A Shepherd in the Wire Grass Corner of Alabama

“I hope this isn’t some wild-goose chase,” I warned Nancy, my photographer and friend, as we headed south from Montgomery to visit our next shelter.

We were traveling from our home in Pennsylvania to Tennessee and Alabama to raise awareness about the situation in southern shelters and rescues. Volunteering and fostering for a rescue wasn’t enough, the endless stream of dogs coming from the south compelled us to do something more — we were convinced that the problem wasn’t that people didn’t care, it was that they didn’t know.

We would tell them. So we begged friends and family for donations of dog food and medicines, rented a Jeep, and set out for the south with no idea what we were doing, just great passion to do it.

I’d heard about SHARK (Safe Haven Animal Rescue Kennel) from a Humane Society representative who told me she could only speak to me off-the-record (which made me kind of chuckle — the fact that she assumed we were legitimate journalists and not just rescue-crazed idealists with a pen and a camera). I asked her about the situation in Alabama (bad) and whether she knew of shelters further south since we’d found three to visit in the north and middle of the state. Her immediate response was, “You have to go see SHARK. You won’t believe it.”

She was right.

As we drove south on Thursday afternoon, tired and overwhelmed by all we’d already seen in the more than ten visits we’d already made that week, I wondered if this eight-hour detour to Abbeville, Alabama was a mistake.

It wasn’t. In fact, it was quite possibly the most inspiring experience of the entire trip, which is saying something because we met some amazing people on this journey.

SHARK’s director is Dave Rice, a 76-year-old disabled veteran. He is trained and certified as an Animal Control Officer, but the county doesn’t give him a salary. He says it’s because he’s too old. He’s supposed to bill them $10 for each call, but he doesn’t bother. The county gives him a $1000 annual stipend and the city $1200 to pay for the dogs in his care. Currently, there are 78.

Even if you don’t make regular forays to the pet store for dog food, you can guess how far $2200 will go towards his annual grocery bill. Dave’s latest vet bill was $27,000 (and no that isn’t an extra zero).

“We always pay it,” he says. “We find a way. The people around here are good folks.”

Dave took over animal control when the county shut down the shelter and fired the former ACO. Dave had been a volunteer, but couldn’t let his “lambs” suffer, so he stepped up and helped form SHARK.

Dave calls his dogs, mostly bully mixes, his lambs — Lower Alabama Mixed Breeds. As we followed him through the kennels and met the dogs, I had to agree, they were lambs. Big lambs, but sweethearts, every single one.

The first kennel we visited was the original pound, located at the landfill (a common and convenient location for many dog pounds, we’ve discovered). It was a set of 10 chainlink kennels on a concrete slab with a roof and shades partially covering the sides.

These are the special needs dogs, Dave explained. He takes care of them himself. They either have a health issue that needs tending too, or they are waiting for a space to open up in the main kennel. SHARK outgrew that space instantly and now keeps dogs in four locations, but Dave recently sold his business (restoring classic cars) and donated the land so that SHARK can build one facility for all the dogs.

The county allowed SHARK to build the main kennel on a spot at the landfill between the old dumping ground that has been covered and ventilated and the area where trash is currently being dumped. SHARK built the wooden pavilion-like structure that covers about twenty large indoor/outdoor kennels. It’s surrounded by a large fenced-in area that allows the dogs a place to run and play while their kennels are being cleaned. A committed group of (mostly) retired residents volunteer daily to care for the dogs at the main kennel, getting all of them out for walks twice a day.

As we approached the kennel, the dog chorus began, the lambs clearly thrilled to see Dave. After he’d introduced us to all of them, the most remarkable thing happened, something that hadn’t happened in any of our other shelter visits. The dogs grew quiet, waiting and watching Dave as if hanging on his every word. They were happy and healthy and certainly loved, but as Dave explained their only way out of the landfill is through rescue. A local adoption is rare. All of the dogs were picked up as strays and seldom does anyone come looking for their missing dog.

SHARK makes sure every dog that leaves is spay/neutered, vaccinated and healthy. Dave, like all the other shelter directors we’d met, keeps a vast list of rescues and works the phones trying to find placements. He drives dogs as far as Maine or Minnesota to deliver them to safety.

In previous years, SHARK has taken in about six to seven hundred dogs. This year, Dave tells me, they just took in their 1107th dog.

So many people in this country believe that we are winning this battle of homeless dogs, that the numbers are going down and we are killing fewer shelter animals, but once again I’m reminded that we are not. If not for Dave and SHARK, all of these animals would have found their way to the landfill, and not to be lovingly cared for by devoted volunteers until they can be safely transported to new homes.

In Alabama, the law dictates that each county ‘provide a suitable county pound and impounding officer for the impoundment of dogs, cats, and ferrets found running at large.’

I’m not sure how the ferrets made the cut (and I have yet to see a ferret at a pound in Alabama), but I talked to one official in Alabama who told me that at least one-third of the counties are not in compliance with this law. They simply don’t have the money to provide a pound or the current leadership doesn’t choose to allocate funds for it.

The law does allow for counties without a pound to ‘contribute their pro-rata share to the staffing and upkeep of the county pound.’ Henry County, where SHARK is located, is 568 square miles, but I imagine some of their animals come from surrounding counties that also have no pound, and no dedicated group like SHARK to shepherd their lambs.

Dave has a New England accent and hails from a town near Cape Cod. I asked him how he ended up in Alabama and he told us that he and his wife tried to retire to Florida, but once there realized it wasn’t the life for them. They decided to move further north and ‘threw a dart at the map’ and it landed on a little town in Tennessee. On their way there, they encountered some bad weather as they were passing through Henry County, so they stopped for the night. They’ve been here ever since.

I asked Dave what the average stay is for one of his lambs and he said, “Oh, not that long, about four and a half months.”

Before we left, we unloaded a bunch of donations since SHARK relies on donations for everything. I asked Dave what I asked every director, “How do we fix this? How can we help?”

He said he is always hopeful that a new board of directors in their county will decide to fix this, but mostly what SHARK needs and the lambs need is more awareness and more exposure so that people realize they are here, deep in the dump of Henry County.

For a man who quite definitely sees the worst of the worst, Dave is upbeat and positive and so, so inspiring. If you’d like to help, you can send a donation to SHARK viapaypal (paypal.me/SHARK37) or mail it to P.O. Box 126, Abbeville, AL 36310.

If you’d like to keep up with Dave and SHARK, be sure to like them on Facebook and join their Facebook group for friends of SHARK.

But if you’d really like to help Dave and the lambs, please share his story, tell someone. It’s a long way to the bottom of Alabama; we battled a bug storm (truly) to get there, so I can see why they might feel forgotten down here. But we can’t forget. They need our help. This battle to end the suffering and killing of adoptable dogs is far, far from over.

I keep saying it and I won’t stop saying it — this is fixable, but people need to know. Awareness is the first step towards change. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s that they don’t know. We have to tell them.

Please spread the word and if you haven’t already, subscribe to our blog (WhoWillLetTheDogsOut.org) so you can follow the stories and help work for change. You can also follow, comment, and share on Facebookand Instagram.


Until every cage is empty,


Cara is an author, blogger, and shelter dog advocate. She is co-founder of WhoWillLetTheDogsOut.org which works to raise awareness & resources for homeless dogs

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