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Michelle Sathe: A Midwest lesson in love

Posted: June 30, 2009 2:12 p.m.
Updated: June 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Christine Jeschke, of the Indianapolis Humane Society, in the cat holding area. Like many shelters, Indy Humane has more cats than dogs, with cats typically harder to adopt out.

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Editor’s note: Signal features writer Michelle Sathe will be taking a seven-week sabbatical to promote homeless dog adoptions. She is taking a rescued pit bull, Loren, along with her as a companion and mascot during the cross-country trip. The Signal will be following Sathe’s and Loren’s trip every Sunday with a column of their latest adventures on the road.

After our brief overnight in Charleston, W. Va., we had a 400-mile trek to Indianapolis, where we were scheduled to meet with Christine Jeschke, a friend of Stacey’s at Animal Farm, who ran the Indianapolis Humane Society.

Since we were heading this way in large part to avoid traveling into Ohio due to the breed ban in that state, I was horrified when Gidget was sending us towards a Cincinnati highway. So much so, I pulled over and actually consulted my atlas. (Unheard of, for anyone who knows me well). I even asked a truck driver what to do, just to make sure I was on the right path.

The new route took us through Louisville, Ky., which looks like a really cool city. Lots of independent music stores, book stores,
ethnic restaurants and boutiques surrounded by the lush Kentucky landscape and charming architecture. We stopped at Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen, which was in the Roadfood book, for a hummus and spring mix sandwich, as well as a piece of mixed berry pie, which I wolfed down on the Interstate.

Indiana wasn’t as flat or as dry as I expected. The rolling hills were less hilly, but the trees were still there. Loren and I rolled into town around 5 p.m. and stopped at West Park for a stroll. The area we stayed at, near the Pyramids, was very suburban and the park was gorgeous.

A wooded path looped around a little lake, festooned with lily pads and  ducks cruising along the surface. Loren, though hot, was fascinated by the new environment, sniffing along contentedly before the humidity took over. She took many breaks under whatever shade she could find. Taking her cue, I laid out too, for a few minutes and gazed upward. There’s something special about the Midwest sky, so open, so blue, and today, big fluffy clouds abounded. It was beautiful.

For dinner, I had to try a local specialty — spaghetti and chili — also known as four way with onions. That means meat sauce, cheese, and onions over pasta. It had a cinnamon tang, similar to what you find in Moussaka, which I found really tasty. I also ate a Greek salad, to balance out the damage.

The skies turned dark the next morning when we went to Indy Humane. I was immediately struck by a spacious play yard in the front, complete with a picnic bench and dog houses. Inside, the space was warm and inviting, even cheerful. We were greeted cheerfully by staff. Loren immediately made herself at home.

Christine Jeschke gave me a tour. She had only started at the shelter in December 2008, but her passion and commitment were palpable, as Jeschke has been involved in the animal welfare movement for more than a decade.

We looked at the cats first.

“The policy here used to be to euthanize cats with feline HIV, but we’ve instituted a new program and have adopted out eight since then,” she said.

Like all the shelters I visited, cat intakes were more than that of dogs, especially in the summertime, the peak of kitten season.

Thought admittedly a dog person, I once had a cat named Pookie, a fat orange tabby I adored. There was a young version of Pookie there, whom Jeschke interacted with. Many cats were waiting in the back, until a spot on the adoption floor opened up.

In the dog areas, I was happy and surprised to see many of the kennels empty.

“We had a huge level of adoptions this weekend and last,” Jeschke said. “We’re putting in calls to other shelters to bring their dogs here.”

One reason the adoptions were so high was a well-publicized puppy mill bust, which brought 20 survivors to Indy Humane.

“Those dogs were snapped up in no time,” Jeschke said. “Best of all, all our little dogs went with them, because of the publicity.”

Of the big dogs, a 9-year-old purebred German Shepherd was one of the sadder stories. His owners, who claim they paid $15,000 for the dog and brought all his papers to Indy Humane, had surrendered him once they lost their home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a trio of chocolate and black lab/pit mix puppies played in an adorable tangle amidst their small crate.

Thankfully, Indy Humane’s overall adoption rate is extremely high — more than 90 percent. Of the dogs they take in, approximately 10 percent or less are pit bulls due to their location as well as their demographic.

“Go to the city and the kennels are overflowing with pits,” Jeschke said. “We bring in a lot of them to Indy Humane, but have to be careful not to overdo it. Some of our long-term adopters don’t want to see high numbers of bully breeds. We have to keep it balanced.”

Several members of Indy Humane’s staff belong to a nonprofit pit bull advocacy group called Indy Pit Crew, which provides training, free spay/neuter vouchers, and other resources to owners.

“We’ll offer people free dog food to get their dog spayed or neutered,” said Nina Gaither, Indy Humane behaviorist and Indy Pit Crew volunteer. “Whatever it takes.”

Indy Pit Crew is just one way Indy Humane is partnering with the community to benefit its pets. Plans are in the works for a resource center, closer to lower-income target zip codes, that will provide pet owners with options other than turning their pets into a shelter.

Until then, Indy Humane is focusing on using online social networking, such as Facebook and e-mail blast programs, to increase its visibility in the area and encourage its residents to adopt, rather than shop for pets. An “Adopt 500 Animals in May” campaign met its goal (slightly late, on June 4).

Tristan Schmid, Indy Humane’s communications manager, realized the power of online marketing before he went to work at the shelter. At his previous company, located in a lower income area, co-workers would often find stray kittens and dogs, especially pit bulls, in the parking lot and just beyond.

“I started posting them on Craigslist and also sending out e-mails to staff whenever a dog or cat would be found,” Schmid said.

“At least a dozen animals were adopted out that way.”

We discussed the complex nuances of the animal welfare issue: education, low cost or free spay and neuter, providing owners with the resources they need to keep their pet and what an uphill battle it felt like at times.

“It’s easy to preach to the choir,” I said to Schmid. “It’s reaching those outside the circle that’s so hard.”

“Yeah, I know. A lot of people in this country don‘t understand why there‘s a movement to help homeless pets when humans are suffering, too,” Schmid said. “But I believe that we have to have compassion and recognize these creatures as the living, sentient beings that they are. Otherwise, what hope is there for us as a society?”

To follow Loren and Sathe on the trip visit the road blog at www.dogdaysbook.com.



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