Many of us find dogs hard to resist: There’s just something about a wagging tail and those puppy dog eyes that brings a smile to our face. But for every happy dog, there are dozens more who are not as lucky, and they end up neglected, abandoned or abused. In the St. Louis area, a number of dedicated and determined individuals are coming to the aid of unwanted dogs by opening their homes and their hearts.

Sharon Coker,

Coalition for Animal Rescue and Education (CARE)

    Sharon Coker began her calling as an animal rescue volunteer after a 40-year career at Southwestern Bell. “When I retired, I vowed to never again work in corporate America,” she says. “I wanted to do things that were appealing to me, and that’s when I began to volunteer.” Along with a friend, Coker signed up to work with Jefferson County Animal Control. “These animals touch your heart, and it’s sad because you realize that their life will end in a few days if no one adopts them,” she says.

    In 2004, Coker and others founded CARE, a no-kill sanctuary in Hillsboro. “A small group of us decided we could do a better job getting animals adopted without the time constraints of an animal control facility.” Coker now serves as the organization’s volunteer treasurer, but she says don’t let the title fool you. “It’s dirty, filthy work, but it’s so rewarding!” she says.

    Coker adds that the most satisfying part of her job is to see an animal placed in the right home. She tells the story of 781, a dog with a fortunate reversal of fate. “He was supposed to be auctioned off for medical research and had ‘781’ spray-painted on both sides to identify him,” she recalls. Coker says somehow, 781 escaped but was soon picked up by animal control. “I couldn’t bear the thought of him having escaped this unpleasant fate only to be euthanized at the shelter,” she says. After CARE published 781’s story and photo on the Internet, they received a call. “This man called us and said, ‘He’s coming home with me.’” she says. “Those are the things that tell us we’re doing what we should be doing for the animals. Because when they come to us, they’ve used up all their chances.”

Becky Krueger,

Animal Protective Association of Missouri (APA)

  Part of  Becky Krueger’s duties as the APA’s director of education and public relations involves going into schools and talking to children about responsible pet ownership. “There are too many people who don’t realize how much of a responsibility it is to have a pet,” she says. “It’s not just about taking care of them, it’s also about spaying and neutering.” Krueger says the problem of unwanted pets also can be avoided if people educate themselves before adopting. “It can be difficult to hear some of the reasons why people give up their pets,” she says. “I’ve heard them say things like, ‘He’s too big,’ or ‘It sheds too much.’”

    Before her work with animals, Krueger lived in Alabama with her husband and had a career as a desktop publisher. “I was getting bored with my job because it left me unfulfilled,” she says. “With encouragement from my husband, I began working weekends at an animal shelter, helping with adoptions, walking dogs and socializing cats.”

    Little did Krueger know that her part-time diversion would lead her back to her hometown. “My degree is in public relations, so when this job at the APA became available, it was the perfect fit.” While it’s heart-wrenching to see the hundreds of unwanted dogs that turn up at the APA’s doorstep each year, Krueger says the joy of turning an animal’s life around is unparalleled. “There’s somebody out there waiting for that pet,” she says. “And when you see that someone fall in love with a dog, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Angie Pillman,

Heartland Weimaraner Rescue

    Angie Pillman’s life changed shortly after she adopted her first pet Weimaraner. “I fell in love with the breed, and I wanted to help dogs who were being abandoned,” she recalls. So strong was her conviction that she drove to Kansas City to meet with the founder of Heartland Weimaraner Rescue, an organization that takes in strays from four states, including Missouri. Following the meeting, Pillman, a longtime art director for Sporting News, knew immediately that she had found her life’s work. “It was something I wanted to be involved in. I told myself, I can do this. I can help, and this is what I’m going to do.”

    Pillman says the problem has become a crisis. “The main issue is the puppy mills. They’re just over-breeding,” she says. “These dogs need help: We just got a call from a lady who found a Weim with nine puppies dumped on the side of the road!” 

    As St. Louis coordinator, Pillman is responsible for everything from taking the dogs to the vet to finding foster and permanent homes for them. “Since we don’t have a kennel, we rely on our fosters and volunteers to take them in until their permanent family comes along,” she says. Her credentials also include dog trainer. “There are times when a family will call to say that it’s not working out and they can’t keep their dog. My job is to work with them and the dog, and they get to keep their pet!” she says. But perhaps the most gratifying is the rescue aspect. “Some of the dogs we take in are sick and emaciated. It’s great to see them turn around and placed with a loving family.”