Homeless dogs roam Hidalgo Park in Houston’s East End. Attracted by the plentiful water from the park’s sprayground and the adjacent Buffalo Bayou, the dogs serve as a constant reminder of the animal overpopulation and neglect problems in the area.
“It’s a crisis,” says Gloria Medina Zenteno, founder and president of Barrio Dogs Inc.
But she knows not everyone in her community sees it as such. It took leaving the neighborhood for college and a career, then returning with her husband, Javier, to understand the severity and complexity of the situation. Once she did, Barrio Dogs was born.
Founded in 2010, the nonprofit, all-volunteer group — and this week’s Dogster Hero — focuses on community education and outreach in order to change cultural and generational attitudes toward companion animals in the largely Hispanic, low-income area. The group also provides resources to those with pets and facilitates rescues.
Several of its programs are described below.
Youth and Paws
Volunteers for “YAP” visit schools to educate young people about pet care and to help students organize their own fundraising efforts for animal welfare organizations. The group’s Tales to Tails program combines reading lessons with visits from rescue dogs to help struggling readers feel less self-conscious.
“Working with young people is a really big thing for us,” says Zenteno. “If we can reach kids, the whole mindset about animals will change in the future.”
Barrio Dogs for Better Communities
While set-in-their-ways adults do prove more difficult to reach, the group has found success by helping such people to overcome economic issues that lead to less-than-ideal care or outright neglect. Volunteers connect pet owners with local, low-cost veterinarians and provide donated food. They also install fencing to keep dogs from being chained up while outside.
The group partners with Houston’s Spay-Neutering Assistance Program, as well, to provide free services in the East End. As with all assistance they provide, volunteers ask recipients to “pay it forward” by passing out literature and educating their neighbors about proper animal care. That neighbor-to-neighbor communication is vital when working to change cultural attitudes against spaying and neutering pets.
Barrio Watch Dog
Volunteers serve as dispatchers, taking calls in English as well as Spanish from community members who suspect neglect or abuse. The dispatchers offer advice on how to handle the situation and help coordinate reporting it to the proper authorities.
“We’re really trying to empower the community to take ownership themselves and to make a change,” says Zenteno.
Barrio Therapy Dogs
Dogs rescued by the group also serve as therapy dogs in the community, visiting nursing homes, children’s homeless shelters, and hospitals. The dogs’ stories of survival inspire those they visit.
The group also facilitates rescues when it can, but it currently has a freeze on accepting new animals. It needs to find homes for the 25 dogs in its care, including several taken in during a recent fundraiser in Hidalgo Park.
“Despite not being a rescue, we’re really proud that we’ve vetted and helped close to 300 dogs in 2½ years,” says Zenteno.
Among the dogs still looking for forever homes are:
Copper: Found in a dumpster at a paint store, Copper was starving, dehydrated and suffering from several medical conditions. He has been with Barrio Dogs longer than any other rescue because of the time it took for him to recover, but Zenteno says the 2½ -year-old would make the perfect pet for a family without other male dogs or cats.
Willow: A neighbor reported Willow’s situation — she was kept in filthy conditions and rarely fed — through the Barrio Watch Dog program. By the time police arrived, her owner was gone and the landlord had dumped the dog out front. The group got Willow the veterinary care she needed and placed her in a foster home. She will be available for adoption once she puts on enough weight to be spayed. Zenteno estimates her age at around 2 years.
Boarding dogs not in foster homes is one of the group’s biggest expenses. Barrio Dogs raises money through a variety methods, many of which involve Houston-area musicians such as Norma Zenteno, Javier’s sister, with whom he performs as a drummer. The singer-songwriter has written two songs in honor of the group’s efforts, Help the Barrio Dogs and We’ll Be the Ones to Make a Change.
Zenteno, who was recently honored with the 2012 Mayor’s Volunteer Houston Award, appreciates all the efforts by volunteers and community members in working to change the lives of animals in Houston’s East End, and she has big plans for the group’s future.
“In five years, I would love to have a youth center, where kids can come and learn about animal care and interact with rescue dogs,” she says.
Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.