The call for help went out Thursday, as the "red list" of dogs scheduled for execution at the East Valley Animal Shelter grew.
The shelter in Van Nuys needed temporary homes for dozens of dogs to make room for all the pets likely to be spooked by fireworks and run away from home. If there wasn't enough kennel space, dogs would have to be euthanized to accommodate the newcomers.
"If you or anyone you know can FOSTER a dog for just 4 days … you can save a life," read the post on the Friends of East Valley Animal Services Facebook page. It included a gallery of photos, mostly pit bull mixes and small senior dogs.
By Saturday afternoon, the post had been shared more than 2,000 times and the shelter lobby was so crowded with would-be fosters that every at-risk dog had a temporary home.
"We went nonstop, and at the end of the day we had empty cages," animal care technician Veronica Perry said. In eight years of working the week of July Fourth, she had never seen that before.
All city shelters have foster programs, but they don't get much attention. People fear the open-ended commitment and worry that they might fall in love with a pet they don't have time for or can't afford.
So Perry tweaked the East Valley program to allow short-term bailouts; the dogs would be gone just long enough to give runaway pets time to be picked up by their owners. "I thought I'd get a few of my [regular] volunteers and Facebook friends," she said.
Instead, she drew people such as Briana Figueras, who took home a little Brussels Griffon named Chex. She's allergic to Chex, and her own dog doesn't care for him. "But it's four days of your life, and you save the life of a dog," she said.
Such a straightforward pact.
That's the beauty of this program. It's a triumph of love and ingenuity over habit and rules. It shows the reach of social media, the value of creative teams and the power of animal love.
The Fourth of July is the worst holiday of the year for animal lovers.
Shelter officials know how many runaways to expect. They have to make room for them and, for all our good intentions and no-kill rhetoric, euthanasia has been the way to do that.
"On Wednesday, they started killing dogs," JD Disalvatore said. "At East Valley, we lost several beautiful, perfect dogs. That's how we see it."
It's painful to volunteers and employees. "You just want to go home and put your head in the oven," she said. "You're desperate to find ways to help."
Disalvatore is an award-winning filmmaker. Her way of helping is making videos of shelter animals. A "kitten season" montage she produced last spring found foster homes for dozens of cats.
Now she's loading the shelter's Facebook page with heart-warming photos and video updates of dogs in their foster homes: the pit bull cuddling in bed with her foster mom and the shepherd taking a jog around Silver Lake reservoir.
"When I'm at the shelter videotaping these dogs, I look into the cages and they are shaking, they are scared, they are crying," Disalvatore said. "It's shocking to see how different they are when they are living in homes with families."
That's what makes fostering so important. It's hard to know what a dog is like when all you see is that angry, frightened, bewildered creature, barking or cowering in a metal cage.
Fostering is a way to try a dog you like — or help an unappealing pooch build a better resume. A temporary owner can chronicle a dog's temperament, encourage good behavior and practice basic skills. That makes dogs more adoptable, and turns foster parents into cheerleaders.
Dani Collins took two dogs on Friday: Bear, a goofy Husky-Lab mix, and Hugh, a shy Rhodesian Ridgeback mix ignored by shelter visitors.
In her home, Hugh was no wallflower.
"He's Mr. Social and really smart," she said. "He loves to play fetch. He's been crate-trained and has already picked up on leash-walking manners. He's really polite to other dogs, even little tiny ones."
Handsome Hugh, as she calls him now, was just lonely and needed love. He arrived at the shelter with his outgoing sister, who was adopted right away. "He'd been there for weeks on end, with no one looking at him," Collins said. "Sitting in the back of the shelter, he was really, really sad."
She might not be able to keep the pair — her 6-year-old pit bull wouldn't like that — but she's tapping her network of animal lovers to find them permanent homes.
Most of the 64 dogs that left the shelter last weekend won't be caged again. Many already have been adopted and others will find homes with rescue groups when their stints with fosters end.
Dogs that seemed doomed got more than a reprieve; they have a new lease on life.
Little Loki might be the poster child for that.
He was brought to the shelter two months ago by his family, who left him and never looked back. He's old, he's black, he's scared of his own shadow and he shrieks when people come near him. If anyone was ever interested, the "behavioral issues" tag on his kennel was apt to scare them away. If anyone asked to see him, he had to be dragged out whimpering.
That was exactly what Molly Chance was looking for.
"If I get a dog out, I want to be sure I'm saving a life," she said. Loki was so scared, he wet himself when she reached to pet him. That sealed the deal for her.
She took him home Friday.
On Monday, they spent the day at the dog park, then stopped to socialize at an outdoor cafe. "He's making friends, wagging his tail, giving kisses to everyone. It's amazing," Chance said. "People fall in love with him wherever we go."
She might not keep him when her foster term's up, but he's never going back to the shelter.