This summer, two weeks before school starts, I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with staff members of Helen Woodward Animal Center and several foster families. For fifty years, this San Diego County animal shelter has dedicated itself to protecting and sheltering orphaned pets from across the country. None of it would be possible without the help of its staff, donors, volunteers, and fostering and adopting families.
Monica Petruzzelli is Helen Woodward’s public relations manager. She told me that Helen Woodward is on constant alert to keep up with rescuing hundreds of animals each month arriving from pounds in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and other states. Some animals they receive come from dangerous situations.
Last month, the center participated in the largest dog rescue in history — an operation that freed 4,000 beagles from a breeding facility in Virginia. Most of these dogs are 5 to 7 years old but have never eaten a treat, played with a toy, or slept in a bed.
Out of the 4,000 rescued beagles, forty-three are now safe under Helen Woodward’s roof. There are many more dogs like these beagles that still need our help, and without us they have nobody.
Helen Woodward sends puppies and kittens to 20 to 30 foster families in the San Diego area every month. Erin Schmitt, the center’s foster supervisor, told me, “Human interaction is the most valuable thing we can ask for. We need foster families to temporarily watch over puppies and kittens in their own homes. Once a dog can live with a foster family, they have been saved.”
The center provides the foster families with the animals and all the necessary supplies they will need. Fostering is an elegant and effective way to address the center’s two most pressing issues: creating room in the shelter to accept more rescued animals, and transitioning the existing animals into a permanent home through adoption.
Petruzzelli believes fostering can change your life. “Thatcher, a rescued beagle I’m fostering, has been given a new lease in life, and watching him seize his life back is a feeling you can’t find anywhere else,” she said. “When he first arrived at my house from the Virginia breeding facility, he faced the stairs for the first time with fear. Now when I call him, he runs up and down like a natural.”
No one knows the joy of fostering better than the long-time fosterer Maura Skinner. Working with Helen Woodward over several years, she has welcomed more than 75 animals into her home with the help of her husband, four daughters, and their three dogs. Growing up in Ventura County, she was shocked by the number of homeless dogs and cats on the street, so she knew she had to do something to help them.
“It’s hard work, but it’s really a labor of love,” she said. “Dogs and cats are the voiceless, and it’s our duty to help them fulfill their right to a loving family.”
Her selflessness has inspired countless people to foster pets, and a few weeks ago my own family joined in. We took in two 8-week-old boxer puppies named Ollie and Octagon. I now spend many afternoons in my backyard watching them race in the sun, weave between bushes, and bite at strawberries.
According to Schmitt, the first few months of these puppies’ lives are the most important for developing social relationships with humans and other dogs. When Ollie and Octagon learned to recognize the sound of a bouncing soccer ball and to love chasing it, that piece of them will become one more thing their future family will have the joy of discovering. As Petruzzelli put it, “The small things make the biggest differences in a dog’s life.”
Petruzzelli, Schmitt, Skinner and all the other employees and volunteers at Helen Woodward work hard to inspire other people to share their passion and join the fostering effort. As a result, the center has received abundant help from the community in the form of volunteers, foster families and donations.
So far, Helen Woodward has received over 200 applications to adopt the rescued beagles. The adoptions department is still going through the applications, trying to find the right fit for each beagle depending on their needs. As of now, a small number of beagles have already been adopted.
The combined efforts of our community are inspiring, but the rate of incoming animals never slows. The fight to save the lives of every dog and cat in our country is a struggle, and the Helen Woodward Animal Center is at the center of the battle. These orphaned pets are depending on everybody’s efforts to show them the way to their forever homes.
Jack Shi is a 15-year-old junior at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley.