Mark McDermott

No Dog Left Behind: 786 dogs saved from nearly certain death

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Cathy Rubin and Rover Rescue have saved 786 dogs from nearly certain death. Her mission is to find a home for every dog.

There are rooms in animal shelters where the dogs that are too injured, sick or unsightly are caged.

While most shelter dogs have some chance that someone might come and take them home, these dogs have almost no such hope. They have been deemed officially “unadoptable.” Nobody will see them, and within days they will be euthanized.

Vinnie was one such dog. He was a seven pound, year-old Chihuahua and Terrier mix who’d been hit by a car and brought to the Los Angeles County animal shelter in Carson. He had a broken pelvis, a shattered knee, and a day or two left when he received a rare visitor.

Cathy Rubin is one of the few people who visit these abject rooms. She is the founder and driving force behind Rover Rescue, a non-profit organization based in her Redondo Beach home whose stated mission is to “make sure every dog has a home.” A hundred such organizations exist in the Los Angeles area, but Rover Rescue is extremely unusual in that it makes a regular practice of saving the unadoptable.

When Rubin walked over to Vinnie’s cage, the broken little dog did something remarkable.

“Despite the fact he could hardly walk because of his broken hip and knee, he gave it his all to come over and see me,” Rubin recalled. “It was like, how can I leave that behind? He was dragging his leg just to say hello…I just thought that was so courageous. He was so brave.”

And so Vinnie became one in a long line of what veterinarian Teresa Benton calls Rubin’s “diamond in the rough” dogs – those who are saved from the brink and brought back to health and happiness. Since she founded Rover Rescue five years ago, Rubin has saved and found homes for 786 dogs. Half have come from the back rooms of shelters.

Every dog, as Rubin says, has a story.

They are dogs like Monty, a terrier/poodle mix who had lost all his hair to mange (“We didn’t know what kind of dog it was because it was hairless,” Rubin said) and who, after he was adopted, helped his new owner make it through a bout with breast cancer. That owner, Kathy Cross, said that when she was bedridden, Monty would bring his toys up to her bed and help her take the focus off herself and her illness.

“He has just been a joy to us,” Cross said. “He kept our family together, more or less, during chemotherapy…He had my 84-year-old father out walking him. The rest of the day he spent with me. The funny part is that when my hair grew back, it was kinky and curly. So it turns out Monty and I have the same hair now. I call it my Monty cut. He’s been a savior.”

Or Murphy, a young Wheaton terrier who had scabs on his face from mange and suffered so-called “kennel cough,” a contagious stress-related cough that spells doom for shelter dogs because they are forced into isolation. He had also been spray painted purple either by previous owners or by taunting strangers during his period of homelessness. First Murphy had a long hospital stay in which his cough and mange were cured; then he had what Cathy calls a “beauty makeover,” in which his hair was fancily groomed. “He was so happy, jumping up and down, like ‘This feels so much better,’ and then he wanted to jog with me,” Rubin said.

Dr. Benton, who has a practice at the Plaza del Amo Animal hospital, has marveled at the dogs Rubin has brought her over the years.

“When these dogs are at the shelter, they are at their worst, dirty, stressed, and oftentimes sick,” she said. “What Cathy does with Rover Rescue is get them cleaned up and healthy, and she gets them in a stable situation because she has a good network of foster people. How she can somehow pick out those dogs that are going to have a good personality and be a good pet I don’t know. You can say there are certain dogs people like, like Doxins, little sweet dogs, but those are not the dogs she picks up at the back of these county shelters. They have green goop coming from their noses and they’ve either been abused or neglected. They look and feel like hell and they go through this transformation, it’s like extreme makeover, dog version. There are a lot of groups out there that do a good job, but there is something about her that takes it to a level that is kind of staggering.”

When Rubin goes into the back rooms, she has an idea of what she is looking for. She is able to see past the squalor and somehow assess each dog. She takes them out of the cage and just sits for a while in their company. As the dogs relax, more often then not, they end up in her lap. Most dogs, after all, really want something utterly simple from life –they want to find, so to speak,  someone to love. They want to be friends.

“I look for dogs with a good temperament,” Rubin said. “A lot of them have this look of love in their eyes. I look in their eyes and a lot of times they have this sweetness that is kind of irresistible…And I just think most people don’t have the vision to know how wonderful they are going to look. People start flocking to them once they are groomed. They look like little show dogs.”

Benton calls Rubin’s ability to see past the broken jaws, scabs, sicknesses, and lethargy dogs sometimes suffer in confinement a “sixth sense” of sorts.

“It’s so hard on these animals,” Benton said. “She really is like the Mother Teresa of dogs, going to the Calcutta of the dog world.”

A calling

Rubin has had an affinity for animals all her life. She remembers taking a keen interest in the urban wildlife around her as she was growing up in Los Angeles.

“I rescued a lot of injured lizards,” she said. “And oh my goodness, there was this injured bird when I was five years old….Also, my parents were compassionate people. They always helped me nurse whatever animal I had back to health.”

