Theirs is a touching story, one of trying to do the right thing by helping animals on the street in the dangerous Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston. Sandro Gamez and Erika Emal are South Side Street Dogs and we had the opportunity to learn more about this amazing couple and the reason why they choose to do what they do for the benefit of everything from street dogs to frogs.
Life With Dogs: How did you become interested in stray dog rescue?
ERIKA: My childhood was filled with animals. My dad brought home every single animal you can think of. Cats, dogs, squirrels, possums, raccoons, birds, you name it. And everyone lived inside. My job as a kid was do do the mange baths. He was on a construction job once and they were demolishing a building when he found a squirrel nest with 2 babies in it. He tucked in his shirt, placed the babies in his shirt, and kept working. On his way home, he stopped and got some colostrum for them and some bottles and showed us all how to bottle feed and started working on the outdoor “squirrel condo,” although once big enough, they really just ran around the house. They did get released and had their squirrel friends, who all liked to crawl all over me, too.
My dad’s motto? “Never look at a dog in your rear-view mirror.”
We used to volunteer at spay/neuter events he would hold at old fire stations in the ’70s, I’ve done it all my life. My first rescues were when I was in elementary school. Though mostly I did cats, I started gravitating to dogs when I realized what dog fighting was, and that it was going on next door. We had many strays in our neighborhood, and many of them disappeared when they got to my street… they either got to our house first or they wound up next door.
SANDRO: That came in the later part of my life. After being told all through my childhood by teachers and family that stray dogs are bad and to stay away from them, meeting and marrying a rescuer validated the feelings of compassion I had toward the downtrodden strays that they needed help, not hostile rejection.
LWD: When did you do your first rescue? Why? How? Where? And who was involved?
ERIKA: I was a fearless kid when it came to animals. I had been the neighborhood feral cat tamer, but we were living next to dog fighters. When I was about 5 or so, I jumped the fence and untangled a pit bull puppy on a tow chain who was strangling himself. Going through there was like a mine field of dogs on chains to get to him. He had no water. I remember thinking, “He is just going to end up on the burn heap like the rest of them.” So I took his collar off, took him, and bolted over their back fence. I went to a hippie lady I knew who lived a few blocks down and told her what happened. She took him. When I got back, police were out front talking to my parents. The cop asked me about stealing a puppy. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t asking the people about their cruelty. I told the cop I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. So he left. “Sorry to bother you folks.”
SANDRO: Buppy! In about 2001, I rescued a dog, Buppy, who I thought had belonged to some homeless people. It turned out the homeless people moved on and left Buppy behind. He was a Dalmatian mix who was as cute and funny as can be. He had a bit of fur loss and a few kinks to iron out, but we treated him and had him vetted. We had so many dogs of our own and were not yet an established rescue so we had serious resource limits. But Buppy was such a great dog and got adopted into a great home in east Houston. We kept in touch and we know he has a wonderful life!
LWD: When did you realize that you wanted to created South Side Street Dogs? Did this formulate out of a specific experience? Or was it some other catalyst?
ERIKA & SANDRO: We were living in the East End (also no shortage of strays!) and had already been doing rescue as “Indy Rescue Houston.” There are a few rescues and independent rescuers working for the East End strays. We moved to Sunnyside and saw that there was absolutely NO help for the dogs there. The issues in Sunnyside are different than other areas of Houston. Besides dog fighting, sometimes in broad daylight, in plain sight, there is downright cruelty and abuse which appears to be openly accepted as an everyday method of dog treatment.
Stray dogs are used as target practice, as nearly EVERY SINGLE DOG we pull from the street or adopt out has at least one bullet or a few pellets in them. Dogs with hair loss often have been beaten routinely. Strays that bark at people are also beaten and sometimes killed just for barking. I think that the frustrations of the socioeconomic climate in the area trickle down to the most vulnerable- children and pets. And the pets are the ones with the least amount of protection, so they get the worst of it.
Bottom line why we started South Side Street Dogs? Someone had to represent the street dogs of the South Side. There was no one else to help them.
LWD: What is the hardest thing about advocacy for street dogs?
