When Rachel Meier started a new job in Rome, Georgia, it wasn’t long before she suspected that something was “off” in the neighborhood behind her workplace.
“I’d walk out to my car every day and would hear lots of dogs barking, at least 10 different dogs,” Rachel said. “I didn’t think it was normal, so I got in my car and started driving around, and I was like, oh my God!”
As a four-year volunteer cat rescuer with Angels Among Us Pet Rescue in Atlanta, Rachel has seen her fair share of animal abuse and neglect, but she wasn’t prepared for what she witnessed that day — dozens of skinny, chained dogs with no food, water, or shelter, and tons of thin, scruffy cats. With winter just around the corner, Rachel knew she had to do something to help these desperate animals, and fast.
In case you haven’t heard of Rome, it’s a small, rural city 65 miles northwest of Atlanta with a large working-class population. Twenty percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. And if people aren’t able to provide for themselves, it’s likely they’re not properly caring for their pets. Such was the case in the area where Rachel worked.
Without missing a beat, the young rescuer enlisted one of her AAU cohorts, purchased some straw bales and bags of pet food, and began canvasing the neighborhood, knocking on doors and offering supplies to anyone who needed them. Thanks to the two women, several dogs and cats had softer places to sleep and full bellies that night, but Rachel knew that one act of kindness wasn’t going to suffice — there was too much need. With visions of all those neglected dogs and cats haunting her thoughts, she went home and began rallying her fellow rescuers. And thus, the Rome outreach and rescue mission was born.
By the time Rachel was ready to make her second and third visits to the area, fellow volunteers Danielle Kramer, Monica Wesolowski, and Jennifer Naujokas were on board. Once they witnessed the desperate state of the animals, they also became committed to the burgeoning relief mission. But in order to pay for all the pet supplies the impoverished community desperately needed, the group had to find funding. Enter the magic of social media.
“We started posting on Facebook among our circle of Angels volunteers asking for donations, emailing, and calling folks, and contacting local (pet supply) stores,” Danielle explained. “We asked PetSmart and Petco for expired food and began working with Tractor Supply Co. — which gave us a huge box of toys, cedar shavings, flea and tick treatments, and de-wormers — and started stockpiling supplies.”
Once word spread of the Rome effort, more AAU volunteers were offering to pitch in, and before long the group was a dozen strong. Five outreach visits later, the group has rescued 40 dogs and helped approximately 100 animals, Danielle said proudly.
As a longtime admirer of its efforts, I jumped at the chance to join the outreach group on a recent trip to Rome. It was inspiring to be in the company of such generous, compassionate individuals who love animals as much as I do, people more than willing to get up early on a weekend and devote an entire day to helping pets in need.
Our mission was simple: Visit 15 to 20 homes in three neighborhoods and make the world a better place for the animals who lived there. And from the moment our caravan arrived at the first neighborhood, our trucks and SUVs packed to the gills with pet food and supplies, it became glaringly obvious why this ongoing outreach mission is so important.
In most disadvantaged communities here in the South, I imagine that many animals live pretty much the same way as they do in the low-income neighborhoods of Rome. While there were a few exceptions, the majority of the dogs we visited lived on chains, often in trash-littered, overgrown backyards. Forget about being a beloved member of a family — most of these dogs receive little or no human interaction, with nothing to comfort them except maybe a dilapidated, makeshift doghouse if they’re lucky.
While most of the dogs were initially defensive when we approached (being tethered makes dogs more aggressive and protective of their space), once they realized we were there to give them food and attention, many melted into friendly puddles of wiggling, wagging, squealing bundles of love, simply starving for attention.
“This effort is so important to me because I’ve seen a change in these animals,” Rachel said. “I’ve seen ‘ferocious’ dogs turn into playful puppies, and sad, frightened puppies turn into happy, bouncing, playful things. I believe every animal has a soul and every creature deserves love and happiness, so I want to bring it to these poor souls in any way that I can. They deserve better than what they were dealt, and if I can’t physically remove them and place them in a better situation, then I at least want to better their lives in some way.”
As we slowly drove through the neighborhoods, stopping at homes and meeting with pet owners the group had established relationships with on previous visits, several people came out of their small, rundown homes to greet us. Most asked for dog or cat food and appeared genuinely appreciative.
