The Heroes We All Need: 11 Animal Rescuers You Should Know

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of animal rescue and rehabilitation organizations, especially local ones operated by people who you might know in your community. Such “mom & pop” rescues don’t have the same recognition and funding as organizations like the ASPCA or the Humane Society, but they do equally vital work for less than fortunate animals.

Often they are on the front line of local animal welfare efforts and might be the only resource available for concerned residents, adopting families, and animal rights advocate in a region rife with animal abuse.

They deserve recognition, which is why we have compiled a list of notable people across the nation and their homegrown rescue operations. We’re seeking to honor them and put them in the spotlight, however brief, to hopefully get them some attention and help them in their missions.

Here are 11 local animal rescue operations and the people who lead them or are deeply involved with running them

Puppy Rescue 911

Puppy Rescue 911, Inc. is run entirely by one woman: the indefatigable Elanna Bradley. She founded Puppy Rescue 911, Inc. in October 2014 because she was appalled by the number of animals put to sleep in high-kill animal control facilities in her area. Often these facilities are overcrowded and seem indifferent to the lives of the animals they house. However, thanks to Bradley’s work, an average of 1,000 animal lives are saved per year.

Usually, those animals are the ones who have been scheduled to be euthanized. But every week, Bradley and Puppy Rescue 911 rent a van and transport anywhere between 20-40 animals to the safety and acceptance of no-kill shelters. Additionally, Puppy Rescue 911 does occasional direct adoptions while also accepting owner surrenders and stray litters.

Bradley has formed a strong community of animal rescuers and dog lovers in the Southwestern Illinois area and continues to advocate for the welfare of strays, abandoned animals, abused dogs, one time even rescuing a pet snake and finding a loving owner to take care of it.

Johnny and Xena’s Spread the Words Foundation

Jonny and Xena’s Foundation was started by Linda and Grant Hickey of John’s Creek, Georgia in honor of their autistic son Jonny, who formed an unbreakable bond with a rescue pup named Xena. Jonny was having difficulty coming out of his shell and being sociable. That is until he met Xena, a severely abused dog who has become a bit of a hero.

When Xena was first rescued, she only had a slim chance of survival. But, her caretakers could tell she had a fighting spirit and named her Xena, after the fictional warrior princess. Slowly she recovered until she was placed in the care of the Hickey family.

From that moment on, Jonny immediately became attached, with Jonny and Xena becoming fast friends. Xena even helped Jonny realize he could be much more social. Subsequently, Jonny became more open and friendly with other people and his anxiety in social situations was significantly diminished.

Jonny’s parents found this story to be so inspiring they they set up the Jonny and Xena Foundation. The foundation not only works to support the disability community but also animal welfare organizations as well. Through fundraising and educational efforts, Jonny and Xena’s empowers others who not only struggle with disability, but also those who advocate for the welfare of our four-legged friends.

However, Xena wasn’t the only dog the Hickey family rescued. Layla is another survivor the family has opened their arms up to. She was originally found near death in a trash bin with a broken jaw. However, through compassion and kindness, Linda Hickey and her family nursed the pup back to health.

Handsome Dan’s Rescue

The story of Handsome Dan’s Rescue begins with a skittish pitbull, Dan, one of the dogs to survive Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring. Dan was initially incredibly fearful of people, but through work with various rescue organizations and a loving adoptive family, Dan has become a more friendly and welcoming dog.

Now Handsome Dan has a dog rescue named after him. According to their website, the Handsome Dan Rescue works to help care for, foster, adopt, and promote the welfare of Rhode Island shelter dogs, especially those languishing in local shelter facilities. The selfless Handsome Dan volunteers want to ensure all animals are helped, regardless of their breed. 

To accomplish this mission, the Handsome Dan Rescue offers a variety of programs including foster care, enrichment programs, and compassion hold programs that are designed to connect older or terminal dogs with families who’ll love them anyway.

The compassion hold program is unique because it was created in honor of Tillie, a rescue who was saved from a life of cruelty in one of the largest dog-fighting raids in U.S. history. Sadly Tillie passed just a couple months after her rescue. The Handsome Dan Rescue wanted to do something to remember  Tillie by, so the compassion hold program was created. The program ensures all dogs get a chance to be  loved.

