When did you begin to have an affinity towards animals?
I always have - especially animals that were broken. For example, if there was a bird and a broken bird, I would always go to the broken bird, if that makes sense. Like a baby bird who had fallen out of the nest - I’d just always help. All my life.
Would you tell us a little about your history and path to becoming involved in animal rescue?
I started off rescuing animals in Baltimore, MD (where I’m from), finding animals on the street, really anywhere I went, it seemed I’d happen upon animals that were lost or injured or needed my help in some way. Then I went to Florida, then Montana - where I became more involved with animal rights activism - as there was a lack of that in Montana at the time. I was vegan, and I began to wonder why there wasn’t more of a correlation between the animals we rescue - like cats and dogs, and the animals that we ingest, that suffer to become food. I never really ate animals, I always rescued them, and that concept began to marinate in my brain a little more about the injustice, and other things that didn’t make sense. It just seemed like common sense to me to not eat them. I made my way to Seattle and then on to San Diego around 2003, where it all blossomed in that realm.
When I first moved to San Diego, I stumbled upon some people who were doing spay/neuter in Mexico. I started going down with them every weekend for clinics and it was super rewarding helping the street dogs there. I just fell in love with the work and found myself more and more involved, learning every aspect of it. It was all so fascinating to learn and to see the need and the love behind it, the community, I just fell in love with it as a whole. I became really passionate and wanted to do more. We were doing a clinic in Tijuana at the fire station and I looked across the street and saw a dog that had passed away. I was afraid that on the busy street that other dogs would try and cross the street and investigate and I didn’t want anyone to be hit by a car, so I went to pick up the body and lo and behold he got up! He started stumbling away and I caught up to him and was able to pick him up and I knew he needed our help. I got him over to one of our vets who quarantined him and worked with him, and I got a call once I was back in the States telling me they had “my” dog and were crossing the border with him! And I was so confused, like, I wanted you to help him and put him back living where he was used to. But that’s not how it happened, and so then he came to California and that’s how “the Blind Rabbi” came to me.
Long story short, he changed my life. He enhanced my passion for it all. I knew that it had to go beyond Mexico, that something else must be out there. Then someone turned me on to Animal Balance! That night, I applied to a campaign in the Galápagos.
Then you came to the Galápagos with Animal Balance for the first time in, what was that, 2005?
Yes, and it was so amazing that I kept doing campaigns… and I may have also purposely missed my flight home to stay there and keep an eye on a special dog - Benji. He was on Santa Cruz and I was on San Cristobal, so I went back and found him and hung out with him during the day, and found a shopkeeper and her son who agreed to take care of him once I left. I couldn’t leave until I had found him a safe place to stay. Thank you for that opportunity! That made me realize that this was such an amazing organization bringing together people from all over the world doing such incredible things for the communities and the animals. I was just hoping you’d let me stick around then, and look at us now!
So then in 2007, you came to the Dominican Republic with us?
Yes, the Dominican always reminds me of canned tofu and peanut butter. Ha! I learned a lot about being vegan in the DR. I remember us going to people’s houses, and it was amazing! They were all beautiful, it was so educational - the level of kindness and compassion and gratitude that these beautiful humans had was incredible because AB was sterilizing their animals. It made me realize that literally anything and everything is possible. You can be so happy and not have all the “stuff” we have in the States. I loved learning about their culture and they were all so generous and kind.
Carla, you were one of the only ones who could walk behind the person's house with the slip lead, with the dogs going nuts and barking at the end of the leash, but you’d stay with them, gain their trust and confidence, and walk out with them. The dogs just trusted you, even when people did not think you’d be able to handle their dog, there you were, with this “fractious” dog, walking on a slip lead! Incredible stuff.
There was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of laughter, and so much beauty. It was very humbling to be able to communicate with an animal with just patience and not force, as a lot of these were animals who weren’t accustomed to a lot of human interaction and lived out behind the homes instead of in them. So we needed to gain the humans' trust and the animals trust, and also it gave us a chance to show the humans a different side of their animals. They would come into the clinic and their dog would be there on a leash, and it just changed the way they saw their companion animals. So many things happened within each home, with each animal, just by us providing a little assistance and changing the quality of life for the dog and the humans.
