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December 13, 2002

A sheltered life

From: San Francisco Chronicle, CA - 13 Dec 2002

Lynne Tingle's Willits ranch offers abandoned animals a second chance

Eve Kushner, Special to The Chronicle

Lynne Tingle looks unrecognizably clean.

Having spent a few days taking a much-needed R&R, she has rid herself of pet hair and "Milo dust." She has finally slept a reasonable amount, so she looks younger than her 44 years. With her baseball cap off and her boyishly cut hair in place, she has transformed herself into a city person again.

Seeing her so neat and presentable, one can almost imagine her at the trendy Berkeley store, The Gardener, where she worked for 10 years after founding it with her mother, Alta Tingle. Trained as a ceramicist, Lynne Tingle also advised The Gardener customers about interior design back then. She fit right in at the Fourth Street shopping mecca.

But her life has changed immeasurably since 1994, when she established the Milo Foundation, a nonprofit, no-kill animal sanctuary, in rural Willits.

These days she inhabits a zoo of a home, complete with a zoo-like aroma. Animals have shredded the couches. Dogs nimbly scale 5-foot-high barriers between rooms, as if using trampolines to bounce from one side to the other. A crush of dogs and cats wait at every door, ready to charge through.

It's as if Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle married Dr. Doolittle and set up house.

Tingle constantly shouts over the barking dogs, calling to each one with the verbal equivalent of a wagging tail: "Brandon! Most handsome boy! Good boy,

Brandon!" But putting animals first has meant sacrificing the "genteel" life she used to know.

Nowadays, when Tingle returns to Fourth Street, she brings a bevy of dogs and cats, having driven them from Willits so she can find them homes. With these "mobile adoptions" -- she also holds them on College Avenue in Oakland outside Redhound -- she finds homes for more than 20 animals each weekend.

Tingle founded Milo -- named after an Australian shepherd of hers who was born deaf and blind -- in response to several grim realities, including Northern California's glut of stray, abandoned and feral animals. Lifestyle changes (such as divorce and death) prompt some people to abandon a pet. Others intentionally breed dogs and cats, seeking profits from the sale of the animals. Many other people neglect to spay or neuter, resulting in unintentional litters. And, of course, dogs and cats run away or get lost. In all cases, they often end up in a shelter.

Upon arriving in "high-kill" shelters, they receive a kill date. If no one has claimed them within the three- or five-day period, they will die -- even if they are healthy and even if the shelter has empty cages.

Tingle says: "A lot of the public is really naive. When they take their pet to an animal shelter, they think the pet is going to be adopted. They just don't get it that an owner-surrendered dog can have as little as five days."

Earlier in her life, she, too, knew little about the realities of animal overpopulation and shelters. Then two pivotal experiences raised her awareness.

In 1983, she intentionally bred two Australian shepherds and, owing to chromosomal complications, ended up with a deaf and blind dog that people encouraged her to euthanize. Instead, she became Milo's "seeing-eye person" and, with the assistance of his canine mother, "developed an amazing amount of communication" with him. Milo became Tingle's steadfast companion until he died in 1998; the foundation is named after him.

"I'm very glad I didn't listen to the masses telling me to put him to sleep, " said Tingle, who calls his birth "the beginning of my education."

The next phase of her education occurred at the Berkeley Animal Shelter, which she visited on lunch breaks from The Gardener, walking the dogs, photographing them and circulating their pictures to increase the chances of adoption. Believing that shelters only euthanized vicious dogs and "old 'n' uglies," she was distraught to learn that high-quality dogs also died, including "really adoptable, sweet dogs." She would walk a dog once and return the next week to find that it had been euthanized.

The Berkeley Animal Shelter has since improved upon this policy, now keeping animals as long as five months, working with rescue groups and euthanizing only those animals with severe medical or temperament problems. But back then the rules frustrated Tingle, who began taking dogs home and posting their photos in veterinary offices so people would adopt them.

She also set about educating animal lovers so they wouldn't "be as naive as I had been."

As her mission gained momentum and she burned out on retailing, with its "heavy focus on inanimate objects and money," she sold her house and her share of The Gardener in 1994 and sought property sufficiently far from neighbors who might not like barking dogs. And amid the objections of family and friends who said she was crazy to leave a life of good food, frequent travel, opera and ceramics, she bought a house on hilly land 10 miles from Willits (which translates into a 30-minute drive on gut-wrenchingly bumpy dirt roads).

Tingle has built similarly horrific roads across her 283-acre property, clearing paths through steep groves of manzanita trees. She quarries stone from a cliff and allegedly uses that to fill potholes, but it's hard to tell. She has also dug wells and installed water lines. With no garbage service in such a rural area, she relies on Lily, part pig and part wild boar, to serve as garbage disposal.

The climactic conditions at Milo Foundation can challenge the urbanized soul. In the beastly hot dry season, dust coats everything. When winter rains come, the dust turns to mud. Tingle also contends with droughts, floods and regular nighttime freezes.

