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Saving Sunny was officially formed in January 2010, after an incomparable, life-changing, and earth-shattering red dog fell from the sky the summer before. Since our inception, our guiding principle has always been compassion. At the root of all of our decisions and our growth - from the birth of our new programs to examining the old - we’ve always asked ourselves, “How can we make the world a more compassionate place for animals and their humans?” Over the past 11.5 years and many evolutions, we’ve always held compassion as our true north, in all decisions we made. That included sending compassion to ourselves while also holding ourselves accountable, always being willing to learn and grow. As we move forward as an organization, it is time for us to consider the good we do, how we may do it differently, and how it affects everyone around us -- particularly the most marginalized members of our community.

A good friend once said that “2020 gave us all 20/20 vision.” It may have been the most difficult year our society has ever collectively faced, and it also shined a bright light on the disparities plaguing our communities. Through the strength and leadership of Black and Brown activists, organizers, and educators, it also provided us with the tools we need to divest from systems that are designed to harm people. Whether we like it or not, we are part of these systems. We are committed to learning the history behind them and practicing harm reduction in all we do. Living through a pandemic and a global uprising has shown us - we cannot function in the same way we always have. Nothing is the same anymore, and truth be told, it shouldn’t be. We should all be leveraging what power we have for good.

Saving Sunny founded the Community Dog Resource Center in 2014 with the goal of preventing dogs from entering the shelter system, by providing free resources for historically excluded communities in the way of dog food, medical care, spay/neuter surgeries, behavior support, transportation, and more. These resources often provided lifesaving care, and proved to assist families that may find themselves facing financial burden when it came to caring for a pet. There is no denying that this service is worthy and needed, however as 2020 hit us all smack dab in the face, so did the opportunity to understand why this exact route may not be the path for us any longer.

Despite our efforts to bridge the gap for pet owners struggling to keep their beloved companions, we still must own and acknowledge the fact that we are a group of white, cisgender and queer women going into disenfranchised communities, spending money on things we have decided people need for themselves to survive and thrive. We made the decision that everyone deserves the companionship of a pet, but we did not allow those people to choose how that looked and felt for them. We acknowledge that we withheld power by choosing the resources people need, instead of simply empowering communities to decide for themselves through monetary support. This is white savior behavior. These are the power dynamics that the non-profit industrial complex enjoys draping a thin veil over, so we can wrap it up and make it look like we’re seeking equity in our communities, like we’re playing a huge role in amplifying marginalized needs and voices. We touted the phrase, “judgement free zone” while subconsciously believing we deserved to make these choices for others. In doing so, we implied that we knew better than they did what they really needed. This realization came after much learning, discussion, and introspection, and isn’t something we take lightly.

This is not to say that any of our programs or what we’ve done in the past decade + has been done maliciously. We believe we’ve done a lot of good, and we know the many lives we’ve impacted would echo that sentiment. The people we’ve served have become woven into the fabric of our lives. The animals we’ve helped are living, breathing proof that we’ve done so much good. Yet, with the global reckoning of 2020 came a juncture -- a juncture wherein once you see injustice in your own life and even your own behaviors, you can’t unsee it.

"We sat at this juncture for a long while and had to make some hard choices about our future."

Is there a fundamental problem with rescuing dogs? NO! Is there something terrible about operating a pet food bank or giving away free flea and tick prevention? Of course not. But there’s a problem when we look around at our board of directors, at our animal welfare community, and see all white faces of a certain socio-economic status. There’s a problem with deciding that anyone is worthy of a pet. There’s a problem with holding power over others. None of us should get to play god -- that’s white supremacy in action. There comes a point when we simply have to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is upholding the systems that are harming people. And once we begin asking that question, we then ask, how do we leverage the power that we have? How do we reduce harm?

There are many problems with the non-profit industrial complex (NIC), and as an organization, we have chosen to divest from the traditional systems associated with it. This is not to say that there aren’t incredible organizations doing amazing, important work. We do not believe that being critical of the NIC and this belief are mutually exclusive. After all, if you see value in something, shouldn’t you want it to be the best it can be? In many communities, non-profits are the only way people have access to essential resources. Many people make charitable donations to these organizations, including our own, because folks feel compelled or inspired by the work. However, from the ability to avoid various taxes, for large-scale donors to route funds through 501(c)3 foundations, to the way problems are addressed situationally as opposed to systemically the NIC has become a trillion dollar-a-year industry in an oppressive capitalist society. A core tenet of capitalism is poverty -- it only works when people are unable to get access to the resources they need to survive. Our societal systems were designed so that some folks must always be suffering. We are simply not willing to be the ones that use our position of power to decide when, where, and what people do with the funds raise in their names.

