In early September, we spent a day with Lisa Shedd, founder of HAWS-Helping Animals Without Shelter just outside Huntsville, Alabama in Madison County. We joined Lisa and volunteers Chris and Karen to build an enclosure for a brindle pittie named Jaeger.
When Lisa introduced us to the chunky chocolate-peanut butter colored pitbull, she explained, “He’s in trouble with the law.”
This is how many of HAWS cases begin—a dog in trouble. After reports of a loose dog from neighbors, Animal Control came out to discover Jaeger has escaped his chain. Instead of impounding the dog at the crowded shelter and fining his owners (who would also have to pay a fee to retrieve him), Animal Control calls Lisa and HAWS to see if they could help.
This is a win-win-win scenario for the shelter, the dog, and the dog’s owners. Like so many shelters, the Madison County shelter does not need one more pit bull in its crowded kennels, Jaeger is much better off not being traumatized by a shelter stay, and with education and assistance his owners can keep their dog safe.
HAWS builds enclosures like the one we built that day or puts the dog on a trolley line (an impressive safe heavy-duty system that Lisa has designed and perfected over the years that includes custom-made hardware). They provide a dog house (required by state law for dogs living outside), bedding, water/food dishes, and assist the owner in having the dog spayed/neutered and vaccinated.
Until HAWS arrived on the scene, Jaeger was running loose outside the rental house on a busy road. There had been attempts to chain him, but often he got loose endangering his life and irritating the neighbors.
When we met him, Jaeger was wary, but we wooed him with chicken jerky treats and respectful distance. By the end of the day, he was rolling over for belly rubs and knocking my shins when I stopped petting him.
HAWS two purposes are to help animals without shelter (as their name says) and to offer education and assistance with spay/neuter service. (Yaeger was headed for his neuter appointment the following week.) We spent one warm day in September with Lisa and her team which that day consisted of Karen (who can’t wait to retire so she can help HAWS full time) and Chris, a skilled volunteer whose tools and know-how definitely came in handy.
Lisa is a retired CPA who works HAWS full time (for no salary). A lot of days when all her volunteers are working their ‘real’ jobs, she puts up enclosures like the 20’ x 20’ one we helped assemble by herself.
Lisa is strong, positive can-do person with vast reserves of energy and patience. She seems to take the physical effort and the emotional toll of dealing with challenging situations in stride. We watched her reassess and pivot all day as she balanced the family situation, the needs of Yaeger, and the reality of what HAWS could and couldn’t do to help. Lisa is a runner and cyclist, but the hard physical labor of building pens and putting up trolley lines, hauling food, dog houses, and bedding, obviously keep her in shape too.
Over the course of a year, HAWS may assist with 450 animals, in addition to the roster of at least 70 dogs Lisa checks on regularly replenishing bedding, dropping off food when needed, tweaking trolley systems, and offering help and advice.
Keeping a dog safe is the main goal, but HAWS also stresses education. Many of the people they help lack basic knowledge about dog care and why it’s essential to spay and neuter their pet. Lisa brings coloring and activity books for the kids so that she can educate the next generation and hopefully put herself out of a job.
Lisa explained they decide on a solution for each dog after they’ve met with the family, seen the property, and assessed the situation. If the family seems able to take on the responsibility of caring for their dog, they often put the dog on her custom ‘trolley system. It’s secure and safe and gives the dog more freedom, as long as the family follows her instructions.
In cases like Yaeger’s, where there isn’t a consistent caregiver or daily presence, the pen was the best option.
At the end of our day with Yaeger, he had a spacious new enclosure with shade and shelter, a water bucket (secured to the fence), a food bucket, a personal pool, and a big KONG toy. Lisa would come back later with straw for bedding. The pen is made from large six-foot panels and secured with another wrap of dog wire around the bottom. Yaeger lives next to a busy highway, so it’s critical that he not escape.
When we showed him his new digs, Jaeger seemed pretty content; he’ll be safe and secure and it seemed like he understood that.
HAWS spays and neuters over 350 animals every year (since they began in 2017). They locate dogs in need often by word of mouth or Animal Control. The back of their shirts says, “No judgment, just help,” and that’s exactly what they offer every day. They reminded me of a rural version of All 4s Animal Rescue in Memphis.
HAWS is an 501c3 Nonprofit and they operate solely on donations. One trolley system costs about $100 and a dog house costs as much as $150. Every penny goes to help dogs without shelters and to pay for spay/neuter and other medical expenses. They scour Facebook and Yard Sales to buy fence panels and dog houses, and the hardware they need to build enclosures.
These people know how to stretch a buck. There are no paid staff. They operate on huge hearts and a passion to help animals in need.
It’s been two months since we helped put up Jaeger’s pen, so I checked in with Lisa to see how things are going. “This time of year we focus on making sure dogs have the proper shelter and bedding to keep them comfortable in the colder, wet winter temperatures and getting their dog houses up on pavers to keep the water from the rain from rolling in.”
She said Jaeger is doing well in his pen. I asked how people could help and she said, “If people want to help they can donate to buy wheat straw, pavers to put dog houses on and good used or new large and extra large dog houses.”
You can find more information and donate at https://www.hawshelp.com/. If you’re local to Huntsville, HAWS is always looking for more volunteers and encourage people to fill out an application through the website.
Reflecting on our day with HAWS, I wondered what people in the north would think of this operation. Dogs living outside 24/7 is foreign to many of us, but in the south it is a way of life. Instead of trying to change behaviors that are entrenched, operations like HAWS and All 4’s focus on the dog—how can we help this dog in this situation in this moment?
Sure, we’d all prefer that the laws were different, and that people thought differently, but until that happens I’m just grateful for people like Lisa Shedd and organizations like HAWS who bring comfort and security to a dog who may have never experienced it, and more than that, who educate through example and assistance without judgment.
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 a short documentary film we produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for fourteen 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.
You can support our work with the purchase of one of our 2022 Great American Shelter Dog calendars. Click here to get yours! (Jaeger is one of our calendar dogs!)