Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pet Issue Part I: Paradise found at Living Free sanctuary

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace.” - Milan Kundera, Czech author of "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being"

“I love my cats because I love my home, and little by little they become its visible soul.”- French playwright Jean Cocteau

Great thinkers, poets and playwrights have all waxed philosophical about the role our pets play in our lives. It’s easy to see why; nothing enriches us greater than having pets.

Besides the psychological benefits of companionship we receive from our familiars; the merits of pet ownership have been scientifically proven to decrease your cholesterol and triglyceride levels along with your blood pressure.

Pets are the perfect prescription to fight loneliness. Just having a few extra heartbeats under your roof at night makes the world not seem so daunting. Don’t we all sleep better knowing our dog or cat will be excited to see us first thing in the morning?

In our community, our pets are more — they become our surrogate children. How many of you have pictures of your beloved dog or cat on your phone or in your wallet? How many of us have been a strong shoulder to cry on for a friend who has had a pet pass?

Chances are, if you’re LGBT, you have a little four-legged friend (or feathered or finned) waiting for you at home right now — or are planning on getting a pet when you settle down.

That’s why we here at The BottomLine dedicate this issue to pets, as a salute to their role in making our lives better…and awakening us all to the power of unconditional love and devotion. The great French Nobel Laureate for literature, Anatole France summed it up best: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”Living Free animal sanctuary saves pets lives

It was a glorious day for a drive; the cerulean desert sky almost neon in intensity against the umber backdrop of the south side of the San Jacintos. Red-tailed hawks cut lazy circles in the mountainous air, riding the invisible morning thermals. Small patches of vibrant hued wildflowers haphazardly painted the rocky ground Pollock-style, a final rebellion against the austerity dictated by the coming summer temperatures.

And for once I had the opportunity to properly consider the tableau afforded by driving up the 74 — my wife was at the wheel, allowing me to gawk to my hearts content without worrying about the rubber parting with the roadway. I could just enjoy the ride, and I did.

Our destination was an idyllic 153 acres nestled in the mountains amongst the Ponderosa pine, sage and grass — the Living Free Animal Sanctuary south of Idyllwild, just outside of Mountain Center. Living Free is just that, a place for animals to live, heal and find permanent, loving owners-to-be. It’s a no-kill animal sanctuary that rescues dogs and cats from certain death at various shelters.

When we reached our destination, I had to smile. The facility reminded me more of my family’s ranch in Wyoming than an animal shelter. The setting was beautiful, with well-kept ranch-style buildings scattered through what is best described as a typical mountain meadow. The facility is truly serenity personified and I couldn’t wait for our tour.

Our host, Clay Helgren, who’s in charge of public relations for Living Free, dressed in his mountain finest consisting of jeans, denim shirt, T-shirt and hiking boots smiled warmly as he descended the steps of the visitor center to greet us.

Before I even reached Clay to shake his hand, two things struck me. First, the sound of the breeze gently rustling through the pine, immediately followed by the realization it was quiet enough to hear that! Where was the mad barking so often associated with animal shelters? All I could hear was the wind and birds chirping. As I was soon to find out, this was no ordinary animal shelter, in more ways than just the striking beauty and tranquility of the place.

In fact, Clay had informed me over the phone when we were arranging our tour that Best Friends Animal Shelter, the canine rescue shelter in Utah made famous by the NatGeo show, Dogtown, had visited the Living Free campus back in the Eighties specifically to see their facility before they built their own in Utah. Best Friends actually asked permission to model their octagon shaped kennels after being impressed with the quality of the roomy dog runs afforded by such an architectural building style.

After introductions in the welcoming center, we first met their feline visitor ambassador, Miss Amazing. The two-year-old black cat with tuxedo markings was rescued when she was just a little kitten.”Her back legs are twisted and paralyzed,” Clay explained, “but she doesn’t know she’s different from other cats.” He paused, smiling like a proud parent before continuing, “She doesn’t know that she is special. When she is out she will barrel through this office — she’s even caught mice before!”

Quite frankly, it’s an amazing feat for a cat that is literally a paraplegic. Clay added that this special needs superstar is up for adoption to the right person who has the time and temperament to take care of her.

So after some brief exchanging of anecdotal personal pet stories about some of our rescued animals (we have four dogs and three cats at home, the majority rescued) Clay explained Living Free’s mission. “Living Free is non-profit and totally donor supported,” he began, “and we are one of the few no-kill rescues in Southern California.

“What we do is we go to the local public shelters and we rescue the cats and dogs that are scheduled to be euthanized. We cannot accept pets from the public because that’s been in our charter for the last thirty years that we save the ones that are on death row. We also have a very strict quarantine whenever we do a rescue. Next week we are able to rescue five or six more dogs and that’s always based on how many adoptions we’ve had and what we get from donors. So right now we have room and are probably going to go down to Coachella animal shelter and rescue five or six.”

But how do they determine which animals get a second chance at life I wanted to know. How do they choose who gets rescued when there are so many on death row?

“It’s tough because when we go they will usually have on the cages a date that is from this day forward they can be euthanized. We will go through [the facility] and they usually have an outdoor area we take them to go play with them to check their social skills.

“Will they let you pick them up? Can you hold them? Can you play with them? How are they with other dogs — other cats? You know, things like that.

We do a little temperament testing.