This is a very lengthy, albeit necessary way to say that at the end of 2021, Saving Sunny will no longer be operating our Community Dog Resource Center in its current form. Instead, we will be operating under a grassroots framework that supports abolitionist organizing and mutual aid. What does this all mean? In short, it’s simply giving money directly to the people that need it. Not soliciting for donations, then buying the things we think people need, then collecting data from them, but simply giving away our funds. Redistributing our wealth. Quite literally, sending money to anyone in need as long as we have the funds to do it. We will do this in incremental waves, and the only thing we ask in order to receive funds is that you own a pet. We will first start with BIPOC, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming, and disabled pet owners. Then, we will open up requests for all community members. You will not need to provide any documentation to receive funds from us, and we’ll send it directly to you via Venmo or CashApp. We will post these request days on our social media in the upcoming months, and we will do this until our funds have run dry.

Mutual aid is a form of solidarity-based support, in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. We are moving towards this mutual aid model because we believe in it, and it’s time we leverage our power in this community, and let the pet owners we love and care for make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

Without moving towards this model, we believe we are withholding this power, and we’re inadvertently saying we don’t believe folks can make the best decisions for themselves. That is simply not true, so we’re trying something different. Something that’s proven to empower communities to thrive.

When I first took Sunny home in 2009, I remember so vividly walking through the streets of Old Louisville with my bouncing, wide-mouthed, smiling pit bull dog, and people would often move to the other side of the street to avoid her. I recall a moment when I looked down at her, so innocent and energetic and pure, and as a welcome breeze on a humid Kentucky day shook the dogwoods around us, pale pink petals sprinkled her face. I felt so hurt that people feared her, and wouldn’t even give her a chance.

Now, I live in a neighborhood adjacent to Old Louisville, and sometimes I walk past my old apartment. There are pit bull dogs everywhere. Families and young people and even elderly folks cherish them. Our city is different when it comes to these dogs. We don’t have breed-specific legislation in Louisville, and their faces have been on billboards and TARC buses and magazines and TV commercials thanks to our Pit Bull Dogs Are Family campaign (and more). Every single accomplishment within Saving Sunny, whether it was an adoption or a visit to a hospital or a fundraising event or school programming or our most cherished Sunny’s Sol Fest -- an event that hosted hundreds of pit bull dogs and their families annually -- I have always felt her light. Her legacy wasn’t simply to survive a harrowing act of abuse and then be famous. That was just the beginning. It was to continue to do good, to change minds, to open hearts. Even now, she has been gone since 2016, and Saving Sunny continues to make an impact. This is why I firmly believe that even as we move to a mutual aid model and intend to redistribute all of our wealth, she still shines, perhaps more than ever. Sunny was always challenging me, forcing me out of my comfort zone, and pushing me to new limits. This moment is no different. I hope you all will join us in sharing in this moment, basking in the glow of Sunny’s everlasting light, and embracing our future.

There are no words to adequately thank those that have made up the soul of Saving Sunny. Board members, volunteers, adopters, donors, our family members, and our community. We are forever indebted to you and so deeply grateful for your trust and support throughout these last 11.5 years. You’ve kept us going through the darkest moments, and been the gift in our moments of triumph. Thank you simply doesn’t suffice.

With endless love and solidarity,

Kelsey Westbrook,

Co-Founder of Saving Sunny, Inc. & team

If you want to learn more about mutual aid here is an article explains how it has been a pivotal function and collective form of care and survival amidst the coronavirus pandemic:

