Ron Danta says that to "truly do rescue really well, you cannot at all be selfish." And, to show how selfless they are, he and his partner Danny Robertshaw have opened their 4,400-square-foot home to over 80 dogs in need of adoption.
The couple has transformed their place on a horse farm in Camden, South Carolina, into Danny & Ron's Rescue where they've saved more than 11,000 dogs from being euthanized and those in overcrowded shelters, abusive puppy mills and dogfighting rings.
The new documentary "Life in the Doghouse http://www.lifeinthedoghousemovie.com/," by filmmaker Ron Davis, follows the day-to-day life of Danta and Robertshaw as they rescue dogs in need.
The couple, both successful horse trainers, started their rescue work 15 years ago.
When they began, Danta and Robertshaw would go to their local shelter to pull a handful of dogs to take back to their farm. They would socialize them, and then take them to horse shows find them new homes.
Their work hit a turning point when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. To help fight the devastation, the couple sent a horse trailer down to provide supplies and toiletries to survivors. After they heard stories about the number of abandoned dogs that were left behind during the floods, they began picking up loads of dogs to drive back home. In total, Danta and Robertshaw saved 600 dogs in approximately five months.
"Katrina taught both of us that we were capable of expanding our rescue," Danta said. "The volume taught us that we were capable of getting more dogs adopted."
But that volume proved costly; the couple realized that their trips to New Orleans and back had depleted 40 percent of their retirement funds. So, to gain more funding, the couple decided they needed to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. A friend, Beth Grazes, referred them to attorney Danielle McCluskey in Milford, Michigan.
"We are forever grateful to her," Danta said about McCluskey, who helped them pro bono.
"Beth explained how they were doing all of this fabulous work out of their own pocket, doing everything at their own cost. Then Ron called me. I thought, 'He's such a nice man and it's such a worthy cause,'" McCluskey said. "I was so amazed that they had done so much out of the goodness of their heart and the kindness of their soul."
McCluskey herself saved four dogs through Danny & Ron's Rescue and sits on the rescue's board as corporate secretary.
Inside the Doghouse
Currently, Danny & Ron's Rescue is one of few that doesn't have an adoption fee and survives strictly off of donations. In the film, Danta said it costs nearly $1 million annually to run the nonprofit. It's easy to see where the costs add up in the film, too. Together with their staff of eight, Danta and Robertshaw do 18 loads of laundry in a commercial washer and dryer every day. They go through 10 gallons of laundry detergent, 56 rolls of paper towel, 60 pounds of dry dog food and 56 cans of wet dog food per week. The dogs are also groomed and medicated when necessary. Beyond that, the couple delivers pet food and supplies to numerous elderly people in their area and helps with their veterinary bills.
"The most strenuous part is constantly worrying about where the money is going to come from, how staff will get paid and how we're going to make it to the next month," Danta said.
In the past, when the couple has hit some "dry periods" when donations don't come in, they've had to put in their own money or take out loans to stay afloat.
"We don't take a salary at all from the rescue," Robertshaw said. "We never have and never would."
But, through all their struggles, they've remained positive.
"You cannot allow yourself to get pulled down into a sad or depressed state of mind," Danta said. "Because you have to keep thinking day in and day out how we can save another life."
The film shines a light on the level of animals in need in the U.S. It reports that 6.5 million animals enter U.S. shelters each year. Ninety percent are not spayed or neutered and only 2.5 million shelter animals actually find homes. The rest, around 4 million animals, are euthanized.
Danta receives hundreds of emails from numerous shelters each day asking them to save dogs on their euthanasia list.
"Seeing their faces and knowing they're going to die – that drives me harder to want to save more," Danta said. "I don't think I could ever turn my back on this because I don't think I could live with the guilt of walking away from all those faces that need help."
In fact, the overall message of "Life in the Doghouse" is to spay and neuter.
"It's really easy to get on your podium and shake your hand and say, 'Oh my god this shelter is a kill shelter. They're killing all these animals,'" Danta said. "But it's not the shelter's fault. It's the community's fault. It's because we have people that will not spay and neuter their dogs. So, we have multiple litters of cats, dogs, but the shelter is the one that gets the bad press because they're a kill shelter, but basically they're doing the dirty work for our community."
Danta then emphasized that for those who can't take a dog home from a shelter, there is still an opportunity to make a difference.
"If you can't adopt, go to a local shelter to bring newspapers or towels or offer to walk the dogs," he said. "Just give them some love."
Beyond their animal welfare work, Danta and Robertshaw's love story is captured in the film, too. The couple met in 1980 at a horse show in Aiken, South Carolina, and Robertshaw rode Danta's horses professionally. They had a working relationship for a long time, before Danta divorced his wife in 1986.
"Danny was one of my friends that really reached out to be there for me," Danta said. "Seeing the emotional pain I was going through, he was a warm, compassionate person."
They grew closer as both men realized they were gay, and now the couple has been together for almost 30 years.
"I think we realize how much strength it takes to do what we're doing," Robertshaw said. "The rescue has made us stronger which has made our relationship stronger."
While they don't get much private time together, they do travel some. The couple is known for bringing dogs to horse shows all across the country in Danny & Ron's Rescue bus.
"You have to make sure you're ready to give up that much of your life to do this," Danta said. "Don't think that rescue is a part-time job or task. It's not something that you can say, 'Oh, I'm only going to work a little bit tomorrow.' Can you give up that much of your life to do rescue the right way?"
The couple, both in their 60s, have done some talking about retirement, but they're not ready yet. If they won the lottery today, they would buy a massive bus and hire two or three full-time veterinarians to travel state to state to do free spays and neuters.
With the hope of creating successors, they've also been reaching out to young people in the horse community to learn the ropes of rescue.
"Kids compete and raise money for the rescue by having bake sales and car washes," Danta said.
The rescue has a junior board as well.
"We want their input because they really kick butt to help us," he said. "They are realizing how important it is to make a difference in the world."
Filmmaker Ron Davis said he will donate all proceeds to animal rescues. To see "Life in the Doghouse," pick a theater or request one near you http://www.lifeinthedoghousemovie.com/find-a-theater.html. View the film's trailer on YouTube at http://gaybe.am/z3. Learn more about Danny & Ron's Rescue at dannyronsrescue.org/.