In September 2002, 12-year-old dog lover Augusta DeLisi was surfing the Web, checking out animal shelter sites and the pictures of their dogs. Then she discovered something that changed her life. A shelter in West Virginia had too many dogs, and it was going to euthanize them if a family couldn't be found in less than a week.
Driven to action, Augusta piled her family and best friend into their van and drove two-and-a-half hours to the shelter. She took six dogs home that day, saving their lives and eventually finding them permanent homes. But for Augusta the thought of all the dogs she'd had to leave behind at the shelter stayed with her. With that, Augies Doggies Rescue was born.
To date, Augies Doggies Rescue has saved more than 100 dogs -- taking them in, giving them their shots, taking care of them, and finding new homes for each and every one. Augusta’s work earned her recognition in several newspapers, on local television, honored by the Humane Society of the United States, and contacted by the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Cosmo Girl” magazine.
Augusta's goal is simple: Save as many dogs as possible. She knows she can't rescue every dog in need of a home, but that doesn't mean she can't try.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to Augusta. We asked her about caring for all the dogs that have come through her home, moving her organization from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and what the future holds for Augies Doggies Rescue.
HowStuffWorks: What is Augies Doggies Rescue?
Augusta DeLisi: We are an all-breed dog rescue, and we work with shelters that, most of the time, are in very rural areas. Places that have very wonderful, well-behaved animals that are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I always knew that I wanted to help dogs, but I knew that I couldn't keep them all. So we said maybe if we take them in, give them all their shots, spay and neuter them, take care of any training, anything that needs to be done, then we can look for a home.
HowStuffWorks: So you're a halfway house for shelter dogs.
Augusta DeLisi: Yes. I like to say I give dogs a new "leash" on life.
HowStuffWorks: How did your initial rescue of the dogs from West Virginia turn into what has become your life's calling?
Augusta DeLisi: I'd always loved dogs my whole life. But it wasn't until that one day that I knew I had to do something about helping them. Dog rescuing is something that, once you get into it, you can't just stop. You always know that there are dogs out there that need you, because there are. I'm always told that you can't save them all, but I always say, well, you can try. So it may not make a difference for every dog in the world, but it makes a difference for those few, and that's all the matters.
HowStuffWorks: When you walk into a shelter and know you can't take them all, how does that feel, and how do you decide which ones to save?
Augusta DeLisi: That is one of the hardest things about animal rescue, because you basically are playing God. You decide who lives, and who dies. When I walk into an animal shelter, I always ask the officer, "Who needs the most help?" I'm not going to come in and take dogs that I know still have a chance to get adopted in the area. I always try to take whoever needs the most help. At the same time, I have to take a dog that I know I can place. I'm still in high school, I can't take on anything that's too hard, too much for me to handle. But I always make sure that it is a dog that is in need of help.
HowStuffWorks: How many dogs can you take in at one time?
Augusta DeLisi: Usually, my limit is, like, three or four dogs at a time, because I do have three dogs of my own. That's really about all I can handle. But in the summer, the number can be a little higher, or sometimes we take in a litter of puppies. There have been times when we've had anywhere from one dog to eleven dogs at one time. One time we took in a litter of puppies and we were not prepared. It happened so quick, we got a call, and sometimes you have to move quickly, they need your help. So we have exceptions to that three-dog rule.
HowStuffWorks: You mentioned getting a call. Do the shelters call you when they have animals in need of saving?
Augusta DeLisi: A lot of the shelters now realize that we are in it to help and have seen how effective we've been, so we do get calls a lot from shelters in rural areas asking for our help. And that is very heartbreaking, because I know I can only help a certain amount at one time. When a shelter is calling you, begging you to take in a wonderful dog and you know you can't take it, it's very hard. So yes, the shelters have found out about us and I do everything in my power to help each shelter out. We have a pretty big network of shelters that we work with.
HowStuffWorks: Do you ever find yourself shuttling dogs from one shelter to another where you think they might have a better chance? Is the end result of any of your rescues ever another shelter?
Augusta DeLisi: We used to, in the very beginning. I was very young, just 12 years old, and there was a lot that I just did not know about yet. I found out the hard way about every aspect of [rescuing dogs]. So I did have quite a few shelters tucked away that if I could not handle a dog anymore, or if I knew that it was something they could place, they would work with me and find it a home. But now, for the last couple of years, we've just done it out of our home. A couple friends of mine sometimes take in a dog or two for a week, give us a little break, but mostly it all goes through our house and our rescue.
HowStuffWorks: You spay and neuter all your dogs and give them their shots. Where does the money come for all of that?
Augusta DeLisi: Mainly from our own pockets. Every now and then we'll get some wonderful person to give us a donation, or an organization like Do Something will give us a nice grant. But mainly, everything comes out of our own pockets. We are spending, at a minimum, $200 on each dog that comes in. Most dogs are coming from rural areas and not only do they need their shots, but some of them will have minor issues wrong with them that need to be taken care of. I would never release a dog knowing that it had a health issue or behavioral issue. So everything comes out of our own pocket. I will not let a dog leave without being spayed or neutered, because to me that is the most vital thing, knowing that there will not be any more unwanted animals in the shelters, so that really is the number one thing that I take care of before the dog leaves.
