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MUTUAL RESCUE profiles the transformational impact that shelter pets have on humans, exploring the emotional, physical, and spiritual gifts that rescued animals provide. It explores through anecdote, observation, and scientific research, the complexity and depth of the role that pets play in our lives. Every story in the book brings an unrecognized benefit of adopting homeless animals to the forefront of the rescue conversation.
In a nation plagued by illnesses–16 million adults suffer from depression, 29 million have diabetes, 8 million in any given year have PTSD, and nearly 40% are obese–rescue pets can help: 60% of doctors said they prescribe pet adoption and a staggering 97% believe that pet ownership provides health benefits. For people in chronic emotional, physical, or spiritual pain, adopting an animal can transform, and even save, their lives.
Each story in the book takes a deep dive into one potent aspect of animal adoption, told through the lens of people’s personal experiences with their rescued pets and the science that backs up the results. This book will resonate with readers hungering for stories of healing and redemption.
From my office at Humane Society Silicon Valley, I look out on a small plot of land dotted with bushes that we call the Community Cat Garden. Inside the fenced space, undomesticated cats, or Carol’s Ferals, as my co-workers call them, live until we can find safe homes for them in a barn or garden nursery. These creatures tend to hole up in their condos, like Floridian retirees, emerging predictably at dusk, when their dark profiles are hard to distinguish from the lengthening shadows. My German shepherd rescue, Tess, and I often stare out the window, both hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these reclusive creatures that exist in the netherworld between the average coddled housecat and their large, predatory ancestors who are sometimes sighted in the nearby California hills. The untamed cats’ Garbo-esque nature (they “vant to be left alone”) is fascinating partly because it stands in stark contrast to most of the pets I’ve had over the years, who craved my company and care. But they bring to mind another feline from my long-ago past, whose appearance was formative and set the stage for some of the most meaningful decisions I’ve ever made.
It was the holidays, and my parents and I were shopping at a Christmas tree farm near our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. I was five. The frigid air, alive with the scent of spruce and the tingly anticipation of the season, heightened my sense of purpose: I would find our family the perfect tree. I was eyeing a promising specimen when a slinky shape emerged from beneath its branches. A cat! He walked up to me, and when I knelt down to pet him, his pale amber fur felt like flimsy protection from the cold. He head-butted my knee and began to purr. “Why is he here?” I asked my mom, already smitten. “Do you think he has a home? If he’s on his own, can we keep him? Please???”
“I’ll find out,” she said. As I watched her walk away to talk to the farm’s owner, my heart was caught in a tug-of-war between hope and disappointment. Based on my five years of experience, the latter appeared far more likely. In our family constellation, my dad and I rotated easily in the same orbit, but my mother always seemed more remote and unreachable. I understood that she loved me in her own way, but it didn’t feel the same as it did with my father, whose companionship was like a cozy fire. Warm. Welcoming. Safe. And that’s one reason this moment remains firmly rooted in my memory. When my mom returned, she was smiling. “Someone dumped the cat here, so we can keep him,” she announced. I was thrilled—and dumbstruck. My mother had said yes. More than that, she felt the same tenderness toward this stray that I did. Animals were the crack in her shield that allowed a glimmer of love to break through—a space that enabled her to feel and express love. And, now, miraculously, here she was, after we chose a tree, saying, “Well, come on, Carol, let’s get the cat in the car before he freezes to death.” For the first time in my young life, I sensed that we might be able to connect. Animals might bridge the divide.
Together, we went to the supermarket and bought our new family member a flounder, which we gift-wrapped and placed under the tree on Christmas morning. All three of us laughed as we watched Nicholas Quattromano (named after St. Nicholas and “four hands” in Italian, a nod to my father’s heritage) sniff out his present and shred the paper to uncover—and devour—the fish. Not surprisingly, his rescue ignited my passion for adopting homeless creatures. Rescuing Nick, as we called him, created a way for my mom and me to share the same world. It didn’t fix our relationship. But it allowed me to glimpse her softer, more kindhearted side and revealed that we shared something in common.
