Furry Friends offers refuge in a sea of unwanted
Photos by Christopher T. Assaf
Catherine Hedges doesn't have much time for fun. A movie every other
week or so is what passes for her social life. But one evening this
summer was supposed to be different. The animal rescue organization
she runs, Furry Friends Foundation, was having a fund-raiser at
a bar in Chicago. "I thought, I'm going have fun tonight because
I have to have fun once a month," she says. "I had a glass of wine."
Then a call came into the bar from someone who must have seen a
poster about the event. Hedges took the call. A voice at the other
end asked, "Is this the shelter?"
"Yes," Hedges replied.
"There's a pit bull tied up outside the Osco."
much for fun. With one of her volunteers, Hedges took off for the
Osco, where they found a "shady-looking character" who offered to
take the dog. Hedges cares way too much about what can happen to
a dog in the wrong hands to let that happen.
By the time she took the dog to an animal hospital for boarding
and got back to the party, Hedges had missed an hour of the three-hour
fund-raiser. And because she had already exceeded the number of
dogs the vet would take at a discount, the boarding cost her $400.
A small price to pay, in Hedges' mind, for saving a dog named Penny
that turned out to be pet friendly and kid friendly and is now happily
living in a home with another dog, a cat and an 11-year-old girl.
That incident tells a lot about Catherine Hedges. At 33, the petite
blonde with a master's degree in psychology could be enjoying a
comfortable lifestyle and a social whirl. Instead she spends 70
hours a week without pay rescuing dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters,
pet rats - even potbellied pigs - that other shelters would turn
away or euthanize because they are old, sick, injured, temperamental
or otherwise hard to place. Many of the dogs are pit bulls and Rottweilers,
which some shelters put down automatically and others take only
Four and a half years after starting Furry Friends, she admits
to being overextended. At times she pushes herself to the brink
of burnout. With cage space for only 29 dogs and cats, her count
in mid-October was more than 160, two-thirds cats, one-third dogs,
with the overflow farmed out to foster homes or boarded in doggie
day-care centers, vet clinics and kennels.
"I make 100 phone calls per day," she says. "I put in 70 hours
for the shelter in the average week and I don't get paid. I can
barely keep up. Right now I'm juggling 166 animals, it's a lot of
juggling. This foster person is going out of town. This person is
returning a dog because it didn't get along with their cat. This
dog didn't get along with the other dogs in day care. There's just
so, so much work involved, just to keep everyone alive."
She knows she sometimes should say no to an animal in need, but
too often can't. Take the night when a police officer from the city's
animal abuse and control team alerted her to a TV report about a
raid on a home filled with some 60 neglected and starving animals.
"I said 'I'm not gonna watch' because I couldn't handle another
dog," but she did anyway. "At the end of the segment, Dorothy (a
9-year-old small mixed terrier) turned around and looked at the
camera. She was all skin and bones. I'm like, Damn, I'll call the
shelter. 'The three I saw on TV? I'll take them.' I couldn't save
them all, but I took three dogs and eight cats."
her tiny office on the Near North Side, cramped with hamster cages,
cat carriers, leashes, plastic bags, toys and treats, Hedges ignores
the phone that rings almost constantly but stops to kiss and cuddle
the dogs that parade in and out with their volunteer walkers.
She knows that when she picks up the voice mail, most of the calls
will be about homeless animals. The caller may have found a stray
dog on the street. A cat needs a home because its owner died. It
may be someone from a county or city shelter who has taken pity
on an animal whose time is up, calling to see if Hedges can give
it a second chance. Or it may be an animal owner who just wants
to get rid of a companion who has become inconvenient. The owners
are moving and can't take the pet. They are getting married and
the new spouse is allergic, or they are having a baby and worry
about pet-borne diseases. Hedges has heard all the excuses and has
a patient argument to counter each. Off the phone, she lets her
"People have it in their heads that animals are disposable," she
says. "One guy called, he had two 9-year-old cats. He has a roommate
moving in who is allergic to cats. I asked him, 'Have you thought
about how they will react to being in a shelter after being with
you for nine years?' I could tell I wasn't getting through to him."
