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Homeless Dogs Find a Pal in Pali Boucher
By Erica Kohnke
Where Pali Boucher goes, the dogs are sure to follow. Tangled leashes, wagging tails, and crowds of admirers cluster on the sidewalk when this chatty woman with the bright red hair takes her dogs for an afternoon stroll in Noe Valley.
But Boucher is not a pet sitter. Nor are her dogs ordinary pooches, pampered by well-heeled owners. These eager canines are "Hopalong" dogs, and every single one is up for adoption. "Each person who stops to pet them learns they are foster dogs," says Boucher, as she steers her peppy brood down 24th Street.
A passionate dog lover (and portrait artist), Boucher has found homes for dozens of dogs by tirelessly parading their friendly faces, discussing their irresistible qualities, and posting their pictures in neighborhood stores and cafes. Some of her local pinup spots are V.I.P. Grooming, Diamond Corner Cafe, Just for Fun, and Terra Mia pottery studio.
For the past two years, Boucher has been the sole San Francisco representative for Hopalong Animal Rescue, an Oakland-based group that finds homes for abandoned pets and strays. Founded six years ago, the organization was named Hopalong, she says, "after a three-legged cat that was our first foster cat."
By accepting the pet overflow from Bay Area shelters, Hopalong has saved more than two thousand dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens from Death Row. The group especially targets those animals who wind up at a "kill shelter," where they are in danger of being euthanized if they stay more than four days.
According to Boucher, Hopalong flags the most adoptable animals, and then urgently recruits foster homes or new owners within the four-day time period. Boucher runs one such foster home, keeping up to four dogs at a time, or a litter of puppies, in her rented apartment (with yard) in Bernal Heights.
"It's like a big huge doghouse. I have my art projects and pictures on the walls, but the place is mostly filled with dog toys. My bed is surrounded by a bunch of little dog beds, so I can keep an eye on 'em," laughs the 36-year-old Boucher.
The dogs she takes care of rarely come with known histories, but Boucher does her best to read each animal's demeanor and expression and paint a full picture for potential owners.
"Dexter is a sweetie," she says, looking into the eyes of her latest charge. "He was probably living with a homeless person who may have been arrested."
Homeless herself for 20 years -- her mother died when she was 11 -- Boucher developed an enormous empathy for homeless dogs while living on the street with her own dog, Leadbelly. Leadbelly, a big quiet black and tan coonhound, remains a patient fixture in her sometimes chaotic home. However, a dog Boucher had before him was not so lucky. "He was 'put down' in the shelter when I was arrested while I was homeless," she says, still visibly affected by the loss.
Four and a half years ago, Boucher entered a drug and alcohol treatment program called Good Shepherd Gracenter. She credits the nuns there, as well as close friends (with and without fur), with helping her pull herself up by her bootstraps and find a place of her own.
Now that she has her own pad, Boucher, who is also HIV positive, wants to devote herself to helping other creatures who are down on their luck.
She has scouted for homes for her animals all over San Francisco, but says her favorite destination is Noe Valley. Since she doesn't own a car, Boucher often rides the bus to the neighborhood, a puppy tucked under each arm.
"People in Noe Valley are really open to the love of animals. They are gentle people without the pressurized life of other people in the city," she says. "Lots of Noe Valley families are very supportive of rescuing dogs. Everybody will stop to pet them, and when they see me, I can see their brains clicking. They're thinking, Who do I know who needs a dog?"
Her fastest adoption took place within about an hour on 24th Street. "I started at Rory's Ice Cream, and by the time I got down to the Real Food Company, this woman who had been following me caught up to me and said, 'Is that the dog on the flyer?' She came over to my house that night and adopted the dog."
Boucher places an average of two dogs a month. "I just had another dog adopted in Noe Valley -- a cattle dog mix named Frito whose new name is Jackson. He's got two moms in Noe Valley, and he's very happy now."
Although she loves and names each dog she takes in, Boucher makes it clear from the start that the arrangement is not permanent. "I tell the dogs that I am taking care of them for a while, while they wait for their Real Home."
Their Real Homes have to jump through some hoops too, since Hopalong is careful about who adopts the dogs. "We ask them a lot of questions," says Bou-cher. "Did they have a dog in the past? Are they ready for the commitment?"
While the organization is not willing to give up these special animals to just anyone, when the right person comes along, Boucher says it's always clear. "The dogs let you know when a person is right. They simply walk away with the new person without looking back."
Twenty-seventh Street resident Ann Fischer Hecht and her adopted dog were one such match. When Hecht saw a Hopalong poster featuring a dog with the same name as her son, Dylan, it caught her eye, and she decided to consider adoption. The chemistry was apparent as soon as she arrived at Boucher's house.
"We put the baby on the floor by the dog and stood waiting to intervene if anything happened," says Hecht. "Just then, the baby stuck his fingers right into the dog's nostrils."
The dog, now named Hunter, took the nostril-poking calmly, and joined the household soon thereafter. "It was amazing," Hecht says. "We also liked the idea of getting a rescue dog who had something of a hard past, and we weren't prepared to have a non-housebroken dog."
Hopalong has taken in every kind of dog since it began operations in 1993, from mixed-breed to purebred, from puppies to elder statesmen. Hounds, cockers, and beagles have all temporarily nested at the Boucher residence, where an excited chorus of barking greets each visitor. "Right now I have the cutest Brittany spaniel. He's 8 months, 35 to 40 pounds, and white with black dots, so his name's Dotz," says Boucher, ever the cheerleader.
Still, Boucher is quick to point out that more help is needed for Hopalong Rescue. Her apartment is the organization's only permanent foster home in San Francisco, she says. If more foster homes are established, more dogs and cats can be pardoned.
Boucher adds that Hopalong is seeking veterinarians who can donate time or give price reductions for spaying, neutering, and immunizing the pets. Each animal is spayed or neutered and given its shots before it is adopted. Because of this cost, the group asks new owners to pay an $80 adoption fee.
To adopt a dog from Hopalong, to inquire about becoming a foster home (typical foster homes host only one cat or dog at a time), or to donate pet supplies or money, call Boucher at (415) 642-4786. To inquire about adopting a cat, leave a message at Hopalong's main number in the East Bay, (510) 655-7895. Hopalong is also looking for assistance in running adoption events and transporting animals.
"And if you have a dog," Boucher adds, "always give that dog a hug."
Pali Boucher will display her dog portraits -- she does black-and-white photos, as well as paintings on ceramic plates-- at a group art show, "Positive Women, Positive Art," March 6 and 7 at Teodosia Gallery, 430A Cortland Ave.