Pet Project; Vonnie Gowe of Charles Village is no stranger to feeling alone and helpless. So saving Baltimore's strays is right up her alley.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Something brings her to this stinking alley, some swell of emotion and purpose beneath her. Vonnie Gowe, 37, pierced nose, thick hair, is so shy before humans. But kneeling in this alley, she reaches out to a hairball of a dog. It's OK, it's OK. Come to her, dog.

Dog shuffles toward Gowe's can of food, then jerks back when Gowe tries to pet his matted, stringy back. She tries to feel him with the softness of the back of her hand. She wants him home with her. But the dog retreats under a splintered porch and ducks his head, clearly in fear of some other, invisible hand.

Gowe will come back tonight for another feeding. They will meet each other again in the alley, halfway.

"He's next on my list," Gowe says. Now upright, she eyeballs the corners here around Barclay and East 29th streets. The pet lady of Charles Village fears for her safety in these alleys. She won't come alone but she will keep coming.

Vonnie Gowe does this one good thing: She feeds a stray cat, maybe a burned cat from some recent downtown fire, names her Phoenix, and finds a permanent home for the cat. On her daily 7-mile jogs, she huffs through alleys and stops to feed colonies of feral cats from a food pouch strapped to her waist.

She might stop traffic on North Avenue to scoop up a deer-in-the-headlights mutt. Takes him home, bathes him, gets the vet to check him out (the mutt, Scruffy, now relaxes in Gowe's Charles Village rowhouse, where various cats make cameos). Or Gowe tries to lure a panicky sheep dog out of an alley off Barclay.

There's a name for her operation. Gowe's Nest for the Night has placed more than 200 stray cats and dogs with permanent owners since 1995. She has six "nesters" -- neighborhood families counted on to keep an animal for a night or two until a permanent family is found.

This volunteer animal rescue group works the alleys of Charles Village where, just as in other Baltimore neighborhoods, scores of animals are abandoned. They are the great unwashed and underfed: kittens in boxes. Dogs tied to poles, left yapping. Some have been beaten, starved. The city's Animal Control agency gets about 20 cruelty complaints a day. And it's estimated Baltimore has more than 30,000 stray dogs and cats.

Risky business

Neighborhood rescue groups such as Nest for the Night are relatively common in inner cities. Working outside the regulatory and financial realities of such established groups as the Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, these rescuers work quietly as a sort of underground railroad for abandoned inner-city animals.

"They are able to do more because they are not a bureaucracy," says Debbie Thomas, executive director of the Maryland SPCA in Baltimore. "These folks are more risk takers."

Gowe is always looking over her shoulder when making her neighborhood rounds. Isn't there something suspicious about people creeping around alleys, leaving beds of straw for wild cats or unloading piles of kibble for all these city dogs of creative parentage? People do stare. People yell things. What are you doing with that dog? (Gowe has felt like a wanted woman; she recently cut her waist-length hair so she wouldn't be so recognizable on her daily rounds.)

Generally, neighborhood animal rescuers are women. Maybe something about their care-giving nature. And the word "eccentric" has been used to describe them. Affectionately, in this case.

"Most of them are really crazy -- but I mean that in a good way," says attorney Deborah Levine of Columbia, who runs her own animal rescue organization -- FIT (Felines in Trouble) Rescue. "They might be starving [themselves], but they'll cook hamburger or liver for their 30 cats."

Levine, an assistant attorney general for Maryland, has been feeding, trapping and saving animals for a decade. But that's her part-time vocation. "A lot of people who do this full-time have one screw loose. They don't see the big picture. They don't want to see the big picture."

The big picture? Some animals need to be put down. They are not adoptable. You cannot save every animal. And, as Levine says, there's nothing glamorous or romantic about the animal rescue business. She remembers a group of 10 women who expressed interest in joining FIT Rescue, as if animal rescue was suddenly trendy.

"They thought this would be a cool thing to do," Levine says. As in, donate some money, save a kitten. But then came the work, the time-consuming, gut-wrenching, sad work. "It wasn't fun anymore," Levine says, and so she was back doing the dirty work alone -- finding and collecting the animals, writing the checks for the crucial spaying and neutering, and sometimes to put an animal down.

Levine has six cats of her own. She understands completely why people work to protect animals.

"They can't walk away from it. They see the agony and the misery, and they can't walk away from it," she says.

"It's quite wonderful, actually."

Guardian

Vonnie Gowe asks that no photographs be taken of the feral cats of Charles Village. She worries that people might come for the cats. Not just any people, but certain pit bull owners, she says.

She's afraid for the cats' lives. She is their protector. Not only does she feed the nameless, numberless cats, she shields them from the press, which could expose their exact location.

