Although some independent animal rescuers raise money through crowdfunding websites, Louisiana resident Dana Smith pays veterinarian bills and dog-fostering and transferring expenses out of her own pocket.
“I have a running tab with my vet here,” Smith said. “As of January 2015, I had a 10 cent credit with him. Now $9,000 later, I’m paying him monthly.”
Since Smith frequently visits the veterinarian’s office with new rescues, sometimes she receives a discount. When she brought in two dogs with stage four heartworm disease, the veterinarian performed the required four-hour surgeries for $200 each, rather than their estimated $2,000 to $3,000 cost.
Smith noted, “Here in the South, we are horrible about heartworm. Heartworm medicine is important, but people don’t think it’s necessary.”
Since 2011, Smith has independently rescued dogs. Prior to that, she volunteered for Kindred Hearts Transport Connection, driving and relocating rescues.
“I’ve always helped dogs,” Smith said. “I used to live at a house where people regularly dumped them.”
It Takes a Village to Save a Dog
When asked how she manages as an independent rescuer, Smith explained, “I’m blessed with a handful of people that help me out.”
One young woman regularly assists Smith with day-to-day tasks, such as social media updates and dog transports. Another woman that helps out has even adopted three rescues from Smith over the years.
Smith said, “She’s more like family than a friend.”
Smith makes sure her rescues are spayed and neutered. A local group helps with donations so she can bring dogs to the spay and neuter clinic at a lower cost.
“They help me out in a big way,” Smith said.
A boarding facility nearby houses the rescues when Smith visits her husband, who currently works out of state.
“I know the dogs will get the love and care they need there, that they get here.”
Additionally, some of Smith’s friends foster dogs.
“I don’t have a whole lot of people. Just a few, and that’s what my life consists of. My life is saving dogs and I also help a lot people around here. I help them with medicines and stuff. Heartworm medicine—It’s expensive. Flea medicine. I take dogs to the vet for them … ”
The Word-of-Mouth Connection
People mostly hear about Smith through word of mouth.
“No one has trouble finding me,” Smith said. “I get phone calls all the time!”
Most recently, Smith took in four dogs from one home. The owner had a stroke and a relative heard about Smith through a friend.
“Everyone in the family wanted to put the dogs down. The dogs were confused and scared—the owner had been in the hospital for over a week. They’re Pit Bulls; people are scared of them. The bully breeds have a bad rap,” Smith explained.
Now, three of the dogs are in homes. Since the owner was particularly attached to the fourth, female pit, Smith stepped in.
“I said, let’s see if we can get her certified as an emotional support dog—People need hope.” Smith said. “She’s getting certified now, so when the owner gets out of hospital, she won’t have to lose everything. They told [the owner], and she was so happy.”
The Challenges Independents Face
Aside from the financial burden, Smith shares that one of the biggest challenges is finding people to foster the dogs. She tries to avoid boarding them at a facility right after they’ve been relocated from a shelter. Another difficulty is getting people to attend adoption events.
“You don’t have the following like these other rescues have.” Smith said. “As independents, we can’t go to 501(c)(3) events.”
One of Smith’s friends is helping her apply to become a 501(c)(3), which, if approved, would assist with tax breaks and help her become more recognizable to other nonprofits. Currently, when Smith contacts shelters that seek help, offering her services, they don’t respond because she lacks the official 501(c)(3) designation.
“Being a 501(c)(3) has those advantages.” Smith explained. “I’ll be able to save more dogs.”
Smith’s “Personal Pack”
Smith endearingly refers to her own dogs as her “personal pack.” She described one rescue where she drove two hours to bring the dogs home.
“By the time I was home, I said, ‘I’m keeping these two!’ They’d already attached to me.” Smith said.
Occasionally, Smith’s reasons for keeping a dog long-term is based on instinct.
“One Pit stayed with me, because I found out the people trying to adopt her weren’t good people. I didn’t trust them.”
This particular Pit had a rough start in life, and at the time Smith had worried the dog wouldn’t get healthy enough to be adopted.
“She tore out my heart strings. Now, she’s part of my personal pack. I won’t let her go. It’d have to be to a special place—I hold on to them as long as I have to,” Smith explained.
Smith’s Catahoula, named Gator, became a member of her personal pack after he’d been adopted by a family in Atlanta that realized too late they weren’t ready to have a dog with a difficult past.
“I drove the nine hours there—again—and the nine hours back and took Gator home,” Smith recalled.
Why Bully Breeds?
When she and her husband of 30 years initially moved to Louisiana, Smith volunteered with local rescues, working mostly with Pit Bulls.
“My husband would ask, ‘why do you want to work with bully breeds?’” Smith said. “Then he saw people exhibit the ‘oh my God, it’s a Pit Bull’ thing,” Smith said.
Now Smith and her husband try to educate people about Pit Bulls.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know ‘Pit Bull’ is not a breed,” Smith said.
According to DogTime.com, the term “Pit Bull” is used to describe the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Smith noted, “A lot of people have a better understanding after I’ve talked to them. That’s what’s cool about it.”
From Smith’s experience, Pit Bulls are the easiest dogs to rehabilitate.
“I’ve never had an incident with Pit bulls moving on. … Pit Bulls are special in their own way, and so loving. They’re just awesome dogs. It’s how you raise them—like how you raise your own kids.”
Don’t Support the Breeders
Before beginning the adoption process, Smith recommends families sit down to discuss the responsibility that comes with getting a pet.
“It’s sad when you hear about dogs getting adopted and they go right back to the shelter,” Smith shared.
Parents should explain to children the commitment involved in caring for an animal.
“I just wish people would understand how cool rescue dogs are,” Smith said. “You don’t have to spend all that money on a Cockapoo! In my day, we used to call those ‘mutts.’ Now they’re ‘designer dogs.’ A dog is going to be loyal to you—get it from a shelter.”
The Life of an Independent Rescuer
At night Smith takes the dogs outside around 11:30 p.m. for about an hour.
“They sleep real well!” she joked. “I’m 51 and sometimes I feel like I’m 71, but usually they make me feel like I’m 31.”
Smith and her husband plan to buy some property in Texas in the near future. They’d like to have a Louisiana-Texas rescue connection.
“I’ve dreamed of this for a long, long time,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of us independents out there. We just do it one by one. I’m blessed. If I ever stopped, I’d probably keel over. … I love what I do and I do what I love.”
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