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By Lorraine Sanders
As victims of tragedy know all too well, what takes years to build can suffer destruction in a matter of moments. That sad truth hit home, quite literally, for Rocket Dog Rescue founder Pali Boucher just days before Christmas, when fire sent her Ellsworth Street apartment near Bernal Heights up in flames, claiming the lives of five defenseless animals.
Around 11 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 21, Boucher, whose monthly 24th Street adoption fairs have brought dogs into many a loving Noe Valley home, laid out blankets and fresh water for three foster dogs in her care. Three additional dogs, Boucher's own pets, were out on their regular Friday walk with a dog walker. She said goodbye to the dogs, her cheeky pet parrot Chester, and an injured pigeon she had taken in, before heading to the Noe Valley Pet Company to buy food.
"I gave all of them little kisses and said, 'I'll be back,' and within minutes, there was so much devastation," Boucher recalls.
Rocket Dog founder Pali Boucher lost her home and five animals in a fire Dec. 21. But she will continue her dog rescue mission with the help of friends and her trusty hound Elwood. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Not a half-hour after she'd left, Boucher received a call from a neighbor. Her house, the top floor in a duplex with a yard for the dogs to play in, was on fire. When she arrived at the scene soon after, seven firetrucks were there, but her apartment and all its contents had already been eaten up by the flames. The cause of the fire was pegged on faulty wiring inside the building's walls.
"Everything in the house was destroyed. The windows were blasted out, all the clothes gone, my art was smashed. Even the smoke alarm had melted down the wall. But the damage was the loss of the animals. I have a really difficult time figuring out how to make sense of that," Boucher said with obvious difficulty.
Parrot and 3 Dogs Among Victims
Boucher had known Chester, the parrot, longest. He came into Boucher's life as an egg 10 years ago, when an HIV-positive friend and bird rescuer gave him to her. Boucher, who is HIV-positive herself, hand-fed Chester when he hatched, and fashioned a soft-sided birdcage into a souped-up bird backpack, complete with toys, seed cups, and curtains, so she could take the parrot with her wherever she went. When Boucher's friend later died of AIDS, the bird lived on as a constant symbol of their friendship.
Then there was Stewie the World's Most Diabolical Chihuahua (a.k.a. Stewie for short), a 10-month-old, five-pound bundle of nerves when Boucher rescued him from San Francisco's Animal Care and Control during the fall. On their first meeting, Boucher spent over an hour trying to coax him to her so she could take him home--to no avail.
"Finally, I just threw a blanket on him and scooped him up and took him out of there," she said. "He was so afraid, but every day was a better day for him."
Boucher rescued Guthrie, an old blind German shepherd, over Thanksgiving weekend after a couple driving to the Bay Area found him on the side of Highway 5 near Santa Barbara and deposited him in a San Francisco shelter. At the time of the fire, Boucher had been actively trying to find his previous owners by contacting shelters and organizations in the Santa Barbara area.
The third dog killed in the fire was Daisy, a red-hued pit bull Boucher had rescued from Animal Care and Control just days beforehand. "She had been starved to the point of near death," Boucher said, remembering when she first met Daisy. "But she loved her crate, and she was just so happy to be safe."
For Boucher, whose journey from homeless drug addict to champion for animals has been chronicled by media outlets like Animal Planet and is slated to become the subject of a forthcoming film by documentary filmmaker Robert Epstein, the experience of losing animals she was trying to save cuts deeply.
"I've really devoted my life and given up a lot of things normal people have, like nice furniture and relationships, with the understanding that it was all for the animals. For something like this to happen, I just feel like I failed."
Thousands Saved Since 2001
Though still battling sadness over the fire's havoc, Boucher takes solace in knowing that the organization she founded in 2001 has grown from a tiny, one-woman operation to a network of some 45 foster homes that have saved over 3,000 animals from death in shelters.
"I was so stricken with the grief and the loss of the animals...and the feeling of remembering that the animals died [in my house], but then I remembered that thousands of animals have been saved," she said.
Today, Boucher and her dogs Elwood, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Muddy Waters are living temporarily at Kositas Pet Grooming in Bernal Heights. Boucher is uncertain whether she'll be able to return to her former home, but has not ruled out the possibility.
In the meantime, she and the dedicated volunteers who run Rocket Dog Rescue are getting on with the business of what they do best: saving animals. Since the fire, the organization has continued to rescue at-risk shelter dogs and place them into foster homes until they can be offered for adoption.
Boucher and her pals still sit in front of Zephyr Real Estate on 24th Street from noon to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month (Feb. 3 this month), hoping to introduce their four-legged friends to sympathetic passersby. They also bring their dogs to the Castro BofA the third Sunday of the month.
And while Rocket Dog Rescue is helping dogs to find new homes, the organization itself is searching for a home for its Urban Sanctuary Project, which has been part of Rocket Dog Rescue's fundraising efforts since long before the fire. The goal? To purchase and convert a warehouse or other suitable space inside or outside city limits into a facility that would not only house rescued dogs until they could find new homes, but also serve as a community center and operational headquarters for the organization. That goal has become all the more important in recent weeks.
"My house has always been the safety net. My house was very actively rescue central. I was very lucky," Boucher said.
Slim's will hold a benefit for Rocket Dog Rescue on Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m., featuring Marga Gomez, among others. Another fundraising event is tentatively planned for March at Terra Mia Studio in Noe Valley. For more information about the events, donations, adoptions, and the Urban Sanctuary Project, contact Rocket Dog Rescue at 415-642-4786 or visit www.rocketdogrescue.com.