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Gimme Shelter

Two women bring the fight against pet overpopulation to Shelby Farms.



Michelle Buckalew and Delores Provow are planning the ultimate day in the park: barbecue, live music, and lots and lots of dogs. Not to mention cats, birds, and maybe even a snake or two.

It's all in an effort to get the animals homes.

As shelters and animal-control offices nationwide struggle with what the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) calls "the crisis of pet overpopulation," the two women's ultimate day in the park aims to find homes for a portion of the tri-state area's abandoned animals. Called the Gimme Shelter Pet Adoption Festival, 50 shelters and animal "rescues" will convene at Shelby Farms this Saturday, with animals aplenty for immediate adoption.

The HSUS estimates that between 8 million and 10 million animals enter U.S. shelters each year. Of those, it is estimated that some 4 million to 5 million are euthanized because there simply aren't enough homes.

Many animal rescues -- groups that take in animals who are sick or whose time has expired at public shelters -- are "no-kill." They will keep an animal indefinitely until it's adopted into a good home.

At the Memphis Animal Shelter, strays that are picked up by animal control are kept for three days. It's a grace period for owners -- if there is one and they are so inclined -- to retrieve their pet. After that, the shelter either puts the animal up for adoption or puts the animal down. The shelter's policy on animal surrenders -- those animals given up by their owners to the shelter -- is that they can be euthanized immediately or put up for adoption. The outlook is not rosy. Since the orphans are competing for space in the kennels, only those that are deemed "adoptable" even have a chance. And depending on how many animals are taken in every day, even those might not last long.

"Many of the animals have never been out of the shelter and maybe never will again," says Buckalew. "You talk about a day in the park? This is it."

Which is why Buckalew, the marketing director for Clear Channel radio, and Provow, president of the Fayette County Animal Rescue (FCAR), decided to build on the trend of "adoption days," the grown-up equivalent of a box of free kittens outside the local grocery store.

"We've got to bring the public in," says Buckalew. "We have to let them know you don't go to puppy stores or backyard breeders. We have to turn to our shelters if we're going to get a handle on not destroying 10 million to 15 million animals each year. But a lot of people say, 'I get too depressed. I can't go into a shelter.' [The festival] will be a happy, open place where you can adopt an animal."

Provow nods her head in agreement and says, "Mobile adoptions are basically the only way you can get the animals out to more people." The smell of most shelters -- like a feral hospital, a mixture of musk and Lysol -- and the ear-splitting noise are just too much.

"People don't want to go to the shelters," says Buckalew, "so you've got to bring [the animals] out to the community."

Many of the problems associated with the Memphis Animal Shelter concern the facility's age. Built in the 1970s on 10 acres on Tchulahoma Road, the shelter has about 150 kennels and 200 cages and is at 100 percent capacity most of the year. Officials have wanted to upgrade the facilities for a while but have lacked funding. Last May, for instance, $1 million was included in the city's proposed budget for land acquisition for a new shelter, but the city council voted 6-3 to delay funding. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton included $1.1 million for a new shelter in his new budget proposal to the city council last week.

While the new shelter's funding is in limbo, private rescue groups -- some classified by breed, some by location -- do what they can to help the public system. For the Gimme Shelter event, each rescue group involved can bring 10 animals, meaning there will be about 500 animals available for adoption.

"Hopefully, it will soak into people's minds that you've got to spay and neuter your pets, because there simply aren't enough homes," says Provow. "I hope this function grabs some people. If there are this many groups in the tri-state area trying to help these animals, there is a serious problem."

According to figures from HSUS, an unspayed cat and her offspring can theoretically produce 420,000 cats in seven years. In six years, a female dog and her offspring can produce about 67,000 dogs.

Before founding the Fayette County Animal Rescue, with kennel facilities on her property, Provow was a part-time volunteer with other groups. Then she started her own group, got non-profit status so she could take in donations, and now has kennels which can hold up to 57 animals.

How many animals does she have right now? Fifty-seven.

"I'm a full-time volunteer," says Provow. "When I turned 50 last year, I said to my husband, 'Look, we've been married 30 years, and I have followed your dreams. I've helped you with your business.' I said, 'What's the most I got left to live? Say I live to 70; I've got 20 years left. Give me those 20 years to do what I feel passionate about. Helping these guys is what I feel passionate about.' He said, 'Okay, you've got it.' So that's what I do."

If Provow is down in the trenches with the animals, Buckalew is the voice on the front lines, working to tell people how they can help. The two women share an easy, if relatively new, camaraderie, bound together by a common cause.

"I always thought I was an animal lover," says Buckalew. She cites her two great loves as dogs and radio. Even though she had volunteered with the Humane Society, she says she wasn't in the loop about pet overpopulation until last year. Then she decided to do something about it.

Last August, Buckalew and a few other women organized the Memphis celebration of National Homeless Animal Day at Overton Park. It was the ninth such annual event nationally but the first for Memphis. It brought about 25 rescue groups together. Provow's FCAR was one of those.

"Every year in Fayette County, my group usually holds a chili cook-off or a big fund-raiser for the animals out there. I was thinking that we needed to do something on a larger scale," says Provow. "So I thought why not take it to Shelby County, offer it to every single rescue group out there, give them an opportunity to showcase their group and bring animals they have for adoption?