Meanwhile, Rachel moved about with laser-like focus, calling out for different supplies, double-checking that every household got what they needed, and making note of what she’d need to bring next time. Meanwhile, Danielle and Jennifer engaged with the people, sometimes advising them about proper pet care without sounding judgmental or superior. I was so impressed with their patience and restraint.
“A lot of these people are very receptive [to the information we give them], but you do have to be very careful how you educate them because we are guests in their neighborhood and no matter what your personal emotions are about something, you have to speak to them with respect,” Danielle asserted.
As the morning turned to mid-day, it seemed like every house we visited either had a tethered, sick, injured, pregnant, or nursing animal. Even though low-cost spay and neuter is available in many communities here in Georgia, few of these people seemed to know about those services or simply hadn’t taken advantage of them. As a result, some homes we visited were simply overwhelmed with animals. One house had two female dogs who had given birth a couple of weeks apart, resulting in 13 canines under one roof, and another family had been living with 15 small dogs in a tiny, 800-square-foot house.
Once the latter family agreed to surrender five of their dogs to us, Jennifer and Danielle began a flurry of text messages, trying to find foster placement for the scruffy terrier mixes. Foster homes secured, we loaded the four little dogs and one puppy into crates and packed them in the back of Jennifer’s SUV, quietly jubilant that they were now headed for much better prospects.
The rest of the day became a blur of more dogs on chains, more animals with litters or litters on the way, and thin, unsterilized cats running around everywhere, one of them with a badly ulcerated eye. We offered to take the cat for veterinary care and rehoming, but the owner didn’t want to part with his pet.
I must admit it was challenging not to feel animosity toward the people we met for the neglect we saw, house after house, street after street. But once you started talking with them and looking into their eyes, you realized that most of them cared about their pets but just didn’t know any better or simply couldn’t afford to do anything more than what they were doing. The primarily unintentional cruelty we were witnessing was simply a side effect of poverty and ignorance. Surely these people deserved our understanding and compassion, too.
But as I looked around and watched all these wonderful volunteers bedding down new doghouses with straw, pouring fresh water into bowls, petting grimy canines, and spooning cat food into bowls for hoards of hungry kitties, I had to wonder, when does this end? As long as these people are living in poverty, so will their animals. Wasn’t this mission like putting a Band-Aid over a much deeper, larger wound?
“I would like to see tethering laws as well as laws for spaying and neutering to end the vicious cycle of overpopulation, euthanasia, and homelessness, but until that happens I will continue to help,” Rachel said. “I have an amazing group of people who help me tremendously, from monetary, food, toy, and medication donations to physically going out here and ‘getting dirty.’ So as long as I have their support and I can physically and mentally do this, I will.”
As the day wound to a close, I felt physically and emotionally drained. How many more sad, lonely pit bulls would I see chained in feces-littered backyards, leaping excitedly at the prospect of just a few moments of human attention? I wanted to save every one of them from their bleak situations, picturing them in loving homes where they would be safe, cared for, and spoiled.
“Not everybody can do this,” Danielle told me frankly. “You have to be emotionally able to handle what you’re going to see and be mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I would welcome anybody who would want to come out and do this, but when people ask me about it, I’m very honest with them. It’s a great feeling to be helping and bringing supplies, and even though you can’t take that dog, you’re making the dog’s life as comfortable as you can. But the hardest part is when you’ve got to walk away and you see those eyes looking at you like, ‘Come back!’ That’s the part that can haunt you.”
While I am indeed haunted by some of those faces, I am grateful for my experience with the Rome outreach group. I walked away with a new perspective and a better understanding of what frontline rescuers are up against in this region, especially in disadvantaged communities where animal husbandry appears to be several decades behind the times.
“The biggest thing for Rome right now would be anti-tethering laws,” said Danielle. “Either you bring your animal inside or you don’t have one or you’re going to keep getting cited and fined, which a lot of these folks can’t afford. That’s where it will start — they’ll have to be held accountable for how they treat their animals. So it’s baby steps toward a bigger picture, that’s what this mission is.”
The Rome outreach and rescue group will be carrying out its sixth relief mission on Saturday, May 30, and is seeking funds to purchase pet food and supplies. If you’d like to support this amazing group in its tireless effort help these needy animals, please visit the group’s GoFundMe page — every little bit helps! You can also read a longer version of this story here.
Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at email@example.com.
Read more about dog lovers making a difference:
About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, she is especially focused on using her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website.