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The Angel of 'Doggy Death Row'

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For her last day on earth, JoJo, a white American pit bull terrier mix, for once wasn’t living a dog’s life. Her 4-by-10-ft. cell at San Francisco’s animal control center was stocked with a freshly laundered blanket, a stuffed animal and a chew toy. She had a final play session in a fenced yard. Then animal handler Corinne Dowling cradled her in her arms as she led the dog into the shelter’s euthanasia room. At the final moment, Dowling placed one hand over JoJo’s eyes; the other, she had lathered with cream cheese so the dog could lick her fingers as the lethal injection was administered.

In the world’s eyes, JoJo, like many of her compatriots at the San Francisco city pound, was a bad dog. Deemed aggressive and potentially vicious by her owner, she had come there on a one-way ticket—and not for rehabilitation. She was far from the worst of the lot: One notorious former resident, a Presa Canario named Hera, in 2001 killed 33-year-old Diane Whipple, a Pacific Heights college lacrosse coach. But whether they are run-of-the-mill strays or natural-born killers, Dowling, 57, treats all the canines there with compassion. “Some people might say these animals don’t deserve anything,” she says. “But like prisoners on death row, these dogs deserve to be treated humanely. This is simply about respect for life.”

Dowling came to that conclusion well into her own life, after a string of jobs as a legal secretary, gardener and sometime bartender. After 20 years together, she and her late husband, Terry, a musician, adopted Gibson, a homely pit bull with stubby hair. After working with the dog to counter his aggressive streak, Dowling considered opening a dog-walking business, then decided to volunteer at the San Francisco Animal Care and Control center. There, behind a green door that few of her coworkers ever seemed to open, she noticed a group of dogs kept in strict confinement. As her supervisor explained, these were the “custody” dogs. Some were vicious and had bitten people. Others had been abandoned or confiscated from abusive homes. “I don’t know how I can say that I related to those dogs, but I did,” says Dowling. After a period of observation, the pound’s custody dogs are either allowed to return to their owners or they are adopted—or they are destroyed.

In 1999 Dowling founded Give a Dog a Bone, an animal welfare organization dedicated to easing the plight of pound hounds threatened with death. Armed with plush toys, a canvas bag stuffed with dog treats and cans of Cheez Whiz as her secret weapon, she began working with the facility’s least lucky dogs, many confined to cages 24 hours a day. “Dogs are social animals,” says Dowling, who has no formal training in animal behavior. “They need companionship.” Her colleagues sing her praises. “I know she hates it when I say that, but Mother Teresa doesn’t have too much on her,” says shelter director Carl Friedman. “Giving love when you know it’s a finite time is an extraordinary thing.”

She is also, in a sense, giving life. Before Give a Dog a Bone intervened at the shelter, 95 percent of its animals in long-term custody were put to sleep. Six years later, in 2005, that number had fallen to 45 percent, according to Friedman. That’s due in large part to the time Dowling and her dozen volunteers—whose $100,000 annual budget is financed through grants and private donations—spend working with dogs. “Humans domesticated dogs, and we’re responsible for them,” says Dowling, who has 25 to 30 dogs in her care at any one time. “We’re the ones who need to teach them the dos and don’ts of living in our society.”

Four and a half years ago, Terry, Dowling’s husband of 26 years, died of a heart attack while out walking Gibson. “Terry was doing what he loved. I had kissed him goodbye,” she says. Within three weeks, Dowling was back at work, where then, as now, she ends her days with a familiar routine: a walk through the shelter, tossing handfuls of home-mixed kibble into the cages of quarantined dogs. And on those dark days when her work requires her to escort an animal to its death, she tells the dogs—and herself—about a place she calls “doggy heaven.” It’s the place where her husband is, “a huge park, with undulating grass, trees all over the place and dogs gathered in force to meet the new arrival. That’s how I picture it,” she says softly. “And that takes the sadness away.”