, much less clues on temperament and behavioral history. Deciding the breed isn't much more than an eyeballed estimation based on the dog's major features. The Bellevue shelter staff hands out names depending on their moods; the dogs sometimes end up named for uncles and old boyfriends. "We once had a litter of [female] puppies that we named after the Brady sisters," says Morgan Faber, a Bellevue staffer.

Dogs typically go through a behavior test at intake. The shelter staff checks for aggression in a variety of settings, such as with other dogs, children, and cats. To test how a dog will react to threats to its food, they use a mannequin arm to grab its food bowl during mealtime. A dog's life hangs in the balance of this examination; failing brands the dog as unadoptable. With certain breeds, such as pit bulls, even a whiff of aggression can condemn the dog to death.

But the Ellensburg shelter, with only two-and-a-half full-time staff members, doesn't have the people or resources (its only cat died a while back) to conduct anything but a rudimentary behavior test. Jake got to Bellevue with little more than his name. "With the transfers, it's hard," says Faber. "We know nothing. We don't know if they're house-trained, or if they'll try to protect the adults and turn on kids. It is a little bit risky to adopt a transfer. But it can also turn out to be the best dog ever."

Luke thinks shelters make for a poor retail environment: "You feel guilty. It's very depressing. That's why people don't go." But the Web has been a boon to pet adoption. "It's positive, and it's one dog at a time. It's gotta be a story with a face."

Marketing, in other words. Luke's dogs—about 22 in present inventory—are listed on There are also flyers posted at the Rickshaw, where several patrons have adopted. (The booze, like the karaoke, may help in this regard.) Then there's her marketing slogan: "Ginger's Pet Rescue—Specializing in Death Row Dogs!" "Some shelters don't like us using the term 'death row dogs' because it gives them a bad rap," says Luke, sounding completely uncontrite. "But, let's face it, this is reality. They have to put the dogs down because they're out of room."

Dog rescue can be like an underground railroad that never quite reaches the station. Take Hector, a pure, proud, exuberant mutt, about two years old, who looks to be a cross between a pit bull and/or a German shepherd and/or a Labrador retriever. Julie Shaup, a young, enthusiastic nurse living in Mountlake Terrace, agreed to foster the dog after hearing about him through Luke. "He tends to jump up," she says by way of apology, as a visiting journalist repeatedly removes paws from his chest. Indeed, the high-energy Hector has a tail that could knock over small children—as his Petfinder page truthfully discloses (cats are also a no-no).

Hector's story began in Longview, in the southwestern part of the state. "He was an unclaimed stray," Shaup says. "He'd been scheduled for euthanasia, and Ginger asked me if I'd foster him. He was not housebroken. He covered my house with pee." Another dog she was fostering accidentally bit Shaup; she shows the scar on her arm.

Hector gets marketed on meet-and-greets, arranged by Ginger's Pet Rescue, with prospective adopters who've selected him from his Petfinder photos and description. ("I respond very well to positive reinforcement, and I am a pleaser.") A bit like "Yeah, it is," says Shaup, who must act as chaperone on these blind dates. But, alas, love has still not struck: In late January, Shaup surrendered Hector to a new foster family in Sammamish, where he could have full-time care. He's still up for adoption on Petfinder.

"I know I've definitely put more money into it than anticipated," Shaup says. "There's supposed to be some sort of reimbursement." Another volunteer she knows dug herself into a financial hole with fostering, then had to borrow money for the mortgage.

If anything, the 58-year-old Luke seems energized by her dog-centric routine, splitting 20-hour days between the restaurant and her rescue operation. "I believe if your heart is in it, you have time to do what you want to do. I love to be busy." Indeed, she's a woman who types, talks, and thinks with exclamation points. That sense of urgency and compassion may stem from the fact that she survived a 1981 armed robbery at the Rickshaw, when she was shot three times. She endured four years of rehabilitation—wheelchair, crutches, cane—before she could walk normally again. She got a second chance. The parallels are hard to miss.

What's the protocol for paying a house call on a pit bull? Will the bell trigger some sort of insane barking assault as the beast knocks the door from its hinges? Should you curl up in the fetal position and hold your arms around your neck, like in a bear attack?

