Kari Whitman, founder of the dog rescuing non-profit “Ace of Hearts”, puts her own money where her mouth is – she is in fact one of the main donors to her own organization. And she also uses her voice and tenacity, being one of the driving forces to pass a mandatory spade/neuter law in LA County.
But challenges remain: stopping the nation’s highest kill rate for dogs, and getting the squeaky wheels of government bureaucracy to actually enforce the law she passed.
All the while, she’s running around non-stop, rescuing dogs at animal shelters, going undercover to shut down illegal dog-fighting rings, not to mention running her other four businesses at the same time.
How does she come up for air? How does she keep “Ace of Hearts” beating?
Santa Monica-based actress Marie Paquim was inspired by Whitman’s work, and decided to foster a dog herself, an innocent-faced white bull terrier beagle mix with floppy black ears, “Madeline.”
Paquim recently she went to Whitman’s home office, past the mini-hive of workers manning laptops and cell phones at the dining table, out to the rooftop porch overlooking the West LA skyline, to have a conversation with her.
Here is what they talked about:
Kari Whitman: Ace was my first dog. He was a pit bull terrier, and I got him at a very high kill shelter, Downey Shelter. When he died I just didn’t know what to do. I was so depressed. And so I ended up starting a foundation for him. That’s why it’s called “Ace of Hearts.”
Marie Paquim: An homage to him. That’s beautiful.
Kari: Pure love. And he has saved now almost 4,000 dogs.
And that pure love has now is translated into 700 volunteers, 63 fosters (who take care of the dogs in their homes until they can be adopted), along with an Operations Manager, A Shelter Manager, a Volunteer Coordinator, and a team of pro bono lawyers who, among other things, help dog owners fight their landlords so they can keep their dogs.
Fostering and Adoption are the most visible activities going on, with a bi-weekly adoption event at the Petco in West Hollywood (508 North Doheny, on the corner of Doheny and Santa Monica). There the dogs, just like Marie Paquim’s Madeline, are given treats as they try to get the attention of prospective dog-owners strolling by their kennels. A biography is displayed for each dog. Some of those stories tug at the heart. Paquim’s dog Madeline, for instance, had to be given up a man who’d recently lost his job and become homeless. The big, burly, tattooed biker owner, who’d had Madeline since she was a puppy, was in tears at the parting.
I want to hear a successful story, a story that inspired.
Kari: We had a dog that we rescued, a little Shepherd Lab mix that some kids lit on fire with lighter fluid. And we called her Lucky. We had to do skin grafts all over her body. I didn’t think she was going to make it. Anyway, so when she was healed, she had no hair, all just skin everywhere but the bottom of her tail and on her head. So her entire body was burned. So the lady that adopted her, now she takes her to the UCLA Burn Ward and she is a service dog for the UCLA Hospital Burn Ward, and Children’s Hospital too. She takes him in there and she’s so happy, even though she’s got no hair. I think it’s a good way for kids and adults to see this dog is walking around with no hair, and her life is good. And the lady ended up being a nurse from the Burn Ward.
Getting dogs adopted can be difficult when there is a background of abuse and neglect. In one rare case, a seemingly nice dog could not stop going after and biting people and eventually had to be euthanized.
Kari:The lady left the dog in a crate outside 24/7 since it was a puppy, so it didn’t know how to be social…It was very hard, because we are “no kill”, but Animal Control made us euthanize it. We only had to do that twice in 20 years.
You think when the dogs are going to be euthanized, they know? What do you see in their eyes?
Kari: You can see the dogs, that they’re pulling back. They don’t want to go back into the room. They tie them to a pole, and they euthanize them in front of each other.
(Kari shows a graphic picture of a bloodied dog)
Kari: It was so scared to be euthanized it bit its tongue off, and s–t all over itself.
As Kari related, Los Angeles has the highest kill rate in the country: 500 dogs a day. And the highest kill rate during the year? During the time leading up to and including the 4th of July weekend, when dogs scared of the fireworks run away and end up filling all the shelters. To make room for the new dogs, hundreds of other dogs are euthanized.
For Kari, her increasing focus has become prevention, on several fronts.
Getting the mandatory spade/neuter law was key, but unfortunately the numbers haven’t reflected the change. Why? The law is not being enforced, and a frustrated Kari relates California’s broke system and lack of resources, but also it’s lack of vision:
Kari: So I’ve asked Animal Control if I could bring in retired cops because the retired cops have donated their time, because they’re on their pay system, they’re approved by the city, to come and implement that law in those very, very high areas that are producing a lot of dogs, and they wouldn’t let me do it. For Free!”
