Truth Talks: Stephanie
founder and President of The Animal Pad, a non-profit, all breed dog rescue that focuses on saving dogs from high kill shelters and the streets of Mexico. I recently spoke to her because I wanted to learn what goes into animal rescuing (beyond all the misconceptions and those heart-breaking commercials you see on TV), and why it’s so important to rescue animals, especially for those of you looking to get a pet this holiday season. Stephanie is full of life, unapologetically herself, and her passion for life is contagious. there’s so much to learn from her, so let’s jump in.
What drove you to this mission of helping animals, and how did you start The Animal Pad?
I just knew since I was a kid. I had to do something to help animals, dogs in particular. I’d been thinking and thinking about it and I didn’t even know where to start, so I Googled it – “How do you start a non-profit?” The first step was to start a corporation, which I did in 2010, and then it took a while to get the 501c3 status and all that.
“I just knew that this was what I was meant to do with my life, and so I just pulled the trigger and did it. I just jumped right in; it’s the only way to really do it.”
When we started, we started only rescuing from high-kill shelters in San Bernardino. San Bernardino City has some of the highest kill rates in the nation. Back then, it was all networked on Facebook and that’s how you would know. There would be volunteers that would go and take pictures of the dogs that were going to be euthanized, and then there’s all these threads of people saying, “Oh, I’ll rescue this dog.” Things got really crazy, where, listen… people that run rescues are crazy. There’s no doubt. I can say that; I’m one. Like, crazy. There’s some petty stuff that goes down, and I can’t tell you how many times me or my volunteers would show up to the shelter and another rescue would be there saying, “No, we’re taking that dog! You can’t rescue that dog.” And I’m like, “There’s 200 more that are going to be put down. I’ll go find another one.” Like, I can’t believe you are arguing with me over what dog to save. Luckily, a lot of rescues started helping at these shelters, so at that point, our attention turned down to the streets of Mexico, where there’s little to no rescue help. I’d say we’ve been in Mexico since 2015. We’ve never turned back since. It’s so dire down there, and there’s just not a lot of rescues at all willing to help because it’s a whole other ball game with Mexican street dogs. We still rescue locally because we’re partners with the Humane Society and we take owner surrenders as well. I think this week we’re taking six out of the Humane Society. So, we’re continually taking from the U.S., too, but our main focus is Mexico, both Tijuana and Ensenada.
What is the process like of rescuing dogs across the border, and how did you establish that connection?
We have a whole rescue network in Mexico. There’s a shelter down in Ensenada that we’re kind of absorbing. They’re still running it, but we’re really the only rescue that goes down there and actively takes dogs out. We provide them food; we paid for all the plumbing to be laid there and roofs to be put on the kennels. We do as much as we can for them but it is very financially straining on us. It’s a lot of work. We do like to go down there every six weeks or so, because we like to connect with the girl who runs it. Things are done very different down there and you really need face time with these people. I like to see the dogs myself and see the conditions. We also have a whole team that we pay to transport the dogs. We have a vet on the U.S. side in Eastlake. We specifically found one close to the border, so they immediately go there, get their vetting done, and then to the fosters.
What kinds of adversities do you face when you are bringing dogs across the border?
With Mexican street dogs, we deal with a whole other host of medical issues. Taking a dog out of a shelter, the shelter vets the dog for you – vaccines, microchip, spay and neuter. But with Mexican street dogs, we start from scratch and usually, we’re getting a mess of a dog. We’re dealing with tick-borne diseases, which most of them have. These are all easily treatable, but you’ve got to pay to test for them, and then you have to pay to treat them. There’s also giardia, which is like Montezuma’s revenge for dogs - they all have it, so we’ve got to do treatment for that. There’s canine STDs that many people aren't aware of, that we have to often deal with too. It's been quite the learning process for not only us, but our vets as well. We have to start from scratch with the vaccines, and it’s interesting because the U.S. Border Patrol doesn’t allow you to cross a dog that doesn’t have a rabies vaccine. However, the United States does not recognize the Mexican rabies vaccine as valid, but you need that vaccine to cross. It’s crazy.
