Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bonnie Sheehan: Arrested for animal cruelty charges in Tennessee makes one last rescue.
                                                       --  Photos Taken By Susan Larsen
Scheduled for a July Hearing on Animal Cruelty Charges in Tennessee, Long Beach Dog Rescuer Bonnie Sheehan Tries to Pick Up the Shattered Pieces Of Her Life Without Her Small Canine Friends

Scores of Fans Plan a Sunday Fundraiser to Pay Attorney Fees
 By Diana L. Chapman

The puppy

   As they were leaving Tennessee on Interstate 40 with a wave of relief, a small chocolate Labrador pup sat forlornly on an embankment as drivers raced by.
   "We have to stop," Bonnie Sheehan said urgently to her traveling companion, Susan Larsen,  who completely understood.
   After all, Sheehan had built a phenomenal reputation in Long Beach, Calif. where she rescued thousands of small dogs often out of shelters the day they were to meet the needle of death.
   That ended Jan. 17  -- the day she was arrested in Tennessee along with her devoted volunteer Pamela King-McCracken, for driving 140 dogs in a U-haul and a mini-van. They were ten hours away from reaching their destination, a Virginia farm.
   Speaking out for one of the first times since her arrest, Sheehan, 55, reveals her side of the story that never made the national news when it exploded and went viral ugly on the internet. The arrests turned the women's lives upside down, landed Sheehan in jail for seven days and geared up hundreds of her Long Beach supporters who panicked to get her out.
   Now, in a fight for her life and a woman who has lost all her dogs and her money in her risk to save them, Sheehan vigorously defends herself against the allegations of animal cruelty where animal officials contend she had overcrowded conditions and no water or food for the animals. Every day, she's haunted by the dog's faces, each of whom she knew by name along with medical conditions, if any.  She fights tears to the hollowness left in her now.
  "I did not kill my dogs," she said during one of her rare interviews. "It was the middle of winter under 50 degrees. They had clean blankets. I had 300 pounds of dog food, 100 pounds of treats. Nobody died from suffocation, from dehydration or starvation. There was food. There was water. (The U-haul) was like being in the belly of a plane and that is why airlines don't transport animals during the summer."
   "Every day in this country stacks and stacks of dogs are killed."
   Sheehan, 55, wanted to save those she still had despite the worsening economy that took a giant toll on her non-profit.
   In the meantime, her hundreds of supporters -- many of whom say she has an uncanny ability to match dogs to families with her Long Beach Hearts For Hounds non-profit, will hold a fundraiser for attorney's fees at 11 a.m. Sunday at Bixby Park, also in Long Beach.
   Why her supporters have gone to this much trouble -- some even missing work to make a team to fight for Sheehan -- might be explained this way.
   Ardent supporter Gale Heilman who fosters animals, jumped in the fray to get Sheehan out of jail and helped organize the event.
   "Bonnie was always relentless in getting those dogs adopted," said Heilman who fosters for different rescues. "I saw what she gave up of her life, to be there for those animals. She was up at 6 a.m. to clean all the kennels. Then she would need to do all the laundry to make sure all the blankets from the night before were ready for them to go to bed with that night. Then she would start grooming and bathing the dogs."
   As I write this, I admit upfront I too am a supporter. My family alone adopted three of her small dogs, Baxter, Dara and Lily, and I began to toil at stories marveling at the miracles the rescuer pulled off on a daily basis.
   Many of us watched as Sheehan took ragged, mangy, smelly, flea-ridden small dogs -- in all sorts of horrible conditions-- and brought them virtually back to life with grooming, nurturing and love. Then she found them new homes.
   In March, Sheehan had to return to Fayette County in Tennessee for a hearing and was headed home when she spotted the terrified pup. Sheehan's question was:  should she rescue the puppy in a state already charging her with animal cruelty or would she get in more trouble?  Both women plead not guilty. A hearing is scheduled in July.
   "The rescue business," she once told me "is a hard, selfless way of living. It's taking from your own needs to make sure the well-being of the animals are taken care of. It's about having that gift in your heart."
   But for all her good deeds and intentions, she would find herself "crucified" on the internet, losing all her dogs and left with a heart snapped in two.
The Almost- Made- It-to Virginia Journey

