For twelve years, actress and author Sylva Kelegian has dedicated her spare time to being an independent animal rescuer. An estimated 600 dogs have been placed in forever homes as a result of her efforts.
The Los Angeles resident explained, “It can take over your life, because the problem is so big.”
Kelegian’s initial interest in rescuing animals began when she lived in New York. While attending a play, she’d noticed a poster advertising dogs needed to be walked at a local rescue group. It didn’t take long after volunteering with the organization for her to fall in love with a dog named Sammy.
“I couldn’t bare to see what had happened to her happen to others,” said Kelegian.
Kelegian became immersed in the animal rescue world. When she moved to L.A., she remained aware of the large number of homeless dogs living on the streets and continued to volunteer between acting jobs.
“We have a network that believes in home checks, with real follow-through,” said Kelegian.
Kelegian described this network of independent rescue volunteers as being like-minded. They ensure dogs are fixed, microchipped, and wearing collars and tags at all times. They only accept an adoption fee after a two-week trial period, in case the adoption isn’t the right fit.
“We take dogs back at any point if necessary, even if it’s years in the future,” Kelegian said.
To spread awareness about the large number of dogs that need to be rescued, Kelegian wrote a book, God Spelled Backwards: The Journey of an Actress into the World of Dog Rescue, which won two awards in 2015. When books are purchased through her website, Kelegian donates 50 percent of proceeds to a rescue group each month.
Kelegian described her book as, “A spiritual journey as much as it is a rescue journey. I wouldn’t say I’m very religious, but I believe in God, and my life was changed at a certain point.” God Spelled Backwards focuses on what Los Angeles animal rescuers go through.
“It’s very informative. It’s entertaining. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry.” Kelegian added.
The book included one of her most memorable rescue experiences, about a dog named Frankie who showed aggression whenever a person entered his house. It took Kelegian nearly two years to find Frankie a new, appropriate home.
“I spent thousands of dollars training him. I tried to get him on that dog-training TV show, but even they wouldn’t take him on!” said Kelegian.
She took Frankie into her own home and when he attacked her husband, Kelegian contacted a friend of a friend she knew lived in Montana with several cats and dogs on 11 acres of land.
“So, I went on a plane with Frankie to Montana,” said Kelegian. “It’s been four years and he is happy in Montana. They have a great life together.”
In addition to writing two books, Kelegian has co-written a one-hour drama for television with Steve Spiro and Alison Eastwood, tentatively titled Unleashed, that they intend to get on air soon.
When asked about the challenges facing independent rescuers, Kelegian discussed seeing humanity in a different light and trying not to judge it. She explained, as a rescuer, refraining from being judgemental is a struggle.
“I’ve seen things that no one should see. I’ve gotten to know humanity on a level I wish I didn’t know.”
Some of Kelegian’s largest rescue feats have included finding 21 dogs in South Central within a three-block radius and saving 40-plus dogs from and around one landfill. She also noted some dogs she’s rescued had been suffering or abandoned in backyards. Kelegian remains positive, though.
Aside from Frankie, Kelegian has never come upon an aggressive dog. Since she has rescued so many, Kelegian has gotten to know how to read canine personalities well.
“I get to know the dogs and what they need. Do they need a playfriend; do they need to be an only dog? Do they need a lot of exercise, or just a walk a day?”
One advantage of being an independent rescuer is getting to know dogs individually, which Kelegian explained may be difficult for big rescue shelters.
As for the breed that needs the most rescuing in Los Angeles, Kelegian said the number one and number two most common dog breeds packed into shelters are pit bulls and chihuahuas.
“Pits are wonderful dogs, but when they’re not fixed, and then put into the wrong hands—unsocialized, unwalked—they can get frustrated.”
Although Los Angeles has spaying and neutering ordinances, Kelegian said it doesn’t have the money to implement them. She added that in L.A., “Culturally, sometimes, it’s not looked on to fix your animals.”
Kelegian said not neutering an animal is the number one problem for the homeless canine population in Los Angeles.
Aligned with the City’s dogs-per-household guidelines, Kelegian and her husband have three dogs of their own. The Forgotten Dogs Foundation currently fosters about 50 dogs and Kelegian works with four fostered near her home.
To anyone thinking of adoption, Kelegian said to expect at least a 15-year commitment. As getting a pet can seem like a novelty, people often don’t realize the extent of that commitment. Kelegian recommended fostering an animal first, to see what it’s like and whether a pet is the right fit. The Forgotten Dogs Foundation pays for food and medical expenses while a dog is fostered.
After someone has decided to adopt a pet, Kelegian suggested dogs should be microchipped and wear a collar with an ID, 24/7. Without a collar or identification, dogs can easily get loose and then lost.
Most important, “Don’t walk a dog on a busy street in Los Angeles without a leash. I don’t know what people are thinking! I see it all the time.”
Kelegian’s final advice: “Treat animals as you would like to be treated.”
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