Even though Nick’s initial tentative friendliness turned out to be a calculated gambit to get us to bring him in from the cold—thereafter, he spent the majority of his time atop the refrigerator, safely out of reach of my grasping, cuddling arms—I felt happy that he had a safe home, that he was ours, and that he could depend on us. The seed of my passion for rescuing homeless animals was planted.
Nick was the first of many strays we welcomed into our home over the coming years. His rescue laid the initial stone in my meandering path that led from Harvard Business School to a decade with high-tech software producer Intuit—which set off a search for greater meaning and eventually steered me toward the work I do today as president of our bustling shelter in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Given my lifelong love of animals, accepting the job at Humane Society Silicon Valley was, in my mind, a fait accompli. But not everyone saw it that way. Some former colleagues and casual acquaintances, as well as people I met as I began raising money for the organization, didn’t understand why someone who had an MBA from Harvard and had run multi-million-dollar businesses for Intuit would veer into animal welfare; others could relate to the impulse to do something philanthropic but didn’t get why I wasn’t trying to alleviate human suffering. Ultimately, they all asked similar versions of the same question: “Why are you helping animals when you could be helping people?”
In response, I’d quote the statistics that spurred my passion for animal welfare: While great strides have been made in saving animals’ lives in the United States, more than 6.5 million cats and dogs still enter animal shelters each year—and 1.5 million are euthanized. And of the roughly $410 billion that Americans give to charities, only 3 percent goes to animal-related and environmental causes combined. People nodded their heads, and many expressed genuine concern, but I could tell that most weren’t fully persuaded. I began to sense that those heartbreaking statistics were only part of the story—that I was missing a deeper truth.
As I groped for a fuller explanation, I started thinking about my mother and how Nick had been the saving grace of our relationship. The tenderness I saw her express toward the creatures that populated our lives showed me she was capable of love, even if she wasn’t always able to express it to me in the way I longed for. I still felt saddened by our relationship, but somewhere along the way I realized I could either be resentful and angry for what she didn’t give me or grateful for what she did: a devotion to animals that led to my life’s purpose. I chose the latter. As I thought more about what animals have meant in my life—how they’ve given me hope when I was despondent, laughter when I was stressed, companionship when I was lonely—as well as the lives of nearly every pet owner I know, I finally saw it—the hidden “why” of animal rescue: By helping animals I am helping people—helping them heal their own pain, find greater purpose, and discover more sources of joy.
The human race is definitely in need of help. The magnitude of misery, even in our prosperous country, is mind-boggling. Sixteen million adults in the United States struggle with depression. About 8 million adults in any given year have post-traumatic stress disorder. Twenty-nine million are diagnosed with diabetes, and an estimated 8 million have it but don’t yet know it. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of people are obese. And that’s not counting the grieving, heartbroken, sedentary masses who may not be diagnosable but are struggling and hurting nonetheless. But there’s hope for a healthier future, and what leads us toward it may very well have four legs and a tail. Companion animals can help relieve a range of troubles—and as I and my writing collaborator, Ginny Graves, explain in the chapters ahead, there’s scientific research that proves it. The data affirming animals’ positive effects on human health is so persuasive that 60 percent of doctors in a recent survey said they prescribe pet adoption, and a staggering 97 percent believe pet ownership provides health benefits. While this research is applicable to animals in general—regardless of whether they were rescued or not—giving a shelter animal a home confers a special kind of restorative grace. Naturally, I’m biased toward encouraging people to adopt shelter pets. But I believe that showing benevolence for a homeless creature fertilizes the seeds of kindness, generosity, and compassion that exist inside us, spurring those qualities to put down roots and thrive. It grounds us in love.
People facing serious challenges often benefit profoundly from adopting an animal, but pets can enrich anyone’s busy life. They also come with their share of demands and headaches, of course, as anyone who has stepped in warm dog barf at four a.m. can testify. But caring for another creature, and having someone who depends on you, can be its own kind of blessing, adding dimension and meaning to the daily routine. And beyond the hassles, most people who adopt an animal find so much reward.
