Gimme Shelter

By Chris Lewis

Liesl Wilhardt ’91 has rescued thousands of dogs from abuse and neglect—and an environmentally friendly expansion promises to help even more

Liesl Wilhardt ’91 has been passionate about dogs for as long as she can remember. As a child watching television, she fell in love with Petey, the pit bull from “The Little Rascals” shorts of the 1930s and 1940s. From then on, she decided that she would adopt her own pit bull someday.

After completing a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School (which she attended at the encouragement of religious studies professor Axel Steuer), she adopted her first dog—a pit bull/Rottweiler mix named Pagan. Subsequently, she decided to foster other pit bulls, each of whom were rescue dogs. Tapping the resources of her fine jewelry company—a hobby that she turned into a full-time business for 10 years—she purchased a 55-acre property in her hometown of Eugene, Ore., where she ultimately built structures to foster the dogs and nurse them back to health so that new owners could adopt them.

As the years passed by, more and more pit bulls required Wilhardt’s time and attention. Following her mother’s unexpected death from an aggressive cancer, she closed the jewelry business and formalized Luvable Dog Rescue as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1999. (“The inheritance from my mom allowed me to focus on my nonprofit as the executive director without taking a salary,” Wilhardt explains.) Since then, Luvable has placed more than 2,000 dogs—pit bulls as well as small breeds—in “forever homes” across the country.

“The early years were incredibly challenging. I had no formal education in dog training or shelter medicine,” says Wilhardt, who majored in public policy (with minors in religious studies and anthropology) at Oxy. “I had to learn everything through experience and build my own dog shelter from the ground up.”

These days, the organization houses between 20 and 60 dogs and puppies at a time, requiring assistance from paid staff members who work two shifts 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition to caring for these animals, Luvable contributes more than $2,000 a month to a variety of local programs in the Eugene community, primarily to help low-income pet owners ensure their dogs are spayed or neutered, receive any surgeries they may need, and enjoy long, healthy lives.

For the better part of the nonprofit’s existence, Wilhardt operated it by herself with little outside support. A grant from the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation (founded in 2008 by actress Katherine Heigl and her mother, Nancy) allowed her to build three “dog cottages,” and four more structures would follow, entirely financed by Wilhardt and her friends. Requests for help increased to the point that she had to hire staff members to assist her, and in 2008, she also began to rescue small breed dogs (aka “littles”), mostly from L.A. shelters, where they were threatened with euthanization due to overpopulation.

While doing so, she also worked alongside a volunteer-based nonprofit in Los Angeles, known as the Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team. START was focused on raising money to transport dogs from these “death row” shelters to well-known rescue organizations in Oregon and Washington, such as Luvable Dog Rescue, whose reputation had grown over time. “I established a great network with various Los Angeles area shelters and transporters,” Wilhardt says. “Before long, I regularly had at least 15 to 20 littles along with my beloved pit bulls.”

Despite her efforts, Wilhardt encountered a dilemma in 2015: She had nearly run out of money not only to operate Luvable Dog Rescue but to support her own needs. Since dog rescues can only receive donations, grants, and small amounts of funds from adoption fees, the nonprofit was ineligible for federal or state funding.

She had been contributing thousands of dollars a month out of her own pocket to keep the doors open. And she refused to deny any type of medical care her dogs needed, essentially operating a “no-kill” shelter with a euthanasia rate that was less than 1 percent, all of which added up a significant financial commitment.

But that November, a miracle occurred. Two days after Thanksgiving, a pit bull-loving septuagenarian named Tony Low-Beer contacted Luvable Dog Rescue and asked for a tour of the shelter. An investment professional and rescuer of six pit bulls, Low-Beer had dreamed of building his own pit bull rescue for years. After learning about Wilhardt’s financial issues, he decided to partner with her instead and help her create another shelter to save even more dogs.

Shortly thereafter, Wilhardt and Low-Beer established the American Bully Breed Rescue Foundation (ABBRF), which then purchased land zoned for farm and forestry to house the new shelter. Pending approval, the second shelter, located just outside of Eugene, will be an 80-acre wooded sanctuary and adoption center for up to 30 small breed dogs, eight pit bulls, and several litters of mother dogs and puppies.

