Aspen Times Weekly cover story: The Canine Underground
January 9, 2013
Anyone who doubts that a rags-to-riches rise is still possible in America today should consider the case of Coco, a 5-year-old black poodle now living in Dallas.
One day last fall, Coco was wandering lost in Grand Junction when animal-control officers there picked him up.
The Grand Junction shelter was overcrowded, so Coco was transferred to the Aspen Animal Shelter and into the hands of executive director Seth Sachson, a 20-year animal-rescue veteran.
For years, Sachson has operated a sort of informal, interspecies matchmaking service out of the Aspen shelter, recording the desires of wanna-be dog adopters and connecting them with matching animals that cross his path.
When Sachson saw Coco – in those days, his name was Franklin; it has since been changed – he immediately called Michael and Jolie Newman, friends from Dallas who vacation in Aspen and recently had filed a request for a pooch.
“We have two kids who are asthmatic, so we wanted a dog that didn’t shed,” Jolie said, speaking by phone from Dallas as Coco barked excitedly in the background.
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After a trip to the Aspen Farmers’ Market to see how Coco handled kids, Sachson was convinced.
“I called Michael and told him the dog was too good for him to pass up,” he said.
A few more phone calls won Coco a seat on the private jet owned by Dallas millionaire Sam Wyly, which was scheduled to leave Aspen the following day.
“Coco arrived in the private-jet terminal, and we went and picked him up,” Newman said.
These days, Coco is a zealous guard dog who sleeps in bed with her son.
“Whoever had him before we did trained him,” Nelson said. “He can fetch the ball, and he does a funny little dance.”
It’s impossible to put a precise figure on the number of homeless dogs in the Roaring Fork Valley or anywhere else, for that matter. Yet according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, roughly 40,000 abandoned animals are euthanized in Colorado every year. In the United States as a whole, the figure is somewhere around 5.1 million.
The abuse that shelter animals endure makes some people think twice about adopting them. But in the Roaring Fork Valley, which Sachson describes as “a somewhat utopian society” for homeless pets because of the quality of local shelters and rescue groups, the story can be different. Shelter dogs can actually prove more predictable than their counterparts sold by pet stores or breeders.
“I thought we wanted a puppy, but after talking to Seth, I was so glad we didn’t go that route,” said Jenny Bombardier, who along with her husband, Mark, adopted a one-eyed, tiger striped boxer dog named Willie from the Aspen Animal Shelter about a year ago. “With puppies, you don’t know their personality until it’s too late.”
Willie came to Aspen from a shelter in Cortez that, like many around the country, has a policy of euthanizing animals it can’t house when overcrowded.
“They told us he lost his eye and burst an eardrum when he was hit by a car down there,” Jenny said.
“He has no depth perception,” Mark added, “and that’s good for a laugh sometimes because when he’s playing with other dogs, he runs around in circles to keep his good eye on them.”
Since the Bombardiers work different schedules – Mark is a ski patroller, Jenny a dental hygienist – they put Willie in doggie day care regularly at the Aspen shelter. After a few training classes, he has become the standard by which other dogs’ temperaments are measured.
“He’s so sweet, friendly and energetic that Seth uses him to find out how other dogs respond,” Jenny said.
Willie is one of many dogs that arrive in the Roaring Fork Valley from shelters across the country. The area’s surplus of willing adopters, combined with its dog-friendly outdoor environment, has made it a relative hotbed of canine adoption.
The area’s three publicly funded shelters – in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle – are obligated to take any dogs found in the cities or counties that they cover.
But there are also at least three private rescue groups in the valley that operate by placing dogs with volunteer foster parents until they find permanent homes.
Those dogs find their way to Colorado via a network of vans, trucks and even airplanes that form a sort of underground pet railroad across the country. So-called “rescue liaisons” based at kill shelters nationwide transfer at-risk pets to groups with names like “PetEx Rescue ‘n Transport” or “Pilots and Paws.” Those carriers then transfer them to others at gas stations or in pet-store parking lots until they reach a shelter or rescue group with room to spare.
Many local rescue groups, such as Lucky Day Animal Rescue based in Aspen, advertise their dogs in local newspapers to attract adopters, or post pictures on the website Petfinder.com.
In such a saturated rescue market, public shelters sometimes struggle to place all of their animals in homes. To stay competitive, they emphasize services like behavioral screening and reliable follow-up counseling for adopters.
“We try to set ourselves apart because we do so much for our animals up here,” said Leslie Rockey, executive director of the publicly funded Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) in Glenwood Springs. “When you adopt from us, you have us for the lifetime of that pet. We do a variety of behavioral assessments, seeing how they will interact with kids or with other animals or whether they’re going to eat your couch.”
Despite such thorough screening, the early lives of many rescue dogs remain mysterious, and perhaps no American subculture outside of sports betting is as rife with speculation as the world of dog adoption.
Having put so much into caring for their animals, owners often can’t resist the urge to explain dogs’ tics and odd behaviors with an origin story.
“He was abandoned at the Aspen roundabout, and I think he was abused or neglected,” said Kim Scheuer, an Aspen physician who adopted Clifford, a mild-mannered terrier-shepherd mix, from the Aspen shelter 14 years ago.
“He had separation anxiety and was very scared of me feeding him chicken,” she said. “To this day he will sometimes still freak out when fed cooked chicken. He may have been beaten for eating chicken at some point.”
Aspenite Darlyn Fellman, who adopted a Wheaton terrier mix named Buffett from the shelter about four years ago, has a similar tale to explain Buffett’s idiosyncrasies.
“The house where he came from, someone probably tortured him with food – he’s very territorial about his food,” she said. “He has also had some issues with darker-colored dogs. And at first he didn’t like men, so I made him my husband’s dog and let him feed him and everything. Now he always follows my husband around.”
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Sachson said. “If there isn’t a factual history, people create a history, and over time, their story becomes reality. I have often heard people tell the story of their dog on the streets, and I know damn well that that dog was born at the shelter.”
Carbondale resident Bill Lukes, for one, knows exactly how his border collie Jackson grew up. In 2008, Lukes was volunteering at CARE when an animal-control officer in Glenwood Springs found a cardboard box full of Collie puppies near a Dumpster behind a McDonald’s restaurant there.
Lukes, a longtime dog lover, was a co-founder of the Animal Rescue Foundation, which has since become Lucky Day Animal Rescue. He paraded Jackson around Carbondale during First Friday one week to attract an owner before deciding that he would rather keep the dog himself.
“He was so cute and so much fun,” Lukes said, “and he was a complete chick magnet.”
Lukes, who has always been partial to herding dogs, adopted two border collie mixes before Jackson. One of those, Bo, is still alive.
The high-energy dogs, he notes, are the most common breed returned to animal shelters after adoption.
“People love the way they look but don’t realize that they’re not happy just lying around the house,” Lukes said.
To keep them active, Lukes has made a serious hobby out of training his dogs, and competes frequently in sheepdog trial events throughout the West. Jackson has been to the sheepdog trial national championships twice in recent years.
“I love doing herding and agility events with them,” he said. “And Bo has been great at training other dogs.”
As a volunteer, Lukes raises and trains far more dogs than he owns. On this past New Year’s Eve, he emailed the owner of the toughest dog he ever trained, a border collie mix named Willie, to see how the dog was doing. Willie was adopted three years ago, on New Year’s Eve 2009.
“The owner wrote me back with photos and all these stories from Willy’s life,” Lukes said. “When you see the dogs you’ve trained out and about with their new family, it’s just so gratifying. I wish I could do it full time.”