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We Chat With Emmylou Harris About Her “Shelter Me” Episode on PBS

The latest installment of the TV show focuses on the Grammy-winning country music star and her dog rescue, Bonaparte's Retreat.

Meghan Lodge  |  Oct 1st 2015


Dogster_Heroes_award1_small_19_0_0_3_1_0Shelter Me has been melting hearts since its premiere on PBS in 2012. Partners for Life, the latest installment in the documentary series about shelter pets, focuses on 12-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris and the work she does through her dog rescue, Bonaparte’s Retreat. She is currently on tour, but we caught up with Harris to get the inside scoop on the rescue, how she also helps underprivileged youth, and the episode about her, hosted by Jon Hamm and airing throughout the month of October.

The music legend’s love of dogs can be traced back to her childhood, which she shared with a little Cocker Spaniel named Dutchess. Dutchess passed away at age 13, when Harris was 17. Not long after, she found herself wrapped up in her career and didn’t think there was time for a dog.

“I thought I couldn’t [have a dog],” she said. All of that changed when she met Bonaparte, a big, black, hairy rescue pup who won her heart and spent 10 years on tour with her. “I just said to him, ‘Hop on the bus,’ and he did. He was a great traveling dog, whether it was on the bus, backstage, or in hotels.”

Emmylou Harris poses with Bella and Kita. (Photo by Ralph Anderson / Southern Living)

Emmylou Harris poses with her dogs Bella and Kita. (Photo by Ralph Anderson / Southern Living)

After Bonaparte died suddenly in 2002, Harris didn’t think she’d have another dog. She still had dogs in her life — her mother, Eugenia, lived with her for 21 years and brought along her dog, Ernie. The singer wanted to do more, though, so she decided to open a dog rescue at her home. “I had this big yard in Nashville, and I’m not a tennis player or swimmer,” Harris said. “I was meant to build a small dog rescue.”

She named it Bonaparte’s Retreat in honor of her beloved dog. Harris adopted one of the first dogs who came to the rescue, a yellow dog named Kita who has also turned out to be a great travel companion.

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Emmylou Harris and Bonaparte. (Photo courtesy Bonaparte’s Retreat)

Bonaparte’s Retreat pulls dogs primarily from Metro Nashville Animal Control Services. At first, it was hard for Harris to look at the shelter dogs because there were so many needing homes. “I just asked, ‘Which dog is next in line [to be euthanized], and they pointed to Bella,” she said.

Bella was a senior dog, big and black with gray around her muzzle. Harris’ intention was to find Bella a home, but it wasn’t long before “those big brown eyes got her into the big house.”

Harris’ experience with Bella inspired her song, “Big Black Dog,” which she wrote to help shelter dogs touch people’s hearts in a new way. She does not currently have any other songs about dogs in the works, but it’s definitely not out of the question!

Even on tour, Harris has a dog schedule to adhere to. “The thing about dogs is you have a routine whether you want it or not,” she said. “Between 6 to 6:30, [Kita] gets me up. We take lots of walks. There’s something about the routine of a dog that’s healthy.”

Harris has also been reading David B. Agus’s book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, which includes the advice to get a dog to live a longer, healthier life. “They’re a wonderful part of our lives,” she said. “They make us more human. They make you more engaged and put you in the moment.”

Photo Credit: Peter Nash / portraitsinfur.com

Emmylou Harris with Kita and Bella. (Photo by Peter Nash / portraitsinfur.com)

Harris credits her work with dogs for giving her life a higher level of satisfaction. “There’s so much joy in knowing these dogs are safe,” she said. “The memories of all the dogs we’ve found homes for are wonderful.”

She loves to step out her kitchen door and just soak in the dog love from the rescue dogs at Bonaparte’s Retreat. They receive so much more than just food, water, and shelter; they are constantly given that human interaction they need and desire. “They’re really loved and taken care of,” Harris said, praising her employees and volunteer staff for the excellent job they do taking care of the dogs.

Besides her work at Bonaparte’s Retreat, Harris is also a member of the board at Crossroads Campus, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless animals and young people facing adversity in the community. It has a pet store and an adoption center, and the organization offers job training and a residential program, the latter to help the homeless youth or those in danger of becoming homeless. “It can be so healing,” Harris said. “It’s so rewarding for the young people, and it becomes an important part of the community.”

Harris and the rest of the Crossroads Campus crew hope to grow the program in the future and for it to serve as a blueprint for other cities to follow in their own communities. Its inclusion in this Shelter Me episode, which also will include segments on fostering and on law enforcement agencies recruiting shelter dogs for their K9 units, should help with that goal.

Crossroads Campus and Bonaparte’s Retreat both encourage the human/canine bond and support spay/neuter efforts. “You’re eliminating so much pain and suffering by spay/neutering,” Harris said. “It’s ALL preventable.”

She plans to continue saving dogs in her community, and she encourages people to make adoption their first option. “Dogs enrich the lives of the people who adopted them,” she says. “There’s no greater reward than to work in dog rescue.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Shelter Me: Partners for Life, hosted by Jon Hamm, airs throughout October on your local PBS station.

Read more about Shelter Me:

About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.