It has been 12 years since Barbara Richardson went on vacation.
The director of Homeward Bound, a Bedford-based dog rescue organization, has been too busy housing dogs.
Richardson works an office job part time and spends the rest of her day helping dogs of all shapes and sizes, pulling them from shelters and getting them into foster homes. Every weekend, she spends Saturday and Sunday at the PetSmart in Southlake, showing animals that are available for adoption.
Is it worth it, this endless battle to place every pup in a good home?
"Yes," Richardson says without hesitation. "Because they need me, these little doggies."
Throughout the Metroplex, there are people just like Richardson: animal lovers who sacrifice their free time, their vacations and much of their homes to the cats, dogs and other creatures that need their help.
Shelters in every city take in animals, making them available for adoption. But shelters don't have unlimited space and resources -- and that's when animal rescue groups step in. These groups work with the shelters, scooping up the most adoptable animals before they're euthanized. Then volunteers take these creatures in, giving them food, shelter and love while trying to find them permanent homes.
It's not for the faint of heart. Rescuing animals is a tough, heartbreaking business. Rescue groups have to pick and choose the animals they think they can save, knowing that every animal they leave behind might be euthanized.
"It can wear you down," says Annette Proffitt, who runs Classy Cats, a north Keller/Roanoke cat rescue. "We have to be very selective. I hate to say that. We have to look at what we think we can place."
One of Proffitt's volunteers can't go to the shelters anymore; it's just too hard.
"She'd go look at three cats and come back with eight, and she'd be bawling because she couldn't take more," Proffitt says.
But that's the reality: Not every animal can be saved. And these days, that is more evident than ever.
Animal rescue is a business that sort of stays in crisis mode -- there are always more animals than there are people eager to care for them. But it has gotten worse in a bad economy. People lose their jobs and can't afford to keep a pet anymore. They have to move out of their homes and they leave their animals behind. Rescue groups scrape by on fewer donations. Fewer people can afford to adopt a new pet.
"It's been a bad summer," says Richardson of Homeward Bound. "I think because of the economy, people are turning [pets] in rather than coming to adopt them."
Websites of local rescues show how overloaded they are: "We are currently unable to accept any homeless pets at this time. We simply do not have foster space available," announces one. And another: "We are at a point now where we have to seriously look at whether our organization can continue."
But most groups do the best they can, struggling to take in as many animals as possible. They rely on donations from animal lovers, discounts from area vets and the devotion of volunteers who take in animals by the houseful and never get paid.
Here is a closer look at some of the area's animal angels -- the people who work hard for their pet causes and the passion that keeps them going.
Based in: Bedford
Rescues: Dogs of all breeds
How it works: Homeward Bound volunteers search animal shelters all over the Metroplex, picking up pups on euthanasia lists. Once they are saved, the dogs are fostered by volunteers who keep them in their homes until they are adopted. Dogs stay in foster care for as long as it takes -- whether that is two weeks or a year. The group, which started in 1991, places 300-350 dogs a year.
The love that fuels it: Director Barbara Richardson has been working with Homeward Bound almost since she moved to Texas 20 years ago. Before that, she volunteered at an animal rescue in New York. And in her spare time, Richardson moderates an online rescue list, dfwcares.org, which helps users locate dogs and keep up with which dogs are available at the shelters.
And of course, she'll pick up a stray or lost dog that needs help anytime, anywhere. That often means pulling over to the side of the road and coaxing a lost pup into her car.
"When you're driving, you don't see loose dogs everywhere?" she asks, disbelieving. "I guess I do. My husband cracks up; I'll see a dog before we even get to it."
It's a lifelong devotion to saving canines. "Even when I was a little kid, I would always find dogs and bring them home," Richardson says. "My mother would never let me keep them back then."
Now Richardson has three dogs and usually fosters about 15 at a time. "They're all in my living room," she says. "We have no furniture -- all we have is dog crates."
Adopt a dog: If you want to adopt from Homeward Bound, you have to be pretty serious. The group will check with your vet to be sure the rest of the household pets are in good shape and current on heartworm prevention. Then a volunteer will do a home visit to be sure your family and your home are a good fit.
Homeward Bound brings adoptable dogs to PetSmart in Southlake each Saturday and Sunday. Animals also are featured on petfinder.com (Google "Homeward Bound Animal Rescue" and the group's Petfinder page will pop up right away).
Legacy Boxer Rescue
Based in: Hurst
Rescues: Boxers and the occasional French or English bulldog
How it works: Legacy checks shelters all over the area to find boxers in need (called BINs for short). If there's a homeless boxer within about 150 miles of the Fort Worth area, chances are that someone at Legacy knows about it. A huge group of volunteers tracks every boxer in the area.
"LBR has honed rescue to a fine art," says the group's founder, Sharon Sleighter. "We have committees for everything."
There's a shelter committee responsible for bringing in dogs. There's a network of volunteers who foster the dogs in their homes. There are adoption counselors who work to help people find the right boxer. The group places about 300 boxers every year.
The love that fuels it: Sleighter, who started Legacy Boxer Rescue, was always a dog person. But she didn't own a boxer until 2002.
"It was my husband who wanted a boxer," she says. So she bought Hammer, a boxer puppy, from a breeder.
"After about five or six months, I was thinking, 'What have I done?'" Sleighter says. "He was a mess. A loving mess -- I adored him -- but he was just a mess."
The energetic pup needed a friend to play with, so a few months later, Sleighter checked out the shelters. She was shocked; she had no idea there were so many boxers that needed to be rescued and adopted. So she took home a boxer named Ginger and immediately began to volunteer with the rescue group. In the spring of 2004, she started her own breed-specific rescue.
