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Dog Bless to the rescue

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chelsea Staley's A-frame house in Clendenin is overflowing with primitive art, scented candles, wedding pictures and black rubber Kongs.

Dog lovers know Kong rubber pet toys as one of the most foolproof ways to keep your canine from chewing through household items. Chelsea holds up one and grins. "You know how these are supposed to be indestructible?" she asks. "Yeah, well, my babies have destroyed them."

The Staley "babies" are the 10 dogs living with Chelsea and her husband, Mark. The Staleys settled on 20 acres after they married in 2010; at the time they had two dogs.

They now have a family of six permanent dogs and four rescues.

It was never in the plan to live with a pack, but then again Chelsea is the co-founder of Dog Bless, a rescue advocacy group dedicated to saving dogs. The purpose of Dog Bless is to provide alternatives to euthanasia of shelter animals.

Early in their marriage, the Staleys committed to adopting a puppy together, but the dog turned out to be very ill, infected with parvovirus. "He never even made it home," Chelsea said.

The puppy's death was a heartbreak that turned into a mission.

When Mark got a call from the shelter director encouraging him to get another dog, Chelsea was incensed. "I said, you call her back and tell her I want to be on the board at the shelter. I am not going to let this happen to other people."

Chelsea's motto is "Be the change you want to see." Any time she felt the urge to criticize the shelter, she channeled that energy into an opportunity to do something positive.

She realized that most dogs would never be adopted from the Kanawha/Charleston Humane Association's shelter without the benefit of photographs and social media marketing. The shelter had a Facebook profile, but no page to showcase the animals for adoption.

Her message to the shelter: "If these dogs don't have photos, they don't exist to the world."

Chelsea said 6,400 animals were put to sleep last year at the Charleston shelter. She believes it's too easy for these animals to be forgotten when they aren't seen, and she knows some people will never go to the shelter but want to adopt a dog. Newspaper ads help keep shelter pets in the public's mind, but online sharing spreads the word farther and faster. By law, the shelter must keep a dog for five days, but if an animal is sick or space is tight, they may be euthanized on day six.

Chelsea volunteered to take photos once or twice a week, and persuaded the shelter to let her create a Facebook page. Slowly things started to change, she said.

For a year, Chelsea faithfully put dogs' pictures online; then one day, the shelter board members had a meeting and made a decision that surprised her: They wanted to be rescue-friendly.

"Prior to this decision, people would want to rescue dogs and be told no, or the shelter would be so damn hard to deal with that the dogs had no chance. The euthanasia rate was 77 percent and they get about 1,000 animals a month. Do the math," she said.

In April, Kathy McClung (one of those "crazy, passionate dog people," Chelsea says) came to a public meeting about the new focus on rescue. McClung challenged Chelsea, asking why she didn't take photos every day, and why pictures of the dogs were never taken outdoors. Chelsea turned her "be the change" philosophy back on McClung, pointing out that she could do more if she had help.

Overnight the two women went from antagonists to partners, taking rescue advocacy a step further by co-founding Dog Bless.

Today, Dog Bless has two teams of photographers who take photos three times a week. A student in Morgantown uploads the photos to Facebook and monitors the page. Dog Bless networks with rescue organizations, mostly in the Northeast, that might take specific dogs. Once a dog is selected for rescue, the out-of-state rescue group calls the shelter to complete the adoption; it pays the same fees the public pays to adopt a dog.

Dog Bless works only with out-of-state rescues, and only with those organizations with clear no-kill policies.

Chelsea says West Virginia has a serious problem of too many animals. "Northeastern states have way better spay and neuter legislation; they don't have the problems we have here."

Frequently a dog slated for rescue can't be transported right away, so Dog Bless operates a network of foster homes in the Charleston area.

A dog's picture is moved into a "fosters needed" album on the Facebook page. The rescuing organization pays for everything but food. Now the dog has two or three weeks to meet its rescue's medical requirements. Chelsea says two volunteers organize what each dog needs; some dogs require microchips, some a fecal exam.

For an all-volunteer organization, Dog Bless brings a significant amount of out-of-state money into Charleston. The rescue organizations in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y., pay for the $76 adoption fee for each dog; they also pay $120 of each dog's veterinary bills. Chelsea says Dog Bless has helped increase annual shelter revenue from adoption fees by 50 percent, and that 200 dogs rescued by the New York organizations alone have paid $24,000 to Charleston veterinarians.

A volunteer transport coordinator helps get people to drive a rental van full of dogs to New York twice a month. Dog Bless pays mileage and reimburses up to $300 in expenses.

Dog Bless has much to celebrate, but Staley acknowledges that complacency can threaten even devoted rescuers.

"It's called compassion fatigue," she said. "How many dogs can you see on Facebook until you're just sick of it? Compassion fatigue is something we fight every day." When she feels worn down, she goes to the shelter to see the dogs. That real-life reconnect with the animals keeps her going.

Of course, not everyone wants to have 10 dogs stampeding through their house. Staley emphasizes that anyone who supports providing alternatives to euthanasia will find many ways to help Dog Bless.

For instance, if you think your dog would make a great "SpokesDOG," check out the first eBay auction of that title. If your bid wins, your dog will become a local celebrity and have its face featured in Dog Bless ads throughout the year. Your pooch will also receive a grooming session by At Your Bark & Call mobile pet grooming and a photo shoot with Fidos & Felines Photography.

Supporters can "like" the Dog Bless Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dogblessadvocacy/ and download and share an application there to volunteer with the organization. Dog Bless thrives on volunteer photography, marketing and fundraising, but those with more money than time can make a PayPal donation using the email address dogblesswv@hotmail.com.

Staley did not get elected to the shelter board of directors; she ran and lost in June. But she has strong words about the most important thing anyone can do to support the Dog Bless mission.

"Vote. You can pay $15 by March 31 to become a member of the KCHA. Elections are in June. You can't vote unless you are a member. Dog Bless is really trying to get some representatives on the board. If people are interested in the changes Dog Bless is trying to make, I highly recommend that they vote."

Chelsea added, "There's some compassion fatigue happening on the board."

Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gaucher@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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