We have to get them healthy before we can get them spay or neutered, which we will not do in Mexico. A lot of rescues that rescue from Mexico will do the vetting in Mexico; it’s an eighth of the price, so it’s very tempting. You can get a dog neutered down there for $25. Up here, it costs $125. So it’s a huge difference, but the amount of botched jobs that have been done down there that we have to fix either with an emergency room visit, or completely redo, I’m triple-paying, so it doesn’t make sense. We’ve learned the hard way that its not worth it. I’d rather pay the extra money and have it done right and have it done in America.
Logistics wise, we can’t really drive across a lot of donations because the Mexican border patrol has seized them before from volunteers. Because when you’re bringing down that much food, it looks like you’re going to resell it, and they want that import tax on it. So, it makes it difficult. What we do is we rent a van, go down to the Ensenada shelter and then go to the Smart & Final there and load up on food. It’s like the worst quality food – it’s better than nothing, but I would rather give them higher quality. We have a couple dog food companies that donate to us on a somewhat regular basis, and so we bring that down as much as we can.
Do you have an average timeline for dogs to get adopted, from when you pick them up in Mexico to when they’re being taken into their forever home?
Every dog is so different. Obviously puppies get adopted typically much faster than any other, but you’d be surprised. Some dogs, you just wouldn’t think, and all of a sudden they get fifteen adoption applications from the minute their adoption ads go up. We usually wait to post the adoption ads until they’re adoptable, but it’s usually a pretty quick process. I want to say, on average, we have a dog about a month. I’m hesitant to say that because every dog is different. We really do a really good job at hustling them for adoption. That is a huge focus of ours. We’re not just complacent and sit back. Whenever we have an application, within twenty-four hours, they have a response. We’re reviewing it. We’re setting up home checks, a foster meet-and-greet - we’re on it. We don’t want to hold onto them, because our fosters are gold. Obviously, we’re not just going to give the dog to anybody, but we’ve got to keep it going. There’s so many [other dogs waiting].
I’ve considered fostering in the past, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t want to get attached and be a “foster fail.” When it comes to fostering, is it as emotionally taxing as it seems? What do you want people like me to know?
Your first foster is always the hardest. You really have to go in with the right mindset, and as much as we tell people, and as much as you tell yourself not to get attached, it’s inevitable. You’re going to get attached. Especially to our dogs, because they’re Mexican street dogs and they’re typically not in the best condition and you watch them blossom in your care and it’s like, “Oh, my God, I can’t give him up.” But we make our fosters a big part of our adoption process. Our fosters meet with the potential adopters, and their feedback is the most important to us. A lot of rescues, I think, don’t have the fosters as involved in the adoption process as we do, and that makes it a lot easier for our fosters. With the first one, there’s always tears, but when they know he/she is going to an amazing home, it’s different. So many of our adopted dogs have their own Instagram pages now, so that makes our fosters feel so much better because they get to follow them and really be a part of it. We also have a very large portion of fosters who “foster fail!” It’s the best thing you want to fail at… if you promise to keep fostering. We are a foster-based rescue, so people send us dozens of pictures a day of dogs on the streets; I can’t do anything if I don’t have a foster. When my foster fails, if they don’t continue to foster, I’ve lost that foster. And to me, fosters are more valuable than anything because we’re foster-based. The fosters are the heroes of rescue because we can’t do anything without them. Ultimately, our goal is to have a sanctuary, but I actually enjoy being foster-based because we get to know the dogs 10x better. We know their quirks, we know their personalities. So many of our fosters have cats, so I know right away - “Oh, this dog would be a great candidate for you because he’s cat friendly,” or, “This foster has two babies, so I know that he’s kid-friendly.” You don’t know that in the shelter environment.
