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Creature Comforts

These small-scale pet rescuers have seriously big hearts.



FEW MOMENTS IN life are more joyous than walking through your front door to the delight of an eagerly awaiting dog. And what could be better than having a kitten cozy up to you on the couch? Whether sought out for companionship or for cuddling, pets are widely believed to provide both mental and physical benefits to humans. But while much thought is given to the positive aspects of bringing a new pet home, less attention is paid to the good that can be done by rescuing an animal instead of purchasing one.

The Marin Humane Society (MHS) placed about 2,100 animals in homes last year, euthanizing 350 — which, when you look at national averages, seems to be a relatively small figure. A 2012–13 estimate by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) found that among the 6 to 8 million cats and dogs that enter shelters each year, around 2.7 million are euthanized. For its part, MHS takes in strays and surrenders, along with surplus critters from overcrowded shelters, each of them microchipped, vaccinated and given medical/behavioral evaluations before they are made available for adoption, with fees ranging from $10 to $250. But, despite the myriad benefits of adoption, it seems that many in Marin continue to purchase shiny new pets rather than save them — and this county isn’t alone. HSUS estimates that only 30 percent of the country’s pets are adopted from shelters or rescues. “Anecdotally, it appears people in Marin buy from breeders more than they adopt,” says Lisa Bloch of the Marin Humane Society. MHS believes that with growing awareness, the consciousness Marin residents have about the world around them will soon extend to animal adoption.

But for some, adoption is the first impulse. In addition to well-known rescue agencies like MHS and the Milo Foundation (which relocated from Marin to Point Richmond in 2012), a number of grassroots rescue organizations have been finding ways, often with extremely limited funding, to help displaced animals find loving homes.

From NOLA, With Love

One such outlet, dubbed the Dog Shack by one-woman-show Saskia Achilles of Forest Knolls, was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Achilles hails from Holland, a no-kill country with stringent spay/neuter laws. She has also been known to hop on the whale-saving, Sea Shepherd boats in Antarctica in an effort to save the whales.

Needless to say, Achilles supports disenfranchised animals.

She began her work as an animal foster parent in 1999, initially taking in a mama pit bull and her litter of 10. “I found homes for the puppies over a period of six months,” she says. “After that there was no end to the amount of mamas and litters, and I continued to foster through 2005.” When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, friends urged Achilles to go to the aid of the thousands of newly orphaned animals.

Achilles fashioned herself a badge that read “Bolinas Canine Control,” pinned it on an Humane Society T-shirt, collected donated frequent flyer miles and was on her way. “I was in a triage center near NOLA where there was a horse ranch; the stables were filled with cages where we took found dogs to get them booked in,” she says. A group of rogue volunteers and veterinarians worked to ensure animals were microchipped, vaccinated and documented before they were adopted out. After several weeks of intense rescue work and a narrow escape from Hurricane Rita, Achilles and her newly adopted dog, Dingy, made their way back to Marin where the animal lover decided to start her own rescue project.

“I decided to call myself Dog Shack because I had to build a makeshift shack for the dozen dogs that ended up in my yard,” Achilles says of dogs later rescued from Louisiana and shipped here. “I found them all homes. It was so rewarding knowing that they had certainly been going to die, and now here they were in Marin.” Achilles has since attained 501c3 status via the community-minded nonprofit MarinLink and operates her rescue — which she runs in addition to her window cleaning business — on $250 adoption fees. “If you look at my cash flow I’m broke, but I feel very rich in spirit,” she says. Her next goal is to foray into the world of politics, aiming to help change spay/neuter laws so surplus killing can become a thing of the past.

Hands-On Haven

Sometimes the animals aren’t the only ones who are helped. Nestled in San Rafael, Jessica’s Haven offers a unique opportunity for special needs kids to spend time with and care for rescuable dogs. Founders Laura Cottingham and Laura Hislop share a love of animals and Hislop’s daughter, Jessica, who has autism. When Jessica turned 18, Hislop quickly realized that the typical day programs offered to her daughter’s peers were not a great fit for her. As Jessica loved spending time with animals, Cottingham (who had an interest in pet rescue) suggested opening a kennel. Thus Bed and Biscuits was born. “Jessica worked there for many years and was happy as a clam,” says Cottingham of the initial venture. “We saw her grow in leaps and bounds and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something like this for more people?’ ” In 2013, a local lawyer learned of their cause and helped them obtain nonprofit status, and Jessica’s Haven became a reality. “We take gentle dogs from all over Northern California,” says Cottingham. “The dogs get unconditional love and learn to trust people; our clients learn how to give dog baths and blow-drys through our groomer’s assistant program. The hope is that someday if we can even get one or two of our clients a job as a grooming assistant or at a kennel, we’ve done something great.”

A Limitless Endeavor

Just up the freeway in Novato, No Boundaries Animal Rescue is on a similar white-knight mission. Founded four years ago by Barbara Ziskin Gray and Meagan Nelson, No Boundaries operates what it calls “a shelter without walls,” welcoming found, stray and surplus animals from throughout California into their own homes in Novato and Sonoma County. Numbers are kept manageable, and animals, particularly litters of kittens, are housed in separate rooms to avoid cross-contamination.

The two had been working with other rescue organizations when they decided to team up. Gray brought years of rescue experience to the table, while Nelson carries a veterinary technician certificate from Santa Rosa Junior College — and each works a regular full-time job in addition to the time they put in at No Boundaries.

“We keep pretty small and concentrated so we can have animals in and out as soon as possible and are able to take on a lot of special needs animals,” Nelson says. “We recently took in a cat that needed a liver shunt repair, and I don’t know any other rescue that would have devoted the time and money to this cause; he’s 100 percent normal now. It’s the success stories that keep us going.” The duo has an active following on Facebook, consistently posting about newly taken-in animals — “A single share can save animals immediately,” says Nelson — and fundraising small amounts.

Like Dog Shack, No Boundaries was born of a passion for saving furry friends. “The number of animals that are put to sleep each day is mind-blowing — we’re taking about healthy, friendly, even purebred animals,” Nelson says. “Rescue is crucial. They benefit by getting a home; you benefit from the reward of saving and caring for an animal. It really takes a village: rescuers, fosters and more. We cannot do this alone — we have to spread the word and work together.”

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