Mini Roo, a senior Chihuahua rescued from a puppy mill

By Savannah Verdon, RedRover Marketing & Development Coordinator

During the massive Carr Fire in Northern California this past August, I couldn’t help but feel useless working behind my desk. Colleagues were only 150 miles away supporting the deployment — our RedRover Responders team cared for animals displaced by the fire in our temporary emergency shelter, while a staff photographer documented the tearful reunifications of families and pets, and still other employees helped by driving pet supplies long-distance on short notice.

Meanwhile, I was posting RedRover’s photos and updates on Facebook and passionately encouraging friends and family to support RedRover’s efforts. These daily tasks were equally important, but as our deployment wrapped up and we prepared as a team for what came next, I knew I wanted to do more.

I seized the opportunity to train to become a RedRover Responders volunteer just a few weeks later. The four-hour training left me energized and ready to help animals and people in crisis!  One week after completing the required FEMA course, I received a deployment invitation. RedRover was sending volunteers to care for more than 250 small-breed dogs rescued from puppy mills in Stevens County, Washington. I made my decision to deploy with zero hesitation. Unexpectedly, I was asked to deploy both as a RedRover Responders volunteer and as a staff photographer.

For the first two days of my deployment, I quietly paced the temporary shelters, snapping photos of rescued dogs and volunteers hard at work. By the time I arrived onsite, the dogs had been benefiting from the tender love and care of volunteers for nearly 10 days. While many dogs were healthy and happy to have the attention of compassionate, loving people, just as many were still hesitant and wary of their caretakers. I tried my hardest not to linger on the situation from which they came, but it was easy for my imagination to run wild with horrific details. Taking cues from experienced and empathetic volunteers, I instead focused my energy on showing these dogs that their future would contain nothing but love from humans.

I’d catch volunteers’ eyes while taking pictures and stop to talk with them about their experience on deployment. Our connections were immediate and stronger than other bonds I’ve formed with people over animals. Here were people who had been wondering the same things I had, pacing the kennels and making eye contact with the same dogs, all similarly anxious but hopeful for their bright futures. And so it was that I photographed the dogs through not only my own eyes, but through the other volunteers’ eyes as well, and each photo contained the thousands of words I’d exchanged with my teammates.

On my third and final day, having already bonded with the volunteers and dogs through photographing and interviewing, I was ready to do more — and put my RedRover Responders training to work! I was particularly excited to clean the kennels and enjoy playtime with a small older chihuahua named Mini Roo. Her sweet, quiet face reminded me of my own senior chihuahua. Holding that small face, allowing her to relax into my palm, gave me the greatest sense of calm, and I can only hope she felt the same.

I’ve been home from this deployment for two weeks now, and it is just now settling in how deeply affected I am by this experience. Professionally, I am reminded of the tragic realities of puppy mills but am incredibly proud of the work RedRover does to bring these sweet animals from crisis to care. Personally, I never expected to feel such an intense connection to animals I knew ahead of time would not be a lasting part of my life. My career in animal welfare has required a careful balance between being compassionate and empathetic while maintaining a distance that allows me to work objectively and effectively — to be both attached and detached. But now I know that I will carry these dogs, and the friends I made, with me always.

Like all the volunteers, I eagerly awaited updates from the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office that would give me hope for the fate of these dogs. Just one week after my departure, I read with sincere joy that all the dogs had been surrendered or officially seized and would be going to local rescue groups to find their forever families. Cautiously I scanned through the rescue groups’ adoptable dogs, and there she was: my Mini Roo, safe, healthy, and loved.

For more information on how to support our RedRover Responders program, visit redrover.org/responders.