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All dogs go to heaven ... And I got a glimpse

 
April 25, 2022

By Dr. Marty Becker

This is a long read, dating back from a speaking engagement to veterinarians in Baltimore, Maryland, in the summer of 1992, to 30-years-later, when I visited an animal shelter in Romania on April 6, 2022. If you love animals and think of your own pets as family, the 15-minutes it will take to read this tome will be worth it.

Three decades ago, in an experience I’ll never forget, I shared the stage on the Baltimore Harbor, a large, 8,000 person capacity amphitheater, with General Colin Powell and Kenny Rodgers. Powell spoke first, me second, following by a performance by Rodgers.

Backstage, the three of us, plus assistants and various “hangers-on’” shared a large waiting area for talent and guests, commonly called the “Green Room” in studios, theatres, concert halls, etc.

I was pretty nervous at 38-years-of-age facing such a huge responsibility as addressing my veterinarian colleagues and other veterinary healthcare team members about the human-animal bond. Plus, following Colin Powell?

Two years earlier, Powell sent precision formations of tanks rumbling across the Saudi Arabia/Iraq border at the start of the first Gulf War. And here I was, a farm boy from southern Idaho trying to get the butterflies in my stomach to get in formation.

I naively asked Colin if he used slides in his presentations. With the unmistakable look of confidence and authority, he kind of gave me a “duh,” look and replied, “No. If I want the audience to see an image, I create it for them in their minds.”

Just nodding in agreement and some panic, I thought of my slide carousels, waiting in Kodak Projectors, 200 feet from the stage, with long-throw lenses ready to project images onto movie-theatre-sized screens that would drop down from the cavernous ceiling once Colin was done and I took my turn in the spotlights.

That would be the last day that I used a lot of images when giving presentations. I tell that story because I want share words to create some images in your mind.

Sitting or standing in the middle of three different play-yards at Sava’s Safe Haven in Romania, there was literally every make and model of dog present. Puppy to senior, purse size to mega-mutt, hippy long hairs to Marine Corp “high-and-tights,” solid white/brown/black canines to Jackson Pollack painted pups, long-legged to low-riders, dogs stretched long like taffy to compact ones who looked like they hit a brick wall doing 70 miles per hour.

I didn’t see a single dog that I would have identified as a purebred in the medical record. No, this was three distinct herds of canine cocktails.

Puppies were jumping up in my lap trying to give me kisses. Other dogs that were excited to see visitors circled me like four-legged tetherballs hit by Thor’s hammer. Once you got past the dogs who were very social and asking for or demanding attention, I’d look to the periphery of the kennels surrounding the play yards and see dogs tucked back into the deepest recesses of dog houses, sheepishly peering out … looking just like the stereotypical dogs the ASPCA uses to stir your emotions, open your wallet, and get you to donate just 67 cents per day to help pets in need.

Over the happy barking, did I hear Sarah McLachlan singing?

Leaping into my lap and trying to stretch up and kiss me was a small, thin, black dog, a long-haired, middle-aged, female. A recent arrival and not yet named, she had the elongated teats I’ve witnessed in street dogs from Mexico to Mississippi, Bali to Bolivia.

A telltale sign of having had multiple litters and having fed many hungry pups. In fact, she was pregnant yet again, and was due to be spayed the following week.

As Phyllis looked up at and licked me … I gave her the temporary name on the spot as her wiry, spiked hair reminded me of Phyllis Diller’s, I stroked the sides of her thin body struggling to build puppies inside on the starvation diet she’d had before being rescued just days before.

Suddenly we locked eyes.

Uh oh. The look was unmistakable. “I’m yours.” “You’re mine … ‘Til death do us part. “

What about the promise I’d made my wife, Teresa, 72-hours earlier when I left home for Romania? The promise both of us had made and broken so many times before during 45-years of marriage?

“Don’t adopt another!” “We don’t have room.” “It wouldn’t be fair to the pets we have!”

More about Phyllis at the end of this story.

There’s one book among the hundreds of pet/vet books on my sagging book shelves that is my favorite for two reasons:
  1) The book offers amazing insight and lessons on how to deepen the relationship we have with our dogs. Think of this book as the doggie mom-or-dad version of Gary Chapman’s “5 Love Languages” series of books.
  2) I freakin’ love the book’s title!

The cover of the book’s preamble reads, “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered” arching above the actual title, “Bones Would Rain from the Sky.” Author Suzanne Clothier created a masterpiece, a book that I’ve reread several times and recommended often.

I recently found myself surrounded by dogs, sitting on hard dirt inside a large, outdoor play area of a rural dog shelter in south-eastern Romania near a town called Galati (pronounced Ga-Latz).

As a board member of the U.S. based World Vets organization, I’d heard great things about Sava’s Safe Haven (from founder, colleague and friend Dr. Cathy King;

But what I’d anticipated versus what I actually experienced is what I hope the difference is between my mind’s eye view of heaven and what I will experience for eternity.

