The country legend, featured on the upcoming PBS series Shelter Me: Partners for Life, chats animal foster care and giving pets a second chance

By Madison Vain
Updated October 09, 2015 04:19 PM
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Emmylou Harris began her inspiring journey in animal welfare activism after Bonaparte, her people-friendly poodle mix and 10-year tour companion, died suddenly in 2002.

“He was so easy,” she tells PEOPLE. “He was a great traveler, so good on the bus and with people. I just thought to take him one day and then for the next 10 years he came with me everywhere.”

Impossible to replace, Harris opened her home as a halfway house for pets in 2004. She called it Bonaparte’s Retreat. “We keep up to four dogs, at any one time,” she says of setting the facility up on her just-shy-of-two-acres plot in Nashville, Tennessee. “You know, we want to make sure we only take as many as we can to be sure everyone still gets the royal treatment.”

Harris will be featured this month on the fifth episode of PBS’ Shelter Me: Partners for Life. Hosted by Emmy-winner Jon Hamm, the hour-long special features Nikita, a shelter dog who was rescued in Worcester, Massachusetts, before being adopted and trained for a K-9 unit. Also during the episode, Harris will give a tour of Bonaparte’s Retreat (which includes a beautiful dog run as well as a bunkhouse for escape from bad weather) and speak about her work raising awareness and funding for local Nashville shelters and her Crossroads Pets program, which partners at-risk youth with at-risk rescues.

“Most shelters have excellent foster programs,” Harris says of the biggest misconception she hears about animal rescues. “You can be a halfway house, like we are. These animals just need human interaction and touch. So even if you can’t foster, then you can go to a shelter and just spend time with the cats and dogs. Just because you can’t save all of them doesn’t mean you can’t save one.”

The greatest joy Harris finds in her work is when the animals she shelters at Bonaparte’s find a happy home. “We really get to know the adopting parents,” she says, explaining why it’s not too hard to say goodbye to those she’s taken in. “We spend time talking to them, meeting with them, so when they leave we know they’re going to great homes.”

Sadly, it’s not all joyous occasions. While euthanasia rates have dropped dramatically at the rescues Harris and her programs are partnered with, she admits that even knowing that one dog is being put down weighs on her, and inspires her to keep working. “One is still too many,” she says.

Shelter Me: Partners for Life will air throughout the month of October, which is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. For local listings, visit ShelterMe.TV.