   When arrested, Tennessee officials didn't care about Sheehan's gift. They didn't want to hear anything such as the reason she and her longtime friend, King-McCracken, 59, were shuttling  dogs across the country in middle of winter.
   They also didn't care about her remarkable rescue work-- having done more than many rescues put together -- or that Sheehan had, according to Gail Heilman, "an uncanny ability to match (dogs) to the right owners," a statement I heard repeatedly from Sheehan fans.
   Instead, the two women found themselves pulled over for an alleged traffic infraction while driving through Fayette County.  An officer on a drug task force ordered the women out and to open the doors. Then he called for back-up and animal control officers.
   Lights were flashing as both women stood shocked. With all the commotion, the dogs were barking upset hearing Sheehan sobbing. Perhaps out of fear, one dog named Stanley killed another, Lambert.
  "I told Pam, our journey's done," Sheehan said. And it was.
   Animal control took away all the dogs, including their personal pets and Sheehan's 20 "forever" dogs, those that can't find homes because they are terrified of people. That list included 14-year-old Gadget, a miniature pincher mix, and, a Dachshund with medical issues. She also lost her own dogs Dachshund, Max, 2, Fritzie, 1.
   With the bail set at $100,000, both women needed $10,000 -- a sum King-McKracken was able to meet to get out. Sheehan had nothing.
  In the meantime, the news swept across Long Beach like a tidal wave, with friends and adopters swamping each other with phone calls asking what they could do to rescue the rescuer. 
   "Dogs lost their angel that day," said Jay Williams, a friend who volunteered
and adopted two of Sheehan's dogs.
Seven long days and seven long nights 

   The women undertook the journey after California's diving economy finally took a toll on the rescue. Adoptions dwindled from 17 a week to none.
   They had to do something especially since the phone calls were now from people wanting to dump dogs, not adopt.
   More frightening, the rent for the Long Beach kennel was about $7,000 a month with associated fees. Still having property in Virginia -- where she once lived -- Sheehan switched the non-profit's zip code on Pet Finder to Virginia's to see what would happen.
   Calls and emails piled in.
   With that, the women bought an $80,000  farm in Huddleston, Virginia. They drove to the farm, adopted out  28 dogs and gathered volunteers to prepare the barn -- for the remaining canines to come.
   Instead, they ended up in handcuffs in the middle of Tennessee, which had its own bizarre issues with legalities, including serious questions about police allegedly  profiting in its war on drugs.  Troopers were pulling over drivers for traffic infractions frequently and -- even when no drugs were found -- the police agencies allegedly kept the cash they found as evidence, according to news reports.
  While Sheehan sat in a cell, hundreds of her supporters furiously raised money to get her out. The phones lit up with worry. The emails flew. And the prayers began.
   No one ever thought that the rescuer would need rescuing.
   After her release, Sheehan said later had it not been for her faith in God, she wouldn't have made it through the first night and the distress of now being considered, for the first time in her life, a criminal.
   "Every ounce of my being was broken," Sheehan told me while working hard  to hold back tears at Larsen's home where she now stays in Long Beach. "God told me to be still (during the arrest) That's what I did. We were ten hours from where we were taking the dogs to new homes waiting for them. That was gone in an instant."
   Freezing, scared, lonely and not having the chance to talk to anyone, saviors came from an unlikely place.
   Her "angels," as Sheehan called them, were her jail mates, a group of women aged 21-46, one of which was arrested when officers found stolen property in her home.
   Having no socks, no coat, no underwear, no blanket the rescuer shook in the chilly cell where her comrades began helping her.
   One woman gave her a T-shirt. Another gave up her blanket.
   "They knew my heart in ten minutes," she said, adding she would never forget them. 
   She now writes them letters.

Sheehan's Team of Rescuers

   After the arrests made national headlines, phone calls swamped the office of Long Beach veterinarian Sam Shenouda, best known as "Dr. Sam." For years, the vet and Sheehan had worked together caring for the health of her rescues.
   While Sheehan's team worked to raise funds, they were appalled by the vicious attacks on the two women on the Hearts for Hounds facebook.  The group shut it down.
   An ugly internet battle ensued between those irate from news accounts and from many who personally knew the rescuers. Having been a supporter before any of this happened, I received several emails -- the nicest calling me "ignorant."
   Despite the fighting, the rescuer's rescuers didn't give up. 
   By the time the story had gone viral, Sheehan and King-McCracken, who was one of Sheehan's most committed volunteers, were  accused of stealing dogs, running a puppy mill and a variety of things they never did.
   Shenouda, the veterinarian, soon made a decision. 
   He paid the $10,000 bond to get Sheehan out.

