Interview with Colleen McCammon

2013-11-25 16:02:15
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Though Colleen McCammon has been a loving pet owner since she learned to walk, her life as an emergency room nurse by trade and an animal rescuer by passion was not by design. She always wanted to be an actress. And she was well on her way a few decades ago, traveling to Los Angeles to study with legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner, renowned for working with everyone from Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen to Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock.

But, she says, she’d miss her sessions, a lot. Same with a big audition. Why? Because she’d see a dog lost on the side of the road. “I’d tell myself I have to be at class, or at an audition, but it’s that moment in your heart when you know who you are,” she says. As you’ve probably guessed, the dog never got left on the side of the road. “Let’s put it this way: I’d always have a lot of explaining to do.”

She says it became impossible to close her eyes to the problem of the huge number of animals that needed homes once they were opened to it. So she became a nurse to feed herself – she’s an emergency room nurse at St. Joseph Hospital of Orange – and an animal rescuer to feed her soul.

She volunteered at a series of animal shelters, saving dogs and cats with varying degrees of success, until she found the non-profit Animal Assistance League of Orange County (AALOC), for which she has volunteered for 15 years and of which she is now the president – full-time, still unpaid.

McCammon calls AALOC the gold standard of rescue shelters in the never-ending battle to save lost, abused, and neglected cats and dogs. Located in a removed part of county land, Midway City, the facility is a 16,000-square-foot compound with three yards for its 50 rescue dogs, and 10 rooms for its 85 rescue cats. “The dogs get love and have a beautiful space, and the cats have carpeted shelves, cat trees, and donated couches and sofas. I don’t think they have any idea they’re not in homes,” says McCammon.

And that’s a testament to the volunteers and the donors of the shelter, which has a monthly budget of $20,000 to $30,000, all from donations. With that, the AALOC not only keeps the shelter running, but also provides assistance to pet owners who are struggling to feed their pets or pay for medical care due to financial hardship.

We sat down with McCammon to learn more about her, and this 40-year-old community-focused refuge for man’s best friends.  

When did your connection to animals begin?
I was a Navy brat, and while we didn’t move that much, we lived in military housing for about 10 years, so I got used to making friends and saying goodbye to friends. So the one constant I had, besides my family, were my pets. For me my pets were always treated as members of the family. We had a collie, rabbits, parakeets, hamsters, and a fish tank. So we had a house full of animal family members.

How did you start volunteering at shelters?
I had a rabbit from when I was 17 till I was 20, and when he died, I decided to visit our county shelter in hopes of rescuing and adopting a rabbit. But, unlike today, they didn’t have any. So I ended up spending three hours petting every dog in that shelter. I couldn’t tell one breed from another; all I knew was every dog wanted even just a minute of my attention. It was overwhelming, and a life-changing experience. I left wondering what I could do.

So you started volunteering?
Yes. My first effort was for three weeks, during which I personally found homes for about 20 dogs. I did anything I could: calling family and friends and begging for them to take a dog. Then one day I ran into a woman with a Doberman rescue and she told me if I was serious about this I had to hook up with a rescue group and get rid of my two-seater sports car and get a truck. So I did.

And you ran your own rescue shelter for years.
Yes, four years. But it was really expensive. I spent about $20,000 on vet bills, so I ended up with Animal Assistance League of Orange County. I liked the fact that they were no-kill and took in animals no matter how old they were or what medical or abuse or neglect issues they had. That was 15 years ago and I’ve been here ever since.

So the AALOC won’t euthanize?
We will never euthanize for space, or medical issues, or abuse issues. The only way we will euthanize is if three conditions are met. If the pet is permanently ill, suffering, and there is nothing a vet can do to help. Even though we’re very poor, if a pet needs a surgery, we’ll find a way to raise the money.

Why are there so many stray dogs and cats, and ones in shelters?
Here’s a stat that usually surprises people. Every day in the U.S. there are 10,000 people born. But there are 70,000 puppies and kittens born every day. So if you have a family of three, you would have to have 21 dogs and cats, as every other family of three would, to make sure every animal got a home.