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Saving Sunny, Inc. was founded several years ago, after a little red Pit Bull Terrier dog fell from the sky and made a massive splash into our lives. When Sunny was thrown from the Clark Memorial Bridge in July of 2009, I was astonished, not only by the horrific act of cruelty she’d endured, but by her ability to completely disregard it and maintain an unyielding love for humankind. She exemplified resilience in a way I’d never seen before — unremitting and unwavering love for the very species that had tried to mortally harm her. She had to fall off an eighty-foot bridge and then swim through treacherous, rushing waters just to accomplish what she had to know was her true purpose in life. Those of us that would eventually form Saving Sunny didn’t know how or what to do to change the dynamic for dogs in Louisville — so Sunny told us. The same notion goes for when I met Maureen Keenan just a few short months after Sunny made her waves in Louisville. We met under quite particular circumstances and found common ground in unearthing our goals, passions, and a shared value system. Maureen was a force of nature to me and to so many around her, having been a prominent political and social activist for years with a gift for working with animals. We formed an innate, familial bond from the beginning, and realized that the dogs we so desperately wanted to help had some clear parallels to the marginalized communities that had been fighting for rights and discriminated against for so many years. The plight of the “pit bull” seemed to bear striking similarities to that of people of color, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and more. Judged not by their individuality, but by their outward appearance. Subjected to discrimination, violence, and even death, simply because of who they are or the way they look. We couldn’t sit silently and ignore these symmetries. We couldn’t merely form a dog rescue that cared for dogs and blindly bypassed their humans. We couldn’t advocate for equality without supporting all walks of life. We couldn’t excavate these correlations and create an organization that would do anything but promote diversity, inclusion, and compassion in our community. We set out to form a non-profit that would treat every individual like Sunny did — with a relentless drive to make every living being feel cherished and important. It seemed to be purely her existence to greet and to love every person with unabashed joy. Oh, to be more like Sunny every single day . . . one can only hope.

So, what does it mean to be a dog rescue that promotes diversity and inclusion, and how can we do this through helping the animals of our community? For us, it’s been growing and evolving into a dog rescue and a community support program. Through the dog rescue facet of our program, we rescue and re-home dogs, often those maligned by only their “blocky-headed” appearance. They go on to live happy and healthy lives in families and communities where they can help shape the hearts and mind of those that discriminate against “pit bull” dogs based on fear and media-hype. Through neighborhood support and our Community Dog Resource Center (CDRC), we form relationships with low-income pet owners living in “resource deserts” and work to assist them with these resources, so that they may keep their beloved pets, rather than having to relinquish them to a shelter (a reality for so many families). Assistance, for us, only works when we approach families and individuals with a judgement free mentality — to treat every situation with the knowledge that simply because it’s not our way, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way.

The diverse and intricate relationships we’ve formed through our CDRC are what keep us going, day in and day out. Like *Ron, the dog-owner of three who suffered a stroke and a myriad of other health issues, who needed wheelchair-accessible housing, a wheelchair ramp, and help caring for his dogs while he recovered. Or Marchelle, the home-grown rescuer that saved her beloved Chihuahua, Poppy from the street amid gaining custody of her three young grandchildren and a stomach cancer diagnosis. Or Tony, caregiver to his terminally ill wife and loving owner of two pups, Cane and Able, that were difficult to walk on leash and behave in the home. Are these people not deserving of the companionship of a pet because they need a helping hand? Are they not worthy of assistance because of their socio-economic status, or age, or skin color, or gender? Or are these people the actual beating heart; the essence of Saving Sunny? Aren’t they exemplifying resilience, just like Sunny did? If we do not reach out and lend a hand to our neighbors that love their dogs like their human children, just as much as we do, can we ever actually call ourselves compassionate? At Saving Sunny, we believe advocating for animals and their humans is the only way to reduce owner surrendered pets and, ultimately, shelter deaths. “One of my favorite things about Saving Sunny is how it’s opened my eyes to prejudices I didn’t even realize I once held,” said Volunteer Coordinator, Jessica Carner. “What sets Saving Sunny apart in my eyes is the ability to set aside knee-jerk reactions to potentially difficult situations and evaluate them with a fresh perspective. For example, if someone isn’t super great with writing and has a tough time filling out an adoption application, it doesn’t mean that person will not be an excellent dog owner. If a pet owner contacts (us) about having to give up her dog, it doesn’t mean that person is a bad person . . . people need understanding and empathy, not judgement and refusal to help.” “At the first CDRC I came to, I watched (the Saving Sunny team) talk to every person there,” said all-star volunteer, Katie Cooper, “but there was one woman in particular that had no plans on spaying/neutering (her dogs). She declined, but we still proceeded to give her food, flea and tick prevention, and tags anyway. It was my third CDRC that she signed up. I believe it’s the way (we) treat everyone with respect that helps in making people want to do the right thing.” Sunny had no idea that her mere existence changed the entire dynamic in Louisville, not only for the dogs that shared her “breed,” but for the people that owned them, as well. Her lion heart inspired us to spread love and to speak out for untapped communities everywhere. And, while we are proud of what we’ve accomplished and the narrative that has only begun to unfold in Louisville and beyond, we know that we must continue to learn, grow, evolve, and become more diverse and inclusive. Sunny cradled every living being with love, with the warmth of the sun. If we can keep striving to maintain her outlook and mentality on each and every situation, we will one day truly honor her legacy. Written by Kelsey Westbrook, Co-Founder of Saving Sunny, Inc.

