The U.S. Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis-always faithful-is meant to apply to God, country and the corps, but not always to Spot and Whiskers.
With thousands of Marines at Camp Pendleton shipping out to the Middle East and other hot spots around the world, the animal shelter at the San Diego County military base is near capacity with cats and dogs left behind. The shelter is so desperate to find homes for them that it's running ads in local newspapers and tacking up flyers at animal care centers in nearby Oceanside and San Clemente, begging animal lovers to adopt the abandoned pets.
And the crisis is only going to get worse. Earlier this month, a Marine spokesman announced that the shelter will be shut down in the coming months in a cost-cutting move-forcing its caretakers to scramble to find homes for all the animals by August.
“The overhead is simply too high at the shelter,” said Capt. Chris Logan, a military base public affairs official. “And other shelters in San Clemente and Oceanside are now more available. There was more of a need when we opened more than 10 years ago.”
With trouble brewing in Iraq, however, there has never been a greater need for the Camp Pendleton shelter.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Cpl. Mike Anson walked into the noisy, rundown Quonset hut to grudgingly part with his white-and-black pit bull, Mavis. The friendly pooch was shaking uncontrollably as she was dragged inside her new home.
“I tried everybody, but no one could take her,” said Anson, who is being deployed this week. “This is absolutely the last resort.”
Anson, who brought Mavis home from the base shelter just six months ago, put in a good word for his frightened friend before saying goodbye. “She's a real good dog,” he told shelter worker Kyoko Childress. “She's good with kids. She likes to ride in vehicles, and she's well trained.”
Chelsea Sionni came to the shelter looking for a cat to keep her company while her husband, Albert, is overseas. But Sionni said she had second thoughts, and almost left with a dog after watching Anson struggle to leave Mavis behind. “I'm heartbroken,” she said. “I feel so bad for all these animals. I want to take everybody home.”
Since the military started preparing for a possible war with Iraq, the Camp Pendleton shelter has been dealing with the fallout. Last month, the shelter's staff was cut in half when two Marines who volunteer at the facility were shipped out. Now Childress and another civilian, Natalie Rarick, are left to care for about 30 lonely and skittish pooches.
“There's no sick days,” Childress said, “because there's no one to cover for you.”
Despite all the hard work caring for these four-legged casualties of war, Childress said, it's still a joy to come to work because she loves spending time with the animals. That's why the base's decision to close the shelter hit her so hard.
“It's disappointing,” she said. “All the work we put into it, for what? Everybody is pretty upset. The surrounding shelters are full all the time. I don't know how much they will be able to help us.”
To provide some immediate relief, workers from the San Clemente and Oceanside shelters have been coming by to lend a hand-walking, feeding, bathing and offering medical assistance to the animals. Nearby shelters have posted pictures of Camp Pendleton's dogs, and maps to the facility's remote location near the base's airstrip-a 15-minute drive from the base's main gate.
“Those guys are doing a great job under difficult conditions,” said Cindy Kane, supervisor at the San Clemente Animal Shelter. “When we were there last week, the place was spotless and the dogs were all clean and happy.” Childress said the dogs might have an easier time finding a home if the facility were more centrally located.
“I think half of the people don't even know we exist,” said Childress, who has worked at the shelter for two years. “We're out here in the middle of nowhere, and there aren't many signs on base. We also don't receive much support from the marketing people.”
But even if the shelter attracted more dog lovers, Childress said, she would have a difficult time unloading many of her pooches. “It's so hard to find foster care for the bigger dogs, and that's usually what we get,” she said. “Most families just want smaller dogs who are better with kids.”
Mavis became the kennel's fifth pit bull, and she was placed in one of the few remaining vacant cages. Her neighbors were mostly large dogs-German shepherds, rottweilers, black Labrador retrievers and Dalmatians.
Childress said the animals can stay indefinitely, unless they have health problems or display aggression toward people or other dogs. If they do, the dogs are euthanized, Childress said.
One pit bull mix finally found a home last week after 11 months. Currently, the dog who has been at the shelter the longest is Sammy, a Dalmatian dropped off in November. The shelter also houses cats, but feline crowding isn't a problem because most are snapped up quickly.
Not all the dogs are orphans of the possible war with Iraq. Some were rescued from shelters from as far away as Chula Vista. Capt. Yohannes Negga, who oversees operations of the shelter, said he would love to take a dog home, but he wonders how much sense it would make.
“I'm a single man, and if I get deployed, who's going to take care of the dog?” Negga said. “But not everybody plans that way, I guess.”