How hard is it to match a shelter dog or cat with an owner?
It’s really not hard at all. Sadly, there are so many homeless animals that if someone visits a shelter or rescue, I guarantee they’ll find a dog or cat they’ll love for life. Consider that every year there are a million dogs and cats that go into shelters. Half of those don’t come out alive. Even puppies and kittens are being euthanized.

What if someone has their heart set on a purebred?
One quarter of all dogs entering shelters are purebreds. So whatever you’re looking for, a certain purebred, temperament, puppies, kittens, you will find them at a shelter.

AALOC takes extra care to find the right match of pets to owners, but there are some shelters that don’t. Have you experienced that?
Yes. In the early days I volunteered with some groups where it was just about the numbers. We’d go to the shelters the day before they were going to euthanize the animals and rescue a bunch of dogs and cats. The next day we’d be outside pet stores trying to get them homes. And I saw some bad consequences. Cats that went home with people and got killed by their dog. Dogs that would go home and bite their kids. I remember one Australian shepherd mix puppy that went home with a family. Later I discovered that he was an outdoor-only dog living in the backyard, which faces an alley, with a chain link fence through which gang members poisoned their last dog. You go through that and you think, “What have I done?” That was a harsh learning experience about what not to do.

What is a bait animal?
Any animal that is used as “bait” for the purposes of training an animal to kill. People involved in dog-fighting will collect kittens, rabbits, small dogs, usually from “free-to-good-home” ads in the paper and on Craigslist. It’s easy to be fooled by these people, and they prey on owners who are desperate to find their pets a good home.

AALOC took in a bait dog. Tell us about him.
Nicky was a pit bull just under a year old that came from South LA. He was found dumped on the street, bloody from head to toe, just chewed up with wounds all over his face and body. We took Nicky in and treated him. His wounds were manageable but bad. And when he was being neutered they noticed a lump on his hip. When they cut it out for biopsy, they discovered it was actually a .38-caliber bullet. Apparently, when they were done with him as bait they shot him and threw him out onto the street.

How is he now?
Now, he’s one of the most affectionate dogs here. You can’t pet him without him rolling onto his back for a belly rub. After his physical wounds were healed, we sent him to a professional training facility where they worked with him for close to a year. So he has extensive obedience training and has a great personality around people.

Are pit bulls born aggressive?
No. Pit bulls are no different than any other puppies. They’re not born aggressive; people have to train them to be aggressive. And the training process starts very young, when the puppies are just weeks old. When they’re puppies, at a time when puppies need to be fed four times a day during the first three months, they’ll actually starve them for several days. Then they take rabbits, cats, other puppies, and stab them to make them bleed, then make the pit bull puppies kill for their food to survive, like they’re in the wild. As time goes on they’ll match it up with bigger and stronger animals and perform acts of cruelty on them to strengthen and toughen the dogs up.

Like what exactly?
They’ll chain the dogs to a treadmill and force them to run for hours. They’ll make them wear tires around their necks to build up their strength. And if they’re not good fighters, they’ll either be killed in a fight or by their owners. Pit bulls are so loyal that even when they don’t want to go into the ring, they will fight to the death.

Is it possible to rehabilitate these dogs?
Absolutely. For example, all the dogs at Michael Vick’s compound were rescued. Out of all of them only one had to be euthanized for extreme aggression. Almost all the others were rehabilitated and placed with families, and often with other animals.

Is there one piece of advice you’d give pet owners?
There is an enormous problem of lack of identification of pets, so they may never get found and claimed by their owners if they get lost or run away. People need to keep tags on their pets, and better yet, get them microchipped. A microchip is a small computer chip about the size of a piece of rice. It fits in a needle and in a few seconds is injected just under the skin between the shoulder blades. If the dog or cat ever gets lost, and loses their collar, that chip will be there. There have been many cases where owners and pets have been reunited, even years later, thanks to this technology.

You’re a full-time nurse and a full-time animal rescuer. Which one is your real career?
Both, it’s just that one is paid and one’s all volunteer. I don’t think that they’re very different either. Animals need help; people need help. People sometimes say, “How can you work so hard to save animals when there are so many people in the world who need saving?” And I get to say, “Well, I do that too.” And we humans are the ones who domesticated these animals and made them dependent on us, so there’s a responsibility there. And when you’ve seen how a lot of these animals are mistreated by other humans, somebody has to step in and help them.


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