City Talk

November 8 - 21, 2002

Furry Friends offers refuge in a sea of unwanted pets

Photos by Christopher T. Assaf

city talk
Catherine's Ark

Catherine Hedges doesn't have much time for fun. A movie every other week or so is what passes for her social life. But one evening this summer was supposed to be different. The animal rescue organization she runs, Furry Friends Foundation, was having a fund-raiser at a bar in Chicago. "I thought, I'm going have fun tonight because I have to have fun once a month," she says. "I had a glass of wine." Then a call came into the bar from someone who must have seen a poster about the event. Hedges took the call. A voice at the other end asked, "Is this the shelter?"city talk

"Yes," Hedges replied.

"There's a pit bull tied up outside the Osco."


So much for fun. With one of her volunteers, Hedges took off for the Osco, where they found a "shady-looking character" who offered to take the dog. Hedges cares way too much about what can happen to a dog in the wrong hands to let that happen.

By the time she took the dog to an animal hospital for boarding and got back to the party, Hedges had missed an hour of the three-hour fund-raiser. And because she had already exceeded the number of dogs the vet would take at a discount, the boarding cost her $400. A small price to pay, in Hedges' mind, for saving a dog named Penny that turned out to be pet friendly and kid friendly and is now happily living in a home with another dog, a cat and an 11-year-old girl.

city talkThat incident tells a lot about Catherine Hedges. At 33, the petite blonde with a master's degree in psychology could be enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and a social whirl. Instead she spends 70 hours a week without pay rescuing dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, pet rats - even potbellied pigs - that other shelters would turn away or euthanize because they are old, sick, injured, temperamental or otherwise hard to place. Many of the dogs are pit bulls and Rottweilers, which some shelters put down automatically and others take only very selectively.

Four and a half years after starting Furry Friends, she admits to being overextended. At times she pushes herself to the brink of burnout. With cage space for only 29 dogs and cats, her count in mid-October was more than 160, two-thirds cats, one-third dogs, with the overflow farmed out to foster homes or boarded in doggie day-care centers, vet clinics and kennels.

"I make 100 phone calls per day," she says. "I put in 70 hours for the shelter in the average week and I don't get paid. I can barely keep up. Right now I'm juggling 166 animals, it's a lot of juggling. This foster person is going out of town. This person is returning a dog because it didn't get along with their cat. This dog didn't get along with the other dogs in day care. There's just so, so much work involved, just to keep everyone alive."

She knows she sometimes should say no to an animal in need, but too often can't. Take the night when a police officer from the city's animal abuse and control team alerted her to a TV report about a raid on a home filled with some 60 neglected and starving animals.

"I said 'I'm not gonna watch' because I couldn't handle another dog," but she did anyway. "At the end of the segment, Dorothy (a 9-year-old small mixed terrier) turned around and looked at the camera. She was all skin and bones. I'm like, Damn, I'll call the shelter. 'The three I saw on TV? I'll take them.' I couldn't save them all, but I took three dogs and eight cats." In her tiny office on the Near North Side, cramped with hamster cages, cat carriers, leashes, plastic bags, toys and treats, Hedges ignores the phone that rings almost constantly but stops to kiss and cuddle the dogs that parade in and out with their volunteer walkers.

She knows that when she picks up the voice mail, most of the calls will be about homeless animals. The caller may have found a stray dog on the street. A cat needs a home because its owner died. It may be someone from a county or city shelter who has taken pity on an animal whose time is up, calling to see if Hedges can give it a second chance. Or it may be an animal owner who just wants to get rid of a companion who has become inconvenient. The owners are moving and can't take the pet. They are getting married and the new spouse is allergic, or they are having a baby and worry about pet-borne diseases. Hedges has heard all the excuses and has a patient argument to counter each. Off the phone, she lets her frustration show. "People have it in their heads that animals are disposable," she says. "One guy called, he had two 9-year-old cats. He has a roommate moving in who is allergic to cats. I asked him, 'Have you thought about how they will react to being in a shelter after being with you for nine years?' I could tell I wasn't getting through to him."