It will also be an innovative, environmentally friendly “green shelter,” utilizing solar power to generate 80 percent of the facility’s energy. Rainwater will be collected and used for laundry, and any landscaping that requires water will be minimal, as most of the property will remain a wild nature preserve. To ensure the dogs remain healthy and active, the property will also feature miles of hiking trails, along with an 8,000-square-foot barn for exercise and agility obedience training.

“I don’t know of any animal shelter quite like this anywhere else in the world,” Wilhardt says. “But it boils down to a land-use issue, and we hope Lane County will decide a dog shelter can operate in a farm and forest zone.”

Much of what Luvable has done over the last decade would have been impossible without the existence of social media. In the age of Instagram, you don’t have to be a singer, supermodel, or even a Kardashian to garner legions of followers. “I don’t know what people in rescue did before Facebook and Instagram,” Wilhardt told the Eugene Weekly in 2016, following a visit to Oregon by Sophie Gamand, an award-winning photographer and animal activist based in New York City.

Many Luvable dogs, along with their stories, are featured in a book by Gamand, who started her Pit Bull Flower Power campaign in 2014 aimed at rebranding shelter pit bulls and helping dogs get adopted. “Luvable Dog Rescue was where Sophie photographed her youngest subjects ever and also did her first portrait of two dogs together,” Wilhardt explains. “Our senior pit bulls, Indie and Chaco, were so bonded they couldn’t be separated even for a photograph!”

Gamand’s portraits of “pitties”—frequently adorned with flower crowns—are helping to change people’s perceptions of the dogs as dangerous and scary animals. (Gamand has more than 237,000 followers on Instagram.) Picasso and Wacku, “two wonky-face rescues in a dogpack of 10,” have more than 105,000 Instagram followers (@picassothewonkyandwacku). A pit bull and Chihuahua mix born with a completely lopsided snout, Picasso was rescued by Wilhardt from a Porterville animal shelter and adopted along with his “normal-looking” brother, Pablo, who was also on the shelter’s euthanasia list. (Picasso was honored as a Diamond Collar Hero Dog award from the Oregon Humane Society last year; Pablo died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2017.) Picasso and Wacku, who lost half of his face during a machete attack in his native Philippines, have won the hearts of dog lovers around the world.

Having attended Occidental with the benefit of scholarship support, Wilhardt insists that she could not have achieved her goals without the mentorship of Ambassador Derek Shearer, the Stuart Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs.

According to Wilhardt, Shearer provided her with the foundation she needed to have faith in her abilities—and Shearer’s passion for helping the less fortunate inspired her to create a nonprofit. “He taught us how individuals and small groups with a shared vision and passion could change the world,” she adds. “I left school knowing someday I would volunteer or work for a nonprofit. I ended up starting my own instead.”

As the owner of two rescue dogs, Shearer admires his former student’s perseverance and positive impact on thousands of dogs. “Liesl has followed her passion in a wonderful way,” he says. “She is making the world a better place.”

Sheila Heen ’90, a public policy major from Cambridge, Mass., and roommate of Wilhardt for two years at Harvard Divinity School, concurs. “Luvable Dog Rescue is such a perfect expression of who Liesl has always been—incredibly kind-hearted, especially for those who are otherwise overlooked or scorned,” she says.

Her compassion for the misunderstood will continue, as Wilhardt believes the most important trait of any living being is its character. “There is no correlation between a dog’s outward appearance and its temperament,” she says. “Just as stereotyping and discrimination of people is unjust, it is unfair to stereotype any type of dog. Love and compassion will always defeat discrimination.”

Currently Wilhardt works seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. She remains unpaid by Luvable but now has a paid position as executive director of the ABBRF. “Now I run both organizations, while still hiking dogs 15 miles a day,” she says. “Thank God for iPhones.” 

Chris Lewis wrote “Java Opportunities” in the Winter 2018 issue. Photos by Kelly Beal.