Words by Mara Welty, Photos by Johnny Hammond and Kjersten Hellis

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]estled within a forest of lofty pines, Luvable Dog Rescue is home to a collection of kindhearted pups that roam the 55 acres of woody grounds. Among the trees, a cluster of vibrant cottages peek through the leaves, their blue and periwinkle walls contrasting with the rich olive branches in the foreground. Each house is decorated with a colorful sign, adorned with a string of lights, and occupied by rescued pit bulls and other mixed-breed dogs.

Since 1999, the rescue has been dedicated to re-homing rehabilitated dogs that have been rescued from high-kill shelters. For the first eight years, the dogs at Luvable were saved from local Oregon shelters. However, Luvable now rescues most of their canines from high-kill shelters in southern California, where dogs are known to be euthanized hours after their arrival due to overpopulation.

Founder and Executive Director Liesl Wilhardt and her own rescued French bulldog, Pika, live on-site at the shelter. Wilhardt has always showed an affinity for animals, raising dogs and hermit crabs as a child. “I thought, ‘What could I personally do right now with what I have?’” says Wilhardt. “That was my inspiration. I had no idea it would become such a large organization.”

The colorful cottages help the dogs acclimate to a home environment. Within each cottage there is furniture, artwork and televisions. “[The dogs] are living in actual houses instead of just a concrete kennel floor, and I think that’s been one of the biggest factors as to why they’re able to heal and relax,” says kennel staffer Mecca Ray-Rouse. From outdoor playtime to hiking through the trove of towering trees, the dogs at Luvable gain a sense of home. “I would say most of them adjust very quickly, because most dogs are just very resilient,” Wilhardt says. “Within days, sometimes they’re different dogs. It’s amazing.”

Once reserved dogs can be seen later running and playing with their friends through meadows surrounding Luvable. Among these pups are two 8-month-old brothers, Pablo and Picasso, who recently arrived along with a group of others after a short time on the euthanasia list at a California shelter. Picasso’s mouth is slightly slanted, a single tooth poking upwards towards his crooked nose, a peculiarity that a backyard breeder considered unadoptable. But now the siblings sit tranquilly on the laps of two volunteers, monitoring the room with their large black eyes as their warm baths are readied and cottages prepared. The brothers have received increasing popularity since their arrival at Luvable after their story went viral on Buzzfeed and CNN, prompting adoption requests from around the world, including Lithuania.  

“[The dogs] are living in actual houses instead of just a concrete kennel floor, and I think that’s been one of the biggest factors as to why they’re able to heal and relax.”

But not every dog at Luvable is so lucky. Some pit bulls have been residents at the shelter for nearly two years, while many others are returned days after their adoptions, brought back to Luvable forlorn and reluctant to socialize. “It’s so hard to see when they come back,” says Ray-Rouse. “I think one of the biggest challenges is that people think it’s always a super happy job, but honestly it’s one of the hardest things.”

Originally on “puppy-shift” as a summer volunteer, Ray-Rouse climbed the ranks and now works at Luvable full-time, feeding, medicating, cleaning, and retrieving the rescued dogs from 5 a.m. transports from Los Angeles. When most dogs arrive at Luvable, many have matted fur, fleas, and are infested with worms. Dogs are then healed, socialized and rehabilitated by Luvable’s staff.

“That’s the reward; that’s the high we all get as rescuers,” says Wilhardt, “to see a dog that was once so traumatized and so withdrawn and see its transformation.”

The dogs at Luvable are commonly a result of a failure to spay and neuter pets, which creates large stray populations and subsequently high euthanasia rates. “It’s more challenging,” says Ashley Olson, the manager and director of adoptions at Luvable. “If they come in as a stray they have two days until they’re euthanized typically. If they’re surrendered they’re usually walked straight to the back and euthanized.”

At times, dogs that Luvable plans to save from southern California shelters are euthanized before rescue. But for the dogs who are able to make the 900-mile journey north to Eugene, Wildhardt’s shelter becomes a sanctuary. Wilhardt hopes to eventually find people who are homeless or struck with financial instability that are willing to live with the dogs in the cottages. “You can imagine how much happier the dogs would be,” Wilhardt says. However, due to Lane County’s strict regulations on land use, the plan has become temporarily derailed.

For now, Luvable’s dogs are the sole occupants of each cottage, in final preparation for finding life in a forever home.

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