Jasper woman follows lifelong path of animal rescue
by Dale Short
Mar 02, 2014 | 2999 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Debra Hatfield with a chihuahua she rescued nine years ago after finding it chained to a tree.
Debra Hatfield with a chihuahua she rescued nine years ago after finding it chained to a tree.
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Debra Hatfield discovered her life’s calling when she was in first grade. And she learned it from an unlikely messenger: a stray chihuahua named for the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. “I’ve just loved animals my whole life,” says Hatfield, a native of Townley who’s approaching her 17th year working for the U.S. Postal Service. “They make it easy for you to love them, and when I see one who’s being mistreated I have to do something. Everybody has a passion, and this is mine.”

Though she’s been rescuing unwanted strays since she was a teenager, her effort went into a higher gear when her daily mail routes gave her a new perspective on the good, bad, and the ugly of the county’s rampant stray animal problem. And while rescuing is not an option when she’s on the job, she frequently goes back after work to follow up on a problem animal. Right now, she’s caring for 19 rescues at home — three cats and 16 dogs, including a chihuahua who bears a striking resemblance to her first Pepé. She estimates about half have become members of the family, but the rest are available to good homes.

“The first thing I do when I bring an animal to the house,” Hatfield says, “is to run a free classified ad, thanks to the Daily Mountain Eagle. Then I get them spayed and neutered and try to place them. I’ve been blessed over the years with people who help. Dr. [Sonny] Springer, for instance, has been our veterinarian since I was 17 years old.”

The most common scenario Hatfield runs across is a dog chained to a tree in a yard, with food and water ranging from sporadic to none at all. “Dogs can survive for days without food,” she says, “but they’ve got to have water. And if they’re chained up, they can’t go around and find them a drink. Usually I’ll go back later and put a bucket of water beside them. Probably in some areas I shouldn’t be wandering around in, but still. People look at me funny.

“But then I go back after a week or so and the bucket’s tipped over, because the water level’s so low they knock it over trying to get a drink. People will say, ‘He just keeps tipping the bucket over,’ and I remind them he’s trying to get to the water. It needs to be kept full.

“The whole key is education. Until people are educated about what’s at stake, then it doesn’t matter. I wonder how people can look a dog in the face, and not see that it’s suffering. I see a soul, there. If I really look a dog in the eye, I’m in trouble. And if I give one a name, then pretty soon it’s part of the family.”

Rescue is a calling that doesn’t come cheap. A part of her twice-monthly paycheck goes for some 200 pounds of dog food, a few bags of cat food, “plus a lot of puppy pads and several bottles of PineSol. But God has blessed me with a good job. I don’t do donations. I’m not a shelter, and not a place to drop pets off. I’m just one person trying to do animal rescue, and I happen to have a lot of them at the moment.

“It’s a joy, but it’s also a cross to bear. In a perfect world, they could all survive and go into great homes. Being with an animal when it has to be put down because it’s beyond help...it breaks my heart every time. I’ve honestly prayed that the passion would go away, because it hurts more than people realize.”

But Hatfield sees many reasons for hope on the horizon. “When you do this for a while, you can feel like you’re the only one out there. But it seems like the Lord keeps putting new people in my path, who are also working to help, but we just don’t know each other yet. The most positive thing I’ve seen in Walker County in a long time is this big network of people who are connecting on social media. “There’s a new group in town called Walker Strays who are doing wonderful things, including transporting animals out of the area to no-kill shelters all over the U.S., because at the moment we don’t have a no-kill shelter here. For instance, the last three puppies I rescued went to Tampa, and I’ve got one more leaving March 1 for Orlando. They’re on Facebook, and people post pictures.

“And there are a number of programs to help people who are low-income, or just getting by, with discounts on spaying and neutering their pets. There are coupons in the paper every couple of weeks for the facility; sometimes it’s as low $5 for cats and $15 for dogs. And they even provide a van to come out and pick the animals up.”

In the meantime, Hatfield keeps an eye out for animals in trouble and tries to help educate owners when the opportunity presents itself.

“When people put puppies out on the side of the road, I don’t see how they sleep at night,” she says. “Walker Strays has transported more than 400 dogs out of the county and surrounding areas in the past year, and it’s barely making a dent because we have so many. Some day I hope to see a big, new no-kill shelter here, but that’s not happening any time soon.

“What it comes down to is, if people would just spay and neuter it would help so much. If one person could save one animal, it would make a huge difference.”

Dale Short’s e-mail address is dale.short@gmail.com)