Woman makes it her life’s mission to feed stray dogs, cats — every day

14 Feb
BY WALLY SPIERS – News-Democrat
P.J. Hightower is so much of an animal lover that she drives every day through southwestern East St. Louis, feeding stray dogs and cats.

Last week, the St. Louis woman provided a look at one of her mornings. Bundled in coveralls and a stocking cap, she braved the cold and wind that whistled through her Honda Fit when she opened the back hatch to get to the bags of dog and cat food she carried.

Her car crunched along the rough streets which weren’t improved by the layers of ice and snow. She patrols neighborhoods where burned out, abandoned houses and open expanses bordered by ditches filled with brush often hide the dogs.

Jamie Case, executive director of Gateway Pet Guardians and a Belleville native, rides along on some days. Together, the two women look for tracks in the snow near places where they have found dogs before.

Last week, they spotted Sassy, who came running toward the car, dragging about 6 feet of a chain behind her.

“She had puppies three weeks ago,” Case said. “Even her owner can’t get close to her.”

Gateway Guardians rescued the litter, and the puppies were adopted.

One gray cat came to the road to be fed. Catlike, at first it retreated from the food, but that apparently was only because the cat was keeping a wary eye on Sassy, who had trailed along to check for more goodies.

Usually, Hightower sees her regulars, anywhere from 15 to 20 dogs. Sometimes, there are new ones. Last week, she never did find Humphrey, a dog which has an injured front foot which dangles uselessly. That worried Hightower, who has named many of the dogs. Despite repeated passes through several neighborhoods, he was a no-show. Probably not a good omen.

Some of the dogs were born wild, mongrel mixes. Some are dogs that people let run loose. Some are fed by people who live in the area, while others get food from people who drive through on their way to work every day, carrying food with them to put out, Case said.

One thing the dogs all share is a wariness toward humans.

“We’re the only people they’re exposed to. They are used to people throwing things at them and yelling,” Hightower said. “These dogs do not attack people. They do not attack other animals. They stay away from everyone if possible.”

Hightower was born in East St. Louis and grew up in Collinsville. She lives in St. Louis in the Lafayette Square area. She says she is a corporate dropout who is a professional dog walker.

She said her sister was building a house in Freeburg back around 1995 and she often drove to see it. On her way, she would see stray dogs. She started feeding a few of them and it took off from there.

“I haven’t missed a day in 10 years,” she said.

Many of the dogs run toward her car when they see it approach. The dogs stand warily nearby until Hightower pours piles of food on the ground for the animals.

After she retreats, the dogs eat. Sometimes, after the dogs retreat, the birds eat whatever is left.

Nigel watched from across the street as his sister Nigella and Mr. Pit ate their food. Hightower was thrilled when Mr. Pit came close enough to give her a high five.

But when it came time to feed Nigel, he was nowhere to be seen.

“Where is Nigel?” Hightower asked, looking all around.

Nigel was running alongside the car, looking for his food.

Hightower said she used to pay for her own animal food.

“Now I get donations from Gateway,” she said.

In the past, she has used donations to get surgical help for injured animals.

Some people support what she is doing. Others don’t think it is so great. Hightower said she spent about 45 minutes one day talking to a police officer about what she was doing.

“She seemed to think it was wrong,” Hightower said. “I think I changed her mind, but I don’t know.”

She said people think ignoring the dogs and letting them starve would end the problem, but that won’t work.

“They will find food,” Case said.

And they will give birth. Every six months, the strays produce a new generation. When a stray female goes into heat, males come from miles around for the chance to mate. That results in fights, injuries to the males and sometimes to the females.

Another result is puppies. Some people sell the puppies as a source of income, Case said. Others abandon them. Case said her group rescues from 120 to 150 dogs a year, mostly puppies, just from the area Hightower patrols.

“We rescue when we know they are no one’s dogs,” she said.

They can rescue adult dogs when they know they have a foster home.

“Not everyone can handle a feral dog,” she said.

Like Malcom, for instance. Malcom hangs out on a vacant lot near downtown. His lot has several feeding bowls sitting around. Workers in a nearby office building feed him as do some people from the Federal Courthouse. A woman wants to adopt him, but the group will have to catch him.

“It’s a tricky thing to rescue a feral dog,” Case said.

Proposed law

The problem spurred state Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville, to introduce legislation in the Illinois House to make it easier for people to take care of the stray animals. House Bill 240 will amend the state’s Humane Care of Animals Act to allow caretakers to pick up an animal, spay or neuter it and return it to its habitat.

“People are afraid that if they pick up an animal, spay or neuter it and return it to its habitat they could be charged with abandonment,” Holbrook said.

The proposed legislation will be amended to include inoculations and to specify only dogs and cats. It has been assigned to the Agriculture and Conservation Committee.

“This could help end some of the suffering and bring an end to overpopulation. It’s a good starting point,” Holbrook said.

Gateway Pet Guardians is solidly behind the legislation. The group also is attempting to buy a piece of property in East St. Louis and raise money to build a spay and neuter clinic.

“We need to stop the reproduction,” Case said.

***

For more information on how to donate or to view a documentary about the group, you can visit its website, gatewaypets.com.

Read more: http://www.bnd.com/2011/02/13/1589824/friend-to-the-friendless-metro.html#ixzz1DzZQAhBM

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