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All heart and no bite

How the Humane Society of Ventura County helps people find their animal soul mates

By Stacey Weibe

Photo by Brenda Manookin.

 

ure, it sounds like the old cliché, but the first time Maureen Murphy McGrath laid eyes on Vincent, it was love. The kind that happens at first sight.

“We looked at each other and it was meant to be,” McGrath says of Vincent, aka Vinnie, the Pomeranian who captured her heart, hook, line and sinker. McGrath met Vinnie about two years ago, shortly after her mother passed away and she moved into a cottage on an Ojai ranch.

It was during that emotionally trying time that McGrath decided a new dog could be an influence both calming and cheerful, and so she paid a visit to the Humane Society of Ventura County, just outside of downtown Ojai. “A week or two went by and it was really lonely,” says McGrath, 52, of life on the ranch. “I thought, ‘I really need a dog.’ ”

McGrath approached Jolene Hoffman, the humane society’s shelter director and told her that she was in the market for a new companion. Despite the best efforts of both women, an initial tour of the shelter failed to turn up a soul mate for McGrath. But before heading home, McGrath decided to stop and take a quick peek at the cat area, where a Pomeranian puppy was kept. “I just looked at him and that was it,” McGrath says.

Vinnie soon became a popular member of the family, especially to one of McGrath’s two sons, 24-year-old Cody, who often visited his mother and played with the pup. “He said, ‘Mom, you’ve got an angel.’ ”

Though Vinnie and McGrath were fast friends, McGrath would soon learn just how vital a part of her life the new puppy was to become. Following Cody’s sudden death, Vinnie became an essential ingredient in McGrath’s survival. “He was one of my best friends,” McGrath says of Cody. The loss of her son continues to be a heartbreaking struggle. “He was my first call in the morning and was always looking after me, making sure I had firewood and asking if I needed anything.” Since Cody’s death, Vinnie is her constant companion, always at McGrath’s side. Many Ojai shop owners even allow McGrath to take Vinnie into local establishments.

Maureen Murphy McGrath and Vinnie. Photo by Brenda Manookin.

“People were coming and going [after Cody’s death], but Vinnie has been my rock,” McGrath says. “When I have a breakdown, he comes and licks my tears away, and then he does something silly, or goes and gets a toy and makes me laugh … He’s gotten me through this horrible, horrible time in my life. He was sent to help me through this.”

All in a day’s work

While Vinnie seems an extraordinary example of the power that pets can have in the lives of their human counterparts, the task of matching people to prospective pets is just part of a typical day for Hoffman. She’s been a constant presence at the humane society for 25 years years, first as a volunteer when the shelter opened in 1982, then at a desk job, followed by positions as office manager and humane officer, and, finally, as shelter director.

As Hoffman speaks from behind the closed door of her office, the sounds of shelter staff, cats and barking dogs can be clearly heard. On the other side of the office, where a curtain hangs closed over a window, are the sounds of more dogs and the vocal stylings of a nearly 19-year-old talking cockatoo named Oliver. “He’s just a baby,” Hoffman says of Oliver. “We sometimes think he’s in his terrible 2s.”

Hoffman, who heads up staff and oversees operations at the shelter, which reserves 48 kennels for dogs and two indoor/outdoor rooms for cats, has her own tales of the trade.

Jolene Hoffman and Oliver. Photo by Brenda Manookin.

One of those tales involves a dog named Ruby, who was violently abused and so covered in fleas that her skin was ruby-red when she arrived at the shelter. For about nine months, Hoffman worked with Ruby every day, sitting in the same room with the dog, inching a little closer as time went on, until Hoffman was finally able to pet her. Ruby, who had been beaten by her former family, was at first viciously unapproachable. Eventually, she became Hoffman’s pet and the “shelter dog.”

“She greeted everybody who came in,” Hoffman says of Ruby, who was about 10 years old when she was confiscated and lived to be about 18. “We did everything together. Losing her was the hardest day of my life.” On rare occasions, when the shelter deems an animal “unadoptable” due to behavior or severe physical issues, Hoffman must turn pets away. “The hardest thing we do is turn animals away,” Hoffman says. The lion’s share of the time, the shelter works closely with Ventura County Animal Regulation, headquartered in Camarillo, to see to it that animals are matched with ideal owners.

