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.