Two more animals to fit into her already maxed-out facilities.
But she feels she has no choice: At the city Animal Care and Control
facility or the Anti-Cruelty Society, the overwhelming numbers of
homeless animals means that the older ones are usually put down
before they ever reach the adoption room. She doesn't blame those
facilities - they are doing what they can for hundreds of animals
dumped on them every week. But she is angry with people who fail
to make a lifelong commitment to their pets. She has seen cats and
dogs, abandoned by their owners, go into deep depression. She mourns
right along with the animal.
"There are moments when I cry and cry and cry because I can't
get a cat to eat when it is so depressed that its owner abandoned
developed a deep love for cats while growing up in Chicago. In college,
at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she took in three cats
that people no longer wanted. Returning to Chicago for graduate
school at Loyola, she was volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter
when she was asked to start up Furry Friends. It was supposed to
be an eight-hour-a-week commitment to 29 animals at a time, but
it mushroomed into much more. She soon abandoned plans to get her
Ph.D., and devoted herself to the shelter, making ends meet by walking
dogs and cat sitting. She sees it as a calling.
"I realized that this is what I was meant to do," she says. "Early
on, a pit bull came in, it was rolling over, licking my face. I
would not go by what society said about these dogs. I found a great
home for it. A few months later I was camping in Michigan. I heard
a dog barking. It was that dog. It was in a great home and it was
out camping with its great owner."
A vegetarian who doesn't wear fur or leather, Hedges advocates
tirelessly for all animals, even hamsters, the one species she'll
admit to not liking. She even cuddles two Special Fancy Rats that
ended up at the shelter when their owner moved to a smaller apartment.
She acknowledges a prejudice for animals over people. "I like
all the animals I meet, but not even close to all the people I meet.
I meet great people - volunteers and adopters - and not-so-great
people - relinquishers, like the rat lady."
Among dogs, pit bulls are her favorite, and she doesn't miss an
opportunity to try to change their reputation as vicious animals.
At pet adoption events, her volunteers hand out leaflets quoting
statistics from the American Canine Temperament Testing Association:
95 percent of the American Pit Bull Terriers that took the association's
test passed, compared to a 77 percent passing rate for all breeds
There is no disputing the fact that pit bulls can be dangerous.
Bred for the strength and tenacity needed for dog fighting, they
are often abused by owners who want to create mean dogs for protection
or for dogfights. During the 20-year period between 1979 and 1998,
238 people were killed by dogs in the United States and pit-bull
type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of those
deaths, according to a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary
Medical Association. Still, the AVMA's position is that all dogs
have the potential to bite if not socialized correctly and that
no breed should be singled out by communities seeking to protect
residents from dangerous dogs. Chicago followed that model last
year, rejecting breed-specific legislation in favor of an ordinance
that penalizes irresponsible owners of "dangerous dogs," regardless
applauds that ordinance. While she agrees that bad owners can create
bad dogs, she has seen many pits, even ones that have been abused,
that are good pets.
She introduces Victor, adopted three years ago by Mariann and
Alan Demkovich. When found at a CHA housing project, he was abandoned,
abused and malnourished. Most likely, his owner had thrown him out
because he was not a good fighter. His ears had been cut off so
an opposing dog would have less to latch onto. Victor lies calmly
on the floor as people walk in and out, the picture of nonaggression.
He lives peacefully with a cat. "I'd like to adopt a couple more,"
Mariann Demkovich says.
"Ninety out of 100 pits have great temperaments," Hedges says.
"It's all about how a dog is socialized and raised, not about breed.
We've had 300-plus people adopt pit bulls from us. If I had 20 strays
come in and had to put one in with children, it would be a pit bull."
Cindy Hannon, who adopted the dog rescued outside the Osco, is
one of her converts. She describes Penny as "a wonderful dog with
a wonderful disposition. You could take a steak bone out of this
dog's mouth and she wouldn't flinch."
