In 2006, Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the country, leaving many lives and homes from central Florida to eastern Texas in shambles. For Lynne Bengston, the need to head to the area of devastation and help the animals that had been displaced in the wake of the storm was top of mind.
“I had no idea what it was like down there,” Bengston says, describing the wreckage she encountered while visiting, volunteering with an animal rescue based in Minnesota at the time. “Seeing all of the stray animals, a lot of which were strays before … it was an eye-opener.” She immediately began brainstorming, trying to think of ways she could help, not just the communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but how those same efforts could benefit other communities hit by natural disasters or other acts of nature that often leave animals in vulnerable situations.
Bengston ultimately came to the conclusion that if a rescue organization were to partner with an animal shelter in a community, more animals would be able to get the medical assistance they needed, as well as find their forever homes. “We wanted to put all of [the dogs] out there,” Bengston explains. “Not just the cute, fluffy ones.” Out of this holistic, inclusive approach to rescuing animals, Safe Hands Rescue was born.
Safe Hands Rescue is an animal rescue that serves as the bridge between dogs living in shelters and finding the perfect family for them to live out the rest of their lives. On top of housing pets, Safe Hands is dedicated to providing care for the animals from the moment they’re intercepted by one of the rescue’s many volunteers (including spay/neuter services), as well as networking within the communities its serves and providing resources and supplies for the shelters from which it receives animals.
The main rescue group that Safe Hands is partnered with is Harlan County Animal Shelter in Baxter, Ky. Every two weeks, dogs are brought up from Kentucky and transported to Chicago, where they’re then picked up by volunteers and brought to their foster homes in the Twin Cities. Last year, 859 dogs were brought up through Safe Hands and placed in foster homes in Minnesota. In 2018, the goal was to make that happen for 1,000 dogs. Since partnering with the shelter in Kentucky, Harlan County Animal Shelter’s euthanasia rate has decreased dramatically. When Bengston had arrived, it was at 98 percent. Now, only six percent of the animals they take in are euthanized.
When Bengston first organized Safe Hands, most of her efforts were done over social media. “We knew we would have to find foster [families] and volunteers, so we shared pictures of the dogs over email,” she says. Response to the photos quickly gained momentum, and Bengston was met with 50 families saying they would be able to foster dogs in need. “I sent an email asking for crates and bowls for the dogs, and when I came home from work, there were crates and bowls waiting on my lawn.”
Like any nonprofit organization, Safe Hands survives because of its volunteers, many of which have adopted pets of their own through the rescue. Kerry Olzenak, a volunteer with Safe Hands for the past two years, has fostered her fair share of furry friends as they prepare to be placed in a forever home. “It can be hard not to adopt all of the dogs that can come through your door,” Olzenak jokes. She’s fostered dogs on and off during her time as a volunteer. “It feels so good to know that you’re helping out an animal that may need it,” she says.
“The biggest thing is that [volunteers] need to be willing and able to make the commitment,” Bengston says of prospective foster families. Some of these commitments include dropping dogs off at veterinary appointments, bringing their foster dog to open houses and of course, dedicating the time to make sure that the foster dog is living in a safe, loving home. Bengston says the most important part is making sure that their dogs are being taught how to behave correctly in their permanent home, including using positive reinforcement training. “It needs to be someone who subscribes to our theory of animal care,” Bengston explains.
Volunteers need not only be foster parents, however. “If you have a skill, chances are you can volunteer,” Bengston says. Safe Hands is always looking for volunteers in all areas, including data entry, marketing and graphic design. “We need people just to make phone calls and help people with any questions they may have,” Bengston says.
Of course, the main goal of Safe Hands is for each dog to find a loving forever home where they can both be loved and provide love to the adoptive families. Annabel, a Spaniel mix that was adopted through Safe Hands, lives in Maple Grove with Joi Bixler and her husband, where she’s loved immensely. “[My husband and I] were never really dog people,” Bixler says. But after spending time with a family member’s foster dog, they became hooked and adopted their first dog, Emily. “We thought we’d get a friend for [her],” Bixler says. After searching online for dogs that were up for adoption in the area, Bixler stumbled upon Annabel on Petfinder, a popular website for locating animals looking for homes. However, finding a dog to rescue was the plan all along.
“When you rescue dogs, you know what they’re like and how they’re trained,” Bixler says. “You get that insight you just wouldn’t get if you got a dog from a shelter or a store.” After living with the Bixlers for a few months, Annabel has adjusted to her new home. “She’s very excited about everything,” Bixler says. “She just loves to snuggle and be [petted] all the time.”
For those wanting to get more involved with Safe Hands, it holds multiple events throughout the year that serve as fundraisers, as well as raising awareness about the organization. My Furry Valentine in February is held at Metro Dogs Daycare in Minneapolis. Owners can bring in their pets and have Valentine’s Day portraits taken of them and their pup, with all proceeds going toward the rescue. Visit Safe Hands’ website for additional details and information about additional fundraising and meet-and-greet events.
“Rescuing a dog is kind of like buying a house,” Bixler says, reflecting on her experience finding Annabel. “There [are] so many applications for dogs, and then you finally find one you think can fit and you could live with, and the one you adopt ends up being the perfect fit.”