Extraordinary person: Rebecca Guinn saves countless dogs and cats

Rebecca Guinn was a white-collar criminal defense attorney when a cry of a red-haired dog changed the direction of her life.

It all started in 2001 when Guinn heard the loud howling of a dog whose paw was caught in a barbed-wire fence near her home in Avondale Estates. She called animal control to help release the dog, leading to a series of events that made clear to her the harsh reality facing unwanted pets.

She visited the shy, sweet dog she helped at the DeKalb County animal shelter. At the first visit, the local shelter was noisy and overflowing with dogs and cats. But just a few days later, the place was eerily quiet. Almost all the dogs she had seen a few days earlier were dead.

Guinn feverishly researched the issue, and found, according to Stopping Pet Overpopulation Together, a group that gathers statistics from 20 local shelters, close to 100,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in metro Atlanta in 2001. Even the mixed-breed dog she found snarled in the fence — a perfectly healthy, cute and sweet dog — was scheduled to be put down after his owner never came to the shelter to claim him.

“I worked hard to become an attorney and had an affinity for being a criminal justice lawyer, but I saw something that really needed to change,” she said.

Guinn attended a Best Friends conference and shortly afterward, created a network of services called LifeLine Animal Project in 2002. She started by creating a website to help spread the word about available pets.

She eventually left her law firm to focus on saving dogs and cats.

Over the past 15 years, Guinn, now 58, has helped lead new, innovative ways to help find homes for dogs and cats in shelters. She helped transform the way animal shelters operate, ultimately leading to a dramatic drop in the number of dogs and cats who are euthanized.

In 2013, LifeLine Animal Project took over operations at both DeKalb and Fulton County Animal Services. LifeLine has helped both shelters lower their euthanasia rates from historic highs of 85 percent to less than 15 percent. LifeLine Animal Project, a nonprofit, is contracted by DeKalb and Fulton counties to manage their animal shelters. At the same time, LifeLine raises $2 million in donations annually to cover community outreach programs, extensive medical costs and marketing programs.

Dogs and cats with several broken bones, severely malnourished, neglected dogs and cats — all get a fighting chance.

They include Mason, a 4-month-old Yorkie who arrived in LifeLine’s Fulton County Animal Services shelter in 2015 with severe chemical burns to his eyes and covering most of his body. LifeLine rushed him to specialists for emergency treatment and began raising money to cover medical bills. Even though it was questionable whether Mason would pull through, the pup gained back his eyesight and made a complete recovery. He has since been adopted by a local family.

There’s also Bookie, a dog with paralyzed back legs brought into LifeLine’s DeKalb County Animal Services shelter after his owners were evicted from their home. His owners wanted him back, so LifeLine agreed to take care of the spunky dog until the owners could get back on their feet. The staff and volunteers hated to see the dog dragging his paralyzed legs behind him. Bookie stayed at the shelter for only nine days. Meanwhile, the staff pitched in to buy Bookie a doggie wheelchair.

LifeLine is currently caring for a dog named Mius (and raising money to cover an operation), who was shot in the back and has a bullet lodged near his spine.

“In the rescue community, there’s so much passion and intensity, and sometimes that intensity can be overwhelming. It is life and death,” said Anisa Telwar Kaicker, board chair of LifeLine Animal Project. “Rebecca’s passion has always been really focused on long-term solutions. Rebecca has always been very grounded, very calm. Not many people could do what she does on a daily basis.”

RELATED: DeKalb County wants to stop euthanizing dogs and cats

In 2003, LifeLine Animal Project opened its first shelter in Avondale Estates designed for dogs and cats with special needs, such as those with heartworms or those having been abused, often the first to be put down in many shelters. Guinn also started low-cost spay-and-neuter clinics. And she has worked to fill a void in helping feral cats, creating a program designed to decrease the population but also to care for the existing wild homeless kitties. With the help of volunteers, her organization has trapped, fixed and released 37,720 feral cats. Volunteers also help feed them.

“She has a real drive to make things better for animals, for communities. It’s not an in-your-face determination; it’s a quiet determination to stop cruelty and make things better. She is also tenacious and you have to be. It can break you — faced with the massive issue of pet overpopulation in Atlanta and surrounding areas,” said Victoria Stilwell, a local, well-known dog trainer who’s the host of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog.”

With the help of dedicated staff and a network of volunteers, LifeLine has introduced several programs to help find homes for homeless dogs and cats. Programs include Dog for the Day program, where volunteers can take a dog out of the shelter for the day. The dogs get a break from shelter life, and spend time with potential adopters. A Sleepover Program is a similar program giving shelter pups a night out, and potential adopters a chance to get to know the dog better. Surrender counselors talk to people about why they are turning in their pets to try to see if they can help pet owners keep their pet by helping them get a fence or providing veterinary care.

All the while, Guinn is known for remaining calm, steadfast, focused.

This past summer, DeKalb County got a shelter stretching more than 33,000 square feet. The place is airy and bright, well-ventilated, with special bonding rooms for potential new owners, an outdoor walking area and a barn area for horses, pigs and other farm animals.

The new shelter marks a strong contrast from the county’s old animal shelter, located behind an incinerator near the county jail, which had serious health hazards, including bug infestations and mold, according to a 2012 report from the citizen task force. It always smelled, there were drainage problems and the air conditioning didn’t always work.

As Guinn walked around the new DeKalb animal shelter, she took notice of a bright pink sheet of paper on a bulletin board that said, “Save Rate: 85.8 percent.”

She smiled — but ever so slightly.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” said Guinn. “The prevailing mindset used to be animals were sent to shelters to die, and that norm has changed for good. … But we want to see that number over 90 percent.”

And while the new shelter is a more cheerful place, the best part is the animals rarely stay here very long. The average length of stay is about only 20 days.

As far as that dog Guinn found back in 2001, Guinn named him Rudy and found him a loving home.

It was bittersweet because the woman who adopted Rudy was diagnosed with cancer and died.

“But Rudy was the light of her life,” said Guinn. “This dog was going to be killed, but he’s such a special dog and he illustrated everything we do.”

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