I knew it existed. I read the news, heard stories that ended in heartbreak, shed tears over those sad public service announcements. So it’s not like I wasn’t forewarned. Slippery slope aside, the lure was always there. First, I didn’t think it was something I could actually do. And then, I figured I could quit whenever I wanted. But like so many others, once I started down that path, I was hooked.

Hooked on rescue that is. The dog and cat variety. You may be thinking, “Good grief, I thought it was something truly addictive.” Well, like many other habits, it is. Ask anyone in rescue if stopping what they do is easy or doesn’t require a very conscious effort. Now, thanks to the Internet, it’s even harder. Pre-Facebook, groups rescued in person, trekking to local municipal facilities or other shelters, picking up strays, responding to calls for help when someone needed to rehome the pet.

Now, we have this phenomenon where thousands of people not just in San Antonio or Texas, but elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, through the wonders of social media are able to network, connect, share, tag and post in an effort to save the lives of homeless pets. If I hadn’t tried it, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to actually save a living creature just by commenting on a social media post.

For some people, it’s a passion. For others, it’s their livelihood, not that you’ll find many (any) rescue groups who claim much (okay, zero) monetary profit in the world of rescue.

So why do they do it? Most will tell you the rewards can be infinitely greater than anything amounting to legal tender. Conversely, the heartbreak can be just as impactful. There’s simply no way to engage in this arena without first recognizing or quickly realizing that not every dog will be saved. Harsh fact, but the alternative for all these people on all these pages, whether from their homes or their offices, waiting rooms, bars, and just about anywhere with WiFi or decent cell reception is to do nothing and accept defeat without even trying. The “junkies” I’ve met since my first foray into the world of virtual rescue wouldn’t entertain the thought.

Sounds crazy, right? Believe it or not, it works pretty much the same way as you’d tag a friend on a Facebook post or comment and share in your circle or publicly. Except you do it for a very specific reason – to bring to the attention of anyone else who might see that comment the need of a particular shelter pet or pets. (Usually the latter).

Those notifications everyone gets, the red and white number that shows up over the “globe” at the top of your Facebook page that let you know you’ve been tagged in a post or something has been updated? There have been days I was out at meetings and came back to 50+ notifications. And I’m not even someone I’d consider to be in that “popular group” as far as dog friend-atics.

San Antonio Pets Alive! hosted a pet adoption at Raspa Fest. Photo by Kay Richter.
San Antonio Pets Alive! hosted a pet adoption at Raspa Fest. Photo by Kay Richter.

Oh, and did I mention the pledging part? This is where people pledge on the comments threads in increments that may be as little as $2 up to hundreds of dollars to help a reputable rescue “pull” one of these dogs to safety.

Rescues whose organizations are not located in San Antonio work with the local shelter partners via email and Facebook to put a hold on the pet while they locate a foster or boarding home and then transport to another state. While pledges are desperately needed to support the work of animal rescues, unfortunately the recovery rate is very low – ask any rescue who’s tried to collect on what people proffer in the emotionally charged climate of a virtual medium where comments can alter the course of a dog or cat’s destiny.

This is no exaggeration. While my perspective here, for the purposes of this commentary, focuses largely on the dogs featured on San Antonio Pets Alive! (SAPA) Urgents and Adoptables Facebook page, this same drama is being played out on similar pages and posts around the country and the world.

Very basically, SAPA partners with City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) to provide another opportunity for those pets most at-risk of euthanasia to be seen and ideally saved by rescues, adopters or fosters. The Urgents Facebook page is updated in real-time and posts provide the latest information about a pet’s status. Of course, rescuers or their local representatives still have to physically make that trek to the shelters, etc. to actually pick up pets that have been tagged by groups both in and out of state. That physical effort will never change. Nor will it ever be easy.

Neither is virtual rescue. Some people think it means just sitting at a keyboard or on a cell phone, but for the ones who excel at the task, they know it requires a hell of a lot of mental acuity and often very complex negotiations. The research and review of literally thousands of these Facebook pages or websites to find viable rescue group prospects, along with transport, funds, vet care, transfer and more can be as challenging as anything you’ve done.

Cindy Cox of San Antonio, like many others, started out on the Facebook threads – she loves dogs, she became aware of our city’s issues with pet overpopulation and shelter situations, and in sharing a dog posted by a friend that was later adopted, she realized, “Wow, this is something I really can do to help.”

