For as long as she can remember, Cleo Sterling has been a “critter” person. But it was during the summer of 1994 that her love for animals launched her on a trajectory that continues to bring her joy, frustration, enthusiasm, dismay and hope — often all in one day.
“Every once in a while, I think, how did I get myself into this?” Sterling says.
Back in the early 1990s, Sterling was a regular visitor to Pets-N-More, then a pet store in the Heights. Whenever she had free time, she’d stop by and play with the resident cats. Then one day, she heard dogs barking at the back of the store. It turned out the store had become an informal county dog pound, with the owners taking in stray or unwanted dogs with the hope of finding homes for them.
Sterling immediately volunteered to help. One day a week, she took a dog from the store and sat in front of Safeway hoping to find it a home — and to “let people know there was a pound here.” After about a year, the store no longer had the pound contract. Sterling still wanted to help, but wasn’t sure how.
Then one night, she awoke suddenly at 4 a.m. with the letters P-R-O-D on her mind. “I said to myself, Promoting Responsible Ownership of Dogs,” Sterling recalls. “Then I said, What is this?” She’d gone to sleep the night before having “no idea that I was going to start this organization,” she says. “But suddenly the ideas just came to me. I was inspired.”
That was eight years ago this fall. Since then, the non-profit organization she started has found homes for nearly 300 unwanted dogs in Hood River, Wasco, Klickitat and Skamania counties. Its highly successful spay/neuter program, Petfix, operated in conjunction with local veterinarians, has “fixed” more than 3,300 dogs and cats. A well-attended education series called “Dog Talks” will start its third year next spring. And two funds — the Good Samaritan Fund and Frankee’s Fund — help pay vet costs for rescued dogs.
Until last spring, the non-profit organization was run from Sterling’s home in Underwood, Wash. But after 7½ years of fielding phone calls on her home phone, tirelessly taking in unwanted dogs (she and her husband have fostered more than 200 of them in their home over the years) and searching — sometimes in vain — for good homes for them, Sterling was burned out.
Last spring, Sterling and PROD volunteers decided to move the organization’s headquarters to a small office at 209 Oak Street in Hood River. The move has eased some of the burden on Sterling. A core of a half-dozen volunteers rotates staffing the office Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sterling now has more time to concentrate on PROD’s multiple programs, including the most time-consuming of them, the dog foster care program. At one time, Sterling had more than a dozen people who were regular foster care providers, keeping unwanted and stray dogs in their home temporarily while PROD searched for a permanent home. Now there are only a handful of volunteers involved in the program.
“We need more,” Sterling says. “It’s barely alive.” Sterling has gotten more stringent about the foster care program and the dogs that PROD allows into it. Since the goal of foster care is finding a permanent home for the dog, Sterling wants to make sure the dog is capable of being a compatible and non-threatening addition to someone’s home.
“Fostering dogs and placing them in the community is a serious business that I don’t take lightly,” Sterling says. Most of the dogs that come to PROD’s foster care program are strays, with unknown histories. Sterling has developed a “stress test” she puts dogs through before accepting them.
“I try to frighten them to see what kind of response we get,” Sterling says. She opens an umbrella near them, “acts like a crazy person” and does other things to see how the dog reacts.
“If there’s any sign of aggression to people, we don’t take them,” she says. “You’ve got to have a dog who’s friendly with kids, other dogs, cats. It’s hard to put your foot down, but that’s the way it is. It’s a hard business to be in. You’re on an emotional roller coaster.”
Sterling is equally stringent about finding the right home for every PROD dog. When a person or family calls about adopting a dog, they’re interviewed extensively.
“I ask all sorts of questions,” Sterling says. “I hold out until I find the right home for the right dog.” As a result, Sterling says PROD has “very few dogs that come back to us.”
“Finding the right person for the right dog is the goal,” she says. “You want this to be the (dog’s) final destination.” Even after a dog is placed, Sterling continues to check in periodically with the new owners to make sure the situation is working out for both dog and owner.
“I think that’s the only way to find out how you’re impacting the community,” Sterling says. In a recent survey, PROD found that 86 percent of the dogs it had placed over a four-year period were still in the original home.
Throughout all of PROD’s programs, education is one of the primary goals.
“I would love to figure out how to educate people who own dogs to help them give the dogs what they need to be good companions,” says Sterling, who thinks too many people “give up on their dogs.” The Dog Talks program, which brings experts on dog behavior to give presentations at community forums, is part of that effort. PROD also hosts informational programs in schools — primarily in Washington — that teach kids how to properly care for their pets. Even the Petfix spay/neuter program is, at its core, an educational effort; PROD uses Humane Society of the United States statistics to inform people that 13,800 dogs and cats are euthanized every day in animal shelters in the U.S.
“The fewer you bring into the world, the fewer you have to find homes for,” Sterling says. PROD and five local vet clinics — Alpine Veterinary Hospital, Columbia Gorge Veterinary Clinic, Tucker Road Animal Hospital, Upper Valley Veterinary Clinic and All Animal Care Clinic — work together to provide 50 percent off the cost of spaying or neutering dogs and cats to those who qualify financially.
PROD also provides funds for spaying/neutering to people who have rescued a stray dog or cat.
Despite the ups and downs of her job, Sterling continues to come up with ideas for new programs and ways to improve the welfare of the dog population in the Mid-Columbia. But — ever-thankful to the PROD volunteers and the time they give to the organization — she’s limited by the resources she has to work with.
“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” she says. “It’s finding the manpower to do it.”
Sometimes her job — and the often unsavory realities that go along with it — overwhelms her. Depending on the day, she wavers between “seeing the glass as half full or half empty,” Sterling says.
“Then I have to remind myself to take a look behind me and see what we’ve accomplished.”