An estimated 40,000 animals are euthanized every year at Chicago
animal shelters. Tens of thousands more die on the streets from
starvation or car accidents or acts of cruelty, including dogfighting,
which has reached epidemic proportions in some neighborhoods. Against
the perspective of those numbers, Furry Friends and a handful of
other no-kill animal rescue groups in the city barely make a dent.
Hedges has her detractors, even among animal-welfare advocates,
who say that she could save more animals if she didn't spend so
much time and money on those whose problems make them less than
desirable candidates for adoption. Some feel that all dogs that
show aggression should be put down, for the protection of people
and other pets. Others feel that more resources should be devoted
to the plight of strays - animals that are suffering out of sight,
out of mind, while attention is lavished on the few animals in shelters.
"A no-kill shelter is not realistic," says one humane investigator.
"What people seem not to understand is that there aren't enough
decent people to adopt the adoptable animals." To Hedges, being
a no-kill shelter is everything. She attributes the devotion of
her 80 regular volunteers and her contributors to the fact that
she is no-kill. And to her, no kill means she can't pick and choose
but must help animals regardless of age, health and breed.
"Sometimes we get an 'easy' animal, sometimes a 'hard' animal,
and since we never have the money for the treatment or surgery required,
we have to raise the money," she says. "So basically I'm in debt,
and I'll probably always be in debt."
She tells the story of a 12-year-old long-haired Chihuahua that
had been dipped in glue and dumped at the city pound, where he would
have been euthanized had not a worker called Hedges, who agreed
to take the dog. "He was so plugged with glue that he hadn't gone
to the bathroom in a long time," she says. "He was very toxic and
required a lot of care. It cost me $1,000, but he got a wonderful
home in a week with a woman who really dotes on him."
Then there are the two kittens who suffer from a virus-induced
brain disorder that upset their sense of balance. They cartwheel
across the floor, and when they get to the litter box, they fall
over, the urine squirting out. Hedges thought about the quality
of life they would have, and came down on the side of saving them,
paying to have them neutered. She's caring for them in her apartment,
already crowded with a bevy of cats she will describe only as "too
many" and an Akita-pit bull mix.
animals that end up at Furry Friends find themselves in the nirvana
of shelters. Volunteers walk the dogs two to three times a day,
and the cats get play time out of their cages. Each evening Hedges
distributes blankets to the dogs so they'll have a bed to sleep
on. Volunteer Bruce Bregenzer comes in once a week to give massages
to abused dogs like Violet, a shepherd-hound mix who needs to get
used to the human touch, and dogs like Maddie, the pit bull on CityTalk's
cover, who is depressed after three months in the shelter. Each
dog is temperament tested, to assess its ability to get along with
adults, children and other animals, and those who fail go to K-9
University, where animal behavior expert Alan Rapata works on retraining
- or as he puts it, re-imprinting - them, working as long as six
months with a dog until it is ready to be adopted.
A few dogs are beyond re-imprinting, resistant even to Rapata's
expert treatment. Hedges and her volunteers raise money to send
those unadoptable dogs to an animal refuge in Sherman, Texas, which,
for a price, promises to take care of the dogs for the rest of their
lives. The unadoptable cats - the old and the sick - end up in Hedges'
apartment. "I don't want them to die in a cage," she says.
Will there ever be a "normal life" for Catherine Hedges?
"There has to be," she says emphatically. She can already see
it coming together. A small inheritance from her mother has allowed
her to cut down on the dog walking and cat sitting. Her number two
at the shelter, Linda Widmer, is putting in 20 to 30 hours a week,
in addition to her full-time job, and a few other devoted volunteers
have pitched in, allowing Hedges to stay home on Wednesdays and
Sundays, though she spends part of even those days returning phone
and e-mail messages and screening applications from potential adopters.
She likens her situation to that of an entrepreneur who devotes
all her time to a start-up in its early years, but gradually can
delegate the work.
"I do think it will change," she says. "After my mother died,
I took a vacation. I went to Hawaii, my only vacation in five years.
It went pretty well. When I got back, the shelter was still standing."