The way we think about animal rescue might be completely backward.
Six years ago, Kelsey Westbrook watched someone throw a pit bull puppy off a bridge.
For the next several minutes, she looked on helplessly as the stunned dog paddled circles in the river below, struggling to save herself. Eventually, the fire department arrived and pulled the dog to safely. Westbrook was so determined to take in the dog, it almost cost her the apartment she was living in at the time.
Yet Westbrook has no patience for the idea that people who give up their pets are heartless or cruel or "bad people."
"We think 'Oh, what a jerk. How can people just dump their family members at a shelter? This is awful,'" she told Upworthy. "Once I started doing [animal rescue] work in this community, that's like nails on a chalkboard to me now."
"This community" is Portland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Louisville, Kentucky, where Westbrook and her team operate Community Dog Resource Center. Once a month, the CDRC sets up shop in the Portland Community Center to distribute pet food, offer free spay and neuter services, and schedule check-in appointments with pet owners in the area.
The CDRC's mission is simple: to prevent beloved pets from becoming homeless in the first place.
“The homes that we go into, people love their pets so much, just like their human children."
After the incident on the bridge, Westbrook and her team founded Saving Sunny, a pit bull rescue organization that at first only took in animals from local kill shelters. They soon realized, however, they were missing a big piece of the puzzle: Most of the time, people who leave their dogs at shelters really, really don't want to give them up in the first place.
"We all go through rough patches financially," Westbrook explained. "... And sometimes people can be struggling to put food on their table for their human children, much less their dog. So sometimes they just have to come to terms with the fact that they can't afford to feed their dog, and they end up giving their dog to a shelter."
"These are loving pet owners that really care about their pet, that have to make these tough decisions," she said.
This is certainly true in West Louisville, where, according to Westbrook's organization, there is only one vet clinic in a 40-block radius and thousands of residents who don't own cars. By providing free spay and neuter surgeries, in-home behavior consultations, and veterinary services, the CDRC hopes to help alleviate much the financial and logistical burden on residents who may be stretching themselves thin trying to care for a dog.
“We've had people in tears saying, 'Oh my gosh, thank you so much, now I can keep my pet,'" Westbrook said.
“It's not true that the level of economic status you have, the greater it is, the better home it is for a dog."
In order to meet her clients on their terms, Westbrook first had to recognize that any home has the potential to be a good one for a pet. That meant checking her assumptions at the door.
“I've gone into homes that don't necessarily have proper furniture, or there are fleas everywhere," Westbrook said. "Dogs aren't thinking about it that way because they're getting food, getting love, and they have shelter."
No matter what your means are, the decision to take in a dog, or any pet, is a pretty standard side-effect of having a big heart. Like one CDRC client who, despite suffering from cancer and raising her three elementary school-age grandchildren, rescued a stray chihuahua because she was so heartbroken seeing it out on the street every day. Or the many local residents who adopt puppies from overwhelmed neighbors whose dogs have a litter.
“There have been homes that I've gone into and looked around and thought, 'You know, they really need the money from these puppies,'" Westbrook observed. "That's when your whole experience changes. When you realize that they were breeding their dog to survive — to feed their human children."
Making sure the CDRC's services reach the people who need them most has meant working hard to gain community confidence, which Westbrook and her team continue to do every day.
“This morning I picked up eight pit bulls from one woman's house to be spayed or neutered," she said. "It literally took me talking on the phone with her and going to her house in person twice, talking on the phone at least five times, for her to believe that I was not the dog pound. That I wasn't going to take her dogs and not bring them back. You just have to establish trust because a lot of time they've been burned by authorities in the past."
“Establish trust. Build relationships, go in judgment-free, and you can actually end up meeting some really amazing people."
The CDRC is still a small operation. It can't prevent every West Louisville pet from becoming homeless. It can't be residents' only source of dog food, flea and tick medication, and vet care.
What it can do is provide an invaluable service: help without judgment.
“We really operate in a judgment-free zone," Westbrook explained. "If people aren't ready to get their pet spayed or neutered, that's OK. We'll ask you again next month. We're going to tell you all about the benefits, and we're going to tell you how much it's going to help your dog health-wise and how much it's going to help your community and how much money it's going to save you in the long run. Yes, we're going to tell you all those things, but if you're not ready yet, that's OK. We're not going to tell you to leave either."
The hard work and acceptance seems to have paid off. To date, according to Westbrook, the CDRC has assisted over 2,000 dog owners with free services and spayed and neutered over 160 pets.
Animal surrenders in the Portland area are down 13% since the CDRC opened its doors in 2014.
The organization still has bigger goals it would like to meet, and it remains to be seen whether its model can be duplicated elsewhere. But for the moment, its remarkable success comes down to its guiding philosophy:
“No matter where you come from, what you look like, yes, we will help you and your pet."