“We’re here to protect the animals from the people, while animal regulation protects the people from the animals,” Hoffman says of the shelter’s relationship with animal regulation. It’s a point of frustration for Hoffman that many people don’t know that the humane society exists, and that many don’t understand what the society does, what the role of animal regulation is, or that both organizations are geared toward helping animals. “The people who work there are very caring, loving people,” Hoffman says of animal regulation. “I defend them every day because it takes a great person to work there.”

In addition to working closely with animal regulation, the humane society — which was established in 1932 by a group of women who founded the organization in a house in Casitas Springs — currently has one humane officer who investigates cases of animal abuse. “You have to not only love animals, but you have to love people,” Hoffman says of being an advocate for animals. “You have to be a caring person, not a hard one.”

The humane society currently operates on a $900,000 annual budget that does not include county or state funding. Instead, the organization is run on private grants and donations. With a staff of 15 people (down from a former 25) and one humane officer (down from a former five) the humane society must rely on the help of an army of about 160 volunteers to meet the needs of the people and prospective pets it serves.

And while the humane society investigates about 400 animal abuse cases a year and turns one or two of those cases over to the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, in the 1980s it dealt with about 1,000 cases annually and turned about 25 of those over to the DA’s office. “Things were different 25 years ago,” Hoffman says. “The laws have changed and made abuses harder to prosecute. The laws are so vague when it comes to animal abuse that it’s just not that easy anymore.”

The organization also offers a low-cost — and sometimes no-cost — spay and neuter component, and local veterinarian Curt Lewis performs up to 20 spay and neuter procedures a day. “We never turn anyone away,” Hoffman says. “We won’t let an animal go by without being altered.”

As a means of community outreach, a staffer visits local schools with animals in tow so kids can get up-close and personal with prospective pets and learn a thing or two about responsible pet ownership. “Some people think this is a throw-away society,” Hoffman says. “People throw their trash away, their children away and their pets away. We want people to know this isn’t a throw-away society. We’re like a recycling plant here.”

Despite the challenges of prosecuting abuses and keeping population explosions at bay, Hoffman knows there’s another success story right around the next corner. “Every animal, you feel so much sadness for. But some of them have better lives here than they ever had at home.”

Dog adopts man

Often, it’s just a matter of time before one of the shelter’s long-term residents — some stay as long as one or two years or more — meets their match.

One such dog, named Corky, lived at the shelter for two years before she was adopted. Because Corky needed to live in a one-dog household, she needed just one special human companion. One day, a man who lives on a boat showed up and decided Corky would be a perfect addition to his life at sea. “She goes to Catalina all the time,” Hoffman says with a smile. “We have pictures of her lying on his bed, happily passed out.”

McGrath readily attests that the benefit of pet adoption is a two-way street. “I went in there thinking I was the rescuer,” she says, “but I was the one who got rescued.”

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The joys of being a humane society volunteer

It can be a lonely day behind bars and, for animals that live at the Ventura County Humane Society for extensive periods of time, a solid relationship with just one volunteer can make all the difference.

That’s why volunteers like Naheed “Dodo” Mufti are essential to the well being of prospective pets. Sixty-year-old Mufti, who arrived on American soil from Pakistan in 2000, has been volunteering at the humane society for about six years and, because of her love for animals, decided to become a volunteer before her move to the United States. “I love it,” she says, with a chuckle, “and that’s why I do it. I’m not a masochist.”

Mufti volunteers three or four times a week walking dogs at the shelter, where she tends to concentrate on the long-timers and those who seemingly make less-than-desirable pets. “I always like the dregs of society,” she says, “the dogs who jump around and are unruly, and who no one wants. The cute ones everyone wants anyway — so I work with the others.” Time spent with volunteers can be a means of socialization for the dogs, who need all the loving they can get. “As much touch and contact as you can give them, it’s the best thing you can do for them,” says Shelter Director Jolene Hoffman. “It’s important for them to encounter lots of people and lots of situations.”

Volunteer Coordinator Suzanne Soprano says there are plenty of opportunities for volunteers, and some of them don’t even involve working with animals. From landscaping to office work, the humane society can always use an extra hand — or 20 of them. “We always need people to work at booths, telling people why it’s important to adopt shelter dogs and get them spayed and neutered,” Soprano says. “Even if you’re allergic to animals, you can still help out in many ways.”

According to Soprano, many of the shelter’s volunteers are “people who just love animals but can’t have pets, or can’t have any more pets. They come here to get a fix.”

Walking the dogs is more than just a fix for Mufti, who’s always had pets of her own to care for. “They need more than just the exercise. [They need] someone to discipline them and to tell them how great they are.”

02-01-2007

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