Willene Colvin can tell you why, with the help of volunteers, she drives a Winnebago carrying as many as 40 dogs from Augusta, Ga. to PetCo on Route 2 in Warwick once a month.
“This is my passion, my life; it just fills my heart” Willene said Saturday as a dozen people, most of them cuddling a dog, queued up to adopt a dog.
Saving dogs from dumpsters and kill shelters in five Georgia counties reaching as far south as Florida hasn’t always been Willene’s life. She is a retired high school English and history teacher and never owned a dog until she and her late husband, a middle school teacher and coach, adopted one in 1994. As a child, Willene remembers thinking of dogs as outdoor animals and not as pets.
“We didn’t have dogs [as pets] in those days. Dogs lived outside,” she said.
Evidently, many southerners still feel the same way about dogs. Not only are they left outside, but many dogs aren’t given the care such as shots for rabies and de-worming and are disposed of when no longer wanted or sick. Willene said she has literally dived into a dumpster to rescue a litter of puppies after hearing their whimpering.
She tells of a recent incident where she was alerted that a family was going to drop off a mother and her pups at a shelter. The shelter was full. Willene knew as a policy the dogs would have been put down as soon as they arrived, so she intercepted the dogs.
One county shelter, which she did not name, put down 10,000 dogs in a year, she said. Her aim is to stop the killing, but as long as that goes on she plans to save as many dogs as she can.
Why come to Rhode Island?
“I fell in love with the attitude of people here,” she says. Willene said Rhode Islanders treat dogs like family.
“Yes, this is our child, our forever child,” she said.
While that may be the case, Willene is very careful in matching a dog with a family. Through the website, starsri.rescueme.org, people can view the dogs available for adoption and fill out adoption papers. Willene talks with the prospective owners, expects them to provide periodic reports – usually Facebook postings – and has them promise, should for any reason they can no longer keep the dog, see that it is returned to her.
Willene is picky about who adopts. As a reader of both human and canine character, she looks to make long-lasting matches. All dogs have the proper vaccinations, are spayed or neutered (in the case of puppies, a condition to adoption is that the owner spay or neuter the dog) and have identification chips.
The adoption fee is $500, which Willene said helps offset costs that in the cases of injured and sick dogs can run into the thousands. As a rule, she won’t allow for someone less than 23 years old to adopt and, at the other end of the age spectrum, she’s concerned that a dog might outlive its senior owner.
In one such case, an elderly woman pleaded for her to approve an adoption. Willene held her ground and then the woman’s son called. He convinced her, promising to care for the dog should his mother die. The woman was thrilled and now she and Willene stay in contact.
“Once you get a dog you’ve got me,” she tells a family waiting to finalize an adoption Saturday.
Fortunately, Willene is not alone in her crusade. She said she has a group of volunteers who feel as she does. They foster dogs until she can bring them north. She has also recruited veterinarians sympathetic to the cause who, at discounted rates, provide treatment for sick and injured dogs, preparing them for their trip to Rhode Island.
Jeff Magruder and his wife, Angela McElroy Magruder, are disciples. Jeff drove the Winnebago, arriving around 5 a.m. Saturday. They were met by volunteers here, many of whom have adopted dogs from Willene. In some cases, volunteers here have adopted more than one dog and, as happened on Saturday, show up with their dogs so Willene can see them and, naturally, fawn over them.
Willene said the PetCo Foundation has been a tremendous ally in the effort. She teamed up with the company in 2004 and has been making rescue drives since then. She estimates more than 5,000 dogs have found homes here or in New Jersey, where she also makes drops, since starting Save The Animals Rescue Society (STARS), a nonprofit agency that is licensed for dog adoption in Rhode Island.