"We started with four volunteers and two dogs," Sleighter says. "Today we have 200-plus volunteers and over 100 dogs."
Besides gathering animals from shelters, Sleighter will take boxers that are surrendered by their owners. But owners have to get on a waiting list, and "it's often a long one," she says, "because the dogs on death row have to be a priority."
The group also will get calls from vets when a boxer is injured and the owner can't afford to pay for its care.
"We always try to help, no matter the age or the infirmity of the dog," she says.
And about a dozen dogs have become "Legacy Keepers" -- boxers that the group hasn't been able to adopt out because of age, illness or other issues. They aren't dropped off at shelters but stay in loving foster homes for the rest of their lives.
Adopt a boxer: Once you fill out an application, Legacy Boxer Rescue does a vet reference check, then a home visit to get to know you and your family. Afterward, you're assigned an adoption counselor who arranges a meet-and-greet with the dog you want or other boxers that might be a good fit.
See available dogs at www.savetheboxers.com or find Legacy Boxer Rescue on Facebook. Every couple of Saturdays, Legacy will set up an adoption station at a PETCO in Hurst or Garland. See the website for more details and a schedule.
Texas Rustlers Guinea Pig Rescue
Based in: Double Oak (north of Roanoke and Flower Mound) and Lewisville
Rescues: Guinea pigs, a few hamsters and gerbils
How it works: Texas Rustlers gathers up guinea pigs from shelters and gives them homes until the animals can be adopted. Until recently, most of the piggies were kept at the home of the founders, Julia and Tony Hinrichs. A family illness has prompted the group to move most of the animals to a leased space in Lewisville; volunteers drop by daily to feed the animals and clean cages. Other piggies live with the volunteers, who foster them until they are adopted. The group places about 200 guinea pigs each year.
The love that fuels it: The group started several years ago when its founders, the Hinrichses, volunteered for a local rabbit rescue group. The rabbit rescue kept getting guinea pigs, so the couple decided to separate from the rabbit folks and help guinea pigs full time. Today, this group is so organized that it has a media relations specialist. That's Jenny Bumgardner, an elementary teacher and guinea pig lover who has 17 foster piggies in her home right now.
"I never had a guinea pig until five years ago," Bumgardner says. "I always wanted hamsters and gerbils, but my mom said no because we had cats."
When she had kids of her own, Bumgardner got them hamsters and gerbils. Then, a few years ago, she adopted a guinea pig from the parent of a former student. When she learned that guinea pigs are happier with friends, she found the Texas Rustlers and went to adopt another critter.
"I'm just one of those people," Bumgardner says. "I went up there and said, 'Oh my gosh, they need help.'"
So she started volunteering. Now she has as many as 30 "foster" guinea pigs at any time.
Most come from shelters, but others are brought in by people who find them in yards or parks, where they have been dropped off to fend for themselves.
Why would somebody want to give up a guinea pig? Well, they're a lot more trouble than hamsters and gerbils. Bumgardner found that out as soon as she took her first "piggie" home.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is a lot to do,'" she says. "It's a heck of a lot more work than anyone told me it was going to be. But they're very appreciative animals. They're sweet."
Adopt a piggie: Adopters fill out an application and arrange a date to meet their potential pet. The group requires cages of a minimum size and won't let animals be adopted by owners of certain types of dogs that are dangerous to guinea pigs. These animals need companionship, so unless you have a guinea pig already, you must adopt them in pairs or trios. You can find adoptable guinea pigs online at www.theguineapigrescue.com.
Based in: North Keller/Roanoke
How it works: Classy Cats rescues cats from area shelters, choosing the ones that soon will be euthanized. Volunteers visit the shelters, too, picking up kitties that are particularly beautiful, friendly or otherwise highly adoptable. Many of the cats stay with the rescue's president, Annette Proffitt, at what she calls the Cat Ranch, a facility on her property in North Keller/Roanoke. She's raising money to expand the Cat Ranch, finishing up a new room that will give the kitties more space. Other cats are fostered by about a dozen volunteers, who keep cats in their homes until they are adopted.
Classy Cats also gets contacted by owners who want to surrender their animals. Proffitt tries to help them keep their pets, solving behavioral issues and other problems.
"Ever since I was little, I was just doing this kind of thing," Proffitt says. She has been volunteering for years with various animal rescue groups, and she started Classy Cats in 2005.
When she was a child growing up in the Midwest, Proffitt used to try to play with the wild barn cats on her grandmother's farm, even though they hated being caught and scratched her. Then, when she was 15, she found three kittens in somebody's greenhouse and brought them home.
"I told my mom and dad I was having a cat," Proffitt says. "They finally relented and said, 'OK, you can have one cat, but he's not going to be in the house.'"
Proffitt chose one of the cats (and gave the other two back to the family that owned the greenhouse), then moved her bedroom into the basement so her kitty could stay with her.
"I had him 15 years," she says. "He went everywhere with me."
The group places about 150 cats a year. "We're just a small group," Proffitt says, "but that's 150 animals that would have been euthanized."
Adopt a cat: If you want to adopt, you have to spay or neuter your other pets, keep your cat indoors and promise that you won't have it declawed. Once you take the cat home, Classy Cats will call and check on you after a week, then follow up with a postcard. Find pictures and profiles online at www.classycats.org Classy Cats also sets up an adoption station at the Watauga PetSmart three Sundays a month.
Alyson Ward, 817-390-7988