"Vonnie is the Mother Teresa of pets, neighborhood children and of old ladies," says neighbor Peggy Peregoy, who stops to chat while escorting her 91-year-old mother to a car. Gowe cares for the elder Mrs. Peregoy once a week, in between babysitting jobs for 10 neighborhood children and rescuing animals.

"To do one thing every day, one simple thing to help someone else," Gowe explains her mission.

The elder Mrs. Peregoy stops and stares at Gowe. She looks confused. Does she know her? Does she know where she is? "I'LL SEE YOU MONDAY," Gowe says. There's something the older woman wants to say. Then, quite clearly, Mrs. Peregoy says: "I saw something in the Hopkins paper where somebody has lost a red dog ... or is it a red cat?"

On this stretch of Abell Avenue, folks come to Gowe about lost animals. She knows every pet by name and personality. She is a human clearinghouse -- the woman with all the right vet connections. Found a cat in a drain pipe? Want to get a dog sterilized? Just call.

Gowe's roommate, Cassandra Orem, has known her friend 14 years. And for a long time, she thought Vonnie purposely went looking for stray animals so that their rowhouse would be the tidy mini-zoo it is. But what she's learned, she says, is that Gowe has this satellite dish of a heart that picks up the faint noises of animals on streets and in alleys. Cries for attention that escape the mortal animal lover.

"That's the gift she has been given," Orem says. "When one of the animals is hurt, she is hurt. When one is neglected, she feels neglected."

It just seems, though, that it goes deeper with Gowe. Many of us have household pets; many of us certainly don't want to see animals mistreated or abandoned. But most of us don't snake through alleys to coax dogs out of their fear of humans. So what makes Gowe, for example, devote her energies to this cause? As usual, the muddled answers lie in that psychic vat called childhood.

Childhood pets

"My mom had pets," Gowe says, "but it was clear they weren't my animals, too."

That is, it always seemed to Gowe that her parents' poodle and later, a Chesapeake Retriever, were not her pets. "What I was allowed to do is get up in the morning and take them out to go to the bathroom."

She was afraid of those two dogs, too, afraid they might turn on her. She dreamed "one day I'm going to have a kitten, and I'm going to put a string on it and keep it and care for it." And sure enough, squeezed in a corner of her dresser's mirror, Gowe keeps a black and white photograph of herself as a 4-year-old girl clutching a cat on a dirt road. The picture has survived from her childhood. Good memories have not.

Gowe grew up on Tilghman Island, the daughter of a waterman. No one in her family had more than an eighth-grade education. By the time Gowe was well into grade school, she felt "slow" and behind her classmates. The term "learning disabled" was foreign, and no such formal diagnosis was made. If a teacher said three things in class, Gowe couldn't remember the first. She never learned to spell well, was never fast enough on tests. Somehow, she stumbled through high school.

Gowe very much wanted to leave Tilghman to cobble a life for herself. She has been estranged from her parents and sister for years. She cannot put into words why this is, nor can she explain why she never felt the dogs were her pets. This is family business.

"I'm not going to spend my life being angry about it," she says, the "it" being feeling neglected and unprotected and quite alone growing up. Simply, she cares for stray animals "because I've felt powerless in my life."

Gowe is grown now, with a caring roommate, a job babysitting kids and a vocation rescuing animals. She also defied her learning disability by enrolling in community college. In August, Gowe will graduate from Essex Community College with a bachelor's degree in general studies.

"I have learned to speak up," Gowe says. She learned to ask teachers to slow down, help her take tests, afford her a note-taker. I am not stupid, she told them.

"I've learned to ask people to give me a chance," she says. "That's how I got my way in the world."

Stray people

Gowe doesn't find only cats and dogs in alleys. She finds stray people, too, and on occasion, she's brought them home with her.

"People call me naive," she says. It can get dicey bringing homeless people home, so Gowe has learned to direct homeless people to shelters. But she still cannot turn them away.

"Because my father," Gowe says, slowly, "was a street person."

After moving to Baltimore in the 1980s, she learned her father was living on the streets of the city. One afternoon in 1983, in Fells Point, she found him. Alcoholics Anonymous was keeping track of him, she learned. She wasn't sure he recognized her. He had been drinking. They didn't talk much.

"Mostly, he just cried," she recalls.

He eventually got some help, Gowe says. But they lost touch again. Her last contact with him was six years ago.

"What I can do to help him and myself is to have a good life," she says. "I have a right to live, too."

So she comes to the alleys, to a city's scary places, where stray people and animals can be found. Someone had helped her father from a life on the street. Someone did a good thing and helped rescue her father.

Now, his daughter saves dogs and cats. She has become the pet lady of Charles Village.

"I tried," Vonnie Gowe says, "to find the good thing."

Nest for the Night can be reached at 410-366-8404.

Pub Date: 3/10/99

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