When she's not busy championing causes instrumental in securing things like U.S. marriage equality or busy taking care of her adoptive children with her spouse, April DeBoer-Rowse fills her time as an animal activist at Garden City's POET animal rescue. One of the biggest reasons she volunteers at the nonprofit, she said, is because of the overwhelming number of animals that are in need — annually, it's approximately 7.6 million that enter shelters nationwide.
"You don't think about it when you go to a shelter or a rescue and you're looking at adopting an animal. There are so many animals in need," DeBoer-Rowse said. "The high rates of death for shelter animals is shocking."
Roughly a third of the nation's annually sheltered animals, about 2.7 million, are euthanized in shelters. Some are sick, aggressive or injured, but some are put down simply because of overpopulation and lack of space. In an effort to help control the euthanasia rate, DeBoer-Rowse has begun fostering dogs with her wife Jayne. She said that even a small impact is a worthy one.
"Even if you foster just one, it gives the rescue one more place to put an animal that is in desperate need," she said.
That's how DeBoer-Rowse ended up with three dogs: Sully, a 6-year-old American Staffordshire terrier mix; Bubbles, a 6-year-old purebred American Staffordshire terrier; and Molly, a 7-year-old boxer. DeBoer-Rowse calls herself a "foster fail" – what happens when a dog or cat who was only supposed to be a temporary foster winds up becoming a permanent part of the family. When she adopted Sully she said something unique happened that made DeBoer-Rowse want to volunteer with POET.
"We had recently lost our lab and I can't be without a dog, so we went through the interview process and were selected to bring Sully home. Within a month and a half of being home, he started having a reaction to my oldest son who was 6 at the time. He would lunge at him," she said, adding that Sully's background was "rough" prior to arriving at the rescue.
"We said, 'This isn't going to work,' and called POET to tell them we [weren't] going to keep him. Instantaneously, they partnered me with a trainer for free to help assess the situation, to teach us how to help the two of them coexist so we don't have to give Sully up," she said. "For a rescue to do that, to want to make these adoptions successful, was just amazing to me."
The trainer, Jean Carew, is a professionally educated, Animal Behavior College-certified dog trainer and a member in good standing with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Carew offers positive reinforcement dog training to address behavioral issues and new pet integration issues to help build strong relationships between a dog owner and their pet.
"I've never met somebody who spends that much time and has that much patience," DeBoer-Rowse said. "Having someone like Jean is invaluable. An amazing trainer and an amazing rescue can save a lot of dogs."
In addition to training, DeBoer-Rowse said it's important to give foster and adopted pets time and space to adjust to their new surroundings.
"I never realized that until I brought a dog into my house. We adopted all of our animals when they were older," she said. "These animals come with baggage and you have to work at making them a family pet. They don't know a life of being a family pet. You have to adjust to having an animal in your house, but you have to let them adjust to being in your home."
When asked about her experience volunteering, DeBoer-Rowse said her first event was Meet Your Best Friend at the Detroit Zoo hosted by the Detroit Zoological Society in partnership with the Michigan Humane Society.
"It was a lot of chaos, showing people dogs. But it was a lot of fun, very hard work," she said.
What stood out to DeBoer-Rowse was the care that POET took with each visitor.
"Even at an event where the objective is to get rid of the animals, they made sure they were getting adopted into the right homes, making sure people adopting had the right education and resources so that the adoptions didn't fail. And in the adoption contract, if for any reason the adoption fails, the animal must be returned to the rescue," she said. "This is the type of organization I wanted to be a part of."
With five kids, it's not easy for DeBoer-Rowse to volunteer, but she makes time to help with the transportation of the animals when she can. In the past, she's driven as far as Ohio on a couple "freedom runs" to pick up litters of puppies from a high-kill shelter to bring them back to POET to be fostered or adopted.
"It's really cool knowing that you rescued these innocent beings," she said. "I got to name all the puppies. That was a lot of fun. I got to see them grow up and get adopted by good families. It's really rewarding."
Last summer was the first time DeBoer-Rowse and her family took in a litter of eight 8-week-old puppies.
"So much work goes into taking care of puppies," she said. "We adopted that whole litter out. If you're an animal lover, there's nothing like seeing a puppy grow and get confident. It's fantastic."
And for those interested in aiding POET in its mission, fostering animals is not the only way volunteers can help. At the shelter, volunteers can clean kennels, feed animals, put away donations, take pet blankets to the laundromat and walk dogs.
"Exercise and affection is super important," said Pam Namyslowski, volunteer coordinator with POET. "Being in a kennel is very stressful for a dog so we try to minimize the stress as much as possible."
Volunteers can also participate in home visits and transport dogs to and from vet appointments. At adoption events, volunteers can help adoptive owners with the process of applying, clean crates, set up and tear down event materials and walk dogs.
"So many people have told us that it's therapeutic for them," she said. "We hear from people who have experienced personal or family tragedies and in the wake of those things have found us."
And because POET is a nonprofit shelter, this means volunteers are highly necessary; their services are based entirely on donations of both time and money. Like many shelters, POET can't afford to hire full-time staff to care for and walk every single animal, and that is where volunteers step in.
"Everyone is so busy nowadays, it's amazing to me that people find time to give to us when there's a million other things you could be doing," she said. "There is a tremendous sense of community and camaraderie. It's a good opportunity to make friends with people who have love for dogs and cats in common. And we celebrate together when an animal finally gets adopted."
For those who aren't available to volunteer, but still want to contribute, POET accepts monetary donations as well as donations of crates, food, treats, blankets, toys, leashes, collars, bedding, cleaning supplies and bottles and cans. Connect with POET Animal Rescue via their P.O. Box 606 in Garden City or visit poetanimalrescue.org.