Day has barely dawned in East St. Louis, but already Gateway Pet Guardians volunteers are out tending to the large stray animal population. They find them -- mostly dogs -- wandering the streets, lurking in abandoned buildings, hiding in piles of rubble. Some bear telltale signs of abuse, others seem extremely fearful yet desperately hungry. And many recognize the sound of the volunteers vehicle and the names the volunteers have given them. In a harsh world, this daily, early morning visit has become their lifeline.
The volunteers feed them, get veterinary care for those who are sick or injured and, whenever they can, rescue them and put them on course for eventual adoption into permanent, loving homes.
And Gateway Pet Guardians is also seeking to find a longer term solution to the homeless pet problem via spay/neuter and education programs.
Among the daily dawn feeding crew is always P.J. Hightower, founder of the group, who accidently found her calling back in 1995 cutting through East St. Louis on trips from her St. Louis residence to her sisters home in Freeburg. Hightower, who was born in East St. Louis and grew up in Granite City, was deeply disturbed by the number of stray dogs she would see and began bringing dog food so she could feed them.
Over time, feeding the dogs (and cats) became the purpose of these trips, and she rescued several animals with the help of friends and family. For the past 11 years, Hightower hasnt missed the feeding trek a single day.
Joining forces In 2004, she and several like-minded friends organized Gateway Pet Guardians to greatly expand this work - rescuing hundreds if not up to a thousand animals in the years since and, more recently, reaching out to East St. Louis residents with low-cost spay/neuter clinics -- even transporting the animals to these clinics when needed -- and starting a junior animal advocacy program for East St. Louis teens to promote responsible pet ownership in their schools and community.
Reflecting on the progression, Hightower stressed, You start out never realizing where something is going to lead. Gateway Pet Guardians, the volunteers, the fosters -- they make it possible to do so much more than before.
On one recent day, it led to rescuing two female dogs raising litters in a huge tangle of debris -- a total of 16 puppies.
Things have to happen just right to rescue an animal. I still get butterflies in my stomach each time, continued Hightower. And then the animals have to have someplace to go.
Unlike most rescue groups, Gateway Pet Guardians is almost completely a foster-based group, according to board member and Belleville native Lauren Anderson Koelker. This means that all dogs and cats currently up for adoption are in foster homes interacting with people and other pets on a daily basis. This is unique because our fosters are helping train, socialize and, of course, showering them with love and attention.
Belleville resident Jennifer Upton and husband Paul Galanti are among those who have opened their homes to mama dogs and their puppies and the special demands they bring. In the past year and a half, the couple has fostered about 40 dogs for Gateway Pet Guardians, including three different dogs with litters, earning the pair Foster of the Year honors.
Upton said, Its so worth it. These animals have no one else. Their situation is heartbreaking. People think these dogs are going to be aggressive but 95 percent or more of them arent; theyre just scared.
Executive director Jamie Case, also a Belleville native, said Gateway Pet Guardians has grown quickly with the help of social media: more fosters and volunteers, leading to more rescues and more adoptions. But the organizations needs have also grown - for food and other supplies and for veterinary care - and, always, for still more fosters and volunteers.
The group is getting some help from area businesses like Metro East Industries in East St. Louis, and has two annual Metro East fundraisers: Pasta for Pets at the Fairview Heights Pasta House and the annual golf tournament Tees for Tails (2013 location to be announced), along with business and fundraiser support from the other side of the river. However, much more help is needed.
Those interested in helping Gateway Pet Guardians can take a cue from treasurer and board member Jen Dolce of Swansea.
I think our motto says it all: Foster. Adopt. Volunteer. Donate.