Program with tiny budget makes huge difference for pets, owners

Intervention effort uses volunteers and creativity to help keep animals that would have ended up in the South L.A. shelter with their families instead

The teenager showed up in a panic on Thursday, cradling a wounded puppy in arms spattered with blood. A stray dog had attacked his 2-month-old pit bull on a walk near their South Los Angeles home. The city animal shelter nearby was the only place he knew to go.

He ran over to Amanda Casarez, pleading for help. She took one look at the puppy's bloody gash and pulled out her cellphone.

Within hours the pup was in surgery, the vet bill guaranteed by strangers from a pool of volunteers working with Downtown Dog Rescue, which sponsors an intervention program at the shelter.

The boy had only $50; the surgery, even at a reduced rate, cost seven times that much. The teenager has promised to volunteer with the animal rescue group to repay the gift.

That's money well spent for a novel program with a tiny budget and a giant goal: keeping animals out of crowded shelters by keeping pets and owners together.

The intervention effort began this spring, in a partnership with the new South Los Angeles shelter. Casarez, the program's lone employee, sits outside the shelter to intercept anyone heading in with an animal to relinquish.

Some are dropping off strays found wandering the streets. But many are there to surrender once-loved family pets. And she's there to talk them out of it.

Casarez doesn't judge, just listens to their complaints: The dog barks so much the neighbors complain. His digging wrecks the lawn. Her accidents ruin the carpet. They won't walk on a leash or stay in the yard. They're too skittish, or too wild.

The owners are discouraged, angry, embarrassed … but often heartbroken as well.

"Once they start talking, you see layers of problems," said Lori Weise, who founded Downtown Dog Rescue 16 years ago. "They never trained the dog, the cat keeps having kittens, they're being evicted, the husband's going to jail.... Sometimes in that chaos, the pet's the only constant. And if you hang on just a little bit longer, that dog might help you get through this. That's what we tell them."

Weise's volunteers will fix a fence to secure a yard, foot a vet bill, teach a family to housebreak their dog. They offer low-cost spaying and neutering, and hold training classes for dogs and owners in a nearby vacant lot.

"We will do whatever it takes to help you keep your animal," Casarez tells the owners.

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That's a hard promise to keep in this community.

For almost half the people Casarez sees, housing issues are forcing them to part with pets they love. "They lost a job. The house was foreclosed. They have to move into an apartment and can't afford the deposit," she said.

Sometimes her group remedies that by paying the pet deposit. Just this week they helped a woman in a wheelchair keep her two dogs — a poodle and a pit bull — by fencing off an area in the yard outside her new apartment.

"A $212 dog run allowed her to keep a 7-year-old pit bull she'd had since he was a puppy," said Weise, who put the kennel on her credit card and helped install it.

In some cases, though, the best they can do is ask the owners for time. "We'll take pictures of the animal, put it on our website and network 24 hours a day until we find a home or a foster," Casarez said.

Still, some situations can't be fixed, like the case Weise recalled of a 16-year-old pit bull brought to the shelter by a family that knew she was dying but couldn't afford a vet. "If you could see the relief in their faces when they know that nothing can be done and we ask 'Would you like to stay with this dog?' and explain what euthanasia is, and they say yes."

A dog who would have spent her final hours alone in a cage took her last breath surrounded by the family she loved.

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