“I hope this isn’t some wild-goose chase,” I warned Nancy as we headed south from Montgomery to visit our next shelter on the tour.
I’d heard about SHARK (Safe Haven Animal Rescue Kennel) from a Humane Society representative. I’d asked her about shelters further south in Alabama and her immediate response was, “You have to go see SHARK. You won’t believe it.”
She was right.
As we drove south on Thursday afternoon, tired and overwhelmed by all we’d already seen, I wondered if this eight-hour detour to Abbeville, Alabama was a mistake.
It wasn’t. In fact, it was quite possibly the most inspiring experience of the entire trip, which is saying something because we met some amazing people on this journey.
SHARK’s director is Dave Rice, a 76-year-old disabled veteran. He is trained and certified as an Animal Control Officer, but the county doesn’t give him a salary. He says it’s because he’s too old. He’s supposed to bill them $10 for each call, but he doesn’t bother. The county gives him a $1000 annual stipend and the city $1200 to pay for the dogs in his care. Currently, there are 78.
Even if you don’t make regular forays to the pet store for dog food, you can guess how far $2200 will go towards his annual grocery bill. Dave’s latest vet bill was $27,000 (and no that isn’t an extra zero).
“We always pay it,” he says. “We find a way. The people around here are good folks.”
Dave took over animal control when the county shut down the shelter and fired the former ACO. Dave had been a volunteer, but couldn’t let his “lambs” suffer, so he stepped up and helped form SHARK.
Dave calls his dogs, mostly bully mixes, his lambs – Lower Alabama Mixed Breeds. As we followed him through the kennels and met the dogs, I’d have to agree, they were lambs. Big lambs, but sweethearts, every single one.
The first kennel we visited was the original pound, located at the landfill (a common and convenient location for many dog pounds, we’ve discovered). It was a set of 10 chainlink kennels on a concrete slab with a roof and shades partially covering the sides.
These are the special needs dogs, Dave explained. He takes care of them himself. They either have a health issue that needs tending too, or they are waiting for a space to open up in the main kennel. SHARK outgrew that space instantly and now keeps the dogs in four locations, but Dave recently sold his business (restoring classic cars) and donated the land so that SHARK can build one facility for all the dogs.
The county allowed SHARK to build the main kennel on a spot at the landfill between the old dumping ground that has been covered and ventilated and the area where trash is currently being dumped. SHARK built the wooden pavilion-like structure that covers about twenty large indoor/outdoor kennels. It’s surrounded by a large fenced-in area that allows the dogs a place to run and play while their kennels are being cleaned. A committed group of (mostly) retired residents volunteer daily to care for the dogs at the main kennel, getting all of them out for walks twice a day.
As we approached the kennel, the dog chorus began, the lambs clearly thrilled to see Dave. After he’d introduced us to all of them, the most remarkable thing happened. The dogs grew quiet, waiting and watching Dave as if hanging on his every word. They were happy and healthy and certainly loved, but as Dave explained their only way out of the landfill is through rescue. A local adoption is rare. All of the dogs were picked up as strays and seldom does anyone come looking for their missing dog.
SHARK makes sure every dog that leaves is spay/neutered, vaccinated and healthy. Dave, like all the other shelter directors we’ve met, keeps a vast list of rescues and works the phones trying to find placements. He drives dogs as far as Maine or Minnesota to deliver them to safety.
In previous years, SHARK has taken in about six to seven hundred dogs. This year, Dave tells me, they just took in their 1107th dog. So many in this country believe that we are winning this battle of homeless dogs, that the numbers are going down and we are killing fewer shelter animals, but once again I’m reminded that we are not. If not for Dave and SHARK, all of these animals would have found their way to the landfill, and not to be lovingly cared for by devoted volunteers until they can be safely transported to new homes.
In Alabama, the law dictates that each county ‘provide a suitable county pound and impounding officer for the impoundment of dogs, cats, and ferrets found running at large.’
I’m not sure how the ferrets made the cut (and I have yet to see a ferret at a pound in Alabama), but I talked to one official in Alabama who told me that at least one-third of the counties are not in compliance with this law. They simply don’t have the money to provide a pound or the current leadership doesn’t choose to allocate funds for it.
The law does allow for counties without a pound to ‘contribute their pro-rata share to the staffing and upkeep of the county pound.’ Henry County, where SHARK is located, is 568 square miles, but I imagine some of their animals come from surrounding counties that also have no pound, and no dedicated group like SHARK to shepherd their lambs.
Dave has a New England accent and hails from a town near Cape Cod. I asked him how he ended up in Alabama and he told us that he and his wife tried to retire to Florida, but once there realized it wasn’t the life for them. They decided to move further north and ‘threw a dart at the map’ and it landed on a little town in Tennessee. On their way there, they encountered some bad weather as they were passing through Henry County, so they stopped for the night. They’ve been here ever since.
I asked Dave what the average stay is for one of his lambs and he said, “Oh, not that long, about four and a half months.”
At our request, he let out one of his longer residents so we could make a video. Lola is a sweetheart with a big smile and lots of happy energy. She is a little fireplug of a pup with a likely bulldog heritage, you can hear that familiar snuffling in the video.
Before we left, we unloaded a bunch of donations since SHARK relies on donations for everything. I asked Dave what I asked every director, “How do we fix this? How can we help?”
He said he is always hopeful that a new board of directors in their county will decide to fix this, but mostly what SHARK needs and the lambs need is more awareness and more exposure so that people realize they are here, deep in the dump of Henry County.
For a man who quite definitely sees the worst of the worst, Dave is upbeat and positive and so, so inspiring. If you’d like to help, you can send a donation to SHARK via paypal (paypal.me/SHARK37) or mail it to P.O. Box 126, Abbeville, AL 36310.
If you’d like to keep up with Dave and SHARK, be sure to like them on Facebook and join their Facebook group for friends of SHARK.
But if you’d really like to help Dave and the lambs, please share his story, tell someone. It’s a long way to the bottom of Alabama; we battled a bug storm (truly) to get there, so I can see why they might feel forgotten down here. But we can’t forget. They need our help. This battle to end the suffering and killing of adoptable dogs is far, far from over.
[Note: this morning as I prepared this post, I got a message from Dave with pictures of the dogs he took in yesterday, click here to see them.]
I keep saying it and I won’t stop saying it—this is fixable, but people need to know. Awareness is the first step towards change. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s that they don’t know. We have to tell them.
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Until every cage is empty,