I learned about Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team (S.T.A.R.T) six years ago and have been a vocal supporter ever since. Story after story, they are champions for the voiceless. There are so many rescue groups doing amazing work, but START is special. Everyone involved in this organization is special. Not only open-hearted but creative too. Each week I read their newsletter and learn about a dog or dogs that they are raising money for so they can pull them from the Los Angeles shelter system. The next step is they put the dogs on a transport van to a better life in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve spoken with Steve Spiro, co-founder, a couple of times and met him in person once. (See the end of the interview to learn where. It’s likely NOT where you might think.) He is dedicated, authentic as they come and a real mensch.
DRS: So tell me Steve, how did START get started?
SS: Years ago, my wife, Suzanna and I were rescuing one dog at a time but wanted to do more to help; especially for the pit bulls who are truly one of the greatest breeds! We also wanted to find a way to fund spay and neuter surgeries for low-income families to help slow down shelter intake due to unwanted litters.
In May 2011 we arranged a meeting at our house with some like-minded folk (Rene Ruston, Tom Rogan and Adam Tarshis), and agreed to set up a non-profit. We focused on transports and a Spay/Neuter program and were lucky enough to form a great little team. Adam Tarshis bought us our first van and we outfitted it with shelves that would accommodate crates.
We called ourselves Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team (START).
Our friend, Candace Modrell was originally from Oregon and knew several humane societies and rescue groups in the Pacific Northwest that wanted/needed our California dogs. Candace had been a transport coordinator for another foundation and joined our little team. We drew up an application form and contract to send to each group that wanted to partner with us (our requirements are very strict) and START was on its way!
DRS: How does your organization help both animals and people?
SS: I think our transport program has given shelter workers and volunteers hope. They get to see many dogs leave their facility each month and know they are heading to new homes in the Pacific Northwest. We send out a weekly newsletter, with happy adoption stories and it is very heartwarming. We have also received emails in the past from families whose dog or cat we have funded for spay/neuter and are grateful for our help after learning how many unwanted animals end up in the shelter system.
A recent example of dog helping human helping dog is the story of 3 pitbull mixes we pulled from the Porterville Shelter. The dogs were scheduled for euthanasia as the shelter was full and they needed the room. (Most shelters have to kill for space!) All 3 dogs were very friendly and a shelter worker reached out to us for help as she had bonded with the dogs and didn’t want them to die. Our transport was in 2 days and the wonderful people at the Safehaven Humane Society in Oregon stepped up and offered to take all 3 dogs on our transport.
The dogs were adopted within a week!
We then learned that one of these dogs (who was very scared at the shelter) would be trained as a service pet for the husband who suffered from depression. They bonded bringing each other much joy and lifting each other’s spirits. When the shelter worker heard about the story she sobbed with happiness.
DRS: I’m sure that working in a shelter is so difficult. I can’t imagine it. And it’s so powerful that you pull these dogs and not only give them a chance but their very existence helps people in a palpable way.
Do you have a favorite pet or animal story?
SS: I have many, but my favorite story was the emaciated stray found on the street and taken to the Riverside shelter.
The shelter director, a wonderful man named Robert Miller, was horrified at the dog’s condition and rushed him to the emergency. The dog had terminal cancer. Robert Miller asked us if we’d give the dog one day of happiness to experience love, and we agreed. We named him HERO.
But – the “ONE” day turned into 52 days. We received countless emails enquiring about him. He had a fan club! HERO felt the love. He affected thousands of people. He was obsessed with the tennis ball and people began sending him them to him by the dozen. It’s amazing what love can bring. We witnessed true selflessness. When HERO passed away he took our hearts with him.
DRS: That story made me cry the first time you shared it, the second time you shared it and now as I’m posting it, I’m crying again. It is so beautiful.
Steve, can you offer 3 professional tips to my readers?
1. Every dog should wear a name tag and be microchipped. If your dog gets lost and isn’t wearing a name tag most people won’t take the time to take the pet to vet or shelter to scan him to find the owner. If the dog is wearing a name tag then a phone call will reunite owner and pet quickly.
2. Spay and neuter your pets. Find a free or low-cost clinic (there are many.) It’s good for the obvious reproduction reasons and it can prevent certain types of cancer too.
3. Be kind – compassion goes a long way.
4. Volunteer – Giving back to others is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences. Whether it’s helping animals, people or the environment. Go do something. Amazing things happen when we stop worrying about ourselves so much!
DRS: Excellent tips, Steve! What’s next up for you and START?
SS: We are trying to expand our spay / neuter programs for low-income families. We fund around 90 spay/neuters a month at Riverside, CA and have now just set up funding 50 dogs/cats a month at Porterville, CA. We have also discussed getting our own property at some point. Stay tuned! 🙂
DRS: Fabulous. That is so exciting. Where can we learn more about you and your organization?
DRS: Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you or START?
SS: The START board members are all volunteers. We donate our time as we want to try and make the world a little better. Rescue work can be very stressful but also very rewarding. I truly believe that it has made me a better person and I have made some great friends in the process. To date, we have transported over 9,500 dogs and cats and funded over 4000 spay/neuter surgeries.
DRS: Thanks for your words of inspiration, Steve. I’m consistently inspired each time I open your newsletter. I know it takes a village, lots of time, effort and funding and I’m proud to support your efforts.
For those of you who are curious where I met Steve in person… He is also the author and star of a one-man show called UK Underdog https://pacificresidenttheatre.com/uk-underdog/. It is poignant and funny and Steve is masterful at keeping the audience entertained throughout. I wanted to support his play when it opened in November and I was riveted the entire time. Keep an eye out for UK Underdog as it will be playing larger venues soon!
Yes, Steve was an underdog but he “realized his strength” and now he helps the canine underdogs in our world. Kudos to you Steve. Keep up the amazing work with everything you do.