Cats and dogs inject contentment, warmth, and goofy little hits of delight into our days that distract us from our worries, keep us grounded in the here and now, and remind us what matters—including the fact that a grubby tennis ball or ratty ball of yarn can be a source of real joy. My cat, Wilbur, a master prankster whom I adopted when I was thirty, revealed the wonder of kitchen drawers. He would pull out a bottom drawer, crawl behind it, claw his way up the rear of the cabinet, and emerge out the top drawer, like Houdini popping to the surface after being shackled in an underwater crate. Wilbur would look at me like, “Ta-da! Pretty cool, huh?” It never failed to make me laugh—and ease the stress of work. Wilbur was an antidepressant and anxiety cure in a single furry package.
In studies with a variety of types of people, the same story emerges. Interacting with an animal can lift mood, increase well-being, and facilitate the ability to communicate and connect. Given the rampant ill health, emotional and physical, in our culture, that’s actually a profoundly hopeful, and radically important, finding. After accepting my role at Humane Society Silicon Valley, I began finding evidence of the life-changing impact of pets everywhere, and the more stories I heard about people who’d regained their vitality and flourished after adopting a cat or dog, the more urgently I felt the need to share them. People needed to know that rescuing an animal doesn’t mean ignoring humanity’s woes; it’s a vital part of the solution!
In 2015, a board member introduced me to David Whitman, a storyteller and creative producer, who helped me come up with a way to spread the word about the transformative power of adopting an animal. He coined the phrase “mutual rescue” and suggested we make short films of people whose lives have been dramatically bettered by rescuing an animal. As it happened, I had the perfect candidate already in mind. About a year before, we had received a letter from an obese man who told us he’d become vastly healthier after adopting an overweight dog from our shelter. We made his journey the subject of our first film, hoping it would reach enough people to inspire others across the country to submit their own stories for consideration and encourage people to adopt shelter animals. We had no idea what we were in for. Eric & Peety, that first short film, caught fire and has now been viewed more than 100 million times in more than forty countries.
We were flooded with story submissions from people who’d been depressed, suicidal, diabetic, broken, homeless, lonely, and more—all of whom had moving, uplifting stories about how their rescue pets had saved them. We turned four of their redemptive stories into short films—and watched this international phenomenon flourish. Kylie & Liza, our second film, released in early 2017, tells the story of an effervescent twelve-year-old girl battling lethal bone cancer and the kitten she adopts, who, after her death, became a vital source of solace for her grieving mom. We released three more films later that year, and collectively those four films have garnered more than 35 million views to date.
The films struck a chord because they depict the essence of mutual rescue. But as we dug deeper into our trove of anecdotes, I realized the full story of what happens when a human adopts an animal can’t be told in a five-minute film. One of the truly astonishing aspects of this phenomenon is that the uplifting effect often spreads beyond the person who adopts a stray. Take my experience with Wilbur and his feline brother, Wiley, who was a total love bug with his own sweet charisma. By buoying me up and bolstering my resilience, those two helped me be a more genial and compassionate leader at work, which created a collaborative environment that allowed my team to feel more empowered and function more effectively. In other words, two goofball cats helped set off a mini upward spiral of positive energy. And that’s just one small example of something that happens routinely when a person rescues an animal: The meaningful bond humans often form with their pets can foster a deep sense of well-being that allows them to embrace life and love more fully, and they may inspire others to do the same.
A Harvard study tracking the lives of 238 men since 1938 has found that close relationships, more than money or success, are what make us happy. George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 to 2004, wrote that there are two pillars of this deep and enduring happiness: “One is love,” he says. “The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Rescue animals are a coping mechanism that draws love in—increasing the odds that we can radiate love out. And when one person becomes more upbeat, the feeling can spread to others, according to a separate group of Harvard researchers. Their fascinating studies revealed that having a happy friend who lives within a mile increases the probability that you will be happy, too—and that bliss often spreads to neighbors, nearby siblings, and spouses. In other words, the joy one person generates from adopting an animal can be contagious.
