LOS ANGELES – Fix the dogs and feed the men.
That's what Lori Weise decided to do 16 years ago when she started working at Modernica Inc., a furniture factory on the edge of L.A.'s Skid Row. She couldn't get to work without seeing the homeless being bullied and their dogs or countless other strays being abused.
She created Downtown Dog Rescue in the back of the factory and, with the help of co-workers, started trapping strays. She talked to the homeless, one man at a time, convincing them their dogs would be better off spayed or neutered.
Food was a powerful incentive. She posted fliers in alleys and doorways, promising free pizza for the men and free surgery for the dogs at a mobile clinic she arranged for. She worried no one would come, but when she arrived, the line was two blocks long.
The homeless also couldn't get a dog license without an address. So Modernica's address was used to license 300 dogs.
Since those early days, Downtown Dog Rescue has paid for thousands of surgeries, placed or fostered thousands of dogs, and provided meals galore for man and mutt. The shelter is still located in the back of Modernica, but there aren't many homeless left downtown, so Weise now brings shelter services to Compton, where the crime rate makes living hard for residents and the euthanasia rate makes living a challenge for dogs.
For the last two years, a monthly spay and neuter clinic has been held in a Compton park, run by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control with $100,000 annual funding from DDR.
In 2011, the clinic sterilized close to 800 dogs, according to Weise, and the euthanasia rate for pit bulls at the county shelter dropped 30 percent.
Dog trainer Cornelius "Dog Man" Austin is also part of Weise's team. Growing up in South Los Angeles, Austin said, the streets were infested with pit bulls. "I was 10 or 11 and in my neighborhood, that's all they did was fight pit bulls," he recalled.
Today he holds weekly obedience classes for DDR at the Los Angeles Coliseum, teaching owners basic commands, agility, urban walking and what to do if your dog is attacked. The class draws between 30 and 50 dogs a week.
While Downtown Dog Rescue has grown since the late '90s from a couple of kennels to 22, Modernica, the furniture maker, has grown from six employees to 80. Owners and brothers Frank and Jay Novak are neither dog people nor homeless activists, but they believe in what Weise, their plant manager, stands for.
The shelter helps define the company and has become part of the company's culture, Frank Novak said. He marvels at the way Weise comes up with choice homes for unwanted dogs.
"She never talks down to people," Novak said. "She is so genuine. I think people are impressed by her sincerity and people know none of the money (close to $200,000 in donations a year) goes to administrative costs."
Eight months ago, Modernica started moving its production plant to a bigger building in Vernon. They have given Weise a half-acre where she can build a new shelter but she is still negotiating with the city for permits. The rescue is also working to raise $50,000 for the building, plumbing and electricity.
Meanwhile, the dogs are downtown, where the company's prop department (they do a lot of Hollywood work) will stay. Weise drives back and forth each morning and night to care for them.
"She is a one-woman army. What she means to Compton and homeless people with their pets is services they would never get otherwise," said Bob Goldman, a veterinarian at VCA Petville Animal Hospital in Los Angeles.
"She is fearless. She will go into neighborhoods nobody in their right mind would go into. She just goes with her conviction and knowledge she is going to help somebody," said Carole Pearson, founder and president of Los Angeles-based Dawg Squad. Pearson, who specializes in placing Rottweilers, helps Weise with any Rotts she finds.
Weise is often asked to speak at seminars and conferences across the country. That's where Stephanie Downs, co-founder of FiXiT Foundation in Virginia met her.
"I was inspired by her determination and willingness to do what it took to get to the root of the problem," Downs said. "She works in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country and doesn't follow the standard model we are expected to in the spay/neuter industry."
Most of the men (it was rare to find women on the streets back then) Weise befriended 15 years ago are in prisons or hospitals or have died. But Weise took many of their dogs. "I promised a lot of the men as long as their dogs are alive, they will have a good place to live and I'll love them," she said.
She has about nine dogs in retirement at her home. That includes Clancy, a 15-year-old pit bull and the rescue's unofficial mascot, who accompanies Weise almost everywhere she goes.
Clancy was a professional fighting dog before Weise rescued him five years ago. "He is now the dog he was meant to be," she said.
Austin is always telling Weise she can't save every dog, but they both keep trying.
"Look at Clancy, the battle wounds on his face," Austin said. "This dog went through battle rounds. Somebody cut his ears off. He's got 50 scars on his face. He's one of the best. Just like Lori."