- June 21, 2018
When three local animal-lovers met at a dog park a few months ago, they weren’t expecting to walk away as nonprofit partners.
But that is exactly what happened to Winter Garden residents Rita Lopes and Sharlene Sledge, as well as Windermere resident Amy Santiago. Together, they operate Bunch-a-Mutts Animal Rescue.
Their goal is to change the lives of dogs — and cats — that are left behind, abused or neglected. They use positive training and socialization to ensure these animals no longer have to live in fear.
Lopes, the rescue’s president, said Bunch-a-Mutts was born officially on June 22 but its first rescue took place June 9.
“There were three dogs we found in really bad condition,” Lopes said. “They had worms; they were full of fleas. We rescued those dogs and found them good homes all over Winter Garden and Windermere. That kind of sparked the need to rescue. We felt so good about what we did with that, and we wanted to start something for ourselves that we could do.”
Lopes’ experience with animals began during her time working at a rescue in Portugal. There, she decided to become a trainer to help train animals before they went into their new homes.
“I moved here to study animal behavior, and then I moved to Orlando, and I decided my life was definitely going to be animal-based,” she said. “I worked at a bunch of pet resorts and (was) doing kennel work. Now, I do socialization at another place. I’m a dog trainer on the side and do pack socialization in making sure all dogs play well and work well together.”
Vice President Sharlene Sledge has wanted to be a veterinarian her whole life. In fact, her original plan was to attend the University of Florida’s school of veterinary medicine. She participated in FFA in high school and now has animals of her own.
“We try our very best to make sure that all the dogs have good homes and that we do our best to try to rescue all the dogs around our community,” Sledge said. “We even drove three hours to Jacksonville to rescue a couple of dogs and then three hours down south to give one of our dogs that we rescued her forever home. We’re trying our absolute best.”
Lopes, Sledge and Santiago — the rescue’s chief information officer — rescue animals through various avenues. Some are found being given away for free on social media and website listings. Others have been found abandoned, wandering neighborhoods and roads.
“What separates us from other rescues is that we train our rescues that we bring in,” Sledge said. “If a dog has a biting or scratching problem or just doesn’t know the basic commands or isn’t potty trained, we try to do that ourselves, so that when it does go to its new home, then it’s already set and there’s minimal problems. We don’t want somebody to just let go of a dog because it’s untrained.”
The rescue relies on social media to distribute information about animals up for adoption. Each applicant must complete an application and an interview. Bunch-a-Mutts then will take the animal for a meet-and-greet and home check. If all goes well, the adoption is finalized.
Bunch-a-Mutts also always is in need of more foster families for the animals in rescue. Its eventual goal is to expand the rescue and build a facility to house and train the animals on-site.
“We want to provide fosters with more training and really teach them how to deal with a dog that was abandoned and given up by their family — or they were a stray,” Lopes said.
Although animal rescue can be expensive and sometimes emotionally taxing, it’s worth it to the Bunch-a-Mutts crew whenever they can tangibly see the difference they’re making in people’s — and pets’ — lives.
“(We want to) save as many dogs and cats as possible,” Sledge said.