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Ann Brenoff Headshot

Don't Judge a Rescuer By Her Collar

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A Long Beach, California dog rescuer named Bonnie Sheehan has been charged with animal abuse for allegedly transporting 148 dogs and one cat across the country in cramped, filthy conditions. She was arrested in Tennessee after police -- supposedly making a routine traffic stop -- discovered the animals in the back of her van, which was pulling a U-Haul filled with more crates of animals.

The reaction to the story ranges from the predictable to the sublime. Some have already slapped the label of animal abuser on her -- you know, guilty until proven innocent; others who know her have rallied to her support. In the portrait being painted in the media by police and animal shelter officials, she is a crazy animal-hoarder who was motivated by a warped delusion that she -- and only she -- could "save" these animals.

Here's the crazy part. To some extent, there is nothing warped or delusional about what Sheehan was doing. She really may have been the only one willing to step up to try and save these animals -- none of which died, by the way -- in her unconventional California-to-Virginia (where she was headed) journey.

Three years ago, Bonnie Sheehan placed Dolce, our much-loved poodle-bichon mix, with my family. Bonnie had saved Dolce from a high-kill shelter, where the little 18-pound badly matted pup spent a couple of weeks cowering in the corner when anyone approached. Bonnie got Dolce, cleaned her up, socialized her and made her ready for life with a forever family. Mine.

Now Dolce is the fur ball who cuddles at the foot of my bed and knows the sound of my car when it turns down our street headed home. She is the official mascot of my daughter's soccer team and runs in happy circles in front of the door when it's time to go pick the kids up at school. Dolce was days away from death -- deemed unadoptable because of her temerity -- when Bonnie took her and gave her a second chance. Dolce was one of the lucky ones.

The recession has taken a deep toll on our pet population too. Foreclosures don't just evict humans, they evict the animals that shared those humans' lives as well. Many of those dogs and cats wind up in local shelters when their families move into rentals that don't allow pets. Shelters, packed to the brim in a manner perhaps reminiscent of the back of Bonnie Sheehan's truck, have had to crank up their kill rate to make room for the next batch of evicted dogs. Even worse, some families, unwilling to trust the shelters, just leave their pets in their abandoned backyard without food or water. They think that's a better alternative to turning them in to what many feel will be a certain death. Let's face it, when was the last time you adopted a 10-year-old dog mourning the loss of the only home he ever had? My guess is never.

And that's where people like Bonnie come in. Dog rescuers -- a crazy lot if there ever was one -- have stepped up. For some, it's a business. They pick up a particular breed or just cute dogs from the local shelters, spend some money out of pocket to get them fixed up, and then "rehome" them -- rescue-speak for sell them -- at adoption fairs outside the drugstore on Sundays. You've seen them. They profess a love for their animals, can be highly selective about just who they give a dog to, and always require a fee in the hundreds of dollars to cover their expenses. Some are dingbats who see pet rescue as a business; others, like Bonnie, are there for the long haul. She has placed almost 20,000 dogs in her years as a rescuer. And I assure you, she was as selective as they come. My kids and our other dog had to pass muster with Bonnie before Dolce came home with us.

About a year ago, Bonnie sent out word via email and her now-shuttered website that she had bought land in Virginia and was moving her Hearts for Hounds rescue operation there. The economy in southern California had tanked and not only were there more dogs needing rescuing, there were fewer people who could afford to adopt and keep them.

Virginia, Bonnie had learned through her research, was in better economic shape and would allow her to continue her life's mission: Find forever homes for abandoned dogs and cats.

So, did she let her plan get ahead of her? Was this the best, safest way to transport the animals she felt the deepest responsibility for? I have no idea, and frankly, neither do you.

As a journalist of 30-plus years, I'm appalled at the innuendo that passes as reporting on this story. Some media outlets have suggested that Bonnie was fleeing the authorities, rushing out of town before there was an inspection of her facilities. Uh, when you rush to get out of Dodge, you don't generally alert several thousand people to the escape plan, do you?

Bonnie probably doesn't remember me, but when our 14-year-old Golden passes, I assure you my first call would have been to her.

For information about how to at least make sure Bonnie gets a fair trial, check out the Belmont Shore Patch site here. And until then, don't be so fast to judge a rescuer by her collar.

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