And you get that higher success rate where these dogs aren’t being returned, because they know exactly what they’re getting since you know the dogs so well.
Exactly. We screen our adopters, of course, but we aren’t like the other rescues that, you know, want your fingerprints and an FBI background check. Like I said, I’ve been rejected myself from adopting in the past, and I always said, “We will never be that way.” We aren’t just going to give a dog to anybody and we thoroughly screen our adopters and fosters, but we’re also not going to make it nearly impossible to adopt, which it seems many rescues do.
You really cultivate a family environment with everyone involved in TAP – from the fosters, to adopters, to the volunteers. When people get involved, they learn that there’s a lot more to rescue than people think, or what they typically see.
TAP is undoubtedly a family. We actually have a “TAP FAM” meetup once a month where all of our volunteers, fosters, adopters get together, grab a drink, and schmooze. It’s a lot of fun and has really helped us establish a community. We all spend so much of our days interacting with each other - more so than we do with our own families! We truly have the best team around and it’s crucial to me that everyone enjoys being a part of it. It’s emotional work on both ends of the spectrum so we try and keep it entertaining. For example, we will never do those adoption events where we’re standing in front of a Petco holding leashes. We do really fun events because I don’t want to go to an event where I have to sit there and hold a leash. We want it to be fun, we want rescue to be enjoyable for all involved. It helps give a good name to rescue. I love it when people come or see our events and say, “Oh, my God, that dog is a rescue?” Sure is.
And you can get puppies when you rescue; we got ours when they were only the size of a dollar. Rescues aren’t just a luck of the draw type of thing.
You can get any breed you want in a rescue, any size, any age. I always say, “We’ll custom-rescue for you. You tell me the age, sex, size, whatever you want, I’ll find it for you.” People don’t realize that; they think they have to go to a breeder. There are breed-specific rescues for every breed on the planet. If they have their heart set on an English bulldog, there’s a million English bulldog rescues, and you can get a puppy. There are rescue puppies available. For example, we have two mom dogs in our rescue currently that both gave birth while in our care. These are brand-new puppies. We know everything about them, and as soon as they’re old enough to get vetted and be away from Mom, they can get adopted out. That happens a lot in rescue, where you rescue a pregnant mom, especially from Mexico, because they’re just all out on the street pro-creating with each other because nobody spays and neuters down there.
You can get what you want in a rescue. People just need to know, and they also need to know that with a lot of this breeding, it’s inbred. The mom’s breeding with the son, and there’s all these genetic issues that they have. In mixed breeds, or any mutts, vets will tell you they’re in the vet the least amount because you breed all that stuff out of them. It’s education.
“I think what stops people from wanting to rescue is that they think that when they get a rescue dog, they’re going to be damaged. It’s important that people understand that you’re not getting a messed-up pup just because they come from rescue.”
If anything, you hear how much more grateful they are. My favorite adopters are the ones that have only gone to breeders and then they adopt their first rescue dog from us, and then they’re hooked for life. And that’s it. They’re like, “I cannot believe it. This is the best dog I’ve ever had,” and it’s because they’re grateful and they’re eager to please. When they come from the street to you, a lot of times they become Velcro dogs because they stick to your side like Velcro because you’re their everything; you’re their world. You’re not getting a damaged dog.
What can people do to help?
—> Foster a dog
Also, spay and neuter your dog! It goes so beyond just that one dog. It’s just so important. You are making potty-training easier, and a lot of diseases get ruled out the minute that you spay or neuter, which is obviously a huge benefit, but ultimately just not having a huge over-population, too. And we take care of it! You don’t even have to pay for it when you rescue. You pay the adoption fee and it includes everything from all rounds of vaccines, to microchip. If I spend $5000 on a dog’s surgery, you are still only paying the adoption fee. Our average adoption fee is around $200. That’s where the fundraising comes in, because I don’t want to be that rescue that charges $600 for a dog. That’s encouraging people to go to a breeder because if they don’t know any better, they think, “Well, maybe I’ll go to a rescue because it will be cheaper.” If you’re going to hit them with some crazy adoption fee, you’re going to discourage them. Granted, you’ve got to stay afloat. This is a business. At the end of the day, you have to run it like a business, and that’s what I think we do a little differently, is that we really do run it like a business. Because we take a loss on just about every dog, these fundraisers are hugely important. It’s the only way that we can survive.