Then there are the animal challenges, namely 300 dogs and cats (Tingle has also housed horses, pigs, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, goats, emus and peacocks, many of which she has placed in homes). Cats inhabit a communal "cathouse," whereas most dogs stay in group pens, sleeping in communal doghouses at night.

Caring for this many animals is no mean feat, and Tingle has needed help since day one, but staffing has always proven difficult. She says some people think "they can just come out here and walk dogs, and it's going to be this sweet, soft-and-fuzzy kind of life. And of course it's anything but. There's a lot of reality that's just hard to deny."

That reality includes feeding animals, endless poop-scooping, walking dogs that live in solitary pens (the others get enough exercise from playing with each other) and vaccinating and deworming animals. Tingle also arranges for vets to spay or neuter each animal.

Annually, the shelter's costs run about $300,000. Funding the organization with corporate and individual donations, grants and adoption fees while continually expanding Milo's facilities, Tingle was unable to pay anyone for the first five years. Several people still work on a volunteer basis. The seven full-time employees now receive $7 to $8 an hour but lack health insurance. Tingle lived off savings and investment dividends until this year, and now is taking a small salary.

Two employees share Tingle's house, and for these three women, the challenges never cease. "Milo's just in your face when you're at Milo," says Tingle. "You're totally responsible for every minute up here. You're taking care of animals. The phone's ringing. You have to cook every meal. You have to make every cup of coffee -- there's no going to Peet's. We flop into bed somewhere between 10 and 2 and collapse. And we're up by 7 with dogs ready to go."

The animal population at Milo changes constantly, with new dogs and cats streaming in and others finding homes. Some animals come from individuals, more than a few of whom disgust Tingle. They tell her, for instance, "It was my daughter's dog, and now she's gone off to college, and I can't keep the dog anymore." Tingle says she thinks, "Well, you didn't take your kid to the shelter!"

Then there are those who "threaten to go shoot their puppies if we don't take them." Affecting a gruff, countrified voice, Tingle imitates their threats: "I'll take the dog out back. Muh husband'll take care of it."

Milo animals come from shelters in Mendocino County, the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California. Shelter employees regularly contact Milo about new arrivals, and Tingle rescues the most adoptable ones -- about 1,000 this year. The rest face euthanasia; Milo simply doesn't have the capacity for them all.

Tina Barney of Willits, Milo's canine coordinator for the past five years, describes this work graphically, saying that Tingle "goes around like an angel and plucks animals up out of the grip of death, taking them away, and giving them a whole new life. It's pretty strong stuff."

Playing God like that could trigger a savior complex or a nervous breakdown,

and Tingle acknowledges that choosing who will live or die is brutal. But "I've gotten used to it," she says, adding with a hearty laugh, "I don't think that I'm any kind of god! It's just, if you let it get under your skin, then you become immobilized, and you can't do anything."

To "swallow the hardships and deal with the death and dying" she focuses on "coming up with solutions as fast as I can and helping more animals. We place or rescue about 1,000 animals (annually) that would otherwise be dead, and that feels pretty good."

Her solutions include a bumper sticker saying "Thank you for not breeding" and a Web site displaying animals' photos and personality descriptions, leading many people to inquire about adoption.

Using her connections with Fourth Street retailers, Tingle concocted the idea of mobile adoptions outside stores. She explains, "We want to put the animals out there in the public eye. When they're in shelters, people won't go and see them, because it's too emotionally difficult. We do so well at our mobile adoptions because they know the animals are fine and safe." She thinks people figure, "I can take one home, and I don't have to feel guilt-ridden, like I have to take home the whole shelter."

Willow Stockwell of Berkeley, who has adopted one Milo dog and fostered five, has felt that very sense of relief: "The animals that I don't choose are not going to be euthanized. That makes me feel a lot better."

Fostering represents another successful Milo innovation, one that appeals immensely to Stockwell. She says, "I got my dog from Milo because of the ability to foster for a two-week period without having to make a decision. They guaranteed that if the dog didn't work out, Milo would take him back."

Tingle envisions a permanent Bay Area storefront where she can display animals seven days a week, bringing unadopted ones back up to Milo and rotating in new animals, so they wouldn't have to stay in small cages for long.

"We would place a ton of animals that way," she says.

Her visionary abilities account for only part of Milo's success. As Barney comments, "A lot of people have the dream. Whenever I say I work at the Milo Foundation, people are like, 'Oh, that's what I want to do someday when I have enough money -- open my own sanctuary.' It's a very happy dream. And if you want to do something good for the world, it's a very direct, altruistic thing. But to make it happen in reality is a lot harder. And then having started it, to keep it going and going and going until you have hundreds of animals, and dealing with all the roadblocks that get thrown up that you may not have thought about in the first place -- I think the vast majority of people would not be able to see it through to the extent that (Tingle) has."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.