February 19, 2013 10:03:01 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
A knock on Andrea Spain's door in Starkville Monday elicits a raucous chorus of what sounds like hundreds of dogs. It's easy to imagine being bowled off her porch by a canine blitzkrieg of muddy paws and slobbering tongues. But when she opens the door, silence -- punctuated by a staccato of wagging tails -- ensues. No dog leaves Spain's home without learning basic house manners.
Two of the dogs belong to Spain and one is being fostered until he can find his forever home. It's a full-time job -- rescuing dogs, placing them with "foster parents" and training them -- but Spain, along with three other young women, has made it her mission to save as many as she can.
In the past two years, through their volunteer-led, nonprofit organization, Grassroots Animal Rescue, they have pulled nearly 200 animals from high-kill shelters across north Mississippi, serving as 11th-hour angels for dogs, cats and even two ferrets.
Six million to eight million companion animals land in animal shelters every year, but the Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than half -- one every 6.5 seconds -- are euthanized. Even so, there are hopeful signs on the horizon: The "kill rate" is declining. In the 1970s, between 12 million and 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year.
The decline can be attributed partly to spay/neuter awareness campaigns but also to the efforts of organizations like Grassroots.
But in the beginning, it was just three Starkville women working on their own, visiting shelters and rescuing animals slated for imminent death. In 2010, they realized they could be more effective by pooling resources, so they incorporated and applied for 501(c)(3) status.
And so began a sometimes joyous, sometimes heartbreaking journey.
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Lucky, a five-month-old Blue Heeler/Labrador Retriever mix, and Taylor, a six-month-old Shepherd mix, are showing off. With their eyes on Spain -- and the treats in her hand -- they sit on command, demonstrating weeks of clicker training.
Gently, Taylor pokes her nose inside the plastic cone surrounding Lucky's head and licks his muzzle. Neither seems perturbed by the apparatus, which prevents him from chewing on the cast on his right leg or the bandages on his tail.
Lucky is an anomaly among the organization's rescues. He had been struck by a car, his right leg broken and his tail severed, when a Carthage police officer found him lying in front of a bank, his mother trying to tend to him as people hurried past, oblivious to the injured puppy.
The officer, Shannon Spence, knew he would most likely be euthanized if taken to a shelter -- they rarely have the resources to provide more than basic medical care. So after taking Lucky to a veterinarian, she called Grassroots Animal Rescue.
Today, he will undergo an operation to mend what is left of his tail. As for his hind leg, it is healing nicely now despite fears it was too mangled to save.
Typically though, the group seeks its animals at the shelters with the highest euthanasia rates, finding dogs and cats least likely to be adopted due to age, health, color or breed.
At the moment, they are fostering eight dogs. Spain is fostering Lucky, while Grassroots director Kendra Wright is fostering three and Grassroots associate director Jessica Thompson is fostering two.
Thompson, who, along with Spain, teaches English at Mississippi State University, became involved because she wanted something "more intense" than the two-week fostering she was doing with the Oktibbeha County Humane Society.
"I fostered one dog and then I fostered a gazillion dogs," she says, laughing as she watches Lucky and Taylor wrestle.
They charge $75 for dog adoptions and $50 for cats, with the fee including spaying/neutering and vaccinations.
But for every one adopted, there are millions more who have little hope.
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Wright vividly remembers the night she walked into the city-operated animal shelter in Grenada. A dog, dying of the highly-contagious parvovirus, lay in a pool of blood. Not far away, another was giving birth to six puppies.
Wright estimates approximately 95 percent of the animals in the shelter are euthanized.
"In Grenada, the only hope they have is if they have Grassroots pulling them or people in the community find a (lost) dog," Wright says. "The shelter is out in the middle of nowhere and not everyone knows where it is. It's really a hellhole."
By contrast, other local shelters are filled to capacity and also high-kill, but they are better, Wright says, noting that at the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society, conditions are "sad but they do a good job, the best they can. In Grenada, they're just desensitized."
Statistics last March indicate that in an average month, Columbus-Lowndes receives 120 dogs and 60 cats. Roughly half of those animals are euthanized. Spaying and neutering is the key to saving lives, Spain believes.
"This is such a preventable issue," she says. "These animals don't have to suffer this way."
As spring approaches, the problem only multiplies -- literally.
"It's puppy season, and we will get a lot of calls we can't respond to," Thompson says. "People think puppies are cute, but when they can't get rid of them, it's not so cute."
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Grassroots organizers are hoping that as more people learn about their organization they will feel moved to help also, whether by fostering, adopting or donating funds and supplies.
Leslie Sanchez and Dusty Jones, of Columbus, adopted Taylor's sister, Amory, last month. They were at the dog park in Starkville with their Doberman, Citlali, when they saw her with Wright. Citlali took to the pup immediately and the couple did as well, so they took Amory home for a two-week trial.
"That went so well, we asked for another week, and before we knew it, we were signing adoption papers," Leslie Sanchez says.
She appreciated the background information and level of support Grassroots organizers provided.
"They really just set you up for success," she says. "It was a great experience and we're so grateful we got the perfect dog."
As for Taylor, she has a permanent home now with Spain. It's not unusual for the volunteers to become so fond of their furry charges that they end up keeping them, a situation which they jokingly refer to as "foster fails."
"I get attached so easily, they become part of my family, so when they do have to go, it's hard," Wright says. "But you get excited when they get a home and you get pictures of them with kids and these great families."
The group is now working to raise its visibility through public appearances and special events.
On the last Saturday of every month, at 3 p.m., they will walk foster dogs at the Columbus Riverwalk. They will hold an adoption drive in Mathiston at the Evergreen Ag Center on March 2, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. On March 23, they will be at the Oktibbeha County Co-op for a community-wide adoption event.
"I think it's important to know that as a part of the community in the South, dealing with pet overpopulation, even the few people who try to help can make a big difference," Wright says. "You're saving so many more lives."
For more information, visit grassrootsanimalrescue.com, email [email protected], or find them on Facebook at Grassroots Animal Rescue.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.