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Coming to the rescue: Newport resident’s dog food company starts nonprofit to get homeless dogs veterinary care

Coming to the rescue: Newport resident’s dog food company starts nonprofit to get homeless dogs veterinary care
Shawn Buckley checks on Willie, a poodle mix with a badly injured leg, at the Newport Beach animal shelter on Friday. Buckley's Costa Mesa-based Just Food for Dogs has started a nonprofit arm to pay for expensive medical procedures for shelter and rescue animals. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

With all that Willie the poodle mix has been through during his time as a stray and a shelter resident, Shawn Buckley doesn’t think a $3,000 price tag for surgery to correct a crippling leg injury should stand between Willie and a safe new home.

Through his company, Just Food for Dogs, Buckley is helping injured or sick shelter dogs like Willie get the costly veterinary care they need to make them adoptable. The newly established nonprofit Just Food for Dogs to the Rescue makes Buckley’s love for pups official, and, he hopes, the dogs’ futures brighter.

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Buckley, a Newport Beach resident and entrepreneur, said he has given money to shelters for years as he’s grown his company, which makes dog food from scratch using ingredients USDA-certified for human consumption.

Just Food for Dogs is his fourth company — his others included an advertising and public relations firm and a baby buggy manufacturer.

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Just Food for Dogs became a labor of gourmet love after he found out what byproducts regulators allow in commercial kibble, including poultry feces and feathers. He opened his first kitchen on Newport’s Mariners Mile in 2011 and quickly outgrew it.

With veterinary guidance, he started making human-grade foods nutritionally balanced for pets — such as a stew of venison, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberries and a casserole of wild-caught albacore tuna, egg noodles, broccoli, carrots, celery and peas.

The company, now based in Costa Mesa, currently has five kitchens and seven retail “pantries” throughout Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Its next major venture is an agreement with Petco to open exhibition kitchens and pantries in 500 stores over the next four years.

Buckley has a heart for all dogs, but especially hard-luck cases. His black Lab Simon came from a Huntington Beach shelter. His German shepherd Nala was found abandoned and severely underweight in an apartment in Azusa after the residents left. Both dogs have died, though Simon lives on as the dog on the company’s packaging.

Buckley’s current dog is Evelyn, a long-haired dachshund mix.

Shawn Buckley visits Willie, who is recovering from leg surgery at Home Free Animal Rescue & Sanctuary in Newport Beach.
Shawn Buckley visits Willie, who is recovering from leg surgery at Home Free Animal Rescue & Sanctuary in Newport Beach. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Willie, thought to be about 10 years old, fits the definition of a hard-knocks life. He was found abandoned in a park in Rancho Cucamonga with no collar or microchip. His left hind leg had a gruesome injury from the past — maybe from being hit by a car, maybe from some other misfortune — that left his knee twisted 180 degrees and surrounded by dead tissue.

The Newport Beach-based Home Free Animal Rescue & Sanctuary took him to the facility it shares with Newport’s municipal animal control. Dr. Adam Gassel, an Irvine veterinary surgeon, was able to save Willie’s leg, courtesy of funding from Just Food for Dogs to the Rescue.

Willie is now on the mend, hobbling on his three strong legs while wearing a cone to keep him from chewing on the staples in his surgically repaired one, and Home Free has a promising lead on a new owner.

Another of Buckley’s beneficiaries at Home Free is Lexi, a tiny wire-haired terrier mix who survived being hit by a car. The injury broke a leg, required the removal of two ribs and left permanent nerve damage in her rear end, paralyzing her tail. She now walks well and is still available for adoption from Home Free.

Buckley lights up when he visits the dogs at Home Free’s headquarters. He said he’s never met a bad dog.

“To me, they’re magic.”

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