E&S: There is pushback from a few different directions. People are afraid of strays, for some reason. We hear that a lot, that people are afraid of them. Some residents have even accused us of being the ones to bring the strays here! We spoke with one gentleman who told us to take all the strays back to our house. This man thought the dogs must belong to us because we were feeding them. He could not fathom the idea of feeding a dog that you didn’t own. All the while, during the conversation, there were about four of the dogs licking his hands, their way of telling him “hello.” We explained to him that the dogs were all dumped in the area. What is perhaps even sadder, is that nine times out of 10, the strays look better than the owned dogs who also roam these streets.
We feed the strays to get them to trust humans, socializing them with both people and other dogs. We medicate them to get their fur growing back, treat them for fleas, heartworms, and any ailments they may have. We further told this man that if you are nice to dogs, they will be nice to people. But when people are mean to them, it sets back the work we have done. We asked him to explain to his neighbors, they should not be afraid of dogs simply because they are on the street. Truthfully, he should be more afraid of people on the street as they most likely mean far more harm in this neighborhood than the dogs ever would. If he is friendly with the dogs, they will be friendly right back. We let him know that we have a system in place that makes it is easier for us to get the dogs off the street and into a foster or forever home. By the end of that conversation, he understood, and he felt secure enough to pat one on the head.
Unfortunately, the City of Houston has no stray animal pickup program to speak of, yet there is a city ordinance making it illegal to pick up or feed strays. Say what you will, but we think that is ummmm …. well…..we’ll keep on keepin’ on.
LWD: Do you have a network with which you coordinate efforts?
E&S: We have a network for some things when there is time to coordinate, that is if it is not an urgent matter. However, even if it IS urgent, we rely on social media and our awesome supporters to work some magic. Ordinarily we have rescue friends/partners in about 3-5 other rescues we can rely on for help, advice/assistance or just plain moral support. We have 2 animal hospitals that are there when needed, no question. Our immediate field team consists of the two of us (Erika, life-long rescuer and Sandro, affectionately referred to as “the dog whisperer”), Eva Verdin (RN, master feeder/rescuer, fearless street warrior), Yen Yen Nguyen (feeder, foster, rescuer, fellow fearless Sunnyside resident), Maria Galvan (newest to our team- feeder, rescuer), and more to come!
LWD: What should people know about SSSD that might come as a surprise?
E&S: We have a house… and an apartment. We gutted the house and made it kennels, and live in the 400 sq ft apartment in Sunnyside, which is also mostly dogs (of course)! We drive back and forth to the kennels multiple times a day to rotate dogs in addition to doing our community outreach, feedings, vet visits, networking, tax receipts, emails, T-Shirt/merchandise order mailings at post office, reviewing applications, etc. We each put in a good 20 hours a day. On top of that, Sandro has his full time job!
LWD: What have you found to be your greatest needs?
E&S: Funding. We don’t have traditional site-specific “event” type fundraisers like other organizations have, not yet anyway. We simply don’t have the time, although we have had a few in the past. So we have little weekly fundraisers on our Facebook page, usually on Thursdays. We use them to pay for our operating costs like medications, preventatives, boarding, and obviously there are also costs for the vetting with the medical cases. We need a lot of medications for the dogs both in program and in the field, and although we buy in bulk, it does add up. Boarding is a huge cost as is transportation. Perhaps the greatest need? We need a place. We are looking for ONE place we can live on site and have kennels.
E&S: We are greatly in need donations and offer several options for people who are able to help SSSD out. To make a tax deductible donation (EIN 46-3019202), click http://bit.ly/28bzCWQ. We get typically get out tax receipts the same or next day. People can also donate through PayPal: paypal.me/southsidestreetdogs or snail mail:
South Side Street Dogs
PO Box 331460
Houston, TX 77233
We NEED (always need) fosters in the Houston, TX area (only):
E&S: We are a vegan organization and when we have events, we cater with vegan cuisine often including homemade vegan Mexican food made by Sandro’s mom! Our philosophy is we save animals, not eat them! We save everything (LOL). We have saved turtles, opossums, FROGS (yes, frogs); horses, pigeons, hawks, cats… not just dogs.