"I knew this was something that I couldn't do myself, so I e-mailed Michelle. We didn't even have a name for it when I contacted her."

"Delores called and said, 'Hey, let's do something.' I said, 'Okay,'" says Buckalew. "From there, the seed was planted. We exchanged phone calls and e-mails and it just took off."

Although the festival is built around finding homes for animals, Buckalew made sure that it isn't only for potential pet owners. People are encouraged to bring their own animals for discounted microchipping and vaccinations. Bumpercrop, Kim Richardson, and other bands will perform. And members of the Memphis Dog Squad, as well as officers from Animal Planet's popular Animal Precinct television show, will be on hand.

"We're telling people to bring their own dogs," says Provow. "This is something we do on adoption days. If they say, 'I kind of want to get a friend for my dog at home, but I don't know if they'll get along,' we say, 'Go home and get the dog, bring it up here, and we'll see.' We've had dogs just look at each other and jump all around and wag their tails. Then we've had some that went Don't come near me. So people are encouraged to bring their pets if they're looking for a companion dog. It's easier to have two than one, because they keep each other company."

Provow and Buckalew say that the festival has come together naturally, from the groups to the bands to the Animal Precinct stars getting involved.

"I called Dale Riedel [vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' (ASPCA's) Humane Law Enforcement group]," says Provow. "I told him what we were doing, and I said, 'Dale, we need your help.' We must have talked for two hours. He said, 'Well, you know there'll be expenses,' and I said, 'We don't have any money.' I asked him, 'Can you send [Animal Precinct star] Anne Marie Lucas down with somebody to talk about law enforcement?'"

Riedel agreed to send Lucas and team member Timothy Stack to Memphis and pay for their expenses, with the stipulation that the two officers give a presentation on investigating animal cruelty. Lucas also had a stipulation of her own: She wanted to see Graceland.

"We're really going to be there to bring awareness to other law-enforcement agencies about how to investigate cruelty against animals," says Lucas.

The animal-cruelty officer says that in her seven years with the ASPCA, she has seen a general and blatant disregard for animals. She's seen them starved to death, beaten, thrown out of windows, and even set on fire.

"Taking animals out of a bad situation -- remember, animal cruelty is a crime -- getting an animal out of a horrible situation and getting them a new home is really, really cool," says Lucas.

That's what many of the rescue groups do as well.

"What you'll see out in the county," says Provow, "is [animals] hit on the side of the road. If there are any that are healthy -- in the business, people call those adoptable animals --we don't take them. We let other people take them. We take the ones that people don't want, the ones that are sick, that have broken legs or broken hips."

Like other animal rescues, FCAR nurses animals back to health -- and averages about $600 in vet bills a week.The hope is that someone will then want to adopt them. The group is also the designated safe haven in Fayette County for animals being held in cruelty or criminal cases.

"We had this dog named Johnny," Provow says. "He'd been found on Highway 64. He'd been hit by a car and shot."

The group had Johnny for two years before somebody fell in love with him at one of the group's adoption days at Petco. Provow says she cried so much while she filled out the person's paperwork that they asked if she was sure she wanted to let him go.

"I'm saying yes, Johnny needs to go, because I've got this other dog I need to bring in. It makes me cry. We see [animals] at the very worst they can be, but we make them happy and healthy and make them available to some good, loving family," she says.

But it is hard work. Provow says that most people don't have a clue what the rescue groups go through. It's an endeavor that she calls dealing with life and death every day.

"Our kennels are outdoors," she says. "The animals are covered; they have doghouses and hay, so it's a very humane situation. But in the wintertime, they're out there in the rain and the sleet and the snow and the mud. You don't think about it. You're warm, sitting in front of the fireplace, while we're out there with raincoats and boots on, taking care of the babies twice a day, seeing that they get their exercise, seeing that they're taken care of, breaking ice in the water buckets if it gets too cold. People just don't think about what's involved."

Provow says her heart goes out to all the other rescue groups, because she knows how difficult it is. Not just the work but keeping a group afloat financially.

"Our new shelter is under construction right now. We have it framed, and recently we had the roof donated, but we're dead in the water because we're out of money. This is typical, because every nonprofit rescue group out there exists almost solely on donations. Most of them exist because of [people] sending them five or 10 dollars," says Provow. "We're broke right now, but we manage to get money in to keep [the animals] treated. We've got 57 animals but we can't take anymore, not until we find homes for these and we get more money in. You've got to think about what it costs to feed 57 dogs."

Buckalew and Provow are hopeful that this Saturday's festival will help make a dent in both those problems. They've let the rescue groups participate for free, and they plan to split any of the festival's proceeds with all the nonprofits that signed up. It might not be much, they say, especially split 50 ways, but at least it will be something.

"We just pray it doesn't rain," says Buckalew.

"It's not going to rain," counters Provow. "It's not."

The Gimme Shelter Pet Adoption Festival 2002 is Saturday, April 27th, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Shelby Farms' Patriot Lake. Admission is free. For information or to volunteer, call (901) 578-1160.

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