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Updated: Apr 8, 2020

We all want to think the best of each other, although sometimes the violence and vile acts we see on the news make it difficult. The story of Isis, one of our most abused rescue dogs, is a dark story that has challenged the love of even the most forgiving among us. We want to share this tough story with you to illustrate how pit bulls, often the most feared and abused dogs, are able to love and trust humans even after going through living hell.

Isis was one of the few dogs saved by law enforcement each year out of thousands from cases of abuse, neglect, unlicensed breeding and fighting. Kentucky is home to many rescues, but our commonwealth has also been ranked as the worst state for animal protection laws for the 10th consecutive year. Dogs like Isis, who naturally want nothing more than love and a home, end up tortured and often killed for the profit and amusement of a few horrible people.

Fortunately, Isis (then called Cinnamon at the shelter) was one of the lucky ones to be found and rescued before it was too late. When authorities saved her, she was covered in puncture wounds all over her body and had gaping holes in her armpits. Her mouth had been duct taped shut (intake images can be found at the end of this blog). A victim of baiting, breeding and direct abuse, Isis received veterinary care and had to remain with Louisville Metro Animal Services (LMAS) for over a year. She was evidence in the court case against her abusers — a status that kept her both from being rescued or adopted out during that time.

“When Isis’ former owner’s court case came to a close, talks of the question of her death began fluttering about the shelter staff. She was a confiscated fighting dog. She was used as a vessel to create life and for monetary gain, there’s no way she could be rehabilitated or possibly live the life of a normal dog. Despite her horrifying past, Isis gained the love of a staff member, Emily. The small, fawn pup with horribly scarred skin and butchered ears won her heart, and eventually Emily would even use her body as a human shield in her quarantine kennel to keep her from being euthanized.” — Kelsey Westbrook, Co-Founder of Saving Sunny, Inc.

Rescuing Isis the Pit bull: From Shelter to Home

When Saving Sunny, Inc. was able to pull her from LMAS, Isis was affectionate toward women but still wary of men. Our board member Tiffany, who is also an experienced dog trainer and foster, took Isis home with her tail wagging. But Tiffany understood that Isis’ rehabilitation couldn’t be accomplished by humans alone. Because her dog Captain (short for Captain America) was no stranger to helping his abused brothers and sisters, Tiffany knew Isis needed them both.

Because of Isis’ bravery, Tiffany decided that she deserved a superhero type of name. This is when Cinnamon became Isis, named after the Egyptian goddess of protection and healing. When Isis arrived at Tiffany’s house, Isis met Captain and became scared, biting him in the face. Isis had forgotten how to be a dog, mistrusting and fearful of other dogs. Fortunately, Captain is an experienced leader who has helped many foster dogs regain their confidence and learn how to be one of the pack. It takes a special kind of experienced dog to deal with the mistrust, aggression and other behavioral difficulties abused dogs must face on the journey to their new lives.

Isis’ aggression didn’t phase Captain. Tiffany and Captain went to work on confidence building and implementing rules/structure/boundaries for her so she could relax. In Tiffany’s own words:

“She very quickly became [Captain’s] BFF and they were inseparable. He played a MAJOR role in her rehabilitation. They had a bond that was very, very hard to break up when she went to her perfect forever home.”

