Unsheltered Part 2: Animal advocates back owner, breeder licensing to curb shelter population
by Brooke Carbo
Sep 22, 2013 | 5509 views |  0 comments | 77 77 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The former shelter dogs of Semper Fi Rescue await adoption at the home of former Marines Lisa and John Wippler, who founded the nonprofit in 2008. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
The former shelter dogs of Semper Fi Rescue await adoption at the home of former Marines Lisa and John Wippler, who founded the nonprofit in 2008. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
The sprawling fenced-in yard in front of the Wipplers’ Oxford home is awash in activity on a sunny afternoon. Three amber-colored dachshunds eagerly mine a newly discovered hole, their midnight-black brother nearly tripping on his oversized ears as he rushes to inspect his sisters’ find. At the far end of the yard, a crystal-eyed Husky mix leads several of his makeshift packmates in a howl of greeting for an approaching jogger. Wally, a shaggy, golden bundle of energy, darts back toward the house with dapple-coated Recon close at his heels, and the pair tumbles to the ground as they reach the shade of the yard’s enormous oak. A brindle Great Dane mix emerges from one of the home’s two doggie doors, looking out on the scene before nudging Coco, an affectionate girl the shade of cappuccino, from her spot atop the picnic table where Lisa Wippler is seated.

Several of the dogs are permanent members of the Wippler family, but most are just stopping through, biding their time at Semper Fi Rescue until they get their own forever family.

Wippler and her husband, John, founded Semper Fi Rescue out of their home not long after moving to Calhoun County with their two sons in 2007. The couple, both former Marines, had fostered rescue dogs off and on throughout their 12 years in California, but “there just wasn’t much of a need,” Wippler said.

A few weeks after relocating to Alabama, she called up the Anniston Animal Shelter to again offer her family’s services as a foster home.

“They said, ‘Can you come today?’” recalls Wippler. “Since that day we’ve never been without fosters.”

The four dachshund siblings have been at Semper Fi just shy of three weeks after they were abandoned in the middle of the night, close to death from starvation and neglect, at the gates of the Calhoun County Animal Control Center. In April, Wippler pulled an 8-week-old Wally from the Etowah County shelter with a broken tail and parvo. John showed up with Coco Chanel after meeting the affectionate young Doberman mix on a visit to CCACC. All six dogs are now healthy and happy and up for adoption, and with no local prospects they will likely be headed for adoption centers up north in the coming weeks.

But they are the lucky few. Last year, Semper Fi rescued and rehomed 237 shelter dogs.

“But we're just a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Wippler, explaining that all the adoption fairs and northern transports in the world won’t change that. “We can’t adopt our way out of this problem. If (shelters) are taking in 500 animals a month and only rescuing 150, what do you think happens to those dogs?”

Incentive to fix

To nearly every facet of the animal advocacy community, the solution is obvious: to reduce pet overpopulation, stop contributing to pet overpopulation.

There is less consensus on the best way to go about that, but two issues seem always at the heart of the conversation — spay and neuter laws and backyard breeding.

“The bottom line is spay and neutering,” says CCACC advisory board chairwoman Janet Odom, who estimates the number of animals entering the shelter each month to be between 300-400, “and there are places where it is way more than that.”

The advisory board, which was formed in January 2012, recently had two recommendations, both directed at increasing adoptions, approved by the Calhoun County Commission. Now Odom says she is ready for the board to start discussing options for a long-term solution to overpopulation, namely in the form of mandatory spay and neuter legislation.

“SAVE has done a tremendous job,” said Odom of the county’s low-cost spay and neuter program. “But there are people out there who simply are not going to do this until they’re made to do it.”

President of SAVE, Millie Harris, also stresses the singular importance of widespread sterilization, but she does not believe a mandatory spay and neuter law is the answer, saying it has a tendency to overload shelters with mass surrenders from owners who can’t, or won’t, comply.

“People are so sorry they will surrender their pet knowing it will be killed rather than pay for the surgery,” she said. Not to mention, “not one has withstood a court challenge.”

Instead, Harris supports a statewide differential licensing mandate for all pet owners. It’s a policy, she says, that has proved successful at curbing pet populations in other areas of the country by offering owners a financial incentive to fix pets. “If they choose not to spay and neuter, the license is going to cost more.”

According to Mindy Gilbert, director of the Alabama chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, a well-established licensing law can be a vital resource for identifying lost and stolen pets, not to mention its potential as a revenue stream for pet-related programs like, as Harris suggested, a fund to subsidize the cost of spay and neuter for low-income pet owners.

“Many of these homeless animals come from families that can’t afford to get their pets fixed,” Harris explained. To that end, SAVE works with low-income families and twice a month, SAVE volunteers transport Calhoun County pets from Pickette’s Pet Supply in Anniston to the Alabama Spay and Neuter Clinic in Irondale to be fixed.

