Bringing comfort, homes to dogs gives Joppatowne volunteer new leash on life


Like many people last weekend, Charlene Wilcher of Joppatowne was busy getting ready for a Fourth of July picnic. She fried about 40 hamburgers and hot dogs and carefully packed them into coolers for friends who couldn't resist licking their chops after they devoured the meal.

The friends also wagged their tails.

Mrs. Wilcher's holiday buddies were dogs -- large, small, dainty and gruff -- that are waiting for adoption at the Humane Society of Baltimore County in Reisterstown.

"I can't enjoy a holiday [at home] with those guys out there," says Mrs. Wilcher, a full-time volunteer at the shelter.

That explains the turkey and mashed potatoes that she and her husband, Bob, took there on Christmas and the traditional ham dinner for Easter.

"People call him 'Saint Bob' for being with me," Mrs. Wilcher says of her husband. "But he's just as bad as I am."

Mr. Wilcher supported her decision to stop working, she says, so she could spend more time at the Humane Society.

"I can't believe I quit work," she says, even though it's been almost a year since she said goodbye to her co-workers.

Mrs. Wilcher had been a security investigator with the government for 19 years when she accepted an early-out offer that allows her to reapply for her job in September.

Will she?

"I don't know," she says. "How could I fit in going to work?"

"I don't know. I don't know," says the doesn't-take-a-breath talker. "How could I fit in going to work?"

The cheerful 40-year-old woman spends six days a week at the shelter, places her own newspaper advertisements to find homes for the animals, talks for hours on the telephone with prospective owners, does house checks before the pets are placed, takes care of her own numerous dogs and rabbits, and does the payroll at her husband's welding business.

She's also the pet lady Wednesday mornings on WMIX-FM 106.5, where she has been going on the air at 8:10 a.m. since May 5, 1993, to find homes for pets.

The seemingly tireless Mrs. Wilcher leaves her house each Wednesday at 6:20 a.m., drives her white Blazer 45 minutes to the society's shelter and picks out a pet of the week to take to the Towson radio station.

"She's wonderful," says Mike McCarthy, the on-air morning personality, adding that the segment has done well for the station.

When Mrs. Wilcher arrives on this Wednesday, he quickly comes out of the recording studio to see what's on the end of the leash.

It's Cody, a furry keeshond mix whose bear size belies his gentle temperament. Cody's days are numbered at the shelter, which has to euthanize animals that have stayed too long when the cages are full.

"Summer is the worst time," says Mrs. Wilcher.

"When school lets out, people say, 'Let's take [the dog or cat] to the kennel,' " she says.

Currently, the shelter is filled to capacity with 30 dogs and puppies and 40 cats and kittens.

"Charlene is a good ambassador for the shelter," says Ann Joly, director of the Baltimore County Humane Society, who nominated Mrs. Wilcher for this year's J. C. Penney Golden Rule Awards. The awards are given to groups and individuals who have performed outstanding volunteer service.

"She was unbelievably tickled just to be nominated," Ms. Joly says.

Mrs. Wilcher was even more thrilled to learn she was one of 50 finalists, which meant she received $250 for the shelter. "It was the biggest honor," she says.

"This is Wonder Woman," says Beth Trump, a 21-year-old Humane Society volunteer. "I've never seen anyone so dedicated to a cause."

Mrs. Wilcher says she has always been a pet lover, but her work for the Humane Society didn't start until she attended an annual party for the animals there at Christmas three years ago.

"It completely changed our lives," Mrs. Wilcher says of her and her husband's interest in the animals.

"I go along with it," says the easy-going, bearded Mr. Wilcher. "She's doing it for the dogs."

In addition to the holiday dinners at the shelter, Mr. Wilcher supports his high school sweetheart's emotional and financial commitment to the homeless animals and to their own pets, who sleep on a futon and eat regular meals with the family. Spaghetti is a particular favorite, Mrs. Wilcher says.

How much does she spend on her mission? "Gosh, if I figured it out, Bob would probably divorce me," she says, laughing.

The couple, who grew up in Sparrows Point, have been married for 20 years and have no children. "People often ask me why not," Mrs. Wilcher says, matter-of-factly. "But who would do this [for the animals]?"

She often takes the abandoned animals to her own vet and pays for shots or other care out of her own pocket. She frequently buys toys and balls for the animals and recently gave the shelter 30 45-inch children's swimming pools -- which cost about $8 each -- so the dogs, which don't have air conditioning, could cool off in the sweltering summer heat.

On a recent 95-degree day, she filled the pools from a hose, as a delighted Cosmos, a brown, mixed-breed dog, bounded down his run to the cold water. She was soon as wet as Cosmos.

This day, she won't be going home to see her husband until late, because the shelter stays open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays.

That doesn't bother him, Mr. Wilcher says. "She saves lots of dogs."

His office at Sun Welding on Pulaski Highway in White Marsh often serves as a halfway house for pets when the shelter is full and there are no permanent or foster homes available.

"It's always a surprise for me, when she pulls up with the Blazer, what is in there," says Mr. Wilcher.

Last week, the Wilchers' guest was a black Labrador mix named Waffle who stayed until a home could be found for him. The room is empty now but probably not for long.

Losing her pet friends is one of the most difficult aspects of her work, Mrs. Wilcher says. Last weekend, five dogs were euthanized.

"I had a lump in my throat bigger than the size of my head," she says. "But somebody's got to be the one to cry and go out to them."

Her husband listens as his wife talks about the pets that are given up by their owners.

L "I wish we didn't know what it was like sometimes," he says.

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