Isis rehabilitation went beyond superficial and emotional scars, however. During Isis time with Tiffany, she had 2 ACL surgeries which required lots of crate rest and long recovery times. Tiffany’s then boyfriend now husband Seth patiently also spent time with Isis, helping her overcome her fear of men. The love, care and structure provided by Tiffany, Captain, and Seth helped Isis endure her physical hardship and learn what it meant to have a loving home. Tiffany walked them together every day, allowed them to hang out in the house together, and eventually both dogs spent time in the yard on leash. Captain respected her space and was patient with her, and eventually she started trying to get him to play. From that point, they were inseparable best buds and Captain was like her security blanket. Literally, she would sit on him when it stormed because she was terrified of thunder and his calm energy helped her relax. Captain was the perfect dog for her rehabilitation because he is confident, he reads dogs well, knows what they need and adjusts to their needs very easily. Once she was best buds with Captain, Tiffany took Isis to make a few other dog friends, but it was quickly apparent to all that she would likely remain dog selective throughout her life. Despite a long rehabilitation with love, training and expert care, Isis would continue to have quirks and would need a home who could love and respect her unique needs. Tiffany and her family were not going to place Isis in a situation that would set her up to fail. After all Isis had overcome, they were willing to wait until the perfect adopters came along, no matter how long it took.

Isis Finds her New Family

Tiffany had spent a year with Isis, longer than any foster before her. Because Captain and Isis had bonded, Tiffany was very close to keeping Isis. She felt that if a PERFECT family didn’t come along, that she wouldn’t be able to separate Captain and his foster sister. Even the most experienced fosters become attached to their foster pups. After all, they expend their time and emotional energy opening their hearts and homes. Under foster care, the rehabilitated dogs have come a long way, and their future happiness and safety also feels like the responsibility of the foster family.

In November, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Tiffany received an email with a foster application that seemed too good to be true. The potential adopters understood that Isis would not be comfortable around small kids or strangers, and were committed to educating those around them about approaching her gently. Their immediate love and commitment to Isis convinced Tiffany that Isis had found her new family. In Tiffany’s own words:

“We scheduled a meet and greet and I was nervous/anxious…all the feelings. We had the meet and greet the night before Thanksgiving, and Isis stayed. I was a ball of emotions. Shortly thereafter they finalized and Isis was home for good.”

After more than a year and a half with her new family here in Louisville, Isis’ life would again change. Her parents adopted Max, her new big brother seen pictured to the left, the day before starting a road trip that would move them permanently across country. In June of 2016, they packed up and drove 2500 miles visiting Badlands National Park and Yellowstone. Isis saw prairie dogs and the eruption of old faithful, but didn’t take to the outdoors — “the opposite of her brother Max”, according to Isis’ new mom Ashlee.

In her new home in Vancouver, WA, Isis stays in bed as long as possible. Whether her parents’ big bed, the guest room bed or several dog beds and couches, Isis sleeps in a long as possible. The one activity that gets her off the couch is playing and digging in her big back yard with brother Max. Isis also loves sunbathing, and her parents take Isis and Max on walks along the Columbia River in warm weather. They even have a summer trip planned to see the Pacific Ocean, where Isis and Max will get to play in the sand and surf.

“She leads a charmed life, it’s the least we could do considering how loyal and loving she is to us, and how patient and kind she is to Max. We are forever indebted to team of people who brought her to us, they taught her how to be the best dog she could be and helped us become better owners. We never set out to be ‘bully breed’ owners; we got lucky. It was her sweet face we fell in love with and it changed our lives forever. After seeing the love, loyalty and comedy they bring to our family I’m not sure if we would ever adopt anything but [pit bulls].” –Isis’ adopted mom, Ashlee

A Happy Ending And More Wagging Tales to Come

Although Isis has left her foster family, she will always remain in their hearts. Tiffany and Captain continue to welcome other dogs in need of love and care into their family. Their big hearts, patience, and skill allow abused dogs like Isis to have a second chance. To forget about the trauma and become the silly, loving, lazy family dogs that they truly are.

A lot of organizations are not capable or willing to give a dog with Isis’ history the chance that they so desperately deserve. That is one reason why our rescue organization, Saving Sunny, is so unique. This organization started for the Isis’s of the world — those mistreated and feared dogs who want nothing more than a family of humans and fur-siblings to love and protect.

Unfortunately, Isis story is not as unique as it sounds. These types of dogs, abused yet full of love, exist all over, and here in Louisville we are working to give them the chance they deserve. Please click the link below to learn how you can help us save dogs like Isis, and check back in the coming weeks for more stories about tragedy and triumph, love and family.

Written by volunteer: Brandon Stettenbenz

*warning* graphic images below

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