I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as the “rescue effect,” because adopting an animal can create ripples of well-being that impact concentric circles of people—sometimes even total strangers. The idea was inspired by “the butterfly effect,” a scientific phenomenon that shows, in essence, that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Australia can set enough molecules of air in motion to create a tornado in Kansas. Put simply: Small changes can have surprisingly large consequences.
In the following chapters, we reveal the countless ways this plays out in real people’s lives. We start with the Heart section, where you’ll meet people whose rescue animals have helped them face inconceivable trauma and grief and provided the strength, courage, and wisdom they needed to find their way forward. In the Body section, we share stories of people who’ve learned that adopting a cat or dog can not only help them become healthier but also help them cope with and recover from physical illnesses and injuries and show them how to thrive in spite of their disabilities—and experience more joy. In Mind, you’ll see how rescue animals can actually save people coping with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), offering them hope, helping them create healthier patterns of thought, and leading them toward lives filled with meaning and compassion. But nearly every story has all three elements—heart, mind, and body—a graphic demonstration of the expansive and multifaceted impact of rescuing an animal. And people in these narratives aren’t the only ones who benefit; the animals do, too, in ways that are surprising, tender, and sometimes profound.
Finally, in Connection, we reveal how pets can strengthen our relationships with the people we love, how we can bond deeply with many types of animals, not just cats and dogs, and how, when rescue pets make people healthier and happier, something remarkable can happen: Their hearts mended, these humans often go on to make positive contributions to the world and pay forward the love and healing they received. Some find a deeper sense of purpose, others develop a stronger understanding of who they are and why they’re here, and some even discover a renewed sense of their own personal faith or relationship with something divine, however they define it.
The stories and research in this book reveal what I know to be true: Rescue pets can help us evolve as people, because they give us a safe way to practice opening our hearts, and once we learn how to be more open and empathetic with pets, we can become more compassionate with ourselves, better at being tender with others—and more inspired to contribute to humanity.
Animals can bring us face-to-face with both our flaws and our deeper potential. They can train us to be more reliable and responsible. They can help us overcome our shortcomings and set us on the road to becoming our best selves—loving, nurturing, caring, giving. And by presenting us with the opportunity to learn and grow, they offer us the chance to become a source of light and hope for humankind. As we teach them to heel, they show us how to heal.
Pets as Secure Bases and Safe Havens
On the morning of February 28, 2018, Grace Briden’s mom drove her and her sister to high school, as usual. But that was the only thing ordinary about the day. Grace was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and two weeks before, one teacher, two coaches, and fourteen of her classmates, including one of Grace’s friends, had been shot and killed at the school. During the ordeal, Grace had hidden in a classroom with thirty other students for three and a half hours, crying and praying, not knowing where the gunman was, if her sister was safe, or if any of them would make it out of the school alive. Ever since, she’d been plagued by flashbacks and nightmares of hunkering down in that room, of her friends sobbing, and of the paralyzing fear she felt while waiting to see if they were going to live or die. “I never wanted to set foot in that school again. I was sure I’d have a panic attack if I went on campus. I didn’t know if I could get through it,” she says.
Even so, there she was, making her way through the throng of media, heavily armed police officers, well-wishers, and parents on the first day Stoneman Douglas reopened. The fence was adorned with flowers, cards, candles, and memorials. The crowd cheered as the students walked in. “I know they were trying to be supportive, but I didn’t like the fanfare,” she says. “I was super anxious, because I thought there might be another shooting.”
While Grace was outside braving the crowd, inside the school, Marni Bellavia, a dog trainer and manager of the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Humane Society of Broward County, was awaiting the students’ arrival near the roped-off building where the shooting occurred. She’d brought her mini-Australian shepherd rescue, Karma, a trained therapy dog, as well as her team of twenty volunteers and their therapy dogs, all rescues, to comfort the students. Six years before, Karma, just a one-year-old puppy, had been found wandering the streets in a small town in Mississippi. She was dangerously overweight but sweet and friendly. When her rescuers called the number on her tag, her owners said they didn’t want her back. The local shelter sent Karma to Humane Society of Broward County—facilities often handle overpopulation by transferring animals to locations with higher demand—where Marni adopted her. By the time Karma was two, she was certified as a therapy animal. She’d worked with the elderly, kids with autism, and people with traumatic brain injuries, but, prior to the Stoneman Douglas shooting, she’d never comforted trauma victims. “I knew she’d do great,” Marni says. “She’s extraordinarily attentive to people, loves to give and receive affection, and has an innate sense of who needs her the most.”
