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WAG on the march

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It’s a Saturday lunchtime. You are having a day off the hill, avoiding the weekend crowds and giving your weary legs a well-earned break. Your stomach is rumbling so you head through the village to get a bite to eat. You hear them before you see them: the dogs of Whistler, on parade. For a town that loves their dogs as much as this one, it’s no surprise that Whistler has its own Dog Parade.

What may be a surprise, however, is that in an animal loving town such as this, only three years ago the local animal shelter was on the brink of closure. This small, but very worthwhile shelter is called Whistler Animals Galore, or WAG for short.

Founded in 1982 by dedicated animal lovers Dorothy Sabey and Debbie Chow, WAG began as an animal shelter and rescue service, primarily servicing the Whistler area. Dorothy felt there was a need for such a service due to the large population of animals in Whistler. The organization’s aim is now clearly stated as, "Protecting and enhancing the lives of lost, unwanted and homeless animals."

WAG has expanded to service the Sea to Sky corridor, but considering where it has come from it’s amazing WAG is still running. It has come from the brink of closure to being a thriving, essential part of Whistler’s animal-loving community.

David MacPhail, who has been involved with WAG since the beginning, describes the situation with WAG about three years ago as desperate.

"The co-ordinator had quit and I was the only one left on the board. I was basically left to turn off the lights and go home," McPhail says.

At that time WAG had no shelter, no volunteer program, no publicity and relied solely on foster homes for the animals that were left in its care.

At that same time, in Toronto, Jodi Stockfish, who was working in the public affairs department for the Bank of Montreal, decided that the time was right to finally get out of the city and move to British Columbia. Her original destination was Kelowna, but she met up with an old university friend and instead came to Whistler.

Jodi had always been an animal lover, spending time on farms as a child, volunteering at a kennel looking after 65 English foxhounds during university, and in Toronto volunteering for the Community Ride Association for the Disabled and with Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Once in Whistler she volunteered with Puppy Zone, and after a while, found her destiny with WAG.

She called MacPhail out of an interest in helping with WAG. As he tells it, they met for lunch, shared similar ideas and goals for the shelter and Jodi was handed the task of turning the virtually bankrupt WAG around. Little did she know at that time the impact this small animal shelter with big ideas, would have on her life.

As Jodi describes it, when she came into WAG it was in a negative position. Now, two and a half years later, it is gradually moving onwards and upwards. David credits the current success of WAG to Jodi and her inspirational ideas.

"Hats off to Jodi. She gave WAG a fundamental change in direction," MacPhail says.

WAG began to increase its presence in the community through advertising and marketing a recognizable image. Within a year WAG had corporate sponsorship and the ability to expand.

Projects such as WAG-TV (four episodes, five times a day on Whistler Cable) and the WAG Web site (www.wag.whistlerweb.com) were launched and continue to be successful in spreading WAG’s message around the world. Jodi knows of many visitors to WAG who have heard of it solely through the Web site.

Autumn 2000 saw many new development’s with WAG.

"In August 2000, WAG and the Municipal Pound were successful in implementing a merger," Jodi says. "WAG is now officially running and funding 100 per cent of the day-to-day operation of the shelter."

This meant that WAG now had a shelter, albeit small, in which to house the animals. WAG also took on responsibility for all lost, homeless and unwanted animals in the Sea-to Sky corridor.

Two of these animals would become very special to Jodi. Jed McBubbs, an English foxhound, was the first animal she adopted. Then came Princess Jakey. Both of Jodi’s dogs have special needs, which had made them difficult to adopt. Jed is a submissive urinator who cannot be taken off a leash, but Jodi has cared for him for a year now. Jakey was brought in from Squamish and he has severe separation anxiety which requires a lot of attention and patience, which Jodi has shown since June last year.

An essential volunteer program was also implemented last fall. Jodi says the volunteers are crucial to WAG and its on-going success. She estimates that on average, at least four new people come in every day to volunteer their time helping with animals.

"The volunteer gets from WAG what he or she puts into it… working and playing with animals is a very rewarding and spiritual experience," Jodi says.

She estimates WAG has about 50 volunteers who put in different amounts of time but equal amounts of love, care and attention to the animals. They range in age, nationality and experience but all share a deep love of animals. One volunteer takes the dogs to her house for sleepovers. They watch movies, sleep on her bed and they have been known to go cross-country skiing.

The volunteers’ interaction with the animals helps WAG understand the animals’ personalities, likes and dislikes. It also helps the dogs who, like anyone, enjoy sleepovers and watching movies.

This volunteer program is crucial to understanding the Wag Way. The volunteers who come from places such as Australia and Japan to experience helping with the animals, the vets who perform life-saving operations and the local volunteers who give their time and dedication to care for the animals are all part of the WAG Way. It’s described simply as, "embracing the human-animal relationship in its many forms."

Jodi admits that the WAG adoption screening process is rigorous and highly selective. Potential adopters have been denied because she believes that they would not be suited to the animal. WAG’s aim is to house every animal in their care in one home for life, and so far they have had a 100 per cent success rate. Often the owners stay in touch with WAG and update them on their animal’s development, which Jodi appreciates and encourages.

One such dog who was adopted was Big Benny Littletree, a St. Bernard-malamute cross. He was brought to WAG from Pemberton by his owners, because he was "packing." Benny and other dogs would hunt down cats, small dogs and livestock. It was decided that a farming community like Pemberton was not the best place for Benny. Jodi says many people came to see Benny intending to adopt him but were refused because their situations were not suitable for him.

The volunteers spent a lot of time with Benny, determining his personality, likes and dislikes and especially his interaction with the other dogs. Although he was not the instigator of the pack, his past behaviour was still a concern for WAG and an issue for any potential adopters.

Then, Mike and Linda, a couple from Schwartz Bay whose daughter lived in Whistler, saw Benny on the WAG Web site and were interested in adopting him. They came to Whistler, met Benny and talked to Jodi, who told them all about him. Eventually a perfect match was made. Benny now keeps WAG up to date with his adventures by regular e-mails (on the WAG Web site under Donations, Testimonials and Updates), which tire him out but amuse everyone at WAG.

As for WAG’s aims for the future, Jodi and David are still very ambitious. The main project is expanding and improving the current shelter so that WAG is able to house more animals. Jodi is also, like many animal lovers, passionate about controlling the pet population through spaying and neutering programs. Every animal who comes into WAG’s care is immediately taken to one of their two participating veterinary clinics for any necessary treatment, which is essential but is also a big drain on their resources.

Fund-raising is an essential part of the WAG program, as the organization funds 100 per cent of its day-to-day operations at the shelter. New fund-raising initiatives include Club WAG, which is in partnership with Whistler-Blackcomb. For $15 ($10 of which goes directly to WAG), your pet can have his or her own pass. It does not enable them to strap on their ski boots and go up the hill but it is a unique, fun novelty item that is sure to be the accessory to have for the next season.

Another fund-raising event that is sure to be a big success is this year’s Whistler DogFest 2001, which has expanded from last year’s Dog Day and Parade, and will be held this Sunday, April 15. There will be competitions ranging from dog and owner lookalike contests to best costume, agility dog displays and the fourth annual Dog Parade through the village. Local doggie businesses will have booths with information on their services and WAG will have a stand-alone booth where people can find out more about the shelter and its volunteer and adoption programs.