She eventually went to college at Bucknell University as an undergraduate and obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego. She had her own private practice offering therapy and testing as well as a specialty in forensic work, evaluating cases that went to court. She also served on a panel that treated victims of violent crime.

A key turning point in her life happened in 1994 when she was working as a volunteer after the Northridge earthquake. She was working in an animal shelter, helping reunite lost pets with their owners. After a few months, the kennel still seemed as crowded as when it had begun, and she began to wonder.

“I asked the kennel supervisor why it was still so crowded, and they explained to me that the shelters in LA are always crowded,” she said. “I had this thought that the shelter would be emptied out and that would be it. I found out that back then they were putting to sleep, in LA County, about 250 dogs a day.”

She decided to do something about it. She volunteered at the West LA animal shelter and eventually became a the volunteer coordinator, trying everything she could think of to boost the adoption rates of dogs there. She affected changes in policies, such as allowing the dogs out of their cages to meet new potential owners, and ran mobile adoption fairs at malls. One single event in Century City saw 85 dogs get adopted.

“I do things kind of gung ho, so I got 40 volunteers working,” she said. “We had open houses and people in dog costumes standing on street corners waving.”

Rubin was nominated as volunteer of the year by the Los Angeles mayor’s office and awarded volunteer of the year by the West Los Angeles shelter. But eventually, the adoption rate increased so much that she started to meet some resistance from within the bureaucracy that is county government. Each adoption required extensive paperwork, whereas euthanasia was relatively quick and easy.

“They just didn’t have the time,” Rubin said.

So in 2001, Rubin founded Rover Rescue. She quit her private practice as a clinical psychologist and devoted all her energies to saving dogs and increasing awareness of what she calls a “crisis” of abandonment that still leads to an estimated 100 euthanized dogs in LA County every day.

“Before I got started I always thought the animals at shelters were like rejects and had a lot of problems,” she said. “Then I realized that the real problem is the people, not the dogs – that the people were not taking the responsibility of dogs seriously and these dogs were ending up at animal shelters. Twenty-five percent of these dogs are purebreds. I just want people to know this so they won’t go on breeding these dogs – until we resolve the crisis in LA, I really don’t think there should be any more breeding going on.”

Bob Ballenger, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control, agreed with this assessment. He said that between the six major shelters operated by LA County – which last year housed 40,723 dogs, out of which 17,966 were euthanized (about 12 percent of those were requests from owners) – and several city-operated shelters within the county, at least 100 dogs a day are being put to sleep.

“We live in a society where people regard animals essentially as disposable items,” Ballenger said. “I mean, if you don’t like it anymore, you just get rid of it. It’s just another accessory in your life.”

The responsibility of pet ownership, Ballenger suggested, should be something more akin to being a parent. “It’s like having a child,” he said. “You can’t decide it no longer fits my lifestyle so I just get rid of it.”

Rubin said she has been at shelters and witnessed people bringing in one dog and then picking out another – with their former dog watching from its new cage. Recently, she saw a couple bring in a dog who was having a bad reaction to tick medicine.

“He was very, very sick, and the owner said, ‘Go ahead, put him to sleep,’” she recalled. “I saw this little puppy and I said, oh no, I want to take him. Let’s give him a chance. He was in the hospital three days and fully recovered. He’s got a fabulous personality.”

Timmy, as Rubin named this dog ( “I just sit there and a name comes up that really fits, I think,” she said of dog-naming, which she does with almost all her “saves”), now is a happy co-habitant with a young actor who adopted him a few weeks ago. She recently ran into the pair. “I asked, ‘Does Timmy have an audition yet? Because I want him to be in movies. He was so cute, you never know – we may see him someday.”

Home sweet home

Rover Rescue is like an underground railroad for abandoned dogs. Rubin does all the actual rescues, but there are volunteers at every other turn to help. The organization has a core of about 35 remarkably dedicated volunteers.

Every other Saturday, volunteers bring the Rover Rescue dogs to the Centinella Feed and Pet store in Redondo Beach for an adoption fair. Dogs are boarded at animal hospitals throughout the area, and a single volunteer will pick each animal up and take responsibility for the dog for that day, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the store, where prospective owners come and make acquaintance with the dogs. During the week, volunteers also visit the hospitals, taking the dogs out for walks. Some volunteers also serve as foster homes for dogs, particularly those who have special needs.

One such volunteer is Elizabeth Musnicky. She fairly as a foster home and particularly takes in dogs who need  physical therapy while recovering from an operation. She also has children, her own dogs, and a cat, so Rover Rescue can learn if the dog has any issues with children, cats, or other dogs. She often has to fight off the urge to adopt the dogs she fosters.

“If I adopt one, that is one less I can foster,” Musnicky said.

Volunteers also help with fundraising. Recently, runners in the Village Runner Fourth of July 5k ran for pledges, raising $7,000 in a single day; the LA Marathon is also an official sponsor. Others individually “sponsor” a dog, paying for its expenses while the dog waits for a new home (medical attention alone can easily cost more than $1,000, while the adoption fee is only $200). On a recent Saturday, a woman drove down from Malibu after seeing the photo of one of the dogs on www.roverrescue.com. She arrived in tears. Her dog had just died, and she wanted to sponsor the dog in the photo. The bulk of fundraising responsibility, however, rests with Rubin. She writes grants, holds bake sales – anything she can think of, because the more money the organization can raise means the more dogs it can save.