From the sharing and saving came the desire to learn more about San Antonio’s no-kill effort; and as a professional in the management consulting industry, she knew she could review the statistics and communicate through Facebook outstanding needs, progress, or concerns to the rescue community. Her updates, now in week 34, are distributed to the City staff as well and, as a well-respected advocate for animal welfare, her contributions outside of social media are immeasurable.

Jo Brendel in Wisconsin is a professional chef who got involved because someone she knew tagged her on a dog in SAPA Urgents and Adoptables album. If you look at that page, you’ll see 100-plus at-risk dogs pretty much every day. Brendel couldn’t look away and for the last year or so has regularly shared, tagged, and networked pets at our city’s shelter and helped save countless lives.

“I couldn’t believe how many there were and still are,” she said. “I was also horrified by how many people just surrender their own animals that don’t make it out. I had to try and help. If I didn’t have a job, I’m sure I’d do this all day long.”

From El Paso, Texas, Karen Moore also works tirelessly on these threads to share and network San Antonio’s most urgent dogs. Despite losing her husband just a few months ago, a loss grieved also on her behalf by the rescue community, Moore didn’t dwell on her personal situation. And she continues to be present and serve as a significant force in animal welfare, all from her cell phone and Facebook app. She also sends friends an encouraging message each day, which truly comes in handy when times are especially dark and the numbers of pets needing help seems insurmountable.

Stray dogs have made a home near a park bench at Brackenridge Park. Photo by Scott Ball.
Stray dogs have made a home near a park bench at Brackenridge Park. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mindy Sigmon lives in Temeculah, Calif., north of San Diego and coincidentally not far from where I once lived for a few years.

“I networked dogs in California for about six years; I started as a way to survive the loss of my mom,” Simon said. “Then it just got to be too much to see so many lives lost, so I had to quit for a while, even gave up using my own Facebook account and all my contacts. But then one day I signed back in using my husband’s account and the rest is history.”

Sigmon was one of my first Facebook rescue friends, connecting with me on the SAPA Urgents page one day last March when we both saw the same plea for this sweet, old dog. Over the course of about two days that felt like far more, with a deadline to find placement for this dog before time ran out, Mindy and I along with several other people from all over the country shared, networked, and pleaded for someone to please save this dog.

It worked. That sweet senior, now named Bear, who at around 11 years of age had little hope of making it out of an overcrowded shelter, is living the incredibly good life in Colorado with Tana and Mike Nelson and their two other rescue pups. I recently met Bear and his wonderful family; it’s impossible to verbalize how I felt seeing this dog and realizing I actually might have helped save him. If I hadn’t been online that day, connected with all the people who rallied to get this one dog to safety, there’s no way to know what might have happened. Or, maybe I do know.

Bear is alive because someone in Colorado saw his plea on the SAPA pages and stepped up to foster him for an out-of-state rescue – think about that chain of response for a minute. Fosters here are in scarce supply, which is absurd given our population of 1.4 million, and the need is just as huge to find more people willing to house a pet for even a short time. Look at these same Facebook pages and you’ll immediately see request after request for a foster to step up.

There are regulars like Letty Meeks in Canyon Lake, who is finally down to “just” four, all of them seniors, and swears she’s going to get these guys adopted before taking on any more.

“It’s so hard to say no even when those of us who get asked to help all the time are already fostering several dogs. Plus, we have our own pets,” Meeks said. “We struggle to cover out-of-pocket expenses because rescue groups are also overburdened. Really, we just need more help for everyone.”

Sara Waszo in Pennsylvania has fostered and even adopted San Antonio dogs on the brink of being euthanized and then successfully rehomed these pets who otherwise would have been lost. Without people like Waszo, who share, pledge, and provide a short-term respite for our city’s homeless pets, I really don’t know what we’d do. And she’s only been involved in this social media rescue phenomenon for about a year, which you’d never guess based on her involvement, knowledge, and mastery of the networking process.

This community of saviors also spans the continents to places as far away as Canada, Europe, and beyond. Geraldine Smart, who runs Right to Live, an approved Ontario-based rescue group, has saved hundreds of dogs in San Antonio in her three years of operation. Why San Antonio?

“I saw just how much help was needed there – how many dogs were at risk of losing their life,” Smart said. “It just touched my heart and I had to do something to help.”

Dave Pace holds his son Jaxon, 2, by the hand as they look at dogs up for adoption. Photo by Scott Ball.
Dave Pace holds his son Jaxon, 2, by the hand as they look at dogs up for adoption. Photo by Scott Ball.