Was there something about a whale?
Ha! Yes, if I had a bucket list it would read as follows: Go to the Galápagos (check!), and to “swim” with a whale, but due to an incident that happened, I will now edit that to “paddleboard near a whale with no one else around". So we were in a tiny boat and there were whales passing and I just wanted to jump in, so I tried to do just that. (Emma: at this point, we are 15 people on a fishing boat with an outboard motor on the back with no life jackets, we can barely see land, and there are beautiful, enormous creatures coming out of the water). I remember it being deep, dark water, and they warned me about sharks, and I went to jump, and then someone yanked me back in the boat, and it was Emma, destroying my dream! It was an incredible moment, and now I know why I shouldn’t do that with more than one second of thought behind it.
Yes, it is my job to keep everyone safe! What happened after the Dominican?
Samoa. In Samoa and American Samoa, there were a lot of wild dogs at the airport. Their clinic went from a place for animals to be killed to a spay/neuter clinic. I also learned that putting acepromazine in a treat can take a really long time to kick in. I found that out the hard way. But there were just so many animals that needed us. There was a basset hound with a fish hook in his lip and it had just been in there forever, and we were able to help him. Just being able to help animals beyond just spay/neuter, so many animals that needed our help and being able to do that for them. Then, of course, there was a tsunami warning. It wouldn’t be an AB campaign without some serious Mother Nature coming through! We were camping on the beach and an alarm went off, we grabbed our passports and went to a kind woman’s house in the Highlands, and then realized the dogs were still at the clinic! So we went back down and opened up all the doors thinking the dogs would just run free. And they just sat there! So we got them out and put them in the van and brought them back to that same woman’s house and they stayed the night with us. Luckily, the tsunami fizzled out and didn’t end up turning into anything. Never a dull moment!
Then Operation Potcake in the Bahamas?
Yes, I think you and I went out to do the feasibility study and we met Consie! We created a coalition and the campaign was approved so we went back 6 months later with 200 people running 5 clinics simultaneously for 2 weeks. Operation Potcake was born! Oh, the Bahamas! It was so hot. The dogs there were wild in packs, so sterilizing them was a whole different approach. In communities, people would bring their dogs to clinics, but in the Bahamas, one of my roles was going out into the field with Consie to learn how to humanely trap the dogs. That was a whole new experience for me, and it’s just constant learning. Oh, and Little Bitty! There’s always one dog, and Little Bitty was so busted that just had to help. I told Dr. Raymond that we needed to do more for this dog and she would not be okay to just go back to the streets without further rehabilitation. She didn’t have a home, so she stayed at the clinic while we nursed her back to health. After we left, one of the volunteers promised they’d take care of her and find her a home. Little Bitty made her way to Texas and made a total transformation from this wounded, scared baby to a happy, beautiful Potcake, and I still get updates every so often. She is loved madly and spoiled rotten and healthy and happy. She changed so many lives from the day she was found to her new home in the States, and now she’s even on social media!
Would you share the story of Haiti?
I think we went for a feasibility study and some training with the local vets. It was a year after the earthquake and everything was still in turmoil. It was the first time that I thought “the animals need us, but the people need us more”. Everywhere you looked, you saw sorrow. We were quarantined for a bit and we couldn’t go out, it was 120 degrees, and we didn’t know what to do with ourselves so we hung out on the rooftop and just watched everything. There was so much injustice happening there - just so much going wrong. It was truly awful. They took our sedatives and pain meds to help the women giving birth, so we couldn’t even do the surgeries we intended to do. It was one of the most frightening times that we have gone through together. It is still really hard to talk about. The free-roaming animals were okay but the people were not okay. So much exploitation.
Whew, sorry that was a big one. Thank you for talking about that, I know it’s tough. What happened after that? Is that when Animal Synergy was created?
Yes, you and Byron told me that I had to start it. You both knew I was always finding medically compromised animals. It all began with “The Golden Nugget”. I asked if I could take him and provide him with end of life care. Long story short, they told me he might have two weeks left. I took him down to Mexico and we put him on Prednisone, and Nugget lived 7 more months and completely changed my life. Very shortly after Nugget, I started Synergy Animal Hospice. There was an NGO in Bend that was being dissolved and I was in Baltimore visiting my dad, who was sick at the time, and he told me “do what you fear the most, and it will become your greatest asset”. So I said okay, and it began! I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you and Byron.