Speaking of eternity, there is a sign along the highway in North Idaho where I live that reads: “Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”

I joke to Teresa that I know I’m going to heaven with her, but just in case, I’m bringing along one of legendary oil well firefighter Red Adair’s highly specialized, heat-protective suits.

I 100-percent believe the title of the 1989 film, “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” and I believe it applies to the families who love dogs as well. Maybe, when we get there, my family will be spared my repetitious, corny sayings, one of which is, “I’m a dyslexic Blues Brother, and we’re on a mission from Dog!”

But I doubt it.

Sitting there with shelter dogs of every make, model and size circling me like a school of furry baitfish, I channeled Belushi, the portly Blues Brother, and Clothier’s book, started taking double-handfuls of Romanian made Milk Bone knockoffs, and just started tossing them high into the air to rain back down into the play area.

Almost instantly, I knew what it was like to be a rock star with raving arena fans. I was transported back to the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, where I was the lead singer of the Beagles singing, “You Want to Lick My Hand!”

The playground went wild as about 50 dogs were attracted to me like metal filings to a magnet. Sure, it was cheating, but I’d never been more popular with dogs. I was so loved I felt like “Dog Juan.” One canine was so crazy excited, he decided to commemorate the event with graffiti, delivered with a cocked leg, on my back.

As a an unofficial representative of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (avmf.org), and official representative of World Vets (worldvets.org), and representing the organization I founded, Fear Free (fearfreepets,com), I had traveled to Romania and Moldova to see how we could join global efforts to help pets and their people fleeing the violence and destruction brought upon Ukrainians by the horrific and senseless Russian attacks.

Sava’s Safe Haven was my first stop.

Alexandra Sava, 25, is the founder of the shelter and was our guide/host. Like in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” where Dorothy (played by Renee Zellweger) says to, Jerry (played by Tom Cruise), “You had me at hello!”

I was crazy in love with Alexandra and her rescue before I even saw it.

While her dad made the 30-minute drive from our hotel in the industrial city of Galati, Romania, to the rural shelter, she told me the history of how the shelter was founded.

When Alex (as she prefers to be called) was 14-years-old, she rescued two puppies from the street that she named Bazooka and Mickey. Mickey (named after Mikey Mouse) had a bad back from being hit by kids on the street. Both puppies contracted Parvo, a serious, often fatal disease very similar to the human COVID virus and almost entirely preventable with vaccinations, but expensive and difficult to treat.

The Sava family; father, Gabriel, 48, mother Oana, 46, brother Adrian, 28, and daughter, Alex, now 25, are all pet lovers, but times were tough, and they only had enough money to treat one of the puppies.

Bazooka lived and despite the family trying traditional Romanian treatments including strong vitamins and special meals, Mickey died, and his death birthed Sava’s Safe Haven in 2012, as Alex committed and mandated to anyone who would listen that “every dog deserves a chance.”

A non-governmental, non-profit shelter, besides housing dogs rescued off the street, removed from abuse, dropped off outside their gates at night or fleeing the horrors of the Russian war in Ukraine, Sava’s provides essential veterinary care, works as a local pet food bank and provides supplies both for pets and people for those in need.

It offers safe, insulated housing and three spacious playgrounds for 300 dogs (because of the war in Ukraine they are about 50 dogs over their normal capacity of 250 dogs), a comfy indoor shelter for about 20 cats, a small veterinary clinic, a surgery recovery area, an isolation room, as dogs coming from Ukraine must be quarantined for 21 days because of rabies, a grooming salon and storage for pet food and supplies.

What Sava’s Safe Haven is not:
  1. A modern building in a metropolitan area with rows of dog runs, multiple banks of shiny stainless-steel cages, special rooms for meet-and-greets between shelter pets and potential adoptive families, employee break rooms, central heating and air conditioning. The entire shelter was built by the Sava family members, mostly with their own funds. Gabriel is a truck driver. Adrian is in the Romanian Navy. Alex works as a veterinary technician.
  2. A facility with many paid staff and volunteers. Sava is run by the four family members with help from some supporters in Germany and England who migrate to the location at least yearly to help.
  3. An organization with sophisticated ways of raising money. Alex is literally a one-woman band: Overseeing the daily routines, ordering drugs/food, managing the web site, answering correspondence (mail, emails, texts), writing grants and entering contests to raise money or donations, picking up dogs from the community or at the Ukrainian border, and delivering food/medicines/supplies to be taken back across the border into Ukraine where it’s needed even more.
  4. Supported by any government funds. Sava Safe Haven is a non-profit and 100-perrcent of its funds come from donations or from the Sava family members themselves. I was so moved by what I saw that I gave Alex $1,000 U.S. dollars in $10 bills for Sava. Looking at the green bills, she said, “I’ve never seen or held American currency before. It feels funny.” I explained to her that US paper currency is made of 75-percent cotton and 25-percent linen.

Despite what Sava’s Safe Haven isn’t, there are so many amazing things that Sava’s Safe Haven is.

