On the edge of the American Rust Belt, the once-prosperous city of East St. Louis, Ill., collapsed with industry in the 1960s and ’70s. Anyone with means moved away, siphoning off more than half the city’s population. Those who remain live in a landscape of fallendown buildings, burned-out houses, strip clubs and urban prairie with one of the highest crime rates in the country and countless free-roaming pet dogs and unwanted strays, nearly none of whom are spayed or neutered.
Although she was born in the city during its heyday, PJ Hightower has lived in St. Louis, Mo., for more than 30 years, and she rarely had cause to wander the dilapidated neighborhoods across the Mississippi River, until the route to her sister’s new home took Hightower through the heart of the street dogs’ territory. She began carrying food in her car on visits and going out of her way to deliver it to the dogs, eventually making trips for the sole purpose of feeding them. “It’s just one of those things that sort of mushroomed,” Hightower says. This was in 1995.
She progressed from simply feeding the strays — she hasn’t missed a single day since 2001 — to rescuing dogs in need, sometimes working with other rescue organizations, although more often on her own and with the help of friends and neighbors.
“She takes the same route every single day,” says Amie Simmons, president of Gateway Pet Guardians, the nonprofit organization formed in 2004 to support and expand Hightower’s efforts. “The dogs know she is going to be there. They hear her car and come running.”
Dribble, Nigel, Nina, Nigella, Hank, Aaron, Spelling, Bea, Arthur, Malcolm, Show Me, Blondie and on and on. “She has names for all of them. It’s like she has 200 pets,” says longtime volunteer Rebecca Ormond, who recently directed a documentary about the group called Gateway Guardians (see endnote).
Hightower pours kibble from 50- pound bags onto dry sidewalk or pavement and dispenses giant biscuits (and rubs, to those who will let her). In the summer, she brings clean water, which she’ll set out in cut-off plastic milk jugs. During these visits, she also monitors the dogs — keeping an eye out for trouble, such as when she first spotted Nigella with a flea collar so tight she couldn’t eat. Hightower managed to catch the dog and clip the collar.
“She knows everything about these dogs,” says Gateway executive director Jamie Case. “She knows medical history, heat cycles, where they came from, whose mom is whose, how many litters they’ve had over their lifetimes. That was the incredible thing to me — her knowledge. They’re like her family members.”
Hightower says she’s almost never afraid of the dogs. The day before we talked, she had spied an unfamiliar Pit Bull curled on a loveseat that had been dumped on the sidewalk. “I thought, I’ll just kind of see what’s going on,” Hightower says. “So I start to walk and I could just see his face but I could tell he was doing a total body wiggle … he was super friendly. I put the food on the [nearby] mattress … and before he even wanted to start eating, he wanted to be petted. He was so thin, it broke my heart.”
The East St. Louis strays suffer many of the plagues afflicting strays in the developing world — starvation; tick and flea infestations; heartworm; mange; parvo; cruelty at the hands of humans; attacks by other dogs; and TVT, a sexually transmitted venereal tumor that is usually only found in chronic stray populations. When a dog is too sick to survive on the street, an animal has been beaten up, or a new litter of puppies is born, Gateway Pet Guardians puts out the call for fosters (the organization has no shelter). Then Hightower rescues them, sometimes following them into manholes without first planning how to get out, or slips leashes on dogs who’ve never worn them, or dons long leather gloves and crawls on all fours in dark and decrepit buildings. She avoids breaking up adult packs — she’s seen pack mates left behind who suffer or disappear. With a shelter, the organization could rescue groups of dogs.
Gateway rescues an average of 100 dogs per year, although by mid-June 2010, they’d already pulled 90 dogs off the street — mostly puppies. Illinois law prohibits spaying strays and re-releasing them. Sometimes Hightower persuades residents to let her take free-roaming, “owned” dogs to be altered.
Reaction in the community is mixed. “I’ve never encountered anyone being negative toward us in all the time I’ve ridden [with PJ],” executive director Case says. “There are people who wave every single time they see us driving, and they’re like ‘Hey, it’s the dog lady.’ But then there are people who think we’re the problem. If we didn’t feed [the dogs] they would just die and there wouldn’t be a problem anymore. They don’t realize it’s a never-ending cycle.”
St. Clair County Animal Services director Jim Jacquot, who’s not familiar with Gateway Pet Guardians, says feeding strays, even with the best intent, can create problems, such as inspiring dogs to congregate in certain areas. But, like animal control departments around the country, he lacks the facilities, budget and people-power to tackle the enormous problem. With less than one-fifth of the county’s population, East St. Louis is the source of a large number of dogs — 2,500 to 3,000 a year — that end up in the county animal control.
There’s a definite gap on the ground. “We’re a couple of white ladies going over to a predominantly black community; there is what I consider to be a pretty large communication barrier. I guess I’m naïve. I thought with my background in social work … that I could go in and talk to just about anybody. But I have conversations with people … and we’re not even having the same conversation.”
Simmons and Case are developing strategies to open up a dialogue, beginning by reaching out to neighborhood churches. They’re hoping the documentary, which features people from the community, will also help bridge the gap.
In addition to developing spay/neuter outreach, Gateway is ramping up foster recruitment and fundraising to cover rising expenses (veterinary costs were $22,000 from January to June 2010, with adoption fees covering only $8,000) and to build a shelter. The goal: Move from a one-woman crusade to a sustainable effort.
It sounds like they have some time to complete the transition. Talking to Hightower late one night — the only moment she could spare in a busy day made busier by seven rescue puppies with parvo — she hardly sounds ready to stop her rounds. “It’s just a part of my morning,” Hightower says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m sick, if the weather’s bad. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are; I’m gonna go.”
For ten months, Gateway Pet Guardians’ founder PJ Hightower and volunteers used little pink flipcams to capture an intimate view of their work with East St. Louis stray and feral dogs. Hightower concocted a variety of ways to keep her pinhole camera at her waist as she fed, tended and rescued the street dogs — including a little jean pocket with a lens hole that she pinned to her clothes each morning and a pair of old pants with Velcro strips on them. The results can be seen in Gateway Guardians: A Documentary, which premiered at the 10th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in July, where it won the St. Louis Film Critics Association’s Humanitarian Award. The film will also be shown in the Webster University Film Series (St. Louis) on Oct. 10 and the Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival in Nov. 9, and in other festivals during the course of the year. Buy the video ($20) or find screening details at gatewaypetguardians.com . All film profits benefit Gateway Pet Guardians.