Care for Kabang Fundraiser

In December of 2011, an adopted street dog living in the Philippines by the name of Kabang rescued the 9-year-old daughter of her owner Rudi Bunggal, along with her 3-year-old niece. Kabang threw herself at a motorcycle that was about hit the daughter, Dina, and the niece, Princess Diansing. The motorcycle was knocked over and the driver, as well as the children, walked away relatively unscathed. If it wasn’t for Kabang, most likely all three would have been seriously injured. However Kabang herself sustained traumatic injury to her upper snout.

At first, Kabang initially recovered pretty well. However the little street dog eventually began to develop an infection and needed facial surgery to fully heal. The surgery was beyond the means of the Bunggal family. Fortunately, Kabang was heralded as a hero by the Filipino press and her story reached a nurse in upstate New York by the name Karen Kenngott. Kenngott decided she wanted to help out and started a fundraising page on Facebook called Care for Kabang.

With help from the Animal Welfare Coalition, Kenngott was able to raise enough money to get Kabang treated at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Total treatment cost $27,000.

The Care for Kabang Facebook page has since become defunct. However, the people who helped organize the fundraiser are continuing their work through another organization called Kabang the Hero Dog where they advocate for animal welfare and responsible pet ownership.

Kathy Mehalko and Lizzy, the Puppy Mill Survivor

Mehalko with rescue pup Katie, a puppy mill survivor

Lizzy was rescued from a puppy mill and fostered by Kathy Mehalko who works with multiple small, locally run animal rescues in the Rockford IL and Wisconsin areas. She’s fostered small rescue dogs from Tiny Paws Small Dog Rescue, Care for Pets and Cause for Paws.

Lizzy, a matted 11-pound mess of tiny paws and skittish Maltese who obviously was overbred by her breeder, fell into Mehalko’s hands in mid-December 2019 as one of her new foster babies. Lizzy had mammary tumors and obviously didn’t receive any dental care. She was set to be spayed, but it was soon discovered that she was pregnant. Her puppies survived and were named Phoenix and Miracle. They were soon adopted by wonderful forever families and their owners keep in touch with Mehalko to update the legion of fans they acquired.

Lizzy had some medical issues as of last year but currently seems to be healthy. Lizzy has thrived and became a fearless pack member, and her babies are rambunctious fluffballs.

Due to Mehalko and her group, Angels for Animals’ advocacies and staunch opposition to puppy mill breeding, she’s currently facing litigation from a pet store that’s notorious for selling puppies bred in puppy mills that leave their animals in horrible conditions. Mehalko and her group were instrumental in shutting down Fresh Start Animal Rescue in 2017 for their neglect of the animals under their care.

Mehalko continues her advocacy for animal rescue and puppy mill shutdown, and taking care of the animals currently under her care. Her group was featured in their local TV station for cleaning up a forgotten pet cemetery.

Zaxby the Chicken Wing Dog

Zaxby was found in a gutter by a Dekalb County, GA animal control officer. Zaxby had sustained numerous injuries and many thought he was dead. He was nonetheless taken to an emergency vet clinic where he began his recovery. After he recovered, his caretakers noticed he had a curiously deformed leg that almost resembled a chicken wing. He was subsequently named after the Zaxby fast food restaurant and earned his moniker of “the Chicken Wing Dog”.

Now rescued by the Canine Caravan Rescue and the Friend s of DeKalb Animals, Zaxby was ready to go to foster. Adoption and Rescue Coordinator Jacki McDonald fell in love with Zaxby and decided to foster him herself. Along the line, Zaxby’s deformed leg had to be removed as it was causing him more trouble than it was doing good.

However McDonald knew that she could only do so much for the dog, so she decided to put her up for adoption. Zaxby was then adopted by Katharine Luongo who brought Zaxby home into a loving family with multiple 4-legged members.

Zaxby’s rescue wasn’t possible without the help of organizations like Canine Caravan and Friends of DeKalb Animals. Canine Caravan specifically is a non-profit dedicated so saving the lives of up to 50 animals a month. The organization gets their rescue vet care and even sometimes takes in elderly or special needs rescues, connecting them with foster families who will love them for the remainder of their lives.

Helping Animals Reach Tomorrow (HART)

HART was started by a girl named Alexa Jeffers and her mother in the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi almost a decade ago. Originally HART was focused on building adequate shelter and fencing for chained-up dogs as well giving their owners toys. In lieu of payment, Alexa and her mother would just ask the owners to unchain their dogs. Now HART focuses mostly on rescues, and spaying and neutering.

