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In 2019 Cara Achterberg set out to learn the reality of animal rescue in parts of America where even people often struggle to make a good life. Her hope in writing her second dog book, One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and A Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues, is that the stories will stimulate people to foster dogs, volunteer at their local shelters and do whatever is in their power to improve the lives of dogs who, for what ever reason, find themselves without humans of their own. Cara fosters dogs for OPH, Operation Paws for Homes, a foster-based rescue in Chesterfield, Virginia.
One Hundred Dogs and Counting is filled with heroic characters, hopeless situations, and wonderful dogs, many of whom have no chance at a good life in a loving home. It is a detailed collection of personal experiences derived from Cara’s journeys to visit dog rescues, shelters and, yes, pounds in some of the most economically depressed regions in America. One Hundred Dogs and Countingasks the important, serious question. Do dogs in rural animal shelters suffer and die “…because [people] don’t care or because they don’t know?”
The most basic question the book seeks to answer is “how do dogs end up in shelters?” There is a variety of reasons, but it’s often just because the dog’s people aren’t up to the job. Not all dogs are “good dogs” right away. Training a dog needs patience, optimism and time — and sometimes a professional. As Cara writes, “So many people want a “turnkey” dog, one that requires very little of them. A dog who is housebroken, crate-trained, good on a leash, loves everyone, listens perfectly, doesn’t chase cats or deer or squirrels, one that, effectively, doesn’t act like a regular dog. Turnkey dogs are rare. And they don’t happen without a lot of work.”
In One Hundred Dogs and Counting Cara paints a vivid picture of the effect of human poverty on domestic animals. Still, human poverty is not the only driver leading dogs to be abandoned. “Much of [what I was seeing in these shelters] was a culture problem. I was learning that many people in rural, poor areas simply did not value their pets. Dogs were more like livestock…they weren’t as much pets as property. ‘It’s just a dog/cat’ was a phrase we heard again and again.”
Poverty, culture, and something more; gentrification.
Visiting a sad shelter in Shelbyville, Tennessee, Cara asked a deputy sheriff why he thought so many dogs ended up there.
“He offered an interesting perspective I hadn’t considered. He said that the history of dogs in rural areas was that people owned large pieces of land and the dogs roamed freely, but as development came to Shelbyville, open, unoccupied spaces filled up as neighborhoods and businesses came in. Yet many people continued to allow their dogs to roam free as they always had. More run-ins with people, more contact with other (unsterilized) dogs led to more Animal Control calls, more dogs seized, and more unwanted puppies…there never seemed to be an end or even a slow-down. When would all the dogs be safe?”One Hundred Dogs and Counting
As bleak as many of these stories are, One Hundred Dogs and Counting focuses on the success stories and positive steps to change the dark, nearly overwhelming, situation in these shelters — or shelters anywhere — where dogs languish in filth and disease waiting for death.
Cara writes, “…an animal shelter is a service to the community.” Mixed among the many stories of over-crowded shelters where dogs suffer until they’re euthanized or, miraculously, adopted, Cara writes about the magic effected by Kristin Reid, a passionate woman in Tennessee. The Cheatham County Animal Control “…is an open-intake shelter with a tiny budget of only $60,000 a year, yet for all intents and purposes, Kristin [the director] has managed to turn it into a no-kill shelter, even if she doesn’t have that status officially. She works hard to move dogs out through rescues, which allows her to work with some of the harder to place dogs longer.”
What Cara describes is amazing.
“After tackling the shelter building, animal care, and staffing, Kristin set her sights on rebuilding the respect and support of her community. Instead of focusing on what she didn’t have—volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—she instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The shelter sits on one side of the Cumberland River and most of its community is on the other side. To reach the shelter, you have to drive over one of the bridges and follow the long, winding road that Nancy and I had just traveled. Kristin needed something to draw the people to the shelter.
Kristin set to work creating trails through their woods and began a rock- painting program. The staff and fledgling volunteer program began painting and placing rocks with positive messages on the trails. Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club.”One Hundred Dogs and Counting
One of the keys to saving dogs, as Cara has written persuasively and demonstrated in her own life, is fostering. Fostering dogs takes them out of shelters leaving room for more dogs to be taken off the streets and placed where they might get some of the help and care they need.
