Jennifer Berry arrives at the Maricopa County Animal Shelter filled with dread. It is August and, even at 8:30 in the morning, the temperatures are close to 100. She opens the door of her van and, as she steps out, is hit by the heat like the blast from an oven door. Her thoughts go immediately to the dogs and cats inside the shelter. If it’s hot outside, it means the animals are hot too. If it’s cold, so are they. And if there was a thunderstorm the night before, she knows the animals will have been terrified the entire night, with no one to comfort them.
She looks at the building in front of her. A sprawling, one-story cement structure painted surprisingly cheerful oranges and blues. Lining out the door are people with dogs panting on leashes or cats meowing in cages. She does not know whether the people are there to turn in a stray or to surrender their own pet to the pound. As she passes them, she also passes a sign which informs people in that line that the shelter is over capacity, receiving between 100 and 200 dogs and cats a day. It tells them that there is a good chance the animal they are about to turn in will be killed. But still the lines form out the door.
By the time she makes it through the doors of the city pound, Berry is angry and sad. Inside are thousands of animals who will never see the outside of that building again. Outside are people who willingly turn in their own pets, animals who will likely die.
Berry’s mission is to change that fate for as many as she can. In 1995, Julie Seal formed a rescue organization in Phoenix, known simply as RESCUE (Reducing Euthanasia at Shelters through Commitment and Underlying Education). The non-profit’s mission was built on saving animals scheduled to be killed at the pound. In 2000, Berry began working with the organization and became president sometime after Seal left the group.
As president, Berry spends a lot of time answering emails and phone calls about animals in their foster care program, but on days after they have had success finding forever homes for the dogs and cats, Berry returns to the county pound to save more. “We are dedicated to saving the dogs and cats on the kill list,” she says. “These animals are on death row. They have no more time. They are going to die.”
Berry walks through the halls of the nine buildings that make up the county pound and her nostrils fill with the smell of the place: urine, feces, vomit, blood, chemicals, food, litter, fear. “Animals die here,” she says. “Their bodies lay in black garbage bags in the back of a flatbed dump truck.”
She carries with her a list of 15 to 20 dogs that would make good choices to rescue, but the spaces in her foster homes can only take five. She looks in the kennels and runs. There are four to eight dogs in each one, each covered in dirt, some have feces stuck in their fur, all have ticks crawling over them. “I hate bugs,” she says, “and ticks are the worst. The best and only way to [get rid of them] so that the tick doesn’t explode in your hand is to pull it off with your fingers.” Although that part of the job sometimes makes her sick to her stomach, that’s not the worst of it.
“Sometimes when I look into a dog or cat’s eyes, I feel like I can hear them saying, ‘Please take me! Please don’t leave me here!’ A lump forms in my throat and my eyes well up.” She wants to save them all, but she can’t. She only has room for the space she has available in her foster homes.
This is heart-wrenching work and, with the lines forming outside the pound by the hundreds every day, it is discouraging to say the least. Still, something burns within her heart that keeps her going back. “If I stop they lose,” she says. Even when the economy takes a hit and donations to rescue organizations dwindle, even as she takes a pay cut and works to pay the medical bills, Berry stays loyal to the animals. She shows up at the pound, pulls ticks off by the thousands, and goes home smelling like she has spent weeks living in a filthy kennel.
“I have dedicated my life to our efforts, which means time off is slim to non-existent. Having friendships outside of RESCUE just doesn’t exist for me.” To stay focused, Berry has surrounded herself with people who encourage her, support the work she does, and inspire her to keep going.
Part of that support comes in the form of loyal volunteers and foster families who give of their time, often in their own homes, to care for the animals of RESCUE. Because Berry spends much of her time coordinating the rescue and ultimate home adoption for the animals, once she has rescued them from the pound, she may not see them again. This can be very hard, she says, but “I know we have the best volunteers. They will love them, play with them, brush them, cuddle them and help them enjoy life again.” These are people on Berry’s team. Their efforts and their stories are part of what help lift her spirits to keep going.
Her husband is also part of what keeps her going. “He encourages me to be strong and see the bigger picture. He reminds me of the lives we’ve saved, the difference we’ve made in not only the lives of the dogs and cats we’ve saved, but in the lives of countless families. This helps me tremendously.”
On this steamy morning in August, Berry clears her head and begins her search and rescue at the county pound. She pauses for a moment to gather her thoughts and focus. Even though she battles anger at the people outside and sadness for the cats and dogs, she goes in with the courage and determination cultivated by her own generous heart, the support of a loyal group of volunteers and donors, and the love of her husband. She reminds herself that she is there to save lives. She knows she can’t save them all, but she pushes that out of her mind. She focuses on the fact that there are animals beyond those hallways who will get a second chance at life that day. She thinks of what their lives have been like and envisions what their lives will soon be like, with a family who will love them, a safe place to sleep, a full belly, and clean fur! With that image in her heart, she turns to the work she does with passion and conviction, the work of rescuing cats and dogs from the kill list at the county pound.
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For more information on how you can help RESCUE, click here.