The 21-year-old Alexa largely runs the organization while also being a full time college student. On top of that, Alexa also faces a surprising number of obstacles, including animal over-population, uneducated breeders, and an obstructionist town council.

While HART is not yet a 501(c)3, Alexa hopes that it will be someday. Until then, HART will continue to do good work while also collaborating with other local rescue organizations to advocate for the health and well-being of animals of all types.

Adoption First Animal Rescue KY (AFAR KY)

Adoption First Animal Rescue has an interesting history despite being founded relatively recently. In 2013, Staci Ventura and husband Eric Crespo founded AFAR in North Carolina after Eric was stationed there. While in NC, Eric saw directly how much assistance rural areas needed and went forward with the idea of the rescue agency. After a few years of growth, a board member named Dakota Love decided to start an AFAR branch in Kentucky.

Love was initially a volunteer and foster pet parent working with AFAR. But then in 2017 she moved back to her home state. Love wanted to continue doing her work, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. She’s now the director of AFAR’s Kentucky branch.  

The Fowler Herd

Tracey Fowler, a resident of Mendon Vermont, goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to animal rescue. Fowler rescues special needs dogs who often have degenerative issues and are placed in carts, the dog equivalent of wheelchairs. Often these dogs are unwanted, but Fowler sees past their physical problems and embraces them for who they are.

Fowler owns several dogs, five of whom are in carts. She loving refers to her pack of differently-abled dogs as her “herd”. The dogs get along well and often play together, and being in a cart or having a disability rarely slows them down. The dogs of Fowler’s herd have shown many that life can be lived to the fullest, even if the odds are stacked against you.

Dog Patch Pet Store

Dog Patch initially started out as a traditional pet store in Naperville Illinois around 25 years ago. Originally, the store would buy from reputable breeders. But as the breeding industry became murky business, Dog Patch decided to switch to rescues and in fact work with Puppy Rescue 911 mentioned earlier.

Dog Patch just isn’t a place to buy pet supplies and adopt a four-legged friend. It’s a a store that chooses to work with a local rescue foundation and place animals, who might otherwise be forgotten, into the hands of loving families across Illinois and the Midwest.

Griffin Pond Animal Shelter

Nestled in the foothills of North Eastern Pennsylvania lies the Griffin Pond Animal Shelter. Griffin Pond has been a long-standing part of the community, having been founded in 1938 to provide respite for the area’s homeless, unwanted, and abused animals. This is still what drives the Griffin Pond mission to this day.

Additionally, Griffin Pond takes care of animals who are sick, elderly, or are injured and have been surrendered by their owners or have been rescued from abusive situations. On a daily basis, Griffin Pond often cares for more than 200 animals.

Other Animal Rescuers Worth Mentioning

Not everyone has the time to run an animal rescue, open an adoption agency, or even adopt a herd of disabled dogs. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who are doing all they can to help less fortunate animals.

Take for instance the story of Tom Ryan and his dog Will. Will was an older, deaf, and mostly blind dog who was in his twilight years. He was left at a kill shelter where he likely would have died if it wasn’t for the intervention of Ryan who wanted to give will an opportunity to die with a loving family. Through hard work and Ryan’s love, Will transformed from a curmudgeonly, scared, senior dog to a dedicated and adoring companion.

Will lived on for more than two happy years before passing. But while Will might have left his mortal binds, his story and inspirational message still live on through Ryan’s best selling book, Will’s Red Coat.

Finally, there’s also the Everything Emma & Family community page on Facebook. Emma’s adoptive family has stuck with her despite the fact that she was born with polyradiculitis, a disease the attacks the nervous system and can inhibit motor functions like walking.

Emma is forced to drag herself along with her front legs. Her adoptive mother filmed her doing this once and she exploded in popularity on social media. Emma’s story shows that anyone can make a difference in the life of a rescue animal. 

Photo of author

Lovelia Horn

I’m a certified crazy dog mom, a physical therapist (for hoomans), writer, animal rescuer, and foster home provider. Together with my hubby Ryan, I’ve fostered and helped look for forever homes for over a hundred shelter dogs in the Southern Illinois area. I mostly work with Puppy Rescue 911, Inc., a certified animal rescue organization based out of Chester, IL (home of Popeye!)

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