Q: I’ve read about pets left behind after foreclosures and people giving up their pets due to the economy. It breaks my heart and I want to help, but I just can’t take in another dog right now. What can I do to help pets in my community without taking in another animal?
A: It can be difficult to ignore emails or Facebook posts about cute little pups and kittens in need of forever homes. In this down economy, the number of pets in need seems to be rising steadily. Just as I shared tips to help your favorite charity without writing a big check, there are ways to help pets without taking in another animal.
When Ami Ciontos (right, with a rescue named Basil) and her husband first laid eyes on their new home in southwest Atlanta, it was an instant love connection. The massive lot offered plenty of room for their dogs as well as any foster pets. Before they moved into the house, their space became rescue central for homeless dogs in a neighborhood under transition. But Ciontos knew that there would never be enough space to affect the number of strays, particularly pit bulls, roaming busy streets near her home.
“You are not going to solve the [pet overpopulation] problem with rescue; it’s mathematically impossible,” Ciontos says. “We have to educate people and help them do better.”
To improve the lives of pets and people in her community, Ciontos created a nonprofit called the Atlanta Underdog Initiative, which promotes responsible dog ownership, educates the public about pit bulls and mastiffs, and works to alleviate pet overpopulation. Sometimes that means driving to a single mother’s home to vaccinate a new litter of puppies after a busy work day; other times, it means driving teenaged neighbors to a nearby animal shelter so they can see the number of pit bulls in need of homes — and perhaps take steps to spay or neuter their young dogs.
“That’s how we make the impact,” says Ciontos. “We reach one person and they reach the next person.”
Some welcome the help. Others don’t. At times, even Ciontos can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of needy pets. On those days, she unplugs the electronic devices, reads a book or plays with her dogs.
Of course, not everyone has the time or the inclination to start a nonprofit or take to the streets and make a difference. There are other ways to help pets without creating your own 501c3. Atlantan Chris Mattox decided he would help pets by hosting a party — a big one. On July 23, Mattox and other bikers will take to the streets of Atlanta for the first Terminus City Ride to End Dog Fighting, followed by a massive party at a local restaurant.
“Not everyone likes benefits, but everyone likes a party,” Mattox says of the event that will raise money for seven nonprofits that help pit bulls. “A lot of charities do a lot of good, but it’s on a national scale and people forget about the person out vaccinating a neighbor’s dogs because they don’t have the money.”
His daughter Sydney and her relationship with their rescued pit bull, Jax P. Snugglebear, inspired the idea.
“She sees all this stuff on TV and in newspapers that don’t match what she sees in our house, and she can’t equate the two,” Mattox says. “She asked me what happens to the rest of them. That is heartbreaking. Not having an answer just doesn’t help.”
He focused his energy on raising $100,000 for seven local charities, including Ciontos’ Underdog Initiative and Coalition to Unchain Dogs, which builds free fences for people who keep their dogs outside and lobbies for anti-tethering laws. Mattox chose the name Terminus City — Atlanta’s original moniker — as a symbolic turning point for a breed and a city long connected to dog fighting.
“People want these great communities, but that doesn’t happen until you do something,” he says.“If this was the end of the line, let’s make it the end of the line and make change.”
From ending dog fighting to reducing the number of homeless pets, there are plenty of opportunities to help animals in need across the country. The first step is to determine how much time you can donate.
“If you can afford one Sunday and that’s all, just be honest about it,” Mattox says. “Say ‘I’ve got one Sunday. How can I help?’ Any of these [nonprofit] groups will be glad to get the help.”
As the event date approaches, Mattox has learned that even a killer party can be stressful. He patiently wades through countless conference calls, planning meetings and requests for sponsorship even though some ask whether it’s all a waste of time.
“I just laugh and say, ‘Maybe,’” he says. “But if they think that, then they don’t get it. Some things you can’t explain, some things are experiential — and until they have their own Jax they aren’t going to get it.”
Here are a few ways to help pets in your community:
Donate items: Old towels, pet toys, leashes and newspapers can be put to use in local animal shelters. Collect items from your neighborhood and then make a massive monthly donation.
Elbow grease: Sign up to volunteer at your local shelter. Most large facilities need assistance walking dogs, photographing adoptable pets, and simply providing human companionship.
Fill your social calendar: Check local event listings for fundraisers in your area. You may find a bike ride, dog wash or festival that fits into your schedule.
Pay it forward with your pet: The Delta Society is a nonprofit organization that trains people and their pets on the finer points of spreading cheer in hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
Search the Web: VolunteerMatch.org connects those who want to give back with those who have an immediate need for help. Simply enter “pets” and your city for a list of opportunities near you.
Inset photo of Ami Ciontos and Basil, a pit bull she took from the largest dog fighting raid in history in Missouri in 2009. She volunteered at the temporary shelter in St. Louis and brought Basil home once his owner signed him over. He has been placed in his forever home;
Photo of Ciontos at an annual neighborhood "bully" rally put on by Atlanta Underdog Initiative (both photos provided by Ciontos)