Animal lover

Ask Dawn Hall for one of her favorite animal adoption stories, and she responds with a long silence – there are just too many.

The Haiku resident has been the executive director of the Hawaii Animal Rescue Foundation, or HARF, since 2011, when she co-founded the organization with President Penny Dearborn. The group, which shelters as many as 45 dogs at a time with foster families across Maui, works to place animals with permanent families through community adoption drives. Hall said that the no-kill program helps fill a gap in a community where the population of homeless pets has exceeded existing services.

“There was no one really picking up the slack,” she said.

Hall had always been an animal lover (“I was the one picking up rescue bunnies on my way home from school and the bird with the broken wing,” she said), but had spent 20 years building her career in mortgage lending and real estate financing when the economic downturn struck in 2008 and she found herself looking for a new line of work.

She had served on the board of Habitat for Humanity, and a fellow board member told her she’d be a good fit for the nonprofit sector, suggesting she apply for an opening at the Maui Humane Society. She got the job and ended up serving as director of development for two-and-a-half years. With her love of animals, “it was a dream job,” she said.

While there, she met Dearborn, who was director of animal care. The two ended up leaving the agency around the same time, but found themselves continuing to be “bombarded” with inquiries from people in the community who needed help finding homes for animals.

“We kind of started taking in an animal here and there, and trying to rehome them, and that’s how HARF started,” she recalled.

Since then, the program has expanded to take in more animals through the support of more than 200 volunteers who help out by fostering dogs and puppies until they can find permanent families, or assisting with HARF’s weekly adoption drives at Whole Foods in Kahului. To date, they have found homes for more than 1,500 dogs.

“Thank God for our volunteers,” Hall said. “They give their heart and soul.”

The group also partners with groups including the Maui Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which provides spay/neuter services, and Valley Isle Animal Rescue, which takes in stray and lost animals after-hours.

HARF also works with the Maui Humane Society by taking in some of the shelter’s “at risk” dogs – such as puppies that need to be bottle-fed, or injured pets that need time to recover – and putting them under the care of foster families.

While the organization has not yet expanded to cats and other small pets, it has assisted with the rescue of six horses so far, most of them cases of abuse or severe neglect. HARF doesn’t have authority to remove a neglected horse, but “in some cases we’ve bought the horses to get them out of harm’s way, and in other cases we’ve negotiated with the owner to give them to us.”

With the help of experienced foster families, veterinary care, close supervision and a specialized diet, five of the horses recovered, while a sixth – which had arrived nearly 400 pounds underweight – eventually died.

“Unfortunately, we got him too late,” Hall said.

Looking ahead, Hall and Dearborn hope to see HARF continue to grow. Goals for 2014 include growing the number of volunteers, especially foster families, and speeding up the adoption process to increase their turnover of animals.

“Our record is we got an animal surrendered to us, and 20 minutes later it was adopted,” Hall recalled, although other animals have waited as long as a year and a half to find a home.

Long term, they are actively searching for land to build a permanent shelter facility. And Hall wants to see the organization become self-sustaining. Currently HARF is supported by individual donations and grants from private foundations but receives no government grants. The organization has no paid employees, and Hall and Dearborn donate all the time they put in.

“We’ve both given up a lot and drained our savings and retirement to do this, so it’s an all-in effort for us,” Hall said. “But we do hope to be paid someday – we can’t do this forever.”

But so far, the success stories make it all worthwhile. After trying to think of her favorite adoption story, Hall finally settles on Robbie – a friendly Lab/pit bull mix with a winning smile and a heart that was open to everybody.

It took more than a year for Robbie to get adopted, but when he did it was a perfect match. The Haiku couple who took him home loved him, and Robbie instantly bonded with their timid female pit bull, helping her come out of her shell.

Happy ending? Not quite. Just a month after he was adopted, Robbie went missing. His frantic family and volunteers from HARF searched everywhere for him, put up posters around the neighborhood, called the Humane Society and even sent rappelers down into the ravine near their house to search for him – all to no avail. Robbie was gone.

Fast forward two long months.

“On Christmas morning, the owner went outside, and coming in through the gate was Robbie,” she said.

The adventurous dog had roved too far from home and fallen into the ravine, breaking his leg. After weeks of healing, he was strong enough to climb out – and he headed straight for home.

A year later, “he’s never left the house again,” Hall said. “Now he’s very fat and sleeps on the couch.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at “Neighbors” and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.