Last spring I wrote about a novel campaign to keep dogs and cats out of the South Los Angeles shelter by helping pet owners through difficult times.
With a little money and a lot of volunteers, the intervention program run by Downtown Dog Rescue has paid vet bills and pet deposits, repaired backyard fences, spayed and neutered hundreds of dogs, and found homes for pets whose owners had to give them up.
In just seven months, the group has kept more than 1,500 dogs and cats from winding up in the shelter. That's in a neighborhood where almost a third of the people live in poverty and packs of stray dogs roam the streets.
The campaign has become a model of what cooperation can do. But it's also struck a nerve among some animal rescue zealots, who seem to care more about pets than they do about people.
I've been following the program on Facebook, and its tales and photos of people and pets sometimes break my heart:
A young man going off to college has to leave behind his 13-year-old Rottweiler; his mother refuses to care for the dog. A somber little girl clutches the frightened-looking terrier she's had since he was a puppy; her family has to give him up or they'll be evicted from their apartment.
But what hurts even more than the stories — which often have happy endings — are the hard-hearted comments from animal lovers that accompany some posts.
"A dog is not a possession and should never be given up," wrote someone who's probably never had to choose between keeping her dog and keeping a roof over her family's head.
"People just look for excuses to get rid of their dogs," read another post under the photo of the broken-hearted, terrier-loving little girl. "People should not get dogs if they cannot keep them," the woman wrote.
"I feel sorry for this innocent dog."
And I feel sorry for that innocent child, holding her puppy in her arms and trying not to cry.
I understand the passion of animal-rescue volunteers; they comb overcrowded shelters for neglected animals and network feverishly to place them. They see the worst of human nature at work in abused dogs, neglected cats, strays and runaways. That has to be frustrating.
They rail about cheap, careless and irresponsible pet owners. They say they'd sooner live in their cars than ever give up their dogs.
Hillary Rosen once felt that way too. She owns a doggy day care service for high-end clients. She also volunteers at the South L.A. shelter several days a week. She used to roll her eyes when people showed up to relinquish a pet. "They kicked me out of receiving," she said, "because I'd question the owners so harshly."
Then she began to listen and got an education. Broken families, lost jobs, instability, medical problems. "I realized this wasn't about people; this is a poverty problem," she said.
Downtown Dog Rescue founder Lori Weise knows her group is an outlier in the animal rescue world. She launched the intervention program after years of working with homeless pet owners on skid row.
"It's easy to say 'You're poor and should have those poodles taken away. They're not groomed right. You shouldn't be keeping them outside.' But if they sat down and met the people, they would be touched," she said.
"If you love an animal but you have no money, what do you do? People cry when they come to the shelter for help. They're embarrassed. They hurt."
She tries to convey their challenges in her Facebook posts, and she's gratified that the comments are mostly supportive. People pledge money, pray for owners and offer to foster pets.
But the comments also reveal a disconnect between the intervention program, whose lone employee lives in Watts, and the middle- and upper-class volunteers who drive the animal rescue movement.
"It's an alternate universe," said Rosen, who has a foot in both worlds.
Rescue groups have played a big part in the intervention program's success. They tap their networks for donations, veterinary care and homes for "fur babies" given up by their owners.
But even well-meaning and generous rescue volunteers seem clueless about the basics of life for pet owners in South Los Angeles — like why a doggy door is not a good idea in a home where windows need burglar bars.
They judge the lifestyle of dogs in South L.A. and find their owners wanting.
"These dogs are not going to the groomer once a month; they may be kept outside instead of sleeping on the bed. But they're loved, and that's the life they know. We have to accept that," Rosen said as a half-dozen rescued animals roughhoused in her backyard.
"It's an evolution, an education. The intervention program is changing the dialogue," she said.
Weise aims to break down more barriers on Sunday, when the program hosts a
She hopes it will draw families from all across Los Angeles. "We've got to get people over the feeling that they're terrified to drive south of Slauson," she said.
But the biggest bridge between disparate camps is the work that Weise's group does. She's educating the public not just about the needs of pets, but the struggles of people who love them. And for every snide remark or tale of loss, there's a fortifying example of goodness and goodwill.
That young man who had to leave his dog behind while he went off to college? Ryoko the Rottweiler has a new home with Ida Schillaci Noack in Burbank. Noack had been helping out at spay and neuter clinics in Compton. Something clicked when she saw the photo of the young man hugging his old dog.
Now the college student is becoming a part of her family, too. He's welcome to visit whenever he wants. And he's learned a lesson about compassion that will stick with him long after his much-loved dog is gone.