Dog’s Best Friend

Stray pooches find happy homes, thanks to Albertan Sylvia Christiansen and her SCARS volunteers.

The white shepherd-mix was just about the shyest dog she had ever encountered, but Sylvia Christiansen knew she had to coax the stray into her grasp. One of its puppies was injured and five others were huddled under a trailer home, at risk of being hit by a car, shot as strays or killed by disease.

Hearing about the dog from a friend, Christiansen and her roommate, Jan Pysyk, spent seven hours one summer day in 1998 luring her out with kibble and cold cuts. Once they had her, the women collected the two-month-old pups as they sought out their mother.

Christiansen decided to keep the mother, whom she named Winny, and to find homes for the puppies. That was the beginning of Christiansen’s pet-rescue mission, which started in her backyard, spread to family and friends, then grew to include a string of foster homes.

Now, ten years later, the Second Chance Animal Rescue Society (SCARS), a registered charity based in Athabasca, Alta., has placed more than 1,800 animals in loving homes.
Nourished with $3,000 in seed money from the County of Athabasca, the current SCARS setup runs entirely on donations, any sponsorships it can scrounge, $25 memberships and-its most successful fundraiser-an annual casino night. No one is paid, though foster families do receive dog food for their canine lodgers, which is financed through the $250 adoption fees.

Christiansen, the busiest foster mom in the SCARS network of 53 foster homes, rises at 6 a.m. daily to feed the 25 to 35 dogs housed in tidy indoor and outdoor runs in the field behind her home. Then she leaves for her full-time job as an administrative assistant for the Athabasca recreation department. At night, she changes blankets, cleans dishes, feeds and walks the dogs.

And each week, Christiansen collects dogs from a pound, where standard procedure is to put strays down after three days. Wallace, one such dog, was emaciated, had broken teeth, body sores, thin fur, a sunken eye, buckshot lodged in his body and was suffering from separation anxiety.

After months of medical treatment, Wallace was placed in a loving home and, “is even a little overweight now,” says Christiansen. Transforming these sick, broken animals into happy creatures with loving homes is what sustains her through the physical and mental strain of running SCARS.

It can take six months or longer for a dog to be physically and socially ready for adoption, and then a year or more to find it the perfect home. Christiansen interviews prospective owners-who fall for the adorable mugs at ensures that adoptive families know exactly what sort of dog they’re getting. The family then meets with the dog for a few hours, sometimes more than once.

Though Christiansen still can’t comprehend the cruelty owners can inflict on their pets, she says SCARS has also exposed her to the best in people.

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