And you juggle your philanthropy with a full-time career as well. How do you balance everything?
For me personally, because I’m a real estate broker, I have a bit more flexibility with my day-to-day schedule, but it’s also… I work longer hours. I work crazier hours. I’ve got my two big passions, which are this rescue, obviously, and dogs in general, and Israel. I sit on the board of Friends of the IDF (FIDF) which is a non profit that helps Israel’s soldiers, and I lead up their whole young leadership program, too. There’s a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like work because you’re doing what you love, and you’re making a difference. Don’t get me wrong – some days are hard. We just came out of probably the toughest four to six weeks we’ve had since we started TAP. We did a twenty-dog rescue from Ensenada; some of them were incredibly ill. It was so emotionally taxing on everybody. But at the end of the day, this is not me doing this. This is our team. Everybody is a volunteer at the Animal Pad. Nobody’s paid, which is very, I think unique, for our rescue because a lot of rescues do have at least one paid staff member. We have got the most beautiful, wonderful, dedicated team you’ve ever seen. They’re so selfless, and they dedicate so much of their heart and their soul every day. They’re working 9-to-5’s, too. They’re sneaking in the bathroom to answer a foster, or to write an email for the rescue. I mean, how cool is that? Here’s where I’m going to get emotional, as I do every time I talk about our Team. I feel so fortunate to have the team that we have… there’s no better team on the planet. Truly. It’s not just me; it’s them. They do the crazy work. I think it’s really amazing to see everyone come into their own, and see them take ownership, because it is our rescue. It’s tough to balance, and that’s what I am always preaching to them, too. Do not burn out. Do not take on too much. It’s okay. There are so many other members of the team; we can all jump in. That’s how it is with all of us, and that’s where the balance is. It’s not just work. It’s a passion; it’s a family. We don’t want let each other down, we ultimately don’t want to let the dogs down. We have found a really good balance with that.
One thing everyone should know how to do:
Find your passion. You don’t even need to volunteer hours and hours of your time. We would love that, but something as simple as spreading awareness about a cause that you’re excited about, or sitting and learning from people what they’re passionate about. Perhaps it’ll ignite something in you. I think a lot of people, not that they’re not passionate, but they don’t have that yet. They don’t know what it is; they haven’t found what it is, and I think that’s what’s so cool with The Animal Pad is that I’ve seen a lot of people find their passion and purpose through us. We have people who started volunteering with us for community service reasons. Then, they’re with us for life because they realized how passionate they were about this and it changes their life. Find your passion, and it’ll change your life.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m typically up at 6 every morning. I have three cups of coffee – I know that’s insane. I drink my coffee while I’m trying to get ahead of my emails for the day, so I answer all the emails that I didn’t answer from the night before – because they come in all night – and that’s something that I’ve taught myself. When I first started rescue and when I first started real estate, if somebody would email me at 11 o’clock at night and I was lying in bed, I would answer them immediately. But then I learned the hard way that that’s just not feasible, and I conditioned myself: “OK, after 10PM, if it’s not urgent, I’m not going to answer it. I’m going to give myself at least that few hours of downtime.” I get ahead of my emails, then I go to Barry’s Bootcamp, every morning. I cannot survive without that. I need that outlet to make me feel more balanced and to get out that energy and the stress and frustrations. Then, I come back, get dressed, do my whole thing, and then appointments. It’s just usually back to back to back. My weekends are typically my busiest, because that’s when clients can see property, and that’s when rescue events are happening. It just depends. Tonight, I have Hebrew class at 7, because I clearly need something else to take on, so I’m also learning Hebrew, too. I’ll get home at 9 o’clock, then eat dinner, and then go to bed. I’m usually in bed by eleven. I don’t sleep a lot. Then, everything [again] the next day. It’s a lot, but I love it. In the days that I am slow, I feel sluggish. I feel not right. Keeping yourself busy is so important.