Two more animals to fit into her already maxed-out facilities. But she feels she has no choice: At the city Animal Care and Control facility or the Anti-Cruelty Society, the overwhelming numbers of homeless animals means that the older ones are usually put down before they ever reach the adoption room. She doesn't blame those facilities - they are doing what they can for hundreds of animals dumped on them every week. But she is angry with people who fail to make a lifelong commitment to their pets. She has seen cats and dogs, abandoned by their owners, go into deep depression. She mourns right along with the animal.

"There are moments when I cry and cry and cry because I can't get a cat to eat when it is so depressed that its owner abandoned it." Hedges developed a deep love for cats while growing up in Chicago. In college, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she took in three cats that people no longer wanted. Returning to Chicago for graduate school at Loyola, she was volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter when she was asked to start up Furry Friends. It was supposed to be an eight-hour-a-week commitment to 29 animals at a time, but it mushroomed into much more. She soon abandoned plans to get her Ph.D., and devoted herself to the shelter, making ends meet by walking dogs and cat sitting. She sees it as a calling.

"I realized that this is what I was meant to do," she says. "Early on, a pit bull came in, it was rolling over, licking my face. I would not go by what society said about these dogs. I found a great home for it. A few months later I was camping in Michigan. I heard a dog barking. It was that dog. It was in a great home and it was out camping with its great owner."

A vegetarian who doesn't wear fur or leather, Hedges advocates tirelessly for all animals, even hamsters, the one species she'll admit to not liking. She even cuddles two Special Fancy Rats that ended up at the shelter when their owner moved to a smaller apartment. city talk

She acknowledges a prejudice for animals over people. "I like all the animals I meet, but not even close to all the people I meet. I meet great people - volunteers and adopters - and not-so-great people - relinquishers, like the rat lady."

Among dogs, pit bulls are her favorite, and she doesn't miss an opportunity to try to change their reputation as vicious animals. At pet adoption events, her volunteers hand out leaflets quoting statistics from the American Canine Temperament Testing Association: 95 percent of the American Pit Bull Terriers that took the association's test passed, compared to a 77 percent passing rate for all breeds on average.

There is no disputing the fact that pit bulls can be dangerous. Bred for the strength and tenacity needed for dog fighting, they are often abused by owners who want to create mean dogs for protection or for dogfights. During the 20-year period between 1979 and 1998, 238 people were killed by dogs in the United States and pit-bull type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of those deaths, according to a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Still, the AVMA's position is that all dogs have the potential to bite if not socialized correctly and that no breed should be singled out by communities seeking to protect residents from dangerous dogs. Chicago followed that model last year, rejecting breed-specific legislation in favor of an ordinance that penalizes irresponsible owners of "dangerous dogs," regardless of breed. Hedges applauds that ordinance. While she agrees that bad owners can create bad dogs, she has seen many pits, even ones that have been abused, that are good pets.

She introduces Victor, adopted three years ago by Mariann and Alan Demkovich. When found at a CHA housing project, he was abandoned, abused and malnourished. Most likely, his owner had thrown him out because he was not a good fighter. His ears had been cut off so an opposing dog would have less to latch onto. Victor lies calmly on the floor as people walk in and out, the picture of nonaggression. He lives peacefully with a cat. "I'd like to adopt a couple more," Mariann Demkovich says.

"Ninety out of 100 pits have great temperaments," Hedges says. "It's all about how a dog is socialized and raised, not about breed. We've had 300-plus people adopt pit bulls from us. If I had 20 strays come in and had to put one in with children, it would be a pit bull."

Cindy Hannon, who adopted the dog rescued outside the Osco, is one of her converts. She describes Penny as "a wonderful dog with a wonderful disposition. You could take a steak bone out of this dog's mouth and she wouldn't flinch."

