The last thing Josephine Chalfino wanted to do was surrender her dog to a shelter. After all, Lucy, a Chow, had been her best friend for 10 years. But when her landlord suddenly demanded a $200 pet deposit Josephine, a senior on a low fixed income living in Los Angeles, felt she had no choice.
“It was horrible. I’ve had her such a long time, and she’s a good dog,” Chalfino says. “I was crying, and when I was giving her up, I felt like Lucy was crying too.”
Luckily for Josephine and Lucy, it was the first day of the North Central Shelter Intervention Program. Launched in November 2013 by founder Kerry Lowe Armstrong, the program started with two volunteers manning a table in the lobby twice a week with the goal of preventing surrenders to an already overcrowded municipal shelter.
“There’s a misconception that people dump their dog at a shelter because they’re heartless and don’t care, but it’s not that simple,” Armstrong says. “There’s always a deeper reason, and many times they do it with a heavy heart after a lot of thought.” Intervening can mean anything from helping with medical costs to finding pro bono legal counsel to contend with landlord issues.
For Chalfino, the program provided the pet deposit and helped with renter’s insurance. For the owner of a sick Husky, it was payment for diagnostic blood work. When a blind 15-year-old poodle escaped its family’s yard for the first time and ended up at the shelter, North Central Shelter Intervention Program stepped in when the dog’s owner couldn’t afford the redemption fees.
“People are generally surprised that there is an option besides surrendering their beloved pet. Sometimes they’re embarrassed to not be able to afford something to help their pet, but across the board people are grateful,” Armstrong says.
Other times, it’s a matter of directing pet owners to the proper resources, such as free or low-cost spay/neuter vouchers and medical care. “We’re here to let people know there’s an option and how they can help themselves,” Armstrong says.
After receiving a grant from Found Animals Foundation, that table in the lobby is now staffed four days a week with a bilingual employee and several volunteers. In six months, the North Central Shelter Intervention Program has helped more than 200 pets avoid being surrendered or exit the shelter safely.
Armstrong hopes to expand the program to six days a week at the shelter, as well as offering training classes for dogs with behavioral issues and ongoing free spay/neuter clinics. “We really need to cut down on pet overpopulation, and we would like to be of service to communities near our shelter,” she says.
The program was modeled after the highly successful South Central Intervention Program, operated by the nonprofit Downtown Dog Rescue. Since April 2013, that program has helped more than 2,600 pets and their owners through free spay/neuter, wellness care, basic medical care, free dog food, and individual and group dog-training classes at South L.A. Parks.
“This is not a pet problem, it’s a poverty problem, at least where we’re located,” says Lori Weise, founder of Downtown Dog Rescue. “Anywhere in U.S. where people are living at or below poverty line, if they need to get vaccines, or spay or neuter their dog or cat, or comply with some ordinance, that can be a major obstacle if it hits them at the wrong time of the month.”
The program also works directly within communities to provide practical solutions to seemingly simple problems, such as fixing broken fences that let dogs escape and eventually end up in shelters.
“A lot of people do not plan for these pets. They’ll find a dog under a wheel well of their car, or their neighbors will move out, or maybe their son will go to jail and leave a dog behind,” Weise says. “These are people who love animals, but, unfortunately, most of them are low to no income.”
Despite the poverty and oftentimes violence found in these neighborhoods, most of the owners Weise interacts with are extremely committed to their dogs.
“I’ve had two cases of women telling me that they couldn’t fail their children, that they were going to keep the dog in the family at any cost,” Weise says. “Gentle, sweet people are the vast majority of our clients.”
That’s also the case at the North Central Shelter, according to Armstrong. “People whom we’ve helped will stop by to say hi with their dog or to show us photos and videos,” she says.
The very first North Central Shelter Intervention Program client still drops by on occasion to deliver homemade tamales. ““I don’t know how else to thank them,” Chalfino says. “They’re my guardian angels.”
For more information about the North Central Shelter Intervention Program, please “like” its Facebook page and visit homedogla.com. To learn more about the South Central Shelter Intervention Program, go to downtowndogrescue.org.
By Michelle Sathe / appeared in the August 2014 issue of Cesar’s Way magazine