Donna Bernardo of Southern California has such a heart for homeless pets that neighbors brought her stray dogs, knowing she would take them in and find them homes. When it was jokingly pointed out that Bernardo was the doggie equivalent to the state’s Child Protective Services agency, she ran with it. In 2001, she founded Doggie Protective Services (DPS).
Functioning as a foster home-style shelter — with a network of foster homes in California and Nevada — DPS fosters, rehabilitates, and rehomes pets the local shelters won’t take. It also takes in owner-surrendered dogs.
However the dogs find their way into the DPS system, most of them are there as a last resort. From a blind Shih Tzu named Winston to a dog-aggressive epileptic pup named Hersey, the organization does exactly what its namesake states: It protects the dogs who have no one else to protect them.
“One day, we were at one of our local animal shelters when we saw a 90-pound purebred black Chow Chow named Chow Mein in one of the cages,” says Tera McCurry, who took Bernardo’s place as the president of DPS in 2008. “Because he had a large caution sign above the door to his cage, we almost walked right past him, but for some reason we stopped for a second. He wasted no time approaching the front of the cage and rubbing against it, but because we were all a bit leery due to the sign, we all jerked backwards when he did that, thinking he was going to try and bite us through the bars.”
Chow Mein didn’t try to bite them, though, and after talking to an animal control officer at the shelter, DPS volunteers learned that the dog hadn’t exhibited any aggressive behavior to the staff to deserve the sign.
“Finally, one of our retired-age volunteers looked at the officer and said, ‘Give me your keys, young man. I’m going in there,’ and he did. Chow Mein went home that day and lived the next 12 years with a family. He grew up with a toddler, cats, and other dogs. He shared his home with hundreds if not thousands of dogs who were fostered in that home. He even went to nursing homes and to preschools. He wasn’t aggressive at all, he was just big and furry. Even in his last days, people still crossed the street when they saw him being walked, just because of how he looked, but he was the most amazing, fantastic dog. He would have died in that shelter without anyone ever knowing how sweet he really was, all because people had judged the book by the cover.”
In addition to helping dogs, DPS also affects the lives of its youngest volunteers, junior high and high school students.
“As much as we love to help our four-legged friends, we often find ourselves making a difference in our two- legged friends. The kids who volunteer with us are the heroes,” says McCurry. “These kids basically invented compassion and kindness and generosity of spirit; they embody it to their core.
McCurry adds, “In today’s world, where you see crazy stories about kids killing each other and using social media to bully and destroy other kids, the kids that volunteer with us defy the odds. They spend their free time talking to potential adopters, gathering donations, posting on social media, and doing anything they can for the good of the animals. They show up weekend after weekend just to find animals homes. They won’t see their names in neon, but they are making a difference in what they do every day, and in turn, they are learning to be good people.”
DPS involvement in its community extends to the adults, as well. McCurry wants everyone, no matter their age, to help solve the homeless pet problem.
“People seem to think that animals that need help are not their responsibility, but that’s not true. They are here, they need help, and we all have a responsibility to them. Our dogs aren’t used. Our dogs aren’t rejects. They just don’t have a home, and as a community we can help them find that.”
Thankfully, the message is being heard. What started with just two foster homes has now expanded to included more than 150 foster families, many of which originally adopted their pet from DPS and now want to give back. Because of the increase in community involvement, DPS is expected to foster and adopt out close to 1,000 pets in 2015.
“The community has been great,” says McCurry. “They are the reason we can even do adoptions and save animals. They come out in full force when there is a greater-than-average need. They talk to neighbors and friends, and they promote our dogs through their social media accounts. We couldn’t function without them!”
In fact, without the community, DPS’ dogs would die, insists McCurry. She says staff recently took in a Labrador named Abby who was so pregnant she looked as if she would burst; neither pregnant dogs nor their puppies have much of a chance of surviving in most shelters. Not long after entering her foster home, she gave birth to 12 puppies. Unfortunately, within three days it was clear that something was wrong with Abby, and after a trip to the vet, she was diagnosed with a severe infection. Unable to nurse her puppies, McCurry received a phone call from the foster mother.
“In an almost a hauntingly calm voice, she very quietly asked, ‘Does that mean I have to bottle feed 12 puppies?’ And indeed it did mean that. For more than four weeks, around the clock, the foster family bottle fed all 12 puppies. During that month, there was very little sleep for them because by the time the last one was fed, the first was hungry again.”
Two months later, and due to the dedication of the foster family, not only was Abby saved, but all 12 puppies were as well. The puppies were adopted out into families who will now carry along their own of message of DPS’s mission.
But what DPS does is not cheap. Aside from the occasional fundraiser, the group is funded almost entirely by adoption fees and community donations. Unfortunately, like most nonprofit organizations that serve an ever-growing population of needy animals, DPS sometimes struggles to have all its needs filled.
“We are always in desperate need of canned food, crates, water bowls, and doggie beds,” says McCurry. “Our van needs a complete overhaul, and beyond that, we are actively searching for people who are willing to transport animals. We can’t help the animals if we can’t get them anywhere. Our biggest needs right now are people who are willing to step up and be emergency foster homes — people who are able to say, ‘Yes, bring them right now while we figure out where they can stay.’
McCurry adds, “We also do not currently have a low-cost spay and neuter option near us, so being able to link up with an organization in the Northern California area would make a huge difference to us, since we currently spend a fortune transporting dogs to and from Southern California. We also need [non-emergency] foster homes; we will never be at a point where we can say, ‘OK, we have enough.’”
After seeing all that DPS does for its community, McCurry hopes people will step forward and fill those needs, just as DPS does for so many — humans and dogs. If you would like to support DPS, check out the organization’s website and its Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.
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About the author: Eden Strong is a quirky young woman with a love for most animals with fur. Read her blog, It Is Not My Shame to Bear.