As puppies, Laquita Watson’s dogs Tiger and Puddin lived inside her east Durham house. Then she had a baby, who got sick and was hospitalized for long stretches, so Watson put the dogs in a pen outside. Soon, though, Tiger and Puddin found a way out and ran to the charter school across the street.
“They kept getting out, and the children at the school were scared of them, but they don’t bite,” Watson says. “The deputy sheriff had given me Mrs. Lori’s number, and I called.”
Lori Hensley, director of operations and development at the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, knew what to do. She organized a group of volunteers to build a secure fence, got the dogs fixed and offered help with food. Now Watson and her family can play with Tiger and Puddin without fear that the dogs will be taken from them. Oh, and the baby is doing just fine.
“They’re healthy and happy – and she’s happy,” Hensley says. “She was under a lot of stress.”
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This approach, with Watson and with many others, has garnered high praise for the Durham nonprofit. This past weekend, Hensley accepted the 2015 Henry Bergh Award, an honor the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) bestows upon a select few individuals and organizations each year. While many animal rescue groups focus on removing pets from less-than-ideal situations and adopting them out, Hensley focuses on fixing the situation itself. “If you do remove the dog, it doesn’t fix anything, and often they get another dog and then you’re right back in the same situation,” she says.
So Hensley flipped the script. It’s working, and the model is spreading.
‘A cultural change’
“Not only has she figured out a solution, but I think she has implemented a cultural change,” says ASPCA Special Events Director Katie Landow. “(Most) of the time, people really don’t want to give up their dog, but they feel like they have no option. That’s what it’s all about – it started a conversation.”
You can’t put your dog on a bus and take it across town.
In selecting recipients for the Henry Bergh Award, which is named for the ASPCA’s founder, the organization seeks people with passion and zeal for improving their community – something at the heart of Hensley’s mission.
For the Coalition to Unchain Dogs’ entire eight years, it has been focused on one of the poorest neighborhoods in Durham, an area just east of downtown where more than half the population lives below the poverty line. In such an area, only 20 percent of pets have been spayed or neutered (the national average, Hensley says, is 80 percent). Pressure in the form of animal control visits or citations can make people in these areas feel they have no option but to surrender their pets, Hensley says – particularly since this neighborhood is both a food desert and a pet resource desert.
“There are no PetSmarts, Petcos, affordable veterinary offices,” Hensley says. “You can’t put your dog on a bus and take it across town. Often people end up surrendering their pet because they end up getting fined and they get scared, even though they love their pet.”
If for whatever reason you lost everything tomorrow and you had to experience being poor, it wouldn’t change the love you have for your dog right now.
Since many residents didn’t have access to basic vet care, Hensley brought the access to them. Through fundraising and with the help of grants, the Coalition provides transportation, covers the cost of vet care, buys food and, yes, builds fences. And every dog they work with is spayed or neutered. All this is done, Hensley says, with zero judgment or preconceptions toward the people in the area.
“Judgment doesn’t work, and it’s not what people need,” Hensley says.
Model is spreading
While Coalition to Unchain Dogs remains based in and centered on Durham, similar organizations have since cropped up around North Carolina and as far afield as Nashville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Charleston, S.C. Some, such as Fences for Fido in Portland, Ore., started with Hensley’s direct assistance. “I definitely have seen this model pop up a number of places and people trying to do the same thing,” Landow says. “There are other organizations who are reaching out to Lori and trying to understand what she is doing.”
Still, there are some things Hensley is helpless to change – systemic poverty, for one, and gentrification, for another. With all of Durham’s booming growth – the influx of new people and the proliferation of upscale restaurants – poverty has not changed east of downtown; if anything, it’s getting worse. Residents in this area are regularly displaced as they’re priced out of their own neighborhoods.
“We are in a crisis,” Hensley says. “I’m dealing with four of our clients who are being evicted. One of them is strictly being evicted because of gentrification, there is no other reason.” She can deal with any call, she says, except for these. When her clients lose their homes, all she can do is transport the dogs to the shelter. Momentarily, this upbeat woman sounds defeated.
If residents get to keep their homes, though, Hensley can work with them: in its eight years, the Coalition has spayed or neutered about 2,000 dogs, and Hensley says she can’t go into the neighborhood without being flagged down. People like Watson are appreciative for what she does, and they’re telling their friends and family about the organization that offers help, but not judgment.
“If for whatever reason you lost everything tomorrow and you had to experience being poor, it wouldn’t change the love you have for your dog right now. In fact, it might mean more to you if you had less,” Hensley says. “People living in poverty are no different than us, so I’d like to get over the concept of they shouldn’t have (pets) if they can’t afford them.”