Emmylou Harris Calls Her Work With Shelter Animals a ‘Sacred Responsibility’
Emmylou Harris is not only one of the most-respected musicians of her generation, she is also a very passionate advocate for animals. Her work on behalf of homeless animals is highlighted in the PBS program, Shelter Me: Partners for Life.
The show celebrates shelter pets with uplifting stories. Hosted by Emmy winner Jon Hamm, the new episode documents Harris' work with a Nashville-based shelter called Bonaparte's Retreat, which she founded 10 years ago. She named the shelter after her own dearly departed road companion, who traveled with her on her tour bus for years.
"I had not really had a personal dog since I was, gosh, maybe 17 or 18," Harris tells Taste of Country. "I'd been on the road working, and once I settled in Nashville I got a little Cairn Terrier for my daughter, who had turned 12 or 13, and then I thought, 'Well, he needs a companion,' so I adopted Bonaparte, and he just turned out to be a great traveler."
She adds, "It was like he was born to ride. It was so great having that company ... when you're on the road, you come back from a show and he's always happy to see you, and you can get out of the hotel room and take him on a walk. It just makes life a little fuller and more eventful, and somehow more human in a strange sort of way."
Bonaparte passed away suddenly at age 11, and his death inspired Harris to convert part of her property into a shelter. "I had no idea what I was getting into," she says with a laugh. "I had no idea what I was doing. I actually had some help and advice from Kinky Friedman, who has a dog rescue down in Texas. He put me in touch with the people that run his shelter, told me about the fencing I should use, how much space between the dog runs ... I mean, I didn't have any clue what I was doing."
Harris has grown Bonaparte's Retreat into one of the most-respected shelters in Music City. As documented in Shelter Me: Partners for Life, it became the first in the Nashville area to reach out directly to Metro Animal Care and Control, in an effort to curb the extremely high euthanasia rates among their animals. As a result, euthanasia rates have declined dramatically.
"Metro Animal Control, by law, has to take in any stray animal, or any animal that an owner wants to turn in, so they're overwhelmed by their intake rate," she explains. "I felt that there was more urgency to work with those animals who had a short period of time before they would be euthanized." Bonaparte's Retreat takes dogs from MACC and gets them adopted, working with the animals who are at the most immediate risk.
As long as one dog or cat is euthanized just for the lack of a person to take them into either a foster situation, or to adopt, that's too many.
"That's improved a lot, because now Metro is partnering with, I think it's at least three dozen local shelters around the community, so that most of the dogs are able to be farmed out to these safe places, no-kill shelters," Harris says. "But the euthanasia rate is still too high. I do believe that as long as one dog or cat is euthanized just for the lack of a person to take them into either a foster situation, or to adopt, that's too many."
Harris is also involved with Crossroads Campus, which pairs local at-risk youth with foster animals. Funded partly through a retail space, the organization provides animal training, as well as valuable job skills and experience for young people who have been placed in the foster system. Shelter Me: Partners for Life shares the story of one young man named Cortez, who turned his life around with help from Crossroads after a drug arrest, and is now attending community college with the goal of opening a similar venture of his own.
"Crossroads is an example for any community," Harris states. "Any community around the country has young people who are in danger of becoming homeless. I think it's a national statistic that one in four young people who age out of the foster system becomes homeless in this country, and every community has a homeless companion animal problem. So you take it, and instead of it being a problem, it becomes something positive and nurturing in a community. These young people have a chance to make a difference in the lives of these animals, as well as getting experience in retail and dog grooming and animal care, and also the positive reinforcement that they are doing something to engage in another life. I think this is something that will affect their lives in a good way on into their adult lives."
Companion animals really enrich our lives. They require so little, and they give back so much.
Harris is hopeful that the PBS program will have a positive impact, too. "That people would understand the enormity of the problem, how many healthy animals are put down," she says. "That spaying and neutering is so essential if you have a pet, and possibly the consideration to open your home as a foster would enormously cut down on the number of homeless animals that are put down ... I just believe that companion animals really enrich our lives. They require so little, and they give back so much. I believe that we have almost a sacred responsibility to treat them humanely and give them a chance at a good life."
Shelter Me: Partners for Life begins airing on PBS stations nationwide on Oct. 1. Check local listings for times, and visit this link for more information about the program.
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