Buying Time for Soldiers’ Pets

Earlier, we blogged about the kindness of American troops stationed in Iraq, who had bonded with animals there and made the effort to bring those animals back to the U.S. We and our readers were particularly touched by the story of Peter Neesley, whose tragic death overseas did not stop him from giving the next-best gift to his family at home – Boris and Mama, two strays that he had befriended in Baghdad, who are now paying his charity forward by being there for the family when Peter cannot.

A Soldier’s Gift

From Baghdad With Love

Operation Baghdad Pups

Van Dusen DogMeanwhile, there is darker news States-side in Lakewood, WA, where a local woman who rescued dozens of animals that were left behind by deployed soldiers is being told to give them up.

Diana VanDusen began taking in stray and unwanted pets after the animal shelter at Fort Lewis shut down 18 months ago. Most of the animals are old or disabled, and most come from military families from Fort Lewis who have had to move overseas. Some of the soldiers reclaim their pets when they return home, but others do not have such a luxury.

“The rest (of the soldiers) – they had to abandon (their pets), because they didn’t know when they were coming back,” said VanDusen. “One cat I held for two years, and no one came back for it. So I knew it was time to adopt it out. I met lot of soldiers along the way that are devastated they have to leave their pets behind.” VanDusen’s mother said soldiers found out that Diana would take their pets and hold them or adopt them out when they left for Iraq or other posts.

VanDusen keeps some of the animals in her home and the rest in an enclosed space in her backyard. But Animal Control officers told her she’s in violation of city code, which states one residence can only house up to five animals. Officers told VanDusen that she would be fined $500 if she does not reduce the number of animals in her home to five by April 14.

Van Dusen pays for veterinary care and neutering of the animals she rescues, and Animal Control officers acknowledged that all the animals were properly cared for, according to Dave Bugher, assistant city manager.

The city’s mandate leaves the soldiers’ animals with nowhere to go, VanDusen said. Many of the animals in her care are old or demand special care. In describing one of her dogs (now thankfully adopted), VanDusen said “he’s blind. He has a neurological disorder on his back legs. He’s old, he’s 14 years old. Who wants to adopt a dog that could pass away in a few months? Here, they can stay as long as they need; I don’t euthanize.”

According to her records, Van Dusen has adopted out more than 860 dogs and cats over 17 years. She said she’s rescued and taken in pets in Lakewood for five years. She said she cared for and adopted out hundreds of stray cats and dogs from Fort Lewis before its facility closed in 2006.

VanDusen said turning our backs on the soldiers’ pets is simply unacceptable. “We’re supposed to support our troops,” she said. “If they can’t support the troops by supporting the animals of the troops, then I can’t live in a city that doesn’t back our troops. Because these guys are innocent victims of what’s going on over there.”

She said she’s even considered moving. “If I could relocate myself and my animals within that deadline, I would. But you see how the housing market is right now,” she said.

Van Dusen CatAt time of writing, VanDusen now has around 14 cats in her care, down from a total of 31 animals. Finding permanent homes for the remaining pets cannot happen overnight, and although she is working hard and acting in good faith to place the animals – she is taking them to the Puyallup PetSmart today for an adoptathon – she hopes the city will change its mind. Kudos to PetSmart for offering her the chance to do this each and every weekend this month.

It was hardly reasonable for Animal Control to expect that she could meet their demands by April 14 without making some heartbreaking and hard decisions for the animals. Needless to say, these draconian demands are hardly a comforting message to American troops who have had to leave their pets behind.

Media exposure and email campaigns may have prompted a change of heart for the city which, as of April 9, is now considering an extension of the deadline if Ms. VanDusen continues to reduce the number of animals in her care to five.

“If she is showing effort to come into compliance, we will ease on the deadline,” said Jeff Brewster, who works for the city. But the city is sticking to its maximum limit of five animals per household. “These laws we have are intended to respect and protect the privacy and peace of mind of neighbors that live nearby,” said Brewster.

Assistant city manager Bugher also said that Lakewood officials will review zoning regulations to determine if it can be allowed and under what conditions.

“I think that is just heartless,” said Denise White, who just adopted a military dog from VanDusen. ” I just think that she was doing a good service, and I don’t see where there was any harm. I really don’t.”

Burt Bray just got a dachshund named Rusty for free. He says the city should leave Diana alone. “Why can’t she just be grandfathered in?” he said.

“Not many people want 30 animals living next door to them in a city neighborhood,” said Brewster. But VanDusen said none of her neighbors ever complained.

It is this blogger’s opinion that the city needs to ease up on Ms. VanDusen, and give her whatever time she and the community needs to adopt out the remaining “excess” animals. And should it not be feasible to rehome all but five animals, considering their age and condition, surely it would not be a grave inconvenience, with the agreement of her neighbours, to grant her an exception to shelter them until their families return or for their remaining days.

It is a sad statement about our civilization that petty regulations, paperwork, and deadline-twitchy bureaucracy are allowed to get in the way of compassion.


Video at King5-TV

KOMO-Radio Update, April 9

Tacoma News-Tribune

What can you do?

Let the City of Lakewood know that you support Ms. VanDusen’s charitable efforts and a decision to work with her in good faith to ensure that all of her charges have a safe haven.

(Substitute the usual @ character for (at) in your email).




One response to “Buying Time for Soldiers’ Pets

  1. Thanks very much for your coverage of the Lakewood soldiers’ pets dire predicament. I was so relieved today to see that the city was taking a more compassionate approach and that the dogs had already been adopted.

    Thanks also for the other stories about animal lovers serving in the military.

    Gail – WA state, USA

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