What is one quality you contribute to your success, or learned through your unique experience?
My passion. I won’t do anything I’m not passionate about. Even with real estate, I specialize in VA because I’m super passionate about our military. A lot of realtors don’t want to touch military; it’s hard. But that’s where my heart is. That, and first-time home buyers. Giving them the keys where they’re crying, and then I’m crying… I have to do something that I feel good about, and that’s what I feel good about. I feel good just being enthusiastic and following my passion. I feel very lucky that I get to follow my dreams. Having leadership skills is super important, too, because you’ve got to manage. I manage a lot of people, a lot of teams, not just for the rescue, but elsewhere. If you’re not a leader and you’re not confident in yourself and what you’re doing and what you’re saying, nobody is going to believe you and nobody is going to work with you. You’ve got to be on all the time. You’ve got to be in charge all of the time. That’s what’s tough, too, but it’s just my personality. I am just always on and motivated because I get to do this. I feel like many people don’t get to say that.
“It’s a fortunate feeling to be able to live your passion, and so many people die without getting to experience it or living their passion. I feel very, very lucky. Doing everything with passion is so important. People feel it. It’s contagious. It’s absolutely contagious.”
the quick fix:
I can’t go a day without… Barry’s Bootcamp.
Everyone should… watch [The Adventures of] Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s like the original drag queen movie, and it touches on struggles, but it’s also so inspiring and so much fun. It’s the only movie I can watch on repeat and have since I was a kid. That and, listen to Cher. I think it’s important that everybody has a little bit of Cher in their life.
Life is better with a little… for me, a little filler, a little Botox. A good weave and Lucite heels. I’m quasi-drag queen, and that’s the joke in the rescue. I think that’s what makes us, us. I know it sounds so superficial, but it’s my truth. Look at Cher! Just trying to be Mother Cher :)
Everyone in their 20’s should… enjoy every second. When they’re gone, they’re gone. I remember when I was in my 20’s, you want to be older for some reason. Everyone tells you, “You’ve gotta get it together.” Just enjoy life. I mean, don’t be a mess. But try not to grow up too fast. Go have fun. Because I swear, when you hit thirty, everything changes. It’s real life. It’s easy to make things look a certain way. I mean, hello social media. Everything looks like rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not really that way. They’re usually the saddest people, the ones who appear the happiest and in your 20’s, everyone is so impressionable. But it’s hard to explain that to someone who thinks they know it all, and typically in your twenties, you think you know it all. Enjoy life, for you. Enjoy every single second.
One insider thing to do in Hillcrest… day drink and brunch on Sundays at the gay bars. It’s always so uplifting and happy and fun. The best energy, and most of my friends are gay men, so my happy place is being with them and laughing until we cry. For people who don’t know Hillcrest, if you really want a good drink, and you want a strong drink, you go to a gay bar. That’s probably universal, anywhere, but the strongest drinks come out of Mo’s and Baja Betty’s. You have one and you’re done. It’s cost-effective.
What the world needs right now is… to calm down. Simmer a little bit, because the world is crazy right now. It’s insane. We need to slow down, calm down, enjoy life. We’ve got one. One life to live, and I don’t think people really understand that.
One way to spread love… give back in some way. It doesn’t need to be money. It doesn’t even need to be a large amount of time. Even by, I tell people and I tell my friends, when we post something from The Animal Pad, please share it. One share, you have no idea how far that can reach. That takes a millisecond. Just little things – effort. So, when rescues or these causes are begging you to share, there’s a reason. It’s a far, far reach.