There is currently a law on the books in Anniston, and in Jacksonville, that requires a license for all pet owners. In Anniston, the annually renewed license costs $5 — spayed and neutered pets are free. But the number of owners complying with the law is “such a small percentage it’s ridiculous,” says Animal Control Officer Bea Vedovato.

Vedovato has been with the Anniston Police Department for three years. It wasn’t long after joining the force before the San Diego native brought her work home with her — in the form of a golden mutt named Charlie.

The dog was no more than 5 weeks old when she found him and a littermate shivering in the snow near the cemetery on Noble Street. Three years later, Charlie is now like the police department’s unofficial mascot, she says. “And neutered — of course.”

Little good can come of a licensing requirement that goes unenforced, but as Harris pointed out, Vedovato and her partner, the city’s lone animal control officers, have their hands full investigating reports of abuse and neglect and rounding up the estimated 700 strays the pair bring in each year.

That’s why Harris wants to see a statewide licensing law implemented, like those in New Hampshire and California, which are easier to comply with and easier to enforce.

According to Gilbert, Alabama is slowly starting to follow a nationwide trend that emphasizes owner education, including surrender intervention programs and low-cost spay and neuter options like SAVE. But passing legislation is always an uphill battle, especially without widespread community support.

“When you have a commissioner getting 10 calls a day about a pothole and one call a day about spay and neuter laws, nothing’s going to change,” says Wippler.

License to breed

Of course, not all litters are the accidental result of an opened fence or broken leash. Despite the 4 million pets estimated by HSUS to be killed in shelters each year, there is still money to be made off a fresh, new batch of puppies.

“To me, a breeder is someone with licensing, vet certification,” said Odom. “Do I agree with it? No, but I don’t know that anything can be done about that.”

However, Alabama currently has no such requirements, no breeder regulation of any kind in place, which means high-volume puppy mills operate free of inspection and backyard breeders pop up without certification. And here it means that a momma pit bull can be kept chained up outside behind a trailer with a spray-painted sign for pit puppies just blocks away from the county shelter.

“Vet techs are licensed,” Odom points out. “You have to have a license to fix someone’s hair.” But no license is required to keep a dog for profit and no certification is necessary to care for a pregnant animal and ensure her litter is healthy and ready for adoption.

According to Odom, the CCACC has started to keep a log of the people surrendering pets and dropping off dogs in an effort to crack down on serial dumpers. For instance, at the end of the year the shelter always seems to get an influx of puppies, “the puppies that didn’t get bought as Christmas presents,” Odom explained.

This serial breeding is one of the factors that contributes to SAVE’s assertion that 5 percent of the population is responsible for 85 percent of homeless pets.

“Something needs to be done,” said Harris, suggesting punitive consequences for repeat offenders and stressing again the importance of adoption. “There’s nothing wrong with loving Labradors, with loving Labradoodles, with loving any breed. I’ve just seen so much suffering that it’s hard for me to support breeding.”

After years spent finding homes for discarded dogs, Wippler is of the same mind as Harris, if not the same mouth.

“I’m not good at keeping quiet when I see something wrong,” she said. “And right now, when we’re dumping 500 dogs a month in shelters, all breeders are bad breeders.”

Of course, as Wippler points out, Labradoodles and purebred dogs are in as much danger of finding themselves looking out from a shelter cage as any mixed breed. Just count the number of pedigreed dogs running around her “mutt rescue,” she says.

Or take her own dog, Recon, who was purchased from a breeder in Oklahoma by a couple looking for a travel companion. On their way through Alabama, the couple came to the conclusion they would not be able to train their dapple-coated dachshund to use the puppy pads and so made a pit stop at the Anniston Animal Shelter where Otto Von Essen III was dropped off along with his registration papers and bill of sale. And there he sat until Wippler found him and brought him home.

The name was the first thing to go. Otto became Recon, which should lay to rest any lingering doubts — this time he’s right where he belongs, with his former Marine mom keeping the new recruits in line at Semper Fi Rescue. Recon has found a home. It’s a promise Wippler makes to every shelter dog she pulls.

“I feel like I’m saying to them, ‘Hey, everything is going to be OK now, forever.’”

Assistant Features Editor Brooke Carbo: 256-235-3581. On Twitter @star_features.


To find out more about Semper Fi Rescue and the dogs available for adoption, visit www.semperfirescue.com or www.facebook.com/semperfirescuefan.

For more information on reducing the population of unwanted shelter pets, visit SAVE online at www.alsave.org, and visit CCACC online at www.calhouncounty.org/animal.
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