Another front has been more successful: preventing dog lovers from having to give up their dogs in the first place. Her team of pro bono lawyer’s tactic is to teach dog owners how to sue their landlords to keep their dogs, by using the American Disability Act, as their dogs can be classified as “emotional support dogs”. A simple note from your doctor does the trick.
More complicated is going after the illegal backyard dog sellers. That’s a lot of Craigslist ads to scroll through. More dangerous: going after the dog fighting rings.
Kari:It’s all undercover. We wear little cameras inside our buttonholes. It’s a big deal. Right here in South Los Angeles. You can buy dog meat in South Los Angeles. Last Chance For Animals, Chris DeRose and I, have probably gotten 10 pit bull fighting rings busted. But they just move. Now there’s tons in East LA and in the Valley. It’s really bad.
A surprising ally in busting the dog fighting rings are gang members who like dogs and who act as informants and are paid for the tip.
Kari:You try, you try to keep breaking them and get them scared. I mean just last week we just got a dog “Faith” who, when we got her, her entire face was put together with wire. Because she was a bait dog. So basically they take a really strong dog and get them to kill the bait dog. For sport.
Kari Whitman tirelessly forges ahead with all the weapons she has. The main ingredient to keeping going is having money to pay for the lawyers, the dog food, the visits to the vet. For just one dog to eventually be adopted, the average cost is between 1,600 and 2,000 dollars. About 50 percent of the funding comes from grants, 25 percent from “two very involved donors”, and the rest, from Kari Whitman’s pocket book.
How many hours do you spend a day?
Kari: On just the dogs? I mean I work hundred hour weeks. But I would say, just the dogs, I probably spend anywhere from four and six hours a day on the rescue, and remember I have four other companies, and then those guys, each work anywhere from 10 and 12 hours a day.
Kari Whitman claims hers in the only organization like it that answers every email and every phone call. Besides their continuing rescue work, they are always available for consultation. And so Marie was ready with a question that could be helpful for anyone…
You know the rate of cancer, allergies, comes from altering the food that we eat. So if there are consequences in the human body, I totally believe it’s the same for animals. What would be your advice?
Kari: Well, first of all, let’s talk about environment. A dog will parrot their owner. You see a crazy dog, you see a crazy owner. Unless the dog just got with that owner. In time the dog will parrot the owner’s energy. So if you are a neurotic, crazy person running around the dog’s gonna be neurotic and crazy. You lock your dog outside. Dogs are pack animals. They want to be with the leader of their pack, their alpha dog. You as the human are the alpha dog, because you’re supplying the food. So if you seclude your dog to a separate area and not let them around anybody, they’re going to go into depression. They’re gonna get cancer. They’re gonna get sick. And it’s gonna be awful. As far as going into the food, I personally think cooking for your dog is the best way to go. It is the same amount of money to cook for your dog as it is to buy. 1,000 per cent. You can get organic, ground, I do ground beef, chicken and turkey, with a little kiwa rice and organic frozen vegetables, and then I give one supplement to my dog a day. That’s what I personally do. If you’re gong to buy dog food, I think Stella and Chewy’s is very good, I think Natural Balance is okay, but remember it’s always good to mix something with the dry food. Don’t just do dry food. Put an egg in there. Put three tablespoons of cottage cheese in there. Put olive oil, coconut oil is the miracle for dogs. My dog downstairs, he had a rash all over his stomach, three vets couldn’t figure it out his rash. One day I put coconut oil on him. Two days later it was gone.
And in a final quote, what would you say?
Kari:My final quote would be: “Adopt, don’t shop for a dog. And also to spay and neuter your pet. But to really let people know that they can fight the system. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people call us and say, “Our landlord’s making us get rid of (their) dog,” and I’m like “What?” You can’t let people bully you.
And Kari Whitman has never one to be bullied, continuing her fight to rescue and be an advocate for the defenseless. Marie Paquim, who came for the visit, saw a common connection, as she also is fighting for human rights . . .
I believe that until we learn to respect and treat each other well as human beings, we will never learn to treat our animals or our planet well. And the opposite is true: someone who is cruel to animals, you know they’ll be a danger for human beings. Human trafficking is from that same mindset, the cruelty, the exploitation.
On the ceiling of Kari Whitman’s bedroom is a quote from Ghandi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
So, in helping the animals, we are also helping ourselves, and our planet. Kari Whitman encourages anyone who wants to adopt a dog or help in any other way, or who is seeking advice, to contact Ace of Hearts through their website aceofheartsdogs.com.