By Tom Dougherty
PHILADELPHIA — As a four-month-old puppy, Simba had been tied out in his backyard over the course of one the city’s hottest summers, deprived of water and food, hit by sticks, kicked and pelted by stones by his owner’s children.
“If it weren’t for the people next door, the dog would have been dead,” Ray Little, Lifesaving Director at Operation Ava, a rescue shelter, said.
When Simba’s original owners went out, the neighbors placed their garden hose over the fence to keep the Akita mix cool throughout the day. They also threw scraps of food over the fence, so Simba could eat. Eventually, Simba was removed from his owners.
That’s where Little enters the picture. While working at the Pennsylvania SPCA, Little heard from a friend’s husband about Simba.
“My friend’s husband asked me to go in and adopt the dog because he was so scared they would have to lose him,” Little said about one of his now four rescued dogs.
Simba was aggressive and a little bit vicious resulting from the neglect and mistreatment by his previous owners. The SPCA, a kill shelter, would have had to put him down had it not been for Little’s willingness to adopt. Ten years later, Simba is fine.
“He’s still a little bit afraid but he’s social, he loves people,” Little said. “He’s a fairly well-adjusted dog, he does have his limits. He can’t be around big groups of people, but one-on-one, he’s fine. He likes children and loves other dogs.”
Little has been with Operation Ava “pretty much from the start.” The no-kill animal shelter was co-founded by sisters Lexie and Ava Gutierrez, 12 and 9 respectively at the time, in 2009.
With the holidays coming soon, Little expects more adoptions.
“There are times people are busy with other things,” Little said, “but as you get closer to the holidays, it drops off a little bit but then the week of Christmas, it usually picks up again.”
The best time to adopt, Little said, is when a family has the time to get to know the animal. The average stay of a pet at Operation Ava is about two weeks.
“We like to take the time to find the right home,” Little said. “We also like to get to know the animal before we place it up for adoption so we can let the new family know some of the characteristics and personalities traits of the animal.”
Operation Ava has 55 dogs and cats in its building located on Third and Poplar Street, approximately 20 animals in foster care homes and another 10 to 20 in Doggie Style pet stores, Little said.
The shelter gets most of its dogs and cats from the Philadelphia region, but does have partnerships with kill shelters in Kentucky and Louisiana.
Ann Davey Harwi-Bolden has volunteered almost since the beginning. Originally from Baltimore, she grew up in Louisiana before coming to Philadelphia because she had a friend in the city.
About 10 years ago, Harwi-Bolden joined the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club, and six years ago, the Spring Garden resident picked Andrea Duszenczuk as a little sister from the novice class.
“I picked Andrea because she lives in the neighborhood,” Harwi-Bolden said. “We could ride our bikes down and stuff, and she told me about ‘Op Ava,’ so I found out from a friend and came down here.”
Before coming to the shelter, Harwi-Bolden volunteered at several other places, but she said she didn’t feel appreciated and didn’t like how the animals were being treated. But it’s different at Operation Ava.
“I love being here,” the retired kindergarten teacher said. “I love the space, I love the way it’s maintained. It’s very clean. I’ve always felt like I was appreciated.”
Why help animals?
“When they look at you with their eyes, they’re just like people,” Davey, who has five cats off the street, said. “They have personalities, which with dogs I didn’t know as well. And you matter, I think because I feel like you’re making a difference in the world.”
Harwi-Bolden also volunteers a few days a week at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. While she volunteers her time to various organizations, she believes animals should be treated like humans.
“I like the rest of the world’s population,” Davey said. “Why should it just be about people? They’re just as important. And they do impact our lives. That’s why we try to talk to people about the dogs they pick.
“The right personality, the right size, a dog that likes to do the same things as you do,” Davey said. “I’ve seen people who adopt dogs because they run every day and they pick a greyhound and they’re having fun together. They’re individuals.”
At Operation Ava, Davey does a lot with educating children of all ages, which is a big part of the shelter’s mission.
Little said people are the best hope for neglected and abused animals, and that educating kids at an early age offers the brightest future for these animals. To accomplish this goal, Operation Ava does various things.
Ava and Lexie speak at school assemblies, Operation Ava works with high schools to place students at the shelter for externships and service projects. On this particular day, a Friday, a group of seven students from Friends’ Central High School in Wynnewood were at the shelter.
“They’re here walking dogs,” Little said. “They’re been learning how to give dogs baths, they’re helping with feeding and cleaning. We’ve talked about training, we’ve had some training demonstrations. We’ve talked about the need for adoption.”
When the kids are at the shelter, they aren’t just helping out with the dogs and cats; they’re also doing activities. There’s an education room at the shelter with chalkboard paint on the walls where kids choose a dog and write a poem about it using its name.
There are crossword puzzles and informational brochures for the kids, and also supplies for the kids to make.
“We don’t just bring them here and say go do something, it’s organized,” Davey said.
One thing Operation Ava encourages students to do is share a story of a dog on their Facebook pages because social media is “an important tool for education of all sorts,” according to Little.
“We have a Facebook page. We have a Twitter account. We use Pinterest,” Little said. “We use volunteers to post photos for us, we have a photography team. We use other websites specifically targeting adoptions such as Petfinder and Adopt a Pet.”
The shelter constantly posts to its social media accounts to keep the conversation going. It also asks the community for donations such as laundry detergent and towels.
“This whole kind of thing wouldn’t be possible without community involvement,” Little said. “It’s really up to volunteers and donors and people coming in and bringing us towels and food for the animals.”
At the shelter, dogs are organized by a color code system: green, yellow, red and orange. Green means the dog mostly has training issues, yellow means shyness and minor issues, red are complicated issues, and orange may mean health issues.
The dogs in the front of the shelter have been vetted and ready for adoption, whereas the ones in the back still need to be vetted. Two dogs ready to be adopted are Jeffery and Jermaine.
“These are brothers,” Davey said. “Jeffery is blind. They came together, they got a sponsor so somebody can adopt both dogs without occurring total costs because this guy [Jermaine] is like his seeing-eye dog.”
Jermaine takes care of his brother, and the black-and-white pitbull mixes do everything together, from walking to sleeping together.
The adoption price at the shelter varies depending on the animal. Puppies six months and younger cost are $350, adult dogs are $275 and senior dogs are $225. To adopt a cat or kitten, it’s $75.
Zachary Martin, who lives in the city’s Bella Vista section, has been working full-time as the shelter’s kennel manager since August. He recently graduated from Temple University with a journalism and political science degree.
Throughout college and his last year of high school, Martin worked at a shelter in his hometown, Washington, Pa. That’s where he rescued his dog, Bodie, a German shepherd-chow mix.
“My dog back in Pittsburgh,” Martin said. “I actually adopted him from the shelter I worked at during college. He’s just a great dog, he knows all the commands, he’s a really wonderful dog.”
Martin would like to work with animals, no matter what he does. Graduating with a journalism and political science degree, Martin said he’s always tried to incorporate animals in whatever he’s done.
Working at a no-killer shelter like Operation Ava is ideal for the 23-year-old, who understands the need for kill shelters but says it would be ideal if they could be eliminated.
“I would never want to work at one, it’s a really, really difficult thing to do,” Martin said. “I wish they didn’t exist, but I understand why they do. Like Animal Control in Philadelphia, they take anything that is brought in.
“So for that fact,” Martin said, “they have to basically put animals down after a certain amount of time because they’re bound to take animals in from everywhere.”
For those interested in getting a pet, Martin believes rescuing a dog is better than buying one at a pet store. Little agrees with him, saying the public is being “duped” by pet stores because they do not know where the animal is coming from.
“A lot of pet stores get animals from puppy mills,” Martin said. “Puppy mills can operate legitimately without doing any damage, but the problem is it’s very unregulated, especially in the state of Pennsylvania.”
Operation Ava encourages anyone who wants to help animals in need to volunteer, donate, and/or rescue dogs and cats.
“If you’re interested in adopting, you can go to our website,” Little said. “We also have links where you can donate, we have links you can find about upcoming events, you can apply to become a volunteer directly there.”