San Juan to St. Louis
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1995:
ST. LOUIS––”If I was a lost, sick, hungry stray
cat or dog,” says Pet Search volunteer Judith Riddell
Messimer, “Alice Dodge is the face I’d most want to see.”
The 100-odd cats and two dozen dogs in Dodge’s
care at any given time might agree. Messimer was so con-
vinced just from her experience in adopting one kitten that
she traded in an economical Ford Escort for “an $18,000
Jeep PetTaxi,” as she recalls, to be of maximum use in
“spending my Sundays shuttling animals from rural Missouri
to St. Louis and interviewing potential owners.”
But 11 years ago, Dodge couldn’t even stand to
see her own face in the mirror.
“Alice’s son was killed when the vehicle she was
driving was hit broadside,” Messimer explains. “Kenny,
who was five, had removed his seatbelt to climb over the
seat. The impact threw open the passenger door, and Kenny
fell out. His head injuries killed him, but not before Alice
had to see him struggling to survive for days in the hospital.
The guilt and grief nearly killed her.”
“I have five other children,” Dodge remembers,
“but I couldn’t think of anything else. When Kenny passed
away, I was going to kill myself. I’d collected drugs at the
hospital and I was going to take them all, but they caught me
and put me in the psychiatric ward.” After that she tried to
destroy herself through binge eating.
Animal work became her recovery therapy. Dodge
had always done some animal rescue, having already adopt-
ed as her own pets strays she found in Yugoslavia, France,
Luxembourg, Jamaica, Mexico, Columbia, and the
Bahamas. The accident happened as Dodge was attempting
to deliver antibiotics to an elderly woman with an ailing pet.
Because Kenny had shared Dodge’s love for animals, inten-
sifying her rescue work helped her feel as if he was still with
her. She volunteered for a time with Citizens for a Humane
St. Louis, a low-cost neutering program. Then, in June
1986, stray dogs killed two antelope at the St. Louis Zoo,
which occupies a 64-acre corner of Forest Park––the biggest
green space in St. Louis and a longtime dumping ground for
pets abandoned by people who preferred “giving them a
chance” to leaving them at the Humane Society of Missouri.
Just two blocks away, HSM then took in about 50,000 dogs
and cats a year––and euthanized more than 40,000. (Both
HSM intake and euthanasia numbers have since fallen 60%.)
Irate zookeepers began shooting stray dogs. Julie
Olivastro and Mike Cummins of Olivette, a nearby bedroom
suburb, intervened by cutting a deal with St. Louis health
commissioner William Hope to remove, neuter, and adopt
the dogs out instead. Dodge and her husband Kenneth volun-
teered their nine-acre farm in Glencoe as a temporary holding
site. Dodge next formed PetSearch to help look after and
place the dogs, joined by volunteers Sally Frien, Frieda
Modlin, Hilda Olsen, Michelle Janson, and Angie Jones.
Adoption help came from the local Pets N Stuff store. While
Frien and Jones are no longer with the group, Messimer and
Cheryl Jackson pick up the slack.
As word got around that animals left at Forest Park
were indeed getting a chance, drop-offs increased. Dodge
built her own 700-square-foot, three-room cat condominium
to accommodate the feline arrivals. When the Forest Park
situation was finally brought under control, the Pet Search
team began neutering and placing animals redeemed from St.
Louis area shelters. Finally, having developed the ability to
adopt out more than 1,000 neutered animals per year, Dodge
began bringing even more animals back with her on frequent
trips to the Caribbean––a longtime personal concern of hers.
In March of this year, a PETA alert charged that,
“The situation for the animals of Puerto Rico has reached a
critical stage. Disease runs rampant among the animals of
the Ponce Animal Shelter, with dogs slowly dying of parvo
in the runs, while on the streets of the island animals roam,
like walking skeletons, in a world with little help.” The alert
urged members to ask Puerto Rican governor Pedro Rosello
to, “Please institute a program of animal control across the
island, and to work with the Animal Protection Federation of
Puerto Rico to open professionally run, humane animal shel-
ters to serve every community.”