Smart, like many of the out-of-area rescues, has some dedicated volunteers here who coordinate getting the dogs out of the city’s shelter and into foster homes or boarding. It’s more often the latter and even with a rescue rate, there is only so much a group’s budget can handle long-term. Callaghan Road Animal Hospital (CRAH) and Alamo Heights Kennel Club (AHKC) are just two of several local facilities that have boarded dogs for Smart and many other groups. AHKC has also rescued hundreds of pets over the last 10+ years.

Shelly Alsvig, local volunteer for Right to Live Rescue, checks in on Dunphey, recently saved from the city shelter and now boarding at Alamo Heights Kennel Club until next month's transport to Washington state. Photo courtesy of Felicia Glenn.
Shelly Alsvig, local volunteer for Right to Live Rescue, checks in on Dunphey, recently saved from the city shelter and now boarding at Alamo Heights Kennel Club until next month’s transport to Washington state. Photo courtesy of Felicia Glenn.

In fact, they finally sought nonprofit status for their rescue operation, 4DogSakes, so they can pull more dogs from municipal shelters as well as SAPA and ideally seek grant funding for their effort.

Lynn Wall in England is not only a superb networker of the San Antonio dogs, she also helps Right to Live by circulating the group messages when pledges need to be collected on Smart’s saves. Yes, that’s right – the person in England helps the person in Canada save our city’s dogs.

Steph Taylor, also from the UK, is another longtime contributor to the San Antonio effort and apparently got Wall involved here after they were both networking dogs from the New York shelter pages.

“I started helping in San Antonio because the need was and still is obviously so great. I network and also post fundraisers for dogs, especially those with medical needs,” Wall said. “And after I saw the results of the first time I posted one of these, I recognized I could really make a difference.”

She admits the longest break she’s ever taken was a week when her Internet was down and that she finds it hard not to check the posts and threads on a regular basis. And we both find ourselves apologizing to one another following a brief absence for not being there at a critical time of day to help. What can I say? Clearly hooked.

There are a slew of other rescue groups and individuals beyond the Texas borders that include regulars like Lisa Berwald of Hunter’s Hope Dog Rescue in Ohio, Beth Holbrook of Compass Dog Rescue who partners with Little Traverse Bay Humane Society in Michigan, and Margaret Roman of Illinois.

Roman began helping in San Antonio after she and her husband wound up meeting a transport in Indianapolis to help get a puppy being transferred from a South Texas shelter to a rescue in her home state.

“Despite the pouring rain and having to stay overnight with this puppy and our own two dogs, it opened the doors to this whole new world,” Roman said. “I had been looking for a way to make my life more purposeful and not only did this make sense, it’s allowed me to meet some really wonderful and interesting people.”

Truth be told, I don’t have thousands or even hundreds of friends; I really only began regularly posting on Facebook in conjunction with launching the Dr. Thomas Vice Fund, through the San Antonio Area Foundation. But the individuals I’ve met just in the last year on the pages and pages of dog posts, pleas, and more comments than anyone could count are all connected through a commonality of purpose that may be more of a connection than some of us have to people we’ve known forever and regularly see.

It would be impossible to acknowledge everyone in San Antonio and beyond with whom I connect or see helping regularly on Facebook, but may never actually meet in person. For the purposes of this piece, I did talk to a handful of people that I know are not only responsible for making an enormous difference here, but are also well-respected by the animal rescue community for their integrity and sheer determination.

So I offer my apologies up front if I wasn’t able to get more insight from more contributors, and hope a future story will provide that opportunity.

The upshot of all this is actually pretty simple: if you’re already on Facebook, or other social media, take a look at the shelter and rescue pages. Use your skills to connect with and help share these pets and to encourage spaying and neutering practices.

If you can, volunteer in person at a local facility. Foster for even a couple of weeks – it can literally be a life-saving difference for that animal. And remember that the smallest donations all add up for a rescue struggling with vet and other bills that they’ll continue to incur in their efforts to give more pets a chance at life. Facebook and other forms of social media have given each of us the advantage to be seen and heard.

This is your chance to speak for the ones who have no voice and truly use social media in the most positive way.


Top image: A dog that is awaiting adoption or fostering at San Antonio Pets Alive!  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

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San Antonio Pets Alive’s Difficult Path Forward

Council Gives $375,000 to Animal Rescue, Saves the Rest for a Rainy Day

Key to a No-Kill San Antonio: Affordable, Accessible Clinics

Felicia Glenn works in San Antonio as a content and communications consultant when she's not on Facebook networking dogs, picking up rescues or helping to get dogs adopted.