As Grace approached the building where the shooting occurred, tears began welling in her eyes, and she wanted nothing more than to turn around and go home. “My friends were saying don’t look over there,” she says. “Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw Karma. She was so adorable I ran up to her and started petting her. She snuggled into me, and something changed inside me. Ever since the shooting, I’d been depressed. My heart felt so heavy. But Karma lifted my heart. She broke through the sadness and gave me something good to focus on. And she didn’t just say hi and walk away, like dogs sometimes do. She stayed with me. She licked my hand. She let me pet her. She gave me the chance to calm down. I don’t know if she knew how much comfort I felt. But she gave me the courage to get through the day.”
From then on, Grace sought out Karma and the other therapy dogs every chance she got. “I talked to therapists, but the dogs were the only reason I was able to go to school. The shooting changed me. I didn’t think I’d ever smile or be happy again. But the dogs’ attention and love made me see there was still good in the world. They were the key to helping me come back to my new self,” she says.
Like Grace, sixteen-year-old Jonathan Sullivan dreaded going back to Stoneman Douglas. He had been in his fourth period ceramics class when the fire alarm went off on February fourteenth, the day of the shooting. As his class filed outside, word began to spread that there was a shooter in the freshman building. “I saw a Snapchat video of a kid huddled on the floor of a classroom, with the sound of gunshots in the background, and I just started running,” says Jonathan.
He scrambled over a nearby chain-link fence, then ran toward the apartment where he and his dad, Joe, lived, about a quarter mile from the school. The streets were already jammed with empty cars, abandoned by desperate parents trying to get to their kids, and hundreds of uniformed officers carrying guns. “It felt like a war zone,” says Jonathan. When he reached the roundabout near their home, his dad, frantic with worry, was there waiting. “I just kept thinking, ‘Let Johnny be okay,’” recalls Joe. “Seeing him was the happiest moment of my life. We hugged each other, and I said, ‘Let’s go home.’”
But the young man who had left home that morning wasn’t the same one who shuffled into their apartment that afternoon. “Every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep, the day of the shooting would start running through my mind,” says Jonathan. “I’d put myself in the shoes of the kids who got shot. I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my head, so I wasn’t able to sleep.” Jonathan was withdrawn, too. Even Joe couldn’t reach him. “I’ve been a single dad since Johnny was three, and we’ve always been really close,” says Joe. “But he was just sort of lost. I couldn’t blame him. I’m an adult, and I didn’t know how to cope with this kind of tragedy.”
When Jonathan got home from that first day back at school, however, Joe noticed a change. “All he talked about was the comfort dogs,” Joe says. “After the second day, he came home and said, ‘I think I need a dog.’”
That night, Joe called 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida Rescue and learned there was a litter of puppies at a foster home not far from his apartment. Several weeks before, a police officer had found the flea-infested puppies in the backyard of a home in Miami. The puppies’ parents were chained in the yard, and their stomachs were swollen nearly to the point of bursting, after being fed a diet of raw beans and rice. The officer took the litter to the rescue group, who nursed them back to health.
“Johnny and I went to see them, and one puppy just rolled over and wanted belly rubs. We fell in love with him,” says Joe. “The rescue organization waived the fees and gave us dog food. I will always be grateful for their generosity and how sensitive they were to Johnny’s situation.”
