“Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.”
Snoopy (Charles M. Schulz)
Toby Burroughs, is a New Orleans woman whose passion is to round up every abandoned, neglected German shepherd she can find and restore them to what she feels is their rightful place: No. 1 among four-legged creatures; top of the heap; second to none.
“Is there any other dog in the world?” Burroughs asks as she strokes the coat of Amber, one of her four German shepherds who roam the home and cottage she shares with her architect husband Ken in Mid-City, and from whence she runs her New Orleans German Shepherd Rescue.
To be sure, Burroughs doesn’t run a kennel. Her operation is more like a dating service, where people smitten with the thought of owning a German shepherd go to find their heart’s desire. The tall blonde from Massachusetts is “in almost constant contact” with SPCA and shelters across southeast Louisiana and Mississippi, and with the people who are willing to take in German shepherds from these shelters until Burroughs can place them. “It doesn’t take long,” she is quick to say. “For people who want a German shepherd, well, there’s just no other dog.”
Working as both cog and middle man, Burroughs says she has spent a great deal of her own money on veterinary treatment for German shepherds, and has rescued 600 dogs since she first embarked on her mission in 2002.
“Let me tell you something,” Burroughs says with a determined look in her eyes. “I’ve worked on Wall Street and done a lot of exciting things, but I’ve never found any greater joy in my life than taking a German shepherd … or any animal out of a shelter when I know it’s going to be euthanized. Or taking a German shepherd who’s been abused and is nothing but skin and bones, starved and covered with fleas and ticks and who has heartworms; taking that animal and getting her healthy and placed in a great, safe home. That is what joy is all about.”
Burroughs’ eyes widen with excitement as she talks, but just as quickly she squints and admits there’s a flip side to that coin. “I’ve cried many tears over some of the ones I can’t save,” she says. “Just this year, I took two from the SPCA who weren’t eating. I spent a lot of money taking them to the vet and then I found out they had megaesophagus [a serious throat disorder preventing food passage to the stomach]. The vet told me, ‘Toby, there’s nothing I can do. It’s such a miserable life.’ They had to be euthanized. I had to make that decision. I left them there and I went out to my car and I sat there and sobbed and sobbed. The receptionist came out and asked me if I was OK. I had spent only an hour with one of these dogs. But it was so heartbreaking. I guess I just can’t help but cry.
“Then there’s the other extreme: I get dogs that have had wonderful lives. But because of circumstances – divorce or a death in the family – the caretakers must move on and the German shepherds aren’t part of those plans. I can put these dogs in a great home a lot easier. But there definitely is an emotional connection. It happens with me. And it happens with the people who work with me who serve as foster care givers until I can place the dog.”
And that’s when the tears turn to joy for Toby Burroughs: When an abused and sick German shepherd is treated and made whole again and finally, after an extensive background check of the prospective new owners gives her the green light, she hands over a healthy dog to those new owners.
New owners such as John Aiken and Iris Celebi-Aiken, a nurse-anesthetist couple, can be seen walking Axel around their Metairie neighborhood every day. Axel was estimated to be about 2 years old when the couple took him from Burroughs last December.
“We had had a German shepherd at one time, but we lost her,” John Aiken says. “We wanted another one. No other dog would do. Axel was found on the street by the SPCA and he was terribly malnourished – skin and bones – and he had a terrible gash on one of his legs, and I was told he was on the ‘kill list.’ Well, somebody at the SPCA knew Toby, called her and Toby picked Axel up immediately. We had been looking at another German shepherd named Greta at the time, but as soon as we saw Axel, we fell in love with him. We knew we had to have him. He’s so gentle and loving. He’s part of our family.”
And you never know what enterprises one of these relationships with a German shepherd will spin off.
Take the case of Marita Jaeger, the manager of Johnny White’s Sports Bar on Bourbon Street. Jaeger, a native of Germany, had a natural affinity for shepherds. It was a great joy when Burroughs handed her the leash with Turbo Dog at the other end.
“People come into the bar and many of them come in with their dogs,” Jaeger says. “The people sit and drink and their dogs just lie down at their feet and wait. Well, I started taking pictures of the dogs that come in and it wasn’t long before I came up with the idea to do a calendar of ‘Johnny White’s Dogs.’ It took off big time. I use the proceeds from sales of the calendars to rescue stray dogs in the French Quarter. I have a vet who spays and neuters them, treats them for heartworms, cleans them up and then I find them a home. In 2009 we were able to rescue four dogs and three cats in the Quarter. And, of course, I can’t forget Toby, where I got Turbo Dog. I donate a portion of the money from calendar sales to the New Orleans German Shepherd Rescue. I’ve got a lot of people who have become part of this. Even the buggy drivers in the Quarters are involved. They bring in strays.”
“There are so many good people out there who come forward to help,” Burroughs says. “I don’t use my telephone number, because I’d get calls at 2 a.m. from people who think I run a kennel here … and they just want to come by in the morning and pick out a German shepherd. There’s an application process, and a home visit. I have to get a feel for the person. I have had to tell people, ‘Sorry, but I don’t feel that this will work out.’ You know a lot of people see a puppy and they want it. I tell them, ‘But what happens in seven months when he’s running around the house and tearing everything up and you’re going nuts? When that type of thing happens, believe it or not, that’s when people put the dog in the car and just dump it on the side of the road. That type of thing really pisses me off. One of the things I insist on – and I make them sign a contract to this effect – if they get tired of the dog or it doesn’t work out for any reason, the dog comes back to me. This isn’t negotiable. I don’t want somebody changing his mind and just ‘dumping’ the dog. It’s back to me or no-go.”
Burroughs sits in the cottage that has been decorated by Ken. A life-size German shepherd statue sits in the center of the living room with a large portrait of her four German shepherds keeping watch above. Amber is sitting quietly at her feet sopping up all the comments about what a loving, gentle dog she is. As if on cue, in walk the remainder of her “family:” Fargo, Bismarck and Riva, the one who got her involved with the New Orleans German Shepherd Rescue.
“I was asked to go over and look at her because she was on the list to be euthanized,” Burroughs says. “I took one look into those big brown eyes and that did it. I was hooked. That was the beginning of it all. And it’s been the happiest time of my life.”
There are, of course, the adoptions that fail and the dogs that are too sick from abuse and neglect to rescue. The bad goes right along with the good, but the bad endings are never called failures by Burroughs, because an effort was made.
“It’s a never-ending job,” she says. “Each rescue is an adventure and each placement is a thing of joy.”
Next up on the list is Vera, a German shepherd with a malfunctioning heart. Within a day, Burroughs will pack Vera into her car and drive her to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, where a delicate operation to try to save Vera’s life will be done. The cost? “$2,800,” Burroughs says. “We’ve already got about $1,500 toward that.” What donations don’t cover will come out of her pocket.
“It will be well worth it to see a healthy, happy Vera,” she says. “I wouldn’t even think of not doing it.”
For more information about the New Orleans German Shepherd Rescue, visit www.nogsr.com.