An estimated 40,000 animals are euthanized every year at Chicago animal shelters. Tens of thousands more die on the streets from starvation or car accidents or acts of cruelty, including dogfighting, which has reached epidemic proportions in some neighborhoods. Against the perspective of those numbers, Furry Friends and a handful of other no-kill animal rescue groups in the city barely make a dent.

city talkHedges has her detractors, even among animal-welfare advocates, who say that she could save more animals if she didn't spend so much time and money on those whose problems make them less than desirable candidates for adoption. Some feel that all dogs that show aggression should be put down, for the protection of people and other pets. Others feel that more resources should be devoted to the plight of strays - animals that are suffering out of sight, out of mind, while attention is lavished on the few animals in shelters.

"A no-kill shelter is not realistic," says one humane investigator. "What people seem not to understand is that there aren't enough decent people to adopt the adoptable animals." To Hedges, being a no-kill shelter is everything. She attributes the devotion of her 80 regular volunteers and her contributors to the fact that she is no-kill. And to her, no kill means she can't pick and choose but must help animals regardless of age, health and breed.

"Sometimes we get an 'easy' animal, sometimes a 'hard' animal, and since we never have the money for the treatment or surgery required, we have to raise the money," she says. "So basically I'm in debt, and I'll probably always be in debt."

She tells the story of a 12-year-old long-haired Chihuahua that had been dipped in glue and dumped at the city pound, where he would have been euthanized had not a worker called Hedges, who agreed to take the dog. "He was so plugged with glue that he hadn't gone to the bathroom in a long time," she says. "He was very toxic and required a lot of care. It cost me $1,000, but he got a wonderful home in a week with a woman who really dotes on him."

Then there are the two kittens who suffer from a virus-induced brain disorder that upset their sense of balance. They cartwheel across the floor, and when they get to the litter box, they fall over, the urine squirting out. Hedges thought about the quality of life they would have, and came down on the side of saving them, paying to have them neutered. She's caring for them in her apartment, already crowded with a bevy of cats she will describe only as "too many" and an Akita-pit bull mix. The animals that end up at Furry Friends find themselves in the nirvana of shelters. Volunteers walk the dogs two to three times a day, and the cats get play time out of their cages. Each evening Hedges distributes blankets to the dogs so they'll have a bed to sleep on. Volunteer Bruce Bregenzer comes in once a week to give massages to abused dogs like Violet, a shepherd-hound mix who needs to get used to the human touch, and dogs like Maddie, the pit bull on CityTalk's cover, who is depressed after three months in the shelter. Each dog is temperament tested, to assess its ability to get along with adults, children and other animals, and those who fail go to K-9 University, where animal behavior expert Alan Rapata works on retraining - or as he puts it, re-imprinting - them, working as long as six months with a dog until it is ready to be adopted.

A few dogs are beyond re-imprinting, resistant even to Rapata's expert treatment. Hedges and her volunteers raise money to send those unadoptable dogs to an animal refuge in Sherman, Texas, which, for a price, promises to take care of the dogs for the rest of their lives. The unadoptable cats - the old and the sick - end up in Hedges' apartment. "I don't want them to die in a cage," she says. city talk

Will there ever be a "normal life" for Catherine Hedges?

"There has to be," she says emphatically. She can already see it coming together. A small inheritance from her mother has allowed her to cut down on the dog walking and cat sitting. Her number two at the shelter, Linda Widmer, is putting in 20 to 30 hours a week, in addition to her full-time job, and a few other devoted volunteers have pitched in, allowing Hedges to stay home on Wednesdays and Sundays, though she spends part of even those days returning phone and e-mail messages and screening applications from potential adopters. She likens her situation to that of an entrepreneur who devotes all her time to a start-up in its early years, but gradually can delegate the work.

"I do think it will change," she says. "After my mother died, I took a vacation. I went to Hawaii, my only vacation in five years. It went pretty well. When I got back, the shelter was still standing."


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