Dodge welcomed the notice, but the situation was
old news to her.
“When Alice vacations,” Messimer explains, “she
always fills her suitcases with pet food. This year she took
five cases of canned food, four cases of kitten milk, a case
of Nutrical, and as many boxes of Tender Vittles as she
could stuff into her husband’s suitcase. Her object is to feed
as many homeless animals as possible. She also packs carri-
ers so she can bring a few of them back.”
The Caribbean rescues came to the attention of
local authorities in March 1989. Dodge had picked up a cat
and 12 kittens in Barbadoes, bribing a cruise ship steward
with $100 to help her hide them. She added three more kit-
tens in Bequia, plus two cats, nine kittens, and a pair of
injured puppies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, smuggling 21 of
the 29 animals because she had only four traveling kennels
and airlines customarily accept only two animals per kennel.
Two kittens disappeared in transit. They turned up alive and
well in Los Angeles, hiding in the aircraft cargo bay, but
not before the case hit the newspapers. Animal Protective
Association executive director Nancy Grove wondered why
Dodge felt the need to import homeless animals when there
was no local shortage. St. Louis County animal control chief
Dan Knox wondered what diseases the imports might bring.
Dodge, however, has always provided all neces-
sary vaccinations and guaranteed follow-up medical care to
adopters. The program grew: eventually Dodge brought
back 36 animals on a single trip.
“I don’t bring back any kittens during kitten sea-
son,” Dodge stipulates. “I bring them back in the winter,
when there are no kittens to be had in our local shelters. And
I don’t bring back medium-or-large-sized dogs, the kind
shelters are killing because nobody claims them. I bring back
only animals who have good adoption prospects in the U.S.,
but who would be killed where they come from.”
By offering people the animals they want, Dodge
maintains, she puts breeders out of business. By insuring
that every animal is neutered before leaving her custody, she
prevents the pet births in St. Louis that would result if her
adopters were instead getting intact animals from breeders.
The once informal imports have matured into a
partnership with Martha Lopez and Emilio Massas of
Protectores de Animales Regionale y Estatl, a Puerto Rican
humane society formed after the dissolution several years ago
of the Puerto Rican Animal Rescue League.
“People in Puerto Rico have grown up seeing dis-
eased and starving animals wandering the streets,”
Messimer says. “They do not believe it is wrong to turn ani-
mals out into the street because they no longer want them.
The politicians say this is part of the culture. Emilio dis-
agrees. Emilio is a big, bearded, kind-hearted man who,
on the days when he is the only one doing work at the shel-
ter, allows himself a drink of water only after every animal
has been fed and watered.”
PARE provides the full range of humane services,
including low-cost neutering and animal control, but
because animals are plentiful at large, the shelter adoption
rate is low. “Unfortunately, PARE only found homes for
113 animals last year,” Messimer continues. Pet Search
took another 60, and hopes to place 200 for PARE this year.
“Although the shelter is full of tiny, cute animals
who would be very adoptable here, such as poodle, terrier,
and chihuahua mixes,” Messimer adds, “these are apparent-
ly not sought after in Puerto Rico. Pet Search always gets
requests for small dogs, and we never have enough.”
In 1994, Pet Search adopted out 3,700 animals,
according to Dodge: 2,000 via PetsMart stores, the rest by
other means. The Puerto Rican project is just one of many
underway. The Pet Search volunteers are actively assisting
Martha’s Place, a no-kill shelter in Bon Terre, Missouri,
owned and operated by Mabel Wood, 70. The survival of
the shelter was recently jeopardized by a change in Ralston-
Purina policy: instead of donating broken sacks of dog food
to local shelters, including Martha’s Place, Ralston-Purina
now sells them to a hog food producer. Since 1991 Pet
Search has also hosted annual spay-a-thons, featuring vet-
erinarians Kurt Laves, Frank Levinson, and Scott Nieberg.
Pet Search may be contacted for further informa-
tion at 1553 Pond Road, Glencoe, MO 63038.