People who are able to invite dogs into their homes and lives until the dog finds its people are unusually big-hearted and emotionally brave. “…people fostering dogs all over our country [are] connected by an invisible web spun from our shared passion…All these dog-hearted people, working together, [is] the only way it was possible to save so many lives.”
Maybe every dog owner has a favorite breed, and Cara’s heart goes out to pit bulls, though, she insists, there is no such breed and she’s right. It’s a “look” with a bad reputation. She describes one encounter at a high-kill shelter that marked the kennel cards of dogs who were to be euthanized with a large “X.”
“I lingered outside the kennel of Sheba, a cute black puppy with a white nose. She was friendly and eager and grateful for the treats I passed through the fence. I looked past the enormous X scrawled across her kennel card and read that she was six months old and picked up as a stray and had no bite history. And then I saw her crime. She was a pit bull mix. …Ultimately, OPH would save Sheba. She would…prove to be a delightful foster dog and get adopted faster than most. But would we have been as convicted to save Sheba if she didn’t have an X on her kennel card?”One Hundred Dogs and Counting
This is not an easy book to read, and it shouldn’t be. “…Words were my only weapon in this war to save dogs, and what I saw each day of the tour only sharpened my sword.”
One Hundred Dogs and Counting is dedicated to her beloved blue-eyed pit bull, Frankie, a dog she had rescued, the dog of Cara’s heart. Frankie had to be put down during the interval in which Cara was visiting these shelters and seeing one bully dog after another, good dogs with wide smiles and wagging tails and no chance of adoption. I know that Cara was reluctant even to think of another dog. She found it hard to believe that the sad space in her heart could open again after Frankie, but a little brown dog, covered with excrement, cold and neglected in one of the worst shelters, was waiting for her.
In my experience as an owner of many dogs over the years, almost all of them rescues, adopted after the loss of a beloved friend, the dog who is meant to be ours recognizes us before we recognize them. ❤
“She wiggled her butt and danced around as I led her back to her kennel, as if trying to convince me to take her somewhere else instead. On a whim, I asked Trisha if we could get a video of her with another dog, just in case I could talk somebody at OPH into rescuing her, even though I knew that person would likely be me. Trisha pulled out the blond dog from the back and we introduced them. My little girl, who I was calling Fanny, only wanted to play. We caught it on video, and I hoped it would be enough to convince the powers that be that she was dog-friendly. I didn’t want to put Fanny back in her kennel to die. Why couldn’t I just take her with me? Sensing my hesitation, she glanced up with at me with impossibly sad eyes, even though her tail never wavered.
“I’m sorry, girl,” I whispered as I opened her kennel gate. She walked slowly inside and then lay down against the fence, watching as Trisha sprayed out another kennel. We moved all the dogs to clean runs, gave them fresh water, and fed them before reluctantly leaving. Later, when I talked to [my husband] Nick on the phone, I told him about the little brown dog. There was something about her that touched my heart, it was as if I knew her already. Her pain was my pain. I would study the pictures Ian [Cara’s son] took of her and those eyes would haunt me for months.”One Hundred Dogs and Counting
Cara’s broken heart fully opened for that little brown dog, and Fanny now lives with Cara and her husband, Nick, at their home in Pennsylvania. Fanny is a bundle of life and love and is the BEST friend of every foster dog who spends time in their family home.
The net result of these difficult journeys?
“If my trips south had taught me anything, it was that this problem was fixable. It will take all of us. Every person can do something. In this country where we love dogs to an extreme, spending millions on grooming and dog walkers and daycare, there is no shortage of people who care about dogs or have money to be spent on dogs. There are solutions, but the first step is awareness.” One Hundred Dogs and Counting
One Hundred Dogs and Counting is available on Amazon or contact the author at any of the links below.
You can learn more about Cara’s journey on her website, Who Will Let the Dogs Out. Some of the proceeds of the book go to Operation Paws for Homes (OPH). The book is also beautifully illustrated with photos from the journey and the dogs Cara met. ❤
In her first dog book, Another Good Dog, Cara tells about her experiences with the first fifty dogs she fostered. To learn more about Cara’s fostering and rescue efforts, enjoy her stories and lovely writing — Cara also writes fiction! — visit her blog, Another Good Dog