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Saturday, Jan. 5, 2007 | “County lock-up” has a different meaning for pets, and rarely does it have a happier ending than the real thing.

When this reality set in for a group of pet lovers in 1977, they created Friends of County Animal Shelters so that families could adopt dogs and cats that would otherwise have no other place to go once the shelters became too crowded.

Today, the group takes up the causes of 15 animals every day at San Diego County’s three animal shelters working to get each of them homes. Dogs and cats are nurtured back to health at locations such as the Animal Medical Center in El Cajon, where we met up with the group’s medical program manager Tonya Leavitt.

Leavitt, a 26-year-old North Park resident who aspires to be a veterinarian, sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to chat about the highs and the lows of rescuing animals, her favorite comeback story and why she thinks San Diegans are some of the best animal lovers around.

What are the most typical kinds of cases of animals that are rescued here and brought into your care?

Many animals have upper respiratory infections which is similar to a cold. In cats and dogs, it is very contagious and in a shelter environment, it spreads very rapidly. (Here) they have a couple of wings dedicated for that. When shelters get full, they need more help and we set up an upper respiratory cathouse in order to triage and then adopt out sick animals.

Another example is Loki (a Siberian husky). Loki was hit by a car. A badly broken femur was one of his main injuries. He came here, Dr. Hampel repaired his leg and he’s been boarding and getting physical therapy and treatment here.

We’ve seen a lot about dog fighting since the Michael Vick investigation. Based on the injured animals you see, is that a problem in San Diego?

I don’t have much experience with it. If we do, it’s with bait dogs, which are fought but don’t fight back to build aggression for other dogs.

It’s usually speculation here, but across the [U.S.-Mexican] border, we know it is a big problem.

How do you find homes for the animals who come in?

The shelter does triaging, and we are trying to get them healthy and treated and adoptable. We are actively posting animals on our website. Once our cats are recovered from their upper respiratory infections, they are sent out to adoption centers around the county. We’ve had a really great success rate with our adoptions.

Can those cat colds be fatal?

It’s not that their life is in danger because of the infection, it’s that they just need some place to go for someone to heal them.

What got you interested in this line of work?

I’ve always loved animals since I was really little, so I’ve worked in the animal industry since I was 16. I worked in a clinic as a vet assistant and then I worked for a veterinary biotech company. I made a decision a couple of years ago that I wanted my job to always be positively impacting our community. I decided to channel that to the animal community so I knew that every day I was doing something that was really important and helping someone.

What’s the most remarkable rescue story? Is there something that sticks out in your mind?

One of my first cases was a dog named Barnaby. He was a white boxer and he came into the North County shelter just completely emaciated. I’ve never seen a dog that skinny and alive.

One of his rear hind legs was lame and he had 200 foxtails in his nose and gums. He had obviously been foraging for a long time on the streets, starving. But his personality was of a saint. He wagged his stump of a tail at everybody and he patiently let the vet take out his foxtails out of his mouth. He won everyone’s heart.

We thought we’d have to amputate his leg, and upon x-rays we found he had been shot in the leg. It was a gunshot wound that had broken the head of the femur off. Dr. Nancy Hampel saved his leg, and he went through physical therapy, found an amazing adopter, and he has gained 20 pounds and has 95 percent use of his leg.

It was an amazing story.

What kind of people help out?

There are several different fronts. With the veterinarians we work with, they offer us a discount on our services. With our adoption centers and programs and people who are fosters, there are really all walks of life. We have young kids who are 18 years old and want to get ahead in a career in veterinary medicine and retired families who just want to work with animals and have somebody in their life.

What is a typical day like?

It’s reviewing several cases that the shelter and medical staff present to us, talking to the vets about their cases, what the prognoses are, what treatment is needed for the animals, where they’re going to go get treated, driving animals to clinics and appointments.

Even with the success stories, there are probably some depressing times too, right?

It is definitely very emotional. And you get very emotionally involved with the animals and their cases. It’s hard to see innocent animals taken advantage of and treated poorly. I’ve definitely grown a tough skin.

Does that emotional nature often deter people from coming out to help?

Yeah, you need to know what you’re getting into when you decide to work in the animal world in general because not everyone has the same mindset towards animals that we do. I wish everyone loved people the way I do and that everyone loved animals the way I do, but unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

You just have to remember that you can only do what you can do, and stay within your feasible limits so you don’t get burned out and can continue to go on an help more animals.

Do you agree with Bob Barker? Should pets be spayed and neutered?

I think it’s an excellent piece of advice.

I was just in Costa Rica for two weeks, so I saw the effects of poor spay-neutering programs. Costa Rica has tried to establish a lot of good programs after some Americans and other westerners went out there to try to initiate programs there. But a lot of the dogs and cats I saw were foraging for food, they’re all very young. I saw two dogs hit by a car with broken legs, that was very hard to see.

For the general welfare of animals that are in this world, it’s important to spay and neuter them so they don’t overpopulate or get sick or run stray.

How does San Diego stack up in animal rescue compared to other regions?

San Diego has a great animal community. Our shelters compared to the rest of the country are a lot nicer and a lot more innovative. The general public has a better awareness of shelter animals.

The stray situation is much better, compared to L.A. and other places. You don’t see too many strays. San Diego is one of the better cities in animal welfare.

In general, we’re more dog-friendly. Our city doesn’t breed discriminate, like how some cities do with rottweilers and pit bulls. If you look, during the wildfires, everyone pulled together not only to help evacuate people but to help evacuate animals. That told us so much about our community in San Diego.

It must help too because animals are on local TV news all the time.

I think our attention is definitely being directed more toward animals a little bit more. We’ve taken more of an interest.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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