OTTUMWA — The bottle-fed kitten, "Ernie," was on the last of his nine lives. He and his two sisters had used up eight apiece in their first 16 days of life. And while their mama had abandoned them, a group of Facebook friends would not.
You've probably never heard of them: The Southeast Iowa Animal Alliance. They never advertise. Even their main Facebook page is accessible only to their quietly energetic group of rescuers.
"We've gone out at 1 a.m. when we see someone's pet has been lost in an area," said Terrah Sellers, whose husband Chris is also an ally. "And we've found some of them."
Now they want to be able to do some outreach as other emergency pet services struggle. They've opened a public Facebook page and published a cell number. While several of the allies are themselves official 501(c)3 charitable organizations — a couple pet sanctuaries, a licensed pit bull rescue in Wapello County — SIAA is not one.
Terrah's husband, Chris Sellers, says they make sure to let people know that.
"So if someone sees an injured animal and gave money to pay for a vet bill, that's what it goes toward," he said. "We try to maximize what resources we do have."
Here's how it works: An abused or neglected dog, unwanted, is brought to one of the area shelters. If they don't have room, the owner and dog may be turned away. Perhaps the owner dumps the dog on a rural road.
One of the allies gets word of a stray who is basically out of options and rescues the dog. The next morning, an experienced volunteer begins the weeklong process of finding out if this is a lost dog or an abandoned dog. In the meantime, a third member, one who specializes in short-term foster care, has taken the dog in. That gives the dog food and social interaction with themselves, their family and/or a couple other dogs. If the pet needs vet care, they'll contact one of their funders.
During that week of checking for an owner and short-term fostering, another member contacts licensed rescue organizations. They may have contacted their volunteer groomer. These days, that's Heather Bible.
"They have a better chance of being adopted out if they [look] nice," she said.
After the dog is determined to be without an owner, the hope is that the networker in Ottumwa has found a rescue that will take the pooch and put it up for adoption.
In other cases, they warn unsuspecting pet owners who put up a sign "free to a good home" that people with ill intentions know no one will come visit their home. Volunteers said this is a very dangerous way to give away an animal you hope will have a good life. Chris said it's nothing for people to travel 50 miles to pick up a few dogs.
"Please, instead, consider working with a pet rescue," said volunteer Brandy Meredith, who spends time on social media recommending that idea to southeast Iowa residents.
The goal is for animals to find good homes. The downside, the group says, is the animal may no longer be in Wapello County. Local shelters can be pushed to maximum capacity quickly. So most of the licensed agencies with which the alliance works are outside of the region.
The upside is that animals who go through the Southeast Iowa Animal Alliance don't spend much time, if any, in a cage. They go from one foster home to another and then, hopefully, to their forever home.
There's one other way a pet finds a permanent home. It's jokingly called a "foster failure." It's when one of the allies brings in an abandoned animal, houses it for a week or two and falls in love. That bottle-fed kitten, Ernie? He's a foster failure. Now an adult cat, he lives in his forever home with Terrah and Chris Sellers — and he is used to all sorts of animals passing through.
Note: Some of the allies are able to donate bedding straw to keep a pet warm, food or, at times, even a dog house. Two volunteers own sanctuaries for old dogs that no one wants to adopt. There's a non-profit thrift shop at 2110 N. Court St. open Saturdays which supports the allies via Retail to Rescue. Visit the Southeast Iowa Animal Alliance on Facebook. Or call 641 799 5796. You may write to senior staff writer Mark Newman at MNewman@OttumwaCourier.com or follow him on Twitter at @CourierMark.