Here are just 10 of the things that stood out when I visited:
  1) All the members of the Sava family know the names of all 300 dogs and 20 cats. Even Adrian’s girlfriend, Flory, and Alex’s husband to be, Dragos (wedding this July 2!) work at the shelter at least part-time and also know the names of each precious creature in their care.
  2) Do you know what it’s like when you arrive back home from a trip around the world or from the local grocery store and your dogs greet you like you’re a movie star on the Oscar red carpet? At Sava’s Safe Haven, all the dogs are tail-whipping like furry fan-blades super fans excited to see the Sava family members.
  3) I don’t know if there were invisible corks in the dog’s butts, but from the time I arrived until I left three hours later, I didn’t see or smell a single pile of poop.
  4) The dogs and cats I saw were all at an ideal body weight. Like the Three Bears: not too fat, not too skinny, but just right.
  5) All of the dogs/cats were vaccinated and were routinely given parasite control products for fleas, ticks, heartworm, roundworms, tapeworms and more.
  6) There were detailed medical records on all of the pets. Sava has a veterinarian come once a week to spay/neuter any pets that need it and to check out and treat any medical issues. Veteran veterinarians like myself get really good at detecting problems with pets by just observing --- limping, head held to one side because of an ear infection, licking paws because of pain, excessive scratching --- and that was the healthiest herd of dogs I’d ever seen!
  7) All of the dogs had play areas to exercise and interact with other dogs. In the three hours I was there, I only saw one minor dog fight and it was caused by a new dog that had just recently arrived and showing fear-based aggression.
  8) The entire facility was what those of us in the veterinary, boarding or grooming industries call odor-neutral. No malodors from feces or urine or strong scents trying to cover up bad smells. Odor-neutral means one thing and that is clean.
  9) They celebrate the pet’s birthdays and also have communal celebrations including Christmas time when all the dogs and cats get presents (toys, treats, clothes, etc.)
 10) No healthy dogs are ever euthanized. They have one dog who’s been there nine years. There are 299 dogs they handle in harmony, and one dog at the farthest end too aggressive for anyone to handle, who has bitten most of the Sava family. He has his own spacious kennel area with plenty of room to move about. He’s too dangerous to adopt out but to precious to kill. He will live out his life at Sava’s Safe Haven.

Sava’s Safe Haven is a potential North American pet mom’s or dad’s dream and a nightmare for any reticent foster mom or dad. A dream because the vast majority of these dogs are small-to-medium sized, really cute mixed-breed dogs (what I call canine cocktails), and young, healthy, happy and well socialized.

A horror for those susceptible to adopting them, like me, under oath and promised … pinky sworn … to resist. But these beautiful creatures are so irresistible, the forever home dog adoption count turns faster than the spinning digits on a gas pump reflecting today’s prices!

In ten years, Sava’s Safe Haven has placed over 5,000 dogs in forever homes.

One family run, no-kill shelter in a rural area of Romania.

I belong to several national animal welfare organizations and am on the board of five shelters near where I live. Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of shelters. Some are awash in money in rich, urban areas such as San Francisco, Seattle and Palm Beach. Some have enough donors and fund-raising mechanisms to idle along most of the time, while others struggle for enough money to buy food, pay vet bills, buy disinfectants and pay utilities.

Some in the industry describe these shelters as being “coin operated.” You raise enough money to plug into the machine for a while, then the ride is over and you have to raise more money to keep the machine going.

With maximum love and dedication, the Sava family is accomplishing miracles for pets and the people who love them, even in a world disrupted first by pandemic and now by the unconscionable aggression of a malignant despot.

Millions of pets and people have been displaced.

But Sava’s keeps their open-door, no-kill, “every dog deserves a chance, give more than we receive” approach, thanks to the care and generosity of pet lovers world wide.. For example, despite starting to run short of dog food themselves, I witnessed 2.5 tons of dog food being sent to the ferry crossing between Romania and Ukraine to feed Ukrainian pets, both in homes and in shelters, at least every other day, Sava’s van makes incessant runs to the border carrying supplies and returns with pets and people in need.

Sava really needs a used van to transport pets and large loads of food. For the time being, they are often forced to use a personal vehicle. While it makes for raised eyebrows and heads shaken in disbelief, you really can’t safely transport two to four people and five to 15 dogs in a vehicle we’d call midsize if rented at Hertz!

Picture me down on my knees begging for you to help Sava’s Safe Haven to the extent you can. While I’ve pleaded or petitioned you to give to some other great causes or pets in need in the past, this is my most urgent, most fervent ask ever.

You can go on Sava’s Safe Haven’s website and donate directly. Or donate to WorldVets.org and ask that the donation go to help Sava’s Safe Haven and their efforts on the border to help pets and people fleeing into Ukraine or staying behind fighting for their very lives.

The funding goal is $25,000, but that ought be but a start.

Oh, I would tell you of Phyllis! She won. Teresa and I will be going to Romania in a month or so. Phyllis, already owning a part of our hearts, will come home with us. Q-T Pi will show her around the farm.

To donate to Sava’s Safe Haven, click here. To help the pets of Ukraine, click here.

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