Over the past year, I've been getting involved with several animal rescue groups in the Los Angeles area where I live. Their Facebook pages are compelling and the dramatic rescue videos they post often go viral - with good reason. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like a homeless, terrified, dog being saved from a horrible, lonely death on the streets.
One local group - the Bill Foundation - stands out from the crowd, taking on the most desperate, seemingly hopeless dogs you could imagine. And against all odds miracles happen - seriously ill and injured dogs recover, and people with the patience and kindness of saints step forward to take these miracle fur-babies into their homes and hearts.
I wanted to learn more about the Bill Foundation, so I contact Annie Hart, whose postings on Facebook had caught my attention. As we talked, I discovered that her personal story was just as compelling and powerful as that of the animals she works with. She started out to rescue dogs, but in the end they rescued her.
BJ: Tell me about your background, Annie. How did you get into rescuing dogs?
Annie: In the fall of 2010, I was working at a top advertising agency and had recently been appointed a director. I spent my days with true creative geniuses, and it seemed I was living the American Dream.
But it really wasn't. I was miserable. I didn't like the job, and I never saw my husband, James. No amount of money or recognition was making that better.
Then I began to get sick. It started with severe jaw and ear pain and a constant migraine, followed by insomnia, stomach issues, and full-body pain. I had some bizarre weight gain. My personality shifted and I went from being an energetic, forward thinking, happy gal, to a person my husband didn't recognize. I was constantly angry, confused and withdrawn. I found myself crying all the time, without cause and in the middle of important meetings with the top execs at my company. I had always had the memory of an elephant and was able to juggle 50 things at once and suddenly I couldn't remember what day it was.
Things went from bad to worse very fast and I was almost completely non-functioning and at risk of loosing my job. I was a shell of my old self and completely unrecognizable. My husband James intervened and took me in to see my long-time therapist, who took one look at me and told me I had to go on medical leave immediately. I fought him like crazy, but in the end, he and my husband won.
I was so ashamed ... I thought I had lost my mind and didn't want anyone to know. I couldn't stand the idea of looking weak or broken. I made James swear not to tell our families what was going on and it broke his heart to have to hide what he and I were going through. We went into hiding. I still feel awful that I made James suffer that way, but I'm so grateful to have a partner who was willing to make such a sacrifice for me.
I went on medical leave and endured nine months of exhaustive diagnostics and 20 specialists before I got my diagnosis: fibromyalgia and a severe sleep disorder that causes me to wake up over two dozen times an hour! There is no cure, but both can be treated.
BJ: I can only imagine how upset you must have been to get such a serious diagnosis.
Annie: Indeed. I recall sitting in my therapist's office, crying, "Why me?" My husband James and I had been married just two years and this illness was testing both of us on every level - and testing our marriage as well. It all seemed so unfair.
I'll bet anyone would feel that way.
You're probably right, but the pity party got cut short. In the middle of my pity party, my therapist stopped me and said, "No one owes you anything. You are not owed a perfect, healthy life. Anything you get in this world is a gift, so stop thinking you're special just because life has handed you some hurdles. Get over yourself and find a way to live."
My therapist is very wise indeed. He went on to say that it was important for me to try and do something besides lying in bed all day, watching TV and going to doctor's appointments. Even though I had no energy to get out of bed, He said I needed a push. He asked me "if money wasn't an object, I was healthy and I could just do what I loved, what would I do?" I was stumped. No one had ever asked me that before.
What was your answer?
My husband and I talked a lot about this, and the single thing we kept coming back to was my love of dogs. I thought maybe I could help a dog rescue group. Stephanie, a friend and vet tech, introduced me to Jo Forman, the founder of Bill Foundation, that rescues dogs and places them in adoptive families.
When I first met Jo, I felt like I had known her forever. She needed a lot of help at the office. I began by meeting with her twice a week for two hours at a time, but that was all I could handle. Going to a shelter was just too much for me, emotionally and physically.
Then I met a dog named Ralph. Eldad Hagar (of Hope for Paws), is an animal rescuer who is well known for his dramatic and moving rescue videos. Eldad has a very gentle way of capturing dogs, and he had just saved very scared and aggressive street dog named Ralph. I watched the video of Ralph's rescue probably twenty times that first night. I wanted to help and be a part of his story.
What did you do?
I spent time with Ralph where he was being boarded. He behaved like a complete gentleman ... until I turned my back to leave. Then Ralph panicked. He bit my calf, latched hard on and would not let go.
For about ten seconds, I was frozen while someone tried to get him off me. I was left with a deep wound, but what surprised me was that I was not mad. I felt sad for Ralph and that he was so scared about people leaving him. He must have been through a lot.
I felt a deep connection to Ralph. Even though he had fought the very people who were trying to save his life, they didn't give up on him and he was now surrounded with people who loved him and were committed to his well-being. I knew that I too was blessed to have people in my life - my husband and therapist in particular - who didn't give up on me at my sickest point and worked hard to save me.
Ralph showed me what my calling was. I knew that this was what I was meant to do with my life - help dogs like Ralph get the second chance they deserved.
Annie Hart and Ralph (photo courtesy Annie Hart)
That's a powerful experience. How has your life been since Ralph?
I found myself begging to go to the shelter with Jo, and though it was hard, the satisfaction of saving an innocent animal made the hardship worth it.
In July of 2012 I received a plea to rescue a Shih Tzu and her four-day-old puppies from a local city shelter. She was severely matted and struggled to nurse her babies. I called Eldad Hagar and asked him to help make a video of the rescue in an attempt to raise money for Bill Foundation. He told me to just grab my camera and start shooting. So I did, and the video I made went viral - it's been viewed more than two million times worldwide.
Not bad for your first video! What happened after that?
In September 2012, I happily accepted the position of executive director for the Bill Foundation. It has been quite a ride - less than a year so far - and I know the journey is just beginning.
My latest rescue dog - a blind girl named Tessa who has hydrocephalus (water on the brain), leaving her unable to walk due to dizziness - has challenged me once again. Trying to rehabilitate Tessa has taken every ounce of energy I have - but she also fills my heart with joy and lights up my days with delight.
I still have fibromyalgia and a severe sleep disorder and must be careful how much I work. I have some bad days when getting out of bed is not an option, but I also have really good days. Knowing that I have countless dogs depending on me means I need to take care of myself - if not for my own sake, for theirs.
I know now that getting sick was a blessing. My body's manifestation of stress pushed me to search for my true calling and happiness. Bill Foundation has given me a second chance at a fulfilling career, and rescuing dogs has filled the void in my heart. I am forever changed. While many people say I am a rescuer of dogs, the truth is that the dogs rescued me.
Annie Hart and several of her rescuers (photo courtesy Annie Hart)
For more information about the Bill Foundation and to support the incredible work they do visit www.billfoundation.org
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