In the Beginning

   Animal rescue seeds and vegetarian ways planted themselves early in Sheehan's heart. Around three or four, when visiting her grandparents, she played with their bunnies.
   But to her horror one night, her grandmother brought rabbit to the dinner table.
   She recognized it and refused to eat it. Her grandfather swung her up into his arms, carried her outside and let her pluck grapes for supper.
   Years later as a successful fashion consultant, Sheehan was driving a brand new BMW when she got lost in downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, she spotted a group of men using a small pug-mix as bait for a pit bull. An outraged Sheehan, jumped out of her car and began yelling: "Give me that dog!"
   They gave it to her.
   After saving the pug-mix (which later became her mother's companion), Sheehan fell into the world of rescue.
   One day, on one of my Sheehan visits, her lip curled a bit, her voice turned soft, and with a whimper she squeaked: "I miss my dogs. Your whole mission in life is taken from you.  Each day you relive it. Each day is painful."

Matches Made In Heaven

Sylvia Gyimesi wanted another companion. She had already adopted Peeps, a small dog with a heart murmur from Hearts for Hounds. Sheehan had "worked with Peeps, loving and caring for him," Gyimesi said. 
   Knowing he was likely to have a short life, Gyimesi took him anyway.  As he grew older his heart murmur went away and he became "a healthy happy boy, spoiled rotten of course."Having the urge to get a larger dog, Gyimesi called Hearts for Hounds again.
   Even though Sheehan didn't specialize in larger dogs, ironically a good samaritan found a shepherd mix running the streets and it was kenneled at the non-profit.Bonnie brought Roxy out and it was love at first sight," Gyimesi told me. "Bonnie has dedicated her life to saving dogs that no one else wanted and were tossed away. She has a gift with animals, yet still able to relate and love people."
    There are many people who are loyal to the rescuer, who have never adopted a pet from her. One of them is Anita Sinclair, who moved into a Long Beach neighborhood."As I got to know my neighbors and their pets, Hearts for Hounds started coming up in coversation over and over again," explained Sinclair, who already had two large dogs, two cats and a parrot. "Many of my neighbors adopted their dogs from Bonnie."When I heard of the arrest, I could not turn my back. Bonnie has done so much good for so many." Sinclair -- along with many others -- became part of Sheehan's rescue team.
   What Sinclair wants to point out, however, is that U-Hauls are used often in rescue work.In a 1996 incident, a botulism outbreak at the Salton Sea killed off some10,000 endangered birds, including white and brown pelicans. As one of the scores of volunteers to rescue the birds, Sinclair said U-Hauls were often used to carry the pelicans on a 400 mile trek to Pacific Wild Life in Orange County.The volunteers helped save 1,100 pelicans -- some using U-Hauls.

The Last Rescue

   Now cowering  in the bushes near the I-40, the chocolate-colored pup refused to come out to another good samaritan, a man, who too wanted to make sure the dog wasn't killed.
   When Sheehan arrived, she kneeled and whispered sweetly coaxing out the dog. She finally pulled the Labrador out who began slopping her with thank you kisses. Then the pup peed all over her -- a familiar smell, she said.
   Now the man and her stood looking at each other, Sheehan draped with the female pup in her arms. Who would take the puppy?
  The man agreed to take the dog. Bonnie figured she was in enough trouble.
  "You know who I am?" she asked him.
  "No," the man responded.
  "I was the woman arrested with the U-Haul," she explained.
   "That was you?" the man stood dumbfounded.

A Hearts for Hounds Fundraiser will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday in Bixby Park, 2001 East First Street., Long Beach. The event is a pot luck and dogs are welcome. if You are unable to make it and want to help Sheehan and KIng-McCracken, send your donation to Bonnie Sheehan, 16033 Bolsa Chica Street, #104-265, Huntington Beach, CA 92649