For the last thirty years, since Leonika started Lawrence County Humane Society-Louisa, KY, (now known as OPEN ARMS Animal Shelter) with her friend Betty (who recently passed at age 95), they have saved all the animals entrusted to their care. It’s an impressive history, but one dependent on a few dedicated people dragging their county along behind them. And the frightening part is that with Betty gone, all the burden is left to Leonika.
Each year, the shelter saves about 400 dogs and even more cats on their $100,000 budget. They receive $1800 a month from the county, but the rest has to be raised by donations. Too often when they run short and need something, it’s Leonika who pays out of her own pocket.
Open Arms is a small shelter with room for just 10-20 dogs (and a similar number of cats, plus a pack of feral cats), on 1.5 acres donated by Kentucky Power. They contract with the county, so the animals come in through the animal control officer, plus special circumstances and emergencies. They only take owner surrenders if they have room.
When they don’t have room, Leonika doesn’t simply turn people away. Instead, she calls on Karen, a volunteer and vice-president of the shelter who also runs a foster-based rescue, Pleasant Springs Farm Animal Rescue Inc.
Pleasant Springs takes many of the medical cases and most of the puppies that turn up at the shelter. In 2021, Pleasant Springs Farm Animal Rescue saved 1042 dogs and puppies, many of those from the shelter. Karen is another one of those rescue heroes who drives a car purchased for transporting animals, spends her days rescuing, and spends all her time and money on animals that are not her own.
There was a time when dogs were adopted out locally, but for the last ten years, the shelter has primarily saved dogs through rescues.
Leonika has dedicated her life to this place, and it shows in the quality of care. All the animals are vaccinated and dewormed on intake, and no animal leaves without being spayed/neutered. Leonika is firm on that, and always has been.
Between Leonika and Open Arms Shelter, and Karen and Pleasant Spring Farm Animal Rescue, they continue to save the unwanted animals of Lawrence County, but they are completely dependent on rescues.
This is not a sustainable situation, but it is one that we encounter almost everywhere we go: Incredible heroes (mostly middle-aged and older women) sacrificing everything to save the animals, and counties who count on them with no plan for what happens when they can no longer continue to rescue (or the rescue connections dry up).
I asked Leonika how we solve this, and she shook her head. She said that too many people don’t care. They don’t value the animals; they don’t prioritize spay/neuter; they expect the shelter to deal with animals they don’t want anymore. We talked about the next generation and the great hope that they will be the ones who change this story. Someone needs to change it, she insisted.
Animal Shelter professionals see the worst of the worst, and I try to remember that. They take the hard stuff on their hearts and those hearts get heavy.
Still, I believe that we can change the narrative. People DO care and if they knew what was happening in our shelters, they would demand change. That’s why we travel to the shelters; that’s why I write their stories, why Nancy takes so many pictures, and why so many volunteers are joining us to raise awareness and resources. (You can too – click here for our volunteer application.)
The legacy of people like Leonika and Betty is that they started us on the path to change, but we must continue to walk it, and to help them. These animals matter. And these heroes who give so much matter too.
Things are good for the animals of Lawrence County right now, but that’s because of the relentless sacrificial work of people like Betty and Leonika and Karen. AND because of rescues who continue to pull dogs. But who comes after them? And how do we change hearts and minds?
We do it by talking about it, by acknowledging what is happening, by supporting the work of Open Arms Shelter and Pleasant Springs Farms Rescue, and by sharing their story. If we could spay/neuter or rescue ourselves into a solution, that would have happened by now. What we have to change is the value we, and our elected officials, place on animals. We domesticated these creatures and they are our responsibility.
Thirty years is a long time in rescue. The number of lives Leonika and Betty have saved must be in the tens of thousands by now. What a testament. But there are lives still to save. Please help us share their story. We CAN let the dogs out. We can change the narrative. It’s happened in so many parts of this country. It will happen here too.
This weekend, volunteers with Who Will Let the Dogs Out, along with Tails of Hope and For Otis’ Sake will be traveling to Cowen, West Virginia, to help Saving Webster Dogs. SWD is another example of a private rescue doing the county’s job and is completely dependent on one individual citizen (unfunded by the county). As we work to vaccinate, deworm, and document the 100+ dogs, and build kennels, a watering system, and medical treatment space, I know I will be wondering, “What if…?”
It’s what I often think when I visit so many of these shelters—What if something happens to this individual who is responsible for saving all these lives? What will happen to the dogs then?
We must and we can do better. If you’d like to see some of the work at Saving Webster Dogs this weekend, follow our Facebook and Instagram pages where we’ll be sharing live videos and details of the work accomplished. And please, tell someone. That’s the only way this situation changes.
We are a dog-loving nation and we can solve these problems. It’s simply a matter of deciding to do it.
If you’d like to donate to the work at Open Arms Shelter or Pleasant Spring Farms Animal Rescue, here are a few options:
Follow Open Arms Shelter on Facebook. You can also find them on Facebook under Lawrence County Humane Society- Louisa, KY (there is a Lawrence County Humane Society in Ohio too, so be sure you found the correct one!).
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.