For example, if you and I are doing a rescue, you will be paying attention to the dog and I’ll reach over and slightly tug at its back leg to see its reaction. Is the dog going to look back and go, ‘Hmm, what was that?’ or is it going to go ‘Grrrr rowr rowr!’ Whoa, OK put that one back! We need to make sure these animals are adoptable and not aggressive. But the thing is there are sooo many out there that are being euthanized, it’s tough.”

After they return up the hill with the lucky dogs, or cats, they make sure the animals are fit.

“We do full blood panels and fecal testing — a whole battery of tests on them. We make certain that all their shots are current and they are also spayed or neutered if they haven’t been already. Our quarantine is three weeks to a month. Our vet gives them a thorough exam and then they are put up for adoption. So people know they are getting a healthy dog or cat. We hear all the time about people picking up animals from the shelter that aren’t healthy and then they’re saddled with enormous vet bills, so we take care of all that so it never happens with one of our animals.”

Clay was now ready, and eager for us to see the rest of Living Free Animal Sanctuary. Fifteen minutes into the tour, it was easy to see why Best Friends had adopted Living Free’s establishment model — it’s a wonderful space for dogs and cats to inhabit.

Our first stop was the adoptions cattery; a spacious building that features a fully enclosed patio resembling an aviary. The numerous cats in two separate wings of the building were free to climb outside and catch the morning sun and watch the birds and squirrels in nearby trees. Or they could instead snuggle cozily in the plethora of cat beds inside, each with its own blanket, located on spacious shelves by the windows. Living Free doesn’t believe in cages so all the cats are free to roam the home environment as they please.

It was amazing how friendly the cats were as they approached my wife and I as we sat in chairs in the middle of the room. It was easy to see just how well socialized and happy these felines were, most of the four-legged residents erupted into loud purring while we petted them. My wife was quick to note how immaculate, inside and out, the cattery was — there wasn’t a cat hair to be found on the floor and the bed blankets were relatively fur free.

But it wasn’t until after we were leaving the building that it hit us; there wasn’t an assault on our olfactory senses, despite being in a building that hosted close to 20 cats! No litterbox smell. No ammonia smell. No animal smell. Nothing. It was so clean we hadn’t even noticed the lack of odor! When was the last time you were at a shelter free of animal odor? Truly remarkable!

Clay then drove us in the golf cart past the serenity garden where pet owners who have lost a pet can spread their ashes and receive a wind chime to hang on the pine trees speckling the gentle hillside along with a stepping-stone inscribed with the beloved pet’s name for a nominal fee.

He took the opportunity while we soaked in the sight of the garden framed by the breathtaking background of the San Jacinto Mountains to explain another terrific program Living Free offers.

“We are no-kill so any of the animals you see, if they are not adopted, for whatever reason, they will continue to live out their lives here. We also have a continuing care program, which is specifically designed that if anything happens to you, you can stipulate in your will that you want your pets to come to Living Free.”

How wonderful to know you can ensure your pet never ends up in a shelter where it can be euthanized after you pass by setting up a grant with the sanctuary.

Our next stop, the canine adoptions kennel. What can I say? Spacious runs with two dogs per run in the octagonal complex and clean, clean, clean! Again, you could smell and see how clean the kennel was kept. There wasn’t a doggy odor or urine smell (or worse!) associated with the kennel.

So what’s the secret to keeping it clean? “It’s diligence,” Clay is quick to respond. “All our employees and volunteers are right on top of everything. We keep it clean and spotless.”

All the canine companion candidates were friendly and healthy, in all sizes, shapes and colors. We were greeted by a lot of wagging tails and I could have sworn some of the pooches were actually smiling. If you want to find a well cared for and socialized dog, this is the place.

I already know in my heart my wife and I will make Living Free our first stop the next time we adopt either a dog or cat. For full bios with pics of all the dogs available for adoption, visit living-free.org and click “Meet the Dogs.”

At the end of our tour, following an inspection of the empty quarantine kennel, Clay treated us to a quick visit to the maternity ward. Occasionally they’ll rescue a dog that unbeknown to them is pregnant, as was the case of an adorable black long-haired Chihuahua mix named Itty Bitty.

She’s a proud mama of three male pups that will steal your heart! Dubbed Crosby, Stills and Nash, the boys are fast approaching adoptable age so if you want a puppy that almost didn’t have the chance to be born, give Living Free a call today. Nothing like a little puppy therapy to make your day brighter!

While Living Free Animal Sanctuary has a full time staff of 13 diligent, friendly and helpful individuals like Margie (who allowed us to play with Duncan, one of the dogs up for adoption, after our tour) there are also a number of volunteers to help maintain such a fantastic place. They help nurture “the positive loving aspects” of the rescued animals by assisting with various tasks.

From simply just spending time playing and exercising the animals, to training, to cleaning the catteries and kennels, to grooming and feeding —there are plenty of opportunities to help with the care and well being of the animals. I can’t think of a better way to show your support to such a fine organization, except of course, monetary or item donations, which are always needed.

To find out how you can contribute to such a noble cause visit their website at living-free.org or call 951.659.4687. Better yet, visit Living Free every Friday through Monday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to see for yourself what a wonderful place this animal sanctuary is. I can’t recommend it highly enough, or do it justice through my words in this short article—you have to see it to believe it. It’s an amazingly special place to find your next best friend — canine or feline!


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