An outpouring of worldwide public support for three dogs abused in Buffalo has presented both an opportunity and a challenge to local shelter workers.
It's a sad opportunity that local shelters would prefer never to have, says Gina Browning, spokeswoman for the SPCA Serving Erie County, which is caring for Metro, a pit bull puppy found starved and shivering outside a Buffalo animal hospital Nov. 28.
But because of news reports and thousands of "shares" of posts on Facebook and other social media, five days after the puppy was found, people in 29 states and three countries outside the United States have made donations to the SPCA's "Yelp for Help" fund to assist Metro and other injured or ill animals, says Browning.
Hundreds of people from "all over the world," says Browning, including Hungary, Tunisia, Australia and England, have commented on the SPCA's Facebook posts about Metro — named for the Rural/Metro ambulance crew that found her outside the veterinarian's office and rushed her to the SPCA in a supervisor's fly car. A group called Bikers Against Animal Cruelty in Connecticut called to donate $300 Monday afternoon, said Browning.
And the animal-rights organization PETA is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for abandoning the puppy.
The reaction has been even greater in the case of Phoenix, the winsome Jack Russell terrier puppy who is still recovering in the custody of the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter after being set on fire on the East Side on Oct. 29. Two teens have been jailed on felony animal cruelty charges in the case. Hundreds of people from across the world have emailed, called or messaged the shelter asking about adopting Phoenix.
The SPCA also had an outpouring of interest in Gotti, a pit bull who was dragged by his owner's SUV on the West Side in early October and has recovered enough to go to a new home.
Because only one family can adopt each of these animals, the challenge for shelter workers is to channel the interest into donations for or adoptions of other needy animals.
"For all the people who are asking to adopt Phoenix, we are telling them that he is not up for adoption right now, but we have many other animals that need homes," says Suzanne Laba, a senior volunteer at the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter. "We are saying, ‘Help Phoenix's friends, too!' "
Kerry Neaf, president of the volunteer group Friends of the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter, says donations for Phoenix are coming in "from Ireland, England, Mexico, Finland, Denmark – we have to use Google translator to read the notes that are coming."
A BBC report about Phoenix probably sparked the outpouring of interest in Britain and Ireland, "but we don't know how they heard about him in Mexico, Australia, Finland," says Neaf.
"I'm seeing things like I've never seen before – people [who want to adopt Phoenix] are dropping off binders with pictures of their homes, their yards, their bedrooms, their families, reference letters from their vets and associates," says Neaf. "There is a woman in Ireland who is offering to pay for plane tickets for us to go to her home in Ireland and do a home visit before placing him there. We have applications from Vermont, Michigan, Florida, all over the country. It's amazing, because I know all of those states have adoptable animals."
But even people who can't adopt Phoenix want to help him. "People are making him blankets and dropping off toys," says Neaf. "I get at least 10 emails a day asking for an address to drop off or send gifts for him. When I get those, I tell them Phoenix has plenty of toys, blankets and clothes [which cover the bandages on his body] so if they would like to donate to a wish list for our other animals, they can do that."
Before Gotti was well enough to be adopted last month, the SPCA took dozens of calls from people asking about him, says Browning. This was puzzling, because there are many pit bulls at the shelter awaiting homes. "If they are that open-minded to bringing a pit bull into their homes, why not come in and adopt one of the other wonderful pit bulls we have?" asks Browning.
Workers at the SPCA have seen outpourings of public interest before. The story of Walker, a cocker spaniel puppy who was dragged for a mile behind his owner's car in Lockport in 2009, also sparked a flood of interest and donations. Walker was adopted by Linda Tilton, who rushed the dog to an emergency vet.
Because Phoenix's care has been fully funded, further donations in his name to the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter go into a special fund to cover the veterinary care of other injured or sick animals.
At the SPCA, money that is donated strictly for a specific animal will be spent for that animal's care, but once that care is fully paid for, donors are told that their money will go into a special "Yelp for Help" fund to assist other injured or ill animals. "When it goes into the Yelp for Help fund, it will stay in that fund," says Browning. "We will not take anything donated to that fund and put it, for example, toward an adoption program."
Although the injuries to all three dogs were severe enough to attract media attention, Laba says that many animals in the city shelter have similar sad stories. "The public needs to know that every day we get in abused animals, injured animals, sick animals. Most of our stories at the shelter don't make the headlines, but we have dogs that have been thrown out of windows, stabbed, but the media has just taken an interest in this one.
"We're glad that we don't have more than one Phoenix; we don't ever want to see anything like that happen again," says Laba. "But if people are not able to adopt Phoenix, they should consider some of our other dogs. We have small dogs, we have desirable breeds, we have puppies."
"It's always my fear that people are going to think we are capitalizing on a dog's misery," says Browning. "But the reality of the situation is that if we don't tell people this is happening, they are not going to be donating to help this problem, and we rely totally on donations."
"On our [URL]City of Buffalo Animal Shelter Facebook page, we have been posting about all our other adoptable dogs," Laba says, so people who visit to read about Phoenix see them, too.
Neas tells people that there are already more than 100 applications for Phoenix, and his final home will be selected according to his needs, not on a first-come, first-served basis. She also tells interested adopters that "we have plenty of other dogs, cats, puppies and kittens waiting for homes at the shelter. Obviously, they were not set on fire, but that doesn't mean they don't need homes."
Browning says, "I hope people open their minds to considering other animals, even ones that were not victims – but really, isn't any animal that's with us a victim? They have lost their homes."
Those who wanted to adopt Phoenix, Metro or Gotti might consider a trip to a local shelter or call to a rescue group, where they just might connect with another animal. "Once they look into the eyes of these animals, it's a little miracle that happens that you just can't predict," says Browning.