Jonathan named his new puppy Ajax. “He was friendly and loving and so excited to see me every day. Just knowing that he’d be waiting for me when I came home from school made me feel better,” he says. “Friends and classmates came over every day so they could hang out with Ajax, too. When we were sitting around playing with the dog, kids would start opening up about what happened. Ajax softened the atmosphere and made us all feel okay about talking about stuff. He helped lots of kids feel better.”
Joe was astonished by the effect the puppy had on his son. “Johnny went from not sleeping and not wanting to talk about anything to communicating again and feeling more like his old self,” he says. “This was a puppy, not some trained service dog, but he always seemed to know just what we needed. I don’t know how we would have made it through that time without Ajax.”
The puppy, Jonathan says, made them feel safe. “Not that Ajax is a guard dog. Far from it. But with him by my side, I was able to sleep. And knowing that he was relying on me helped me feel stronger,” Jonathan says, adding, “I used to hear about school shootings and wonder what that would be like. Now I know. It’s even worse than you think. It messes you up. But Ajax and I developed this bond. Being with him made me feel like I could handle life again.”
Cats and Dogs Can Enlarge Our Capacity for Courage
By the time of the Parkland shooting, I’d been collecting stories of people who’d been saved by rescue pets for several years. I’d heard hundreds of stories that inspired me and moved me to tears, and I was overwhelmed by the diverse and often miraculous ways rescuing an animal can save a person, too. But hearing about Grace and Jonathan left me short of breath.
I’ve faced heartbreak and lost loved ones I miss to this day. But I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to endure such a needless tragedy, nor could I conceive of the courage it must have taken the students—much less the families in Parkland who lost daughters and sons and loved ones—to move forward in its aftermath. It made me think of the definition of courage from Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work: “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experience good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”
- "The premise put forward by Novello, president of Humane Society Silicon Valley, in her first book is a simple one: rescuing a pet from a shelter helps both the animal and the owner in numerous ways. This collection of anecdotes, bolstered by the requisite statistics and studies, proves her point time and again. Novello opens with the story of how two Parkland School shooting survivors found solace in a pair of rescue dogs, one a mini Australian shepherd trained as a therapy animal, the other a puppy (of an unspecified breed) recently rescued from an abusive home; both were powerfully effective in helping their owners recuperate from trauma. While not all of Novello's accounts are this dramatic, they're equally impactful, variously showing how animals can help owners overcome the loss of a child or the suicide of a loved one, combat mental illness, adopt a healthier lifestyle, and even enhance a child's cognitive and emotional development. A selection of resources, such as volunteering tips for people unable to commit to pet ownership, rounds out the book. It's an impressive and inspiring work guaranteed to spur a visit to a rescue web site or trip to the local Humane Society."—Publisher's Weekly, Starred Review
- "Blending emotional appeal with scientific evidence, Novello presents a sound basis for the community benefits of rescuing shelter animals and supporting animal welfare organizations."—--Library Journal
"Adopting a pet can greatly benefit the lives of people who are emotionally hurting. Read these heartwarming stories in Mutual Rescue."
—Temple Grandin, PhD, author ofAnimals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
"Through authentic accounts, scientific evidence, and personal narrative, Carol Novello illustrates how when we rescue a homeless animal, we ourselves are so often rescued right back! This book is destined to save lives."
—Marty Becker, DVM, and Jack Canfield, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthors of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul
"Packed with heartrending stories of struggling people who have adopted homeless animals, this fascinating book reveals the many unrecognized ways dogs and cats can ground us, provide a sense of purpose, and give us the strength to move forward. Part science, part story, Mutual Rescue is all heart. It made me cry and filled me with hope for our planet and every person on it."
—Mallika Chopra, author of Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy
"I love Mutual Rescue's films, so when I heard about this new book, I raced to read it. The stories about rescued pets rescuing people were like rays of bright sunshine on a stormy afternoon. Truly an awe-inspiring book!"
—Marci Shimoff, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Happy for No Reason and Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul
"Mutual Rescue juxtaposes authentic stories and scientific thought about the animal-human bond. It touches hearts, opens minds, and inspires compassion-a life-changing book."
—Brian Hare, founder of Duke Canine Cognition Center and New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Dogs
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing