AT 5 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, a Ford Ranger outfitted with a camper shell pulls into the parking lot at the Baldwin Park Animal Shelter. Ardis Munck, a fit, energetic, 40-ish woman with a crown of gray-flecked dark curly hair, emerges from the truck talking on a cell phone. The truck’s personalized license plate reads, “DOBE RSQ.”
Ardis passes the front counter in the shelter, where she is greeted by three uniformed, female animal-control officers. She pauses to chat before continuing on to the kennels. Once in the minimaze of runs, she carefully checks the cages, talking to the dogs as she goes. “Are you friendly?” “You‘re cute.” “Oh, you’re sick, aren‘t you?” Despite her interaction with the dogs, she doesn’t touch them for fear of infecting one dog with another‘s ailment.
Slowly making her way down a row of cages, she pulls a small spiral notebook out of her purse and checks notes she made during her visit the previous Wednesday. She methodically compares her notes with the white, typed kennel cards (in effect, booking slips) that sit in plastic slipcovers on each cage. If the animal is fortunate enough to be licensed, or wearing an ID, or is simply “desirable,” there may be a “hold” notice on the slip.
The cages this evening are crowded. Some contain five dogs. Shelters run by both city and county agencies are currently operating at 150 percent of capacity, and Baldwin Park, largest of the six county-operated shelters, has 192 animal runs, which translates to 300-plus animals on any given day. Ardis sorts through the kennel cards, trying to figure out which dogs are running out of time.
The shelter this evening seems overrun with “guard dogs” — chows, shepherd mixes, Akitas, rottweilers, pit bulls, Doberman pinschers. And as the kennel cards attest, not all are strays. Many have been turned in by their owners. In the weeks following the mauling death in South Los Angeles of 14-month-old Fily Araujo by the family pit bull, city shelters averaged an intake of 40 pit bulls per day. Most owner-surrendered animals, however, are handed over for less dramatic reasons: A dog bites or someone moves, gets a divorce, retires, is arrested, dies or simply tires of the animal.
Another revelation this evening is the surprising number of pedigreed animals in the shelter. Oftentimes a high presence of forsaken purebreds follows by some months the appearance of a particular breed in a movie or commercial. Tonight, Ardis records the impound numbers and availability dates of six Dalmatians. This Dalmatian population is probably attributable to the live-action 101 Dalmatians movie. Today’s Taco Bell commercials may fill the shelters with Chihuahuas at some future point. Frasier may prompt a flood of Jack Russell terriers. Unfortunately, screen images often don‘t reflect a breed’s true personality. Thus the Dalmatians — a breed that is cute, but notoriously prickly, and not necessarily good with children.
Ardis‘ primary goal in visiting between one and six different shelters every Wednesday is to rescue Doberman pinschers. Tonight she will recover just two, one of whom is visibly sick, possibly with distemper. In addition to these Dobermans, Ardis sees that there are five smaller, mixed-breed dogs about to be euthanized. Because these dogs are all cute and friendly, she feels confident that she can place them. So they are going home with her as well. As she double-checks the impound numbers, her cell phone rings. She confirms that later that evening she will pick up two more Dobermans from a foster home in Highland Park.
As she walks back out to the front desk, an animal service officer carrying a Pomeranian asks Ardis if she can estimate the dog’s age. Using the tip of her pen, Ardis exposes the dog‘s toothline and says, “Five years.” She is then intercepted by Maggie Cecil, a volunteer who has driven in from Riverside. When Ardis is ready, Maggie has two more Dobermans for her in the parking lot. At the front counter, Ardis does the paperwork on her seven adoptions, writing the shelter a $250 check. Sometimes the check is $500.
With a Metrolink train running in the twilight behind the shelter, Maggie unloads two beautiful and surprisingly docile Dobermans from crates in the back of her own minipickup. With the expertise of a professional packer, Ardis arranges and fits pet carriers into the back of her camper shell. She quickly stows Maggie’s charges, then addresses the first two dogs the animal-control officer has walked out to her. Because she still has the two Highland Park Dobermans to pick up, Ardis doubles up a pair of smaller dogs in one carrier, then when the match doesn‘t seem to be working, shifts one of the mixed breeds in with a Doberman. Serendipity.
When the Dobie with the runny nose is brought out, Ardis is careful to put him in the cab with her; she doesn’t want him infecting any other dogs. With all her adoptees secure, Ardis is off and running. It‘s going on 7:30 p.m., and she won’t see home for another two hours.
In the classified section of the Sunday L.A. Times under Pet Adoptions, Ardis runs an ad reading “Dobermans — Acres of Rescued Adults.” Her rescue operation is located on a 19-acre citrus and avocado ranch in Fillmore, about an hour northwest of downtown Los Angeles, under a stand of sprawling oaks. In a beautiful stone-facade house, Ardis and her husband of one year, Eric, live on an island surrounded by an ocean of canines. On an average day, the runs dotting the property will contain 80 Dobermans, plus a swell of cute “placeable” dogs.
Ardis traces her dog obsession to childhood. Her dad was a serious dog lover, but her mother, whom she describes as a “clean freak,” limited their household dogs to non-shedding poodle mixes. So as a grade-schooler, Ardis felt compelled to pick up the gauntlet, telling her mom, “When I grow up, I‘m going to have a whole house full of big dogs.”
Nevertheless, Ardis admits she didn’t really bond with a dog until much later. “The first dog that was my own didn‘t happen until I was in my early 30s. It was partially responsible for the breakup of my first marriage. Previously I had been too unstable, in apartments, moving here and there. When my husband outlawed dogs at home, I answered an ad to be a volunteer at the Orange County Shelter . . . [where] the inevitable happened. One Saturday, a woman turned in her Australian shepherd mix because of problems with her husband. She was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen, and the shelter was going to put her to sleep immediately, because they had no room. I named her Gretchen and took her home. We loved each other. I had her until she died, eight years later.”
Problems developed between Ardis and the Orange County Shelter over her candor in answering questions from the public that the shelter preferred not to have answered. So, in 1992, after 12 years of volunteer work, Ardis left. “By the time they released me, I was already living at the ranch,” she says, “and I had lots of room to put kennels and start my own shelter. I had a new husband by then who traveled a lot and thought it would be smart to have a couple of personal protection dogs. I rescued two Dobies, and that was the beginning of my love affair with Dobermans.”
To Ardis, Dobermans are the essence of canine elegance. And she has no trouble further enumerating the breed‘s attributes: They are, she says, beautiful, protective, low-maintenance, sensitive and easy to train. What’s more, their inherent loyalty means they don‘t run away — which was a key consideration in the operation’s early days, when Ardis‘ ranch wasn’t fenced.
Focusing primarily on rescuing Dobermans was also practical. Ardis realized that people wouldn‘t travel all the way to Fillmore to see an assortment of animals akin to what they could find at their local shelter. So she specialized, without fully realizing the eventual scope of her project. “It kind of grew into a full-time occupation, one dog at a time” she says. “I have a hard time saying ’no,‘ so it’s a good thing Ventura County Animal Regulation licensed me for a maximum number of dogs, or I‘d probably get in over my head.”
Adopting a Doberman from Ardis begins with a phone interview. A common concern among rescuers is that they will place an animal with the wrong person and that the dog will wind up back with them. So great pains are taken up front to screen adopters. Many rescuers, hardened by years on the beat, take on characteristics of a homicide detective — their avocation has made them into professional interrogators. They might ask the same question three different ways looking for inconsistencies, and they are keenly attuned to character-revealing slips. One rescuer waits to hear what personal pronoun is employed when an interviewee describes an animal: He or she is fine, but it is a no-no.
Ardis has no set method, but she tries “to match available dogs with adopters’ needs. I don‘t necessarily use the same criteria for all adopters. I can be a lot more choosy placing a 1-year-old housebroken, social Dobie with cropped ears than I can with an 8-year-old uncropped dog who has never been in the house and needs to be an only dog.” As for potential adopters, Ardis is not as militant as many rescuers. Some won’t adopt to people unless they work at home. Others won‘t consign a pet to a home with small children. Pre-adoption visits are de rigueur among many rescuers, who keenly assess family members, existing pets, yards, fence heights, etc.
Ardis’ attitude is far more laissez-faire. Still, she prefers not to place dogs with students, because they are seldom home and tend to move a lot. And when people tell Ardis they are looking for a guard dog or watchdog, she is likely to suggest they get an alarm system instead. “I do the best job I can, without ever placing them where I feel the dog would be unhappy. I feel the dog would be better off dead than in some environments.” When an inquirer does pass muster with Ardis on the phone, she extends a weekend invitation to the ranch between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., or schedules an individual weekday appointment.
A visit to Ardis‘ Doberman rescue quickly sobers one to the depth of the animal crisis in Los Angeles. Whereas other major cities such as Miami and Chicago have seen a decrease in their unwanted-animal populations, it’s estimated that there are 44,000 loose dogs running the streets in Los Angeles. The feral-cat population of L.A.: 3 million. The total intake of strayabandoned animals into L.A. shelters is around 190,000 annually. Seventy-three percent of unclaimed animals are euthanized. On a good weekend, Ardis might find homes for 15 dogs, a number roughly equivalent to what she takes in during the week. Meanwhile, she still has a large inventory of dogs awaiting homes.
The economics of running such an operation are staggering. The annual budget for Ardis‘ operation is $100,000, which the $100-per-dog adoption fees don’t begin to cover. So the deficit is made up in donations and underwriting by Ardis. Expenses break down something like this. A Doberman eats a pound and a half of kibble every day. Every three and a half weeks, a truck delivers 204 40-pound sacks of kibble to the rescue at a cost of $2,500. Vet bills, which do not include vaccinations or spay-and-neuter fees, start at $300 a month. Fees paid to shelters that initially pick up dogs: up to $2,000 a month. Full-time employee who lives in a guesthouse on the ranch: $20,000 a year. Dobie Doings, the quarterly newsletter published by the rescue, 4 grand a year. Yearly mileage on Ardis‘ Ranger: 33,000 to 50,000 miles. As the dogs pour in, the money pours out.
Like most animal-rescue workers, Ardis is swimming in front of a tidal wave of abandoned animals. Even with one full-time employee and a floating staff of six volunteers, she literally runs from task to task at the ranch. As Ardis’ husband, Eric, an automotive designer, observes: “Her life is hectic! It‘s endless scenarios of evaluating dogs, prospective owners, feeding, shelter runs, vet visits, rearranging dog social groups, medicating . . . and on and on.”
On this particular Sunday, between fielding calls on her mobile, she meets with a family to ascertain what dog might be right for them, then changes gears to mix a tick bath on an outgoing Dobie before having a one-page adoption agreement completed by another couple. Someone else is uncertain how the dog he’s chosen will interact with the aggressive small dog he already has at home. Ardis bolts through the maze of kennels that surround her home and pulls a feisty “test dog” from a run. When she places him in with the Dobie, the hyper little dog‘s teasing doesn’t even faze the pinscher. Meanwhile, Ardis is watching another pen to see how the dance between a Dobie and his potential adopter plays out.
Ardis says that one of the toughest problems she faces is what to do about dogs that aren‘t adopted. Some rescue people keep the unadoptable dogs, then don’t take on any new animals. Others euthanize unplaceable animals. But for Ardis, unless there is a temperament or health issue, she keeps the dog, launching a concerted adoption campaign on behalf of the animal. A photo and an article detailing the dog‘s history may appear in Dobie Doings, and the same will be posted on the rescue’s Web site (www. dobierescue.org). “Every now and then we get lucky,” says Ardis. “I consider placing one ‘lifer’ better than placing two or three more adoptable dogs.”
In light of a devotion that has placed 4,000 animals in 12 years, Ardis remains remarkably levelheaded about her work. Many rescuers develop a jaundiced view of the general public based on their firsthand experiences of pet abuse and owner irresponsibility. In order to psychically survive, rescuers develop a “them vs. us” attitude. It‘s a cocktail composed of exhaustion from overwork, chased by a shooter of distrust from having seen too much of the terrible things people can do to dogs. Ardis assesses the rigors of rescue like this: “It has its rewards and its heartbreaks, plenty of both. Many if not most rescue people burn out after a couple of years because of the heartbreaks. It gets tough when you concentrate on a few sad things rather than on the multitude of good ones, and that’s what has to be kept in perspective.”
When things get tough, Ardis relies on her husband to keep her grounded. “Whereas I have always loved animals,” he says, “I never have thought of myself as a ‘rescue person,’ and have in the past looked somewhat askance at those who would forgo a ‘normal’ life in order to save lost or unwanted animals. Ardis is an exceptionally dedicated, giving, caring and loving human being. While I respect and admire her passions and commitments, I think being married to me applies certain checks and balances to ensure that her life is not entirely dictated by dogs and their needs.”
The field of animal rescue tends to be dominated by women like Ardis. A pamphlet available at the Pasadena Humane Society lists 141 Southern California dog-rescue operations. Close to 90 percent of them have a female contact person. Ardis hypothesizes that this imbalance may speak to a misplaced maternal instinct. But she feels it doesn‘t matter. What matters is saving animals. Sallie Perkins, who has been doing poodle rescue for 16 years, doesn’t mince words when questioned about the time and effort she spends. “I always say to people, ‘What living thing have you saved lately? Have you even saved a tree?’ People tell me, ‘Sallie, you can’t save the world.‘ I save what comes into my sphere.”
For Ardis, where she ended up seems somehow inevitable. “I guess I’ve always been a ‘dog person.’ There are pictures of me at age 3 or 4 holding court with dogs, my own and other people‘s. Somehow I ended up being a businesswoman [a human-resources executive] for 20 years, making great money, but it wasn’t fulfilling, wasn‘t my life’s work. Now I‘m a citrusavocado rancher, which isn’t fulfilling either, but it does provide a great spot for the rescue kennel. You can go broke in rescue, but the other payoffs are enormous.”