Skid Row Strays Have Best Friends
Lori Weise and Richard Tuttelmondo fight homelessness on skid row with dogged determination.
Good thing, too. It takes a certain tenacity to prowl the streets of downtown Los Angeles dispensing kindness to street people -- and kibble to street puppies.
The two are managers of a furniture factory. They are also founders of Downtown Dog Rescue, a 5-year-old volunteer program that finds homes for strays roaming alleys and provides veterinary services to pets kept by the city’s two-legged homeless population.
Behind their Modernica Co. manufacturing plant, they have built their own animal shelter to house dogs in need of immediate care.
Inside the busy factory, they have built a reputation for hiring homeless dog owners who are willing to work to get themselves and their pets off skid row.
Part of their crusade includes offering free spaying and neutering of transients’ pets in hopes of slowing downtown’s puppy population explosion.
“We’re not the dog police. We don’t take pets away,” said Weise, 37, the factory’s general manager. “We are there to help dogs and their owners.”
Weise and 40-year-old plant manager Tuttelmondo are dog lovers who live a few blocks apart in Altadena. They created the rescue service after joining the furniture company and experiencing the inner-city subculture of homelessness for the first time.
“Neither one of us had ever worked downtown before. We had no clue what it was like. It was depressing. It was overwhelming,” Weise said.
“Seeing dogs completely abandoned on the streets was terrible. You could tell they once had owners,” Tuttelmondo said.
They started the rescue service after noticing that one transient near the factory seemed to always be engulfed in little dogs.
“He had a beautiful male pit bull and a female mix and they would have puppies every six months,” Tuttelmondo said. “We were always finding homes for them.”
“We decided something had to stop,” added Weise.
As they launched Downtown Dog Rescue and began checking areas around their 7th Place plant, they were appalled at what they found.
“Businesses would close and leave junkyard dogs tied up to fences as ‘watch dogs,’ ” Tuttelmondo said. “Dogs were hit by cars. People who couldn’t take their dogs with them into shelters or Section 8 housing would let them loose on the street.”
Maneuvering through the encampments of cardboard boxes and tents took some getting used to, they found.
“Some of the homeless have mental problems. A lot of times Richard and I don’t talk to the person. We talk to the dog,” Weise said.
“The owner will hear us talking and will poke their head out of the tent to see what’s going on. That’s when we ask them if it’s OK to give their dog a treat. Once we get them talking, we ask if they need food for their dog or if it needs vaccination. We tell them we can get their dogs licenses and shots.”
Although many of the homeless now trust dog rescue volunteers enough to report injured or abused animals to them, many pet owners were fearful at first that their street dogs were going to be permanently confiscated.
“At the end of one alley, we found four generations of dogs -- 16 of them. A homeless couple had beds and water for all of them. But they didn’t want us to spay and neuter,” Tuttelmondo said.
“I brought one of our plant employees who speaks Spanish to translate, and I drew a diagram on a piece of paper. I told them if they are not careful, they are going to have 60, 70, 80 dogs before they know it.”
The rescue service has found homes for hundreds of puppies over the years -- some through a twice-monthly adoption day it holds Saturdays at a Petco store in Pasadena. It has spayed or neutered about 100 dogs kept as pets by downtown homeless people.
Downtown Dog Rescue spends about $60,000 a year. It accepts donations through the nonprofit North Hollywood-based Friends for Animals group at www.friendsforanimals.org.
Along the way, professionals such as Boyle Heights veterinarian Dr. Edward Simon and Mount Washington dog trainer Lezle Stein have joined the crusade.
Simon has offered discounts on treatment and stayed open late for rescued dogs. Stein does temperament assessment of dogs being put up for adoption and helps them learn how to behave indoors.
“I teach them how to walk on a leash and house-train them. Most have never been in a house,” she said.
Ten homeless dog owners have been given jobs at Modernica. Those without skills are hired to sand wood furniture for the company’s line of classic modern reproductions. Others are matched up with slots elsewhere in the 65-employee plant. Their pay lets them rent apartments that allow pets.
Dog owner Mark DeCicco, 40, works in the plant’s shipping and receiving department. He said he went on the street after losing his job as a personal assistant following his conviction for punching a sheriff’s deputy.
“I never thought things would go so low for me,” he said. “I’m getting a second chance here.”
Modernica’s owners, Jay and Frank Novak, say the changes that Downtown Dog Rescue have made at their plant are positive. They pay no attention to Sinbad, an aging rescued dog that meanders through company offices and often dozes in the corner during client meetings.
“It makes me feel this place is more of a part of the community,” Jay Novak said. “Of course, we lost our liability insurance because of the dogs out back,” said Jay’s brother, Frank, grinning. “But we got other coverage.”
Weise said only a few canines at a time are housed in the rescue’s two-cage shelter behind the plant’s paint shop. Most of the rescue group’s work is done off hidden alleyways, like the fenced-in alcove where homeless Benny Joseph lives with his three dogs, Ironhead, Terry and Lizzie.
Over the years, Weise and Tuttelmondo have helped the 56-year-old Joseph find permanent homes for 10 dogs and about 40 puppies. “Now he knows that puppies aren’t for entertainment,” Tuttelmondo said.
“I just love dogs. They’re just attracted to me. And people bring them to me to keep,” said Joseph, who has been on the streets for 15 years. “Dogs are like my children. They’re like me: I don’t like to work in a building, and my dogs don’t like being locked up.”
Besides being companions he can relate with and talk to, Joseph said, his dogs are lifesavers. Ironhead once chased away a transient who attacked him with a pick handle.
And those from Downtown Dog Rescue are lifesavers, too, he said.
“Those people are beautiful,” he said. “They’ve helped my dogs and other dogs. And me.”