HowStuffWorks: Do you find permanent homes for every dog that comes into your house?
Augusta DeLisi: Yes. There's a process whenever a dog comes in, we don't just let a dog go to anybody, because the whole point is that we don't want that dog to end up back at a shelter. So we do screen people, we have an adoption application that asks questions anywhere from about their previous pets, to vet references -- to show that they will take the dog to a vet and keep up with that --and just to verify that they qualify to get the dog and the dog will qualify for them. Because not everyone matches up with a certain breed or kind of dog.
HowStuffWorks: Do you take the time to get to know each dog individually?
Augusta DeLisi: I get to know the dogs' personalities. I know, for example, "Oh, this one will be great with kids and be a good family dog." or "This one will do better with an older family." So we do try our best to make sure that the home is suitable for the dog, and the dog will remain in that household. We do have a policy that if it doesn't work out, something goes wrong, we always take the dog back. We've been very fortunate to only have that happen a couple of times out of the now 102 dogs that we've saved. I'm pretty proud of that.
HowStuffWorks: Do you have a lot of people applying to adopt your dogs?
Augusta DeLisi: We do. We have a pretty good adoption rate. I've only lived in Chicago for a little under a year. For the four years before that, we were in Pittsburgh, and we had really good adoption rates there, because that's where we started, and most people were aware of us. So I'm still working on getting publicity and help out here, but adoption rates are still good, they usually go pretty quick. It normally takes about a month to get a dog adopted, because we take them in, get them all their shots, spay and neuter them and work on behavior issues, so it generally takes about a month, sometimes a little less.
HowStuffWorks: What sort of difficulties did moving from Pittsburgh to Chicago create, and how did you overcome those difficulties?
Augusta DeLisi: It was very, very hard. In Pittsburgh, I had a wonderful vet that worked with me, gave me discounts on the shots and spay and neuter, and I was lucky enough to be in a couple of local papers so people knew about me. That's what helps the most is publicity and people finding out about your organization. We came here and no one knew us, no one knew about what I do. It was very hard at first, placing dogs, and it's still hard. We're trying to get ourselves out there and make people aware of us, but we were able to find a good vet and people willing to help. I'm very lucky to have that.
HowStuffWorks: You're trying to get your 501(c)3 status to become a non-profit organization, how is that going?
Augusta DeLisi: I would have to talk to my Dad about that. That's one thing I haven't quite learned yet, how to get the 501(c)3. But that is something we definitely plan on getting.
HowStuffWorks: Once you manage to get your 501(c)3 status, what is the future of Augies Doggies Rescue?
Augusta DeLisi: Getting our non-profit status will allow to us to do fundraisers, and PetSmart will then allow us to come in with our dogs and have adoption days. I'm learning that having that 501(c)3 status will be a very big help in getting help from companies and other corporations. Because we are definitely not-for-profit. We lose money every time we do a dog rescue. Our purpose is to give the dog a new home, and give it a second chance. But once we get the 501(c)3, I have high hopes that it'll help us do a lot more.
HowStuffWorks: Do you see Augies Doggies Rescue expanding in the future? Getting a kennel, hiring a staff, that sort of thing?
Augusta DeLisi: I would love to have that happen. My dream would be to eventually build a shelter that had little room-like settings for the dogs to be in instead of a kennel. Because I'm learning that when people walk into a shelter, it's not always a very pleasant environment. You see dogs that are very stressed and tense, because they're in a little cage surrounded by other dogs and they're scared. You're not seeing how the dog would act in a home environment. So my goal would be to have, instead of kennels, a little room-like area so people could see how the dog will react in the home, because that seems to be a lot more effective. So that really is my dream.
HowStuffWorks: Is this something you'd love to do with the rest of your life?
Augusta DeLisi: All my life, since I was little, I've always wanted to do stuff with dogs. I was looking at old art projects that I'd done when I was little, and they all have something to do with dogs. As I was growing up, my Mom and Dad always thought I'd grow out of it, they'd say "Once you're a teenager, you'll find other things you want to do." But it seems like it's always been there, and it really is my passion to help others and see that it's making a difference. And I think it's even helped me become the person I am today, because I've learned so much through it. I'd also love to be a veterinarian, though I need to work a bit on my grades for school, but that way I could have an all-around animal organization.
HowStuffWorks: What is your life like outside of Augies Doggies Rescue? Does your work with your organization give you time to have a social life?
Augusta DeLisi: I definitely still try to have a normal life. I'm 17 years old, I do have a boyfriend--
HowStuffWorks: Does he like dogs?
Augusta DeLisi: Oh yes. You have to. But it is hard, because no matter what… it’s like the Spider-Man quote "With great power comes great responsibility." I always remember that, and I always have to remember to keep my priorities straight. So there are plenty of times when I've wanted to go out with friends, or go to the mall, but I know that I have a litter of puppies at home or something. But you know, I honestly can't complain about it because I do love it, and I can say that from the bottom of my heart. I know that sounds lame but I do love it, and I wouldn't want it any other way.