Tell us about Animal Synergy, and the magic you’ve created.
Okay, well, you, Byron, Nugget, and my dad were the catalysts for this project. My dad was about to pass away and I wanted him to see us transform the world, or at least see Animal Synergy’s inception. That was about 6 years ago. Our specialties were super seniors, special needs, and terminally ill animals who have run out of time - a last resort rescue. Our goal was to restore these animals' souls for whatever time they had left and provide them great medical care in the process. We did it completely through fundraising, which is still incredible to me. People truly care. It showed people it doesn’t need to be a sad thing, it transformed the way people think about these animals in that it can be beautiful and they are our teachers. We are their voice - the forgotten animals in our shelter system. We don’t want people to pity these animals, but we want to celebrate them and their lives. We want to take care of their medical stuff, but then we also want to heal their shattered souls and see who they’ve always been meant to be if only for a few weeks, you know? We are foster-based and these animals transform the people who help them. They always have great, long names too. Like “Thor - He’s blind, He’s 22, and He Probably Won’t Like You”. Then there was “AmazeBob”, “Doggonit Doris Delores”, “Old Man Red”, “Yessley Wesley the Mermicorn (a quadriplegic)” and “Really, Literally, I Have No Bottom Jaw”. And we are lucky enough to do this whole thing through social media and fundraising, and a great foster network.
What would you tell someone now, after 6 years of running an NGO?
You just have to work hard and believe, and you have to tell these stories. You will create magic, but you can’t stop! It’s hard, and there’s a reason that not everybody does this. You cannot stop believing, even when it feels overwhelming, or sad - it’s magical, it’s transforming lives - and that will lead you to success. Don’t ever forget why you’re doing this. There’s so much beauty that’s been done and is being done.
To foster the type of animals you’re talking about, it requires a different kind of commitment. Didn’t you develop a unique fostering system?
Well, yes, we have to make sure that the fosters that step up for these animals don’t feel alone. You’re creating a community, and empowering the humans. That human becomes part of the Animal Synergy family, and because of that all of this, education is shared in the community. For example, there was “Yessley Wesley”. With Wesley, we created a foster cluster rotation, which basically means that there are 3 families involved, and you don’t want them to get overwhelmed or burnt out and be sure that they are taking self-care time as well. So the 3 families take 2-4 weeks at a time, and it’s cyclical, so as long as it doesn’t stress the animals out, they’d stay with one, then another, et cetera. Whatever works with everyone’s schedules - they figure it all out together. We provide the medical care, and the guidance, but we also empower them to work together (the families). That builds its own community centered around each dog, but then it also becomes about the humans as well. Wesley actually ended up being adopted and moved to Hawai’i, where he spent his final years being loved madly. We nurse them back to health as best we can, but the ones who we know will flourish, we actually adopt them out. We act as a really good condo, or starting point, for these busted love nuggets, and we find them the Penthouses of life when they move on from us where they will be part of those homes and our community forever. Part of our agreement is that the adopters will share their stories and that they aren’t just forgotten about - and that’s how we change the world!
Quite the opposite of when it began, isn’t it?
Yes, we went to a conference about end of life care, and it seemed like everyone was in it for the business - it was not people looking for tools to provide animals in their final stages of life the best possible care. It was not compassion-based, it was simply business. It was shocking to me.
I remember a well-respected vet got up and spoke about how euthanasia was a really important tool. She said, “putting animals to sleep was in their best interest”, and we got up and left.
It really showed what direction Animal Synergy was going to go - and it wasn’t that one! If we can make sure they don’t suffer and aren’t in pain, we can promise them that level of care at that time in their lives.
What would you say to say, a teenager, about living in this world today?
You need to love madly and be the change. Celebrate life - the animals, the humans, and be kind! And if you see injustice anywhere, do something, and don’t turn a blind eye to suffering. And have fun!
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yes, unicorns have always fascinated me because they are cute, imaginary, elusive…and they also have a point.
Thank you so much, Carla, for this wonderful interview - and your dad is so very proud of you!