It's drag queen bingo night at Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille, and a sold-out crowd has gathered in the West Hollywood restaurant to have fun while raising money for the evening's designated nonprofit beneficiary, Pug Nation Rescue L.A.
Before Porsha, mistress of ceremonies, begins calling out numbers, the pug fans share cellphone photos of their flat-faced dogs. Josh and Stephanie Patterson of Burbank have Jack, a 12-year-old "one-eyed pirate dog" they adopted from Pug Nation two years ago. And they'd just adopted a second pug from the rescue, 7-year-old Henry. The couple overcame reservations about adopting older dogs.
"We want to provide the kind of nice life for them that they otherwise couldn't possibly have had," says Stephanie.
The Pattersons are the rare kind of adoptive pet parents whom rescue groups depend on amid an epidemic of abandoned animals in Southern California. Though the rates of animals being euthanized in city and county shelters have dropped significantly in the last five years, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control euthanized 35,031 cats, dogs and other animals throughout its six shelters in the 2013-14 fiscal year. That's down from 54,319 animals euthanized in 2009-2010, according to the department. Many dogs, cats and even rabbits have been rescued with the assistance of the nearly 200 groups registered with L.A. Animal Services to help find foster and "forever" homes for shelter animals.
Pug Nation is one of dozens of breed- or mission-specific rescues in Southern California. The rescue works like many others. Fans of the breed scan shelters and websites for pugs and pug mixes they can rehabilitate for adoption, says Gwenn Vallone, who oversees the operation. She visits homes to gauge whether the dog is a good fit. Pugs are heat-sensitive, social and a bit delicate around small children, so some potential adopters are rejected.
"Sometimes it may not seem fair, but we have to make sure the dogs are safe," says Vallone. "I've had a few people miffed at me."
Those judgments add to a perception that animal rescue groups can be too picky and are prone to fanatics.
"I hear that every day, that someone can't adopt because they have a young child or don't have the right yard," says Marc Peralta, executive director of Best Friends Animal Society Los Angeles, the local arm of a national group dedicated to making shelters no-kill. Even his group's two adoption centers that support the No-Kill LA initiative get criticized for receiving city funds and having fairly relaxed adoption standards. "Instead of arguing over my adoption policy versus yours, let's agree to disagree for the bigger picture of saving animals," Peralta says.
Shirl Ludwig, one of seven Pug Nation board members, has fostered 43 of the dogs in 26 years and raised 17 of her own. "I take in the ones who are less likely to get homes because of medical issues," Ludwig says. Cute as they are, pugs are high-maintenance pets that are afflicted by ear and eye infections, arthritis, obesity, obstructed breathing and dental disease.
None of that matters much to pug fans. Groups and their knowledgeable supporters aim to find like-minded pet parents. In Los Angeles, there are rescues for just about any breed of cat or dog — boxers, border collies, beagles and Persian cats, for starters.
Some rescuers concentrate on a demographic or issue, such as feral cats. Nancy Koch runs the Grand-Paws Senior Sanctuary in Agua Dulce, which rescues large-breed senior dogs from individuals and high-kill shelters. About a third of Koch's rescues get adopted; the rest live at her sanctuary or in foster homes.
Real estate agent Bridget Alves operates Furever Purr Rescue in Valencia, which takes in the most vulnerable, including pregnant cats and their kittens. As a rescue partner with Los Angeles County shelters, Alves also gets access to cats with behavior deemed unsuitable for adoption — and destined for killing.
"We can determine if the cat is just scared or really shy and that's why it's not acting well. Then we can rehab it," Alves says. Since the beginning of the year, her operation has rescued 123 cats from the Lancaster shelter alone.
The L.A.-based Pet Connect.Us, which has nearly 80,000 Facebook fans, specializes in urgent shelter animals, those in immediate danger of being euthanized. More than 12,000 people shared a post about 32 of the most urgent medium and large dogs at the crowded San Bernardino City Shelter. Many of the dogs, like Cameron, Marlee and Chunky Girl, have the features of pit bulls, one of the most populous breeds at shelters.
As the video rolls, the dogs stare out from behind the bars of cages, some sad, some happy, most scared and heartbreaking. Yet the social media effort was effective. With two days to go before the animals were scheduled to be euthanized, half had new forever homes.