As it turns out, in a quiet, well-tended Mount Baker home, 60-pound Jordan greets visitors not with bared fangs and flattened ears but with a submissive, supplicating crouch. She's shy, a beta. It's hard to believe that no one has stepped up to adopt her in the three years since foster mommy Maureen O'Neill, a sculptor and dog walker, took Jordan on behalf of Seattle rescue group the Pit Bull Project.

Jordan was once malnourished and mangy; her many bite marks are still visible through her blond coat as she positions herself for maximum petting by the visiting journalist. Her medical bills—for an ACL tear and eating a tennis ball—have been onerous: O'Neill estimates that she's spent about $4,000, most of it reimbursed by the Project.

Pretty much any trace of aggression makes a pit bull unplaceable, according to Project director Anne Holte. Though shelters beg her to take their excess pit bulls, "I have to say 'No' about 10 times a day. It's not realistic to have no-kill," says Holte."None of mine are quick turnaround." (Jordan is the current record-holder for longest stay with a foster family.)

Like other rescue groups in Seattle, the Project has no shelter facility of its own, only a network of committed volunteers like O'Neill who take dogs into their homes. "I'm so worried about putting a dog that I love in the wrong hands," says O'Neill, perhaps giving a clue as to why Jordan has taken so long to find a permanent home. "Half of it's me," she says. "Nobody's good enough."

Also on the less glamorous side of the purebred spectrum is the Siberian husky. Mark and Vicki, a South End couple who prefer to omit their last names for privacy, are one of just two foster-care families in Western Washington for this challenging breed. The most recent addition to their brood is Zeke, a four-year-old traumatized by a youth spent locked in a breeder's kennel up in Arlington.

He's a small, standoffish dog, perhaps 18 inches at the shoulder, wrapped in a lot of fur. While he circles the backyard in a game of chase with six other huskies (three of them also in foster care), it's like a white tornado of fluff, a twister of hair designed to withstand Arctic winters—all of it being shed at a furious rate. Today's weather forecast: fur. Vicki says she warns all her visitors, "If you come over, don't wear black." Too late.

Zeke arrived as a timorous animal who shunned human and canine company alike. Was he abused? "It's possible," says Vicki, who works in the telecom industry. "I wouldn't be surprised. If I move too fast, he'll flinch." After more than two years, he's now socialized to the point where he behaves like a pack animal, standing on the picnic table and eagerly stuffing his snout in a visitor's face.

Mark, a mechanic, estimates that since he and his wife began fostering in 2001, they have cared for 26 dogs. (Nine is their record for any one time.) Anticipating the demand-and-dump cycle he thought would be triggered by the 2002 movie Snow Dogs, he even built a small kennel complex beneath the back porch. Inside their house, Mark and Vicki keep photo albums of all their past foster dogs; husky art adorns the walls; there are even Christmas cards from the families who've adopted their old charges. Says Vicki, who, like her husband, is fortysomething, "They're our kids. Our parents finally realized these are their grandchildren."

In the meantime, the hair keeps piling up, other foster dogs come and go, more photos go into the albums, and Zeke feels more at home. And this isn't like having a cute, small, well-behaved puppy for a few weeks. It's like joining the Army and using your own home as barracks.

Zeke had five meet-and-greets before finally finding a new owner in February. Like pit bulls, Siberian huskies are difficult to place—thanks to the shedding, sheer stubbornness, insane working-dog energy, and highly ingrained proclivity to escape. Cyndi Michelena, of the Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue organization, adds another caution: Because the dogs were originally left by the Inuit to forage for themselves during summers, they have "a very strong prey instinct. When they see a cat, they think, 'Lunch!'"

The line between shelters and rescues can be a fine one, and it sometimes comes down to sheer luck. Zelda, a five-year-old Great Pyrenees, was turned in to the Ellensburg shelter by her owners, who said they were tired of her chasing deer and killing cats. The Ellensburg shelter has only 16 kennels, three of which must remain vacant for whatever Animal Control might bring in that day. When half the kennels fill up, the staff starts to get nervous. After five days, volunteer Hardin made another transfer to Bellevue to buy Zelda more time.

Unfortunately, she forgot about Bellevue's policy against dogs that kill cats. "Over here, in Eastern Washington, it's not unusual for dogs to kill feral cats; it's just out in the country," Hardin explains.

