Jill Jones’ supercharged visual memory haunts her with images of dogs at shelters whose time is almost up. There are dogs whose cages are branded with “Has Heartworm” signs, black dogs, furry guys with huge tumors, blind pups, injured dogs, and senior hounds — all dogs who are less likely to be adopted. She remembers exactly where their cages are and remembers the expressions on their faces.
“It is imprinted in my memory when I see them,” she says. And the memory is imprinted in her heart. She can’t let these special beings die.
Jones, co-founder of Adopt An Angel, along with about 40 other volunteers, visits shelters in and around Wilmington, N.C., and grabs as many of these special needs dogs as possible. The volunteers find ways to fund their medical treatment and then find them homes.
Since 2007, when Jones and other volunteers founded their rescue group, they’ve invested their Saturdays, Sundays, and hearts to their cause, scooping up these dogs from shelters, raising funds, attracting animal-loving supporters, treating and neutering pets, and organizing and staffing adoption fairs at the local Petco.
And their heartfelt efforts, although emotionally exhausting, have paid off. Jones and friends have rescued nearly 8,000 angels in 10 years — mostly dogs and cats.
“The work is heartbreaking. It’s not fun and it’s not glorious. I feel cursed that I care,” she says.
The organization is based in a region of the country characterized by pet overpopulation. In and around Wilmington are three counties with about 300,000 people, but only three pet shelters. Eighty percent of the population doesn’t spay or neuter pets, and in the warm weather, the pets reproduce quickly. As a result of these factors, nearly 7,000 to 8,000 pets die a year in shelters, says Jones.
“There are several small rescue groups scrambling to save as many dogs as we can,” she says.
When Jones and the other volunteers first began, they saw many dogs in shelters branded by signs on their cages as heartworm-positive. Jones and friends helped the dogs by making them “panhandlers,” she says. “We went to the public and raised money for their care. We put cans on their heads, saying, ‘Please donate for my heartworm treatment.’”
Nine-year-old Charlie came to Adopt an Angel with a 16-pound fatty tumor that needed to be removed before he could find a home. Here’s a video of Charlie before the surgery:
The organization raises funds in other ways, too. Some of it comes from online donations. Sometimes, the group organizes fundraisers, with partners like Wilmington Furball and Bow Wow Luau.
“At one point we had 12 heartworm positive dogs in the system. It’s prevalent here because of the mosquitoes. We had a fundraiser by throwing a party at a bar and raised $1,200,” Jones says.
Adopt an Angel doesn’t have a home, but instead is a network of private individuals, boarding facilities, pet stores and vets. Their angels are dogs and cats who would otherwise find no home.
“Typically, we take animals who are at the shelter longest and have been overlooked. These include older, bigger, blacker animals, and sometimes the sick or injured, and almost always the heartworm-positive dogs. We also take those too young for adoption such as nursing kittens and puppies. We made a pact to never overlook black cats and dogs and to absolutely always rescue the mothers when taking in litters,” Jones says.
Jones and friends began their mission with the belief that they were doing a good thing, and that others would step up to help them. That belief became reality. For example, one retired vet treats dogs for heartworm at his cost. That’s a treatment that can cost up to $1,000, depending on the size of the dog.
The dog lovers who step forward don’t adopt the dogs in spite of their problems; they step forward because of them. “They won’t give up on special-needs dogs,” says Jones.
Sometimes, it takes a community to care for a dog before the dog becomes a pet.
Recently, a group of volunteers took turns feeding a Pit Bull with heartworm living in a junkyard. Initially, no foster homes were available. But the dog went blind, and it became clear she could no longer live in the junkyard. Jones asked a man who already had one blind dog if he would take another one, and he said yes. Now, the rescuer of two blind dogs has become an expert in caring for blind dogs.
Not only does Adopt an Angel strive to rescue dogs in shelters, but Jones and friends try to prevent the overpopulation problem at its root cause. They organized and funded a neutering clinic, opened last year, which has neutered 3,000 animals.
Jones doesn’t spend much time focusing on her many accomplishments. Instead, with her keen visual memory driving her, she concentrates on all that she must achieve.
“It’s so heartbreaking to go into shelters, and take a few and leave the rest. It really kills you. Some people say, ‘You can’t save them all.’ For me, that’s a copout. If we keep plugging along and moving forward and getting more people to care, we can save them all,” she says.
Learn more about dogs with Dogster:
About the author: Sarah Lacy and her son, Harrison, are the author and publisher of Bad Dog Bailey! a children’s picture book inspired by their troublesome and lovable family dog.
Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at email@example.com.