Tamara Delany perches on a hearth, struggling not to look too eager. Across the living room sits the answer to her prayers: a potential owner for Token, a homeless 6-year-old Labrador retriever and German shepherd mix. Jim Sinclair, who learned about Token on Delany’s dog-advocacy Web site, has driven all the way to rural Wisconsin from Syracuse and says the meeting feels like an “arranged marriage.” Still, Sinclair, 45, who is autistic, needs a dog that can be trained to recognize faces, voices, curbs. If he senses Token is not the right one, he will pass, confident of finding a better match. For Token, though, as Delany knows only too well, this may be his best—even his only—chance to live.
Token is what is known in the rescue world as a BBD: a big black dog. Shelter workers say these are the canines most at risk of being euthanized. “It’s two strikes,” says Jacque Lynn Schultz, director of the ASPCA’s shelter outreach program. Dogs 50 lbs. and up are “more complicated to keep,” she says, because they require more exercise; as for their dark fur, “They look menacing—people can’t read their facial expressions as easily.” While no study exists that quantifies the problem (“It’s difficult enough to track statistics” of the 6 to 8 million animals that enter shelters each year, says Kim Intino, director of animal-sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States), people devoted to saving homeless dogs find the problem self-evident. “The black dog is definitely more at risk of going to death row than a yellow or tan dog,” says Amy Chase of the Ohio County Animal Shelter in Rising Sun, Ind.
Delany, 43, has made it her mission to champion BBDs. A lifelong animal lover who at age 3 convinced her father to stop hunting, she first stumbled on the grim BBD phenomenon in 2003 when, searching the Internet, she found Jen Wold, a Minnesota woman three hours from Delany’s home in Woodville, Wis., who rescues dogs from dangerous situations and kill shelters, then houses them until they find homes. Wold asked Delany, a former rescue volunteer, to find a home for Jake, a 4-year-old Lab who’d been in the shelter for three years. “He’d been in a couple of different homes, and he kept being returned because he would just wander off properties,” says Delany. “There was nothing wrong with this dog!”
Instantly smitten by the sweet-tempered dog with the distinctive bark, Delany was stunned when, after eight months and a lot of effort attempting to find an owner, Jake still had no family. “To me, Jake was a Ford truck in a dog suit: classy but simple,” she says. On the day Delany decided Jake would fit in just fine with her own household—in addition to two children, Michael, 7, and McKenna, 5, she has two dogs, two horses and a cat—she told her husband, Jim, “These dogs need a Web site.”
In late 2004 Delany inaugurated Contrary to Ordinary: The Black Pearls of the Dog World (www.blackpearldogs.com). A former elementary-school teacher, Delany designed the site not only to showcase individual Labs, shepherds, huskies, mixes and other dark-coated dogs in want of homes, but to educate the public about what animal rescue groups call Black Dog Syndrome. “I want people to become aware that when they decide to adopt a dog, they shouldn’t just look at what the dog looks like,” she says. “They should find the best personality match.”
Her site caught on quickly with rescue and shelter people, who want potential adopters to know about the bias against black dogs. “We can say, ‘Look here, she explains it so well,'” says Chase of the Indiana shelter. Soon Delany was hearing from shelters as far way as Scotland, China and New Zealand, many asking how best to showcase their black dogs. (Some tips: put bright kerchiefs around their necks; photograph them against light backdrops; don’t line up black dogs in adjacent cages.) “What she’s doing is very important in terms of getting people to think about the way the dog will fit into the household instead of the way the dog will match the furniture,” says Suzie Duvall of the Common Sense for Animals shelter in New Village, N.J.
Working almost full-time (and without pay), Delany has helped find homes for about 100 dogs, and her site has helped hundreds more. She hopes others will join her crusade. “What I want is to have someone in California read the site and start their own version in their backyard,” she says. Aware that no individual can rescue all the dogs out there, Delany says the best anyone can do is “take care of the ones that cross your path.”
Like Token. Rescue colleagues had repeatedly told Delany, “Put the dog down. He’ll never make it out of a shelter.” Jim Sinclair did not find him a suitable match. But on May 17 a Minnesota couple decided to take Token home for a weeklong trial. They adopted Token May 27. “Awesome!” says a joyous Delany. “It’s almost too good to be true.”