Rover Rescue actually does quite a bit more than rescue — it offers a spay and neutering program and generally tries to raise awareness for more responsible pet ownership. And beyond rescuing itself, Rubin has an uncanny ability to match the right dog with the right home.

“She’s good with the dogs,” Dr. Benton said. “But she is great with the people.”

The process is extensive. People fill out an application once they decide they want one of the dogs, and Rubin requires that every member of the household meet the dog – including all the children and other pets. She doesn’t want anything unforeseen to make for a bad match. She also comes to homes and “dog checks” it, making sure it has suitable space for the dog in question and suggesting dog-proofing methods, such as putting mesh on decks so a small dog won’t fall through.

Amelia Rogers remembers when her family decided it wanted to adopt. They saw online photos of a little terrier/poodle mix named Piper and fell in love with what Rogers admits was his almost homely cuteness. Piper had been run over by a car and had almost lost the will to live when Rubin found him in the back room of shelter. He’d stopped eating and was scheduled to be euthanized the next day.

Piper was recovering when the Rogers family came to visit him at the adoption fair. “Her tail was tucked between her legs,” Rogers remembered. “She was scared to death of everyone.”

They filled out an application and that week Rubin visited their home. “I thought Cathy was just incredible,” Rogers said. “They do a very intensive interview. It’s almost like you are adopting a child…She will not place a dog unless it is really, really the right home.”

Piper has lived happily ever after, buddying up to two little girls as well as the family cat. “We are just crazy about that little dog,” Rogers said.

Rubin’s relationship with the Rover Rescue dogs doesn’t end when she finds them new homes. It’s indicative that every owner must sign a contract that stipulates, among other things, that if for any reason they decide to part ways with the dog, it is returned to Rover Rescue, not a dog shelter. It’s as if Rubin wants to provide a guarantee to the dog that he or she will never suffer through that experience again.

Each Rover Rescue dog is also planted with an identifying microchip. Last year, a dog that had just been adopted a month earlier ran away when its new owner left him with a friend. James Otis had taken off for the airport en route to a business trip to New York. The dog, a Wheaton terrier named Riley, had had a tough life so far. When Rubin originally found him, he was in the back room of a shelter cowering beneath another dog, laying in a pool of urine. Later, when she had him groomed, they found fish hooks in his matted hair.

He was adopted by a man named James Otis, and they immediately bonded. But when Otis left for his trip, Riley ran. Otis cancelled his trip and went looking for Riley. He called Rubin, who in turn called the microchip company. The chip hadn’t been activated, and she stayed on the phone until it got activated.

“I finally got a call at 1 a.m.,” Otis said. “A vet called from the Valley. ‘Are you James Otis? We found your dog.’ I called Cathy immediately… I can’t imagine my life without this dog. Its been a wonderful experience for me having my dog and I very much believe in adopting a dog now, instead of going to a pet shop…And I realize if anything ever happens to me, I know where I could take Riley.”

Rubin says that people frequently tell her their adopted dogs seem more grateful.

“I think the reason they get so sick, with kennel cough, bloody stools and everything, is because of stress,” she said. “I really do think they know their life is in danger. They appreciate being saved. And I really think they are better dogs…I don’t think their lives were so great, and with our rescue group they get the love they never had and see that life is safe. The feel like they’ve hit the jackpot.”

Rubin’s immediate goal is to open up a private shelter so she can centralize all her operations, rather than dealing with four different animal hospitals and various grooming businesses. In the long run, she’d love to see the day that what she does is no longer necessary and she can return to her career in clinical psychology. As rewarding as rescue work is, it is also constantly heartbreaking. The reality is there are always dogs left behind, and the majority of abandoned dogs never again find a home.

“It’s very hard,” Rubin said. “We only have so much space and so much time, so we do have to leave them behind. Rescue isn’t easy. Our logo is ‘Until every dog has a home,’ so we hope for that day. I’m hoping for that day when I don’t have to do this anymore.”

Dr. Benton praised Rubin’s efforts. “She really is one the quiet but very effective forces for animals in the South Bay,” Benton said. “Certainly PETA and other groups get a lot of press, but in terms of good done for effort made, she is just in a class by herself.”

One of the greatest rewards, Rubin said, is to see Rover Rescue dogs all over town. She said she is constantly slamming her brakes while bicycling to stop and say hello to an old canine friend. Otis brought Riley to visit one Saturday, and he literally screamed with delight when he saw the woman who saved him. Last week, Murphy, the Wheaton terrier who’d been spray painted purple, came bounding up to her enthusiastically at the Redondo Beach dog park. “Oh my god, he just about knocked me down he was so happy to see me,” she said. “We’re buds.”

“I remember each and every dog,” she said. “Can you tell I love them all?” SBP

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