Bellevue slated Zelda for euthanasia. But as the clock ticked down to execution, rescuer Swanson found a foster group that specialized in Pyrenees. She also found someone to make a run down to Centralia to drop off the dog.

So, on a sunny morning in late February, Zelda takes up most of the backseat in the next link in the chain: Caroline Hicks' Jetta. Hicks, a technician at a holistic veterinary hospital in Redmond, heard about Zelda from the network, and since she happened to have a few days off, she volunteered to drive.

Zelda, despite her breed's reputation for barking and howling, spends most of the ride in silence, standing nervously and drooling on the leopard-print seat covers. She doesn't resemble the stereotypical shelter dog at all. She isn't aggressive or shy or mangy or emaciated or sick. She has a full, luxurious coat, cream-colored, with a cowl of darker, steely fur from her ears to shoulders. A tan patch of hair sits across her back like a dainty saddlebag. Except for a case of doggy breath, she's pretty adorable. And despite her palpable nervousness, she seems self-possessed, almost regal. When a Bellevue shelter worker let Zelda out of her cage and walked her down the row toward Hicks earlier that day, the other dogs saluted her with barks, like inmates cheering an early release.

While Zelda's history of killing cats was a death sentence in the shelter's eyes, her rescuers regard it as a minor concern. "That doesn't mean she's bad or aggressive," says Hicks. "I mean, cats kill mice. I believe any dog can be taught not to kill."

This is Hicks' first time transporting an animal. She never had any animals growing up and didn't get her first cat until eight years ago, when she was 26 and a friend dumped a cat on her, for which she intended to find a home. Instead, Hicks lost the cat within a week. "I freaked out," she recalls. "I was so worried about her, just thinking about what might have happened to her, that she could be suffering."

Hicks went door-to-door through her neighborhood and found the cat, and the incident opened a floodgate of empathy for animals. She's since had up to seven cats living with her. She currently has three, and would keep dogs, too, if her landlord allowed it. "My friends think of me as a cat lady, but when you're involved in this kind of work, everyone's the same way," Hicks says. "I'm almost mild.

"People in my family say, 'Why animals?'" Hicks continues, as if anticipating the question. "But we're all called to certain things." She gestures at the rosary hanging from her rearview mirror. "I was called to work with animals."

At 12:30 p.m., Hicks turns into a Chevron where Kathy Liles, who runs a Pyrenees rescue service, is waiting in a navy minivan. "OK," Hicks says to Zelda as they get out of the car. "You're going to get a bunch of new friends to play with."

Hicks leads Zelda over to Liles and hands off the leash and the intake sheet. Zelda gives Liles' jeans a sniff and then waits patiently while the two women chat. Despite the sun, it's cold and blustery, and Zelda's the best dressed one in the lot.

"Does she have any papers?" Liles asks. "Has she had her shots?"

"I don't know," Hicks says. "This is all they gave me."

Hicks asks Liles if Zelda is a purebred. Liles gives Zelda a dog-show-worthy once-over and declares, "Maybe not, but she's pretty close. If they look enough like a Pyrenees and they act enough like a Pyrenees, I can find them a home."

Then Liles opens the minivan's hatch and coaxes Zelda into a large transport cage. Zelda sniffs the chew toys and then sits down, the top of her head flush with the cage. Liles closes the hatch and that's that.

Liles says Zelda's prospects for adoption are good. This is the gold-plated rescue service. Anyone who wants one of Liles' dogs must undergo a thorough vetting process. Liles looks for a fenced yard, for financial wherewithal to support a big dog, and for owners who understand the idiosyncrasies of the breed and are willing to either let their dogs live indoors or be around livestock. Liles' club places 45 to 65 Pyrenees every year, and Liles frequently turns down otherwise-qualified prospective owners if the dog seems lukewarm to the pairing. Often, she can tell by how the dog acts, Liles says. "Certain people will make dogs really perform, like, 'This is where I really want to go, so I'll show off.' That tells you a lot about whether that's a match."

All new owners sign an agreement stating that they will return any unwanted dogs only to Liles.

"I'm sure she's probably a little nervous," Hicks says as she gets back into her car. "But I'm sure she realizes she's with people who love her. They're much better than us about picking up feelings."

The ride back feels empty without Zelda. "I'm sad," Hicks says. "I almost don't want to let her go. That's why I don't make a good foster parent. I just bond and I can't give them up."

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