Father George Sanders, pastor at St. John Church in Hot Springs, flashed a wide smile while cuddling a pint-size boxer-hound mix puppy up against his cheek, close enough to get a whiff of her sweet puppy breath.
“She was just loving, how all puppies are. There’s something special about a puppy like that — open, always seeking. Just a beautiful experience,” Father Sanders said.
Father Sanders and 11 other local religious leaders came together June 1 to pose with adoptable dogs for the City of Hot Springs Animal Services to increase adoptions.
The June 2 post, called “Pastors, Priests and Puppies” on their Facebook page, “City of Hot Springs Animal Services,” has garnered 267 likes, 33 comments and 275 shares as of June 19. Each photo with a religious leader tells about their church and times of services.
The idea to reach out to religious leaders came naturally to animal services director Lt. LeeAnn Zaner, an 18-year-veteran of the Hot Springs Police Department, because she’s seen the power of prayer work wonders for animals in her personal life. In 2018, Zaner began her own rescue called “LeeAnn’s Rescue Continuing Leo’s Legacy,” (leeannsrescue.org) taking in dogs that first responders have found while on duty in need of care and adopting them out. The rescue honors her dog Leo, a pit bull, who went missing in 2017. After countless prayers and many search efforts, Leo was caught three weeks later.
“We prayed whatever God’s will was and it was meant to be,” Zaner said. “That started our rescue journey. He’s still alive,” and has four rescued companions.
In mid-April, Zaner took over as director of the City of Hot Springs Animal Services, as the police department is in charge of animal services. It’s been her mission to use social media as much as she can to promote adoptable animals, which include dogs, cats and the whole farm.
“We take everything. We’ve had sheep, goats, peacocks. We deal with chickens, guinea pigs … horses,” Zaner said, explaining they cover Garland County. “My whole goal is to not be classified as a kill shelter, not have to euthanize for space.”
In May, the shelter had 241 total intakes and euthanized 15. The shelter has 40 dog kennels, an additional 12 cat kennels and 12 puppy kennels that can hold multiple animals. Their “at capacity” is more than 100 animals. As of June 14, the shelter was over capacity.
A longtime member of First Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Zaner was eager to see if local religious leaders might pose with adoptable dogs after other community organizations, like firefighters, police officers and medical professionals, stepped up to support the shelter in the same way.
“Let them see that animals can be loved by people who love God too,” she said. “... Whatever faith you believe in, puppies also help on your religious journey.”
Father Sanders and other pastors jumped at the chance to take some photos with adoptable dogs.
“The last two dogs I have gotten from the shelter,” Father Sanders said, including their late shepherd mix Rebel, adopted from City of Hot Springs Animal Services and aptly named for his escape tactics, who died two years ago.
About a year-and-a-half ago, they rescued another shepherd mix, Sweet Pea.
“My wife gave her that name,” Father Sanders laughed. He is one of three married priests in the Diocese of Little Rock.
“She’s wonderful. She apparently was abused when she was younger. She was so skittish when we got her,” he said.
The roughly 10-week-old puppy Father Sanders held for the adoption photo shoot was one of five brought to the City of Hot Springs Animal Services. He said the love of a rescue dog is an example of Christ’s love for us.
“It’s that openness, especially a puppy like that, that trust they have for the humans that pick them up and show them love and care. I think it’s a beautiful picture of what God calls us all to be, that humble, loving spirit,” he said. “We’re adopted by God. It was he who came and sought us … and drew us into his family. God is about communion. It’s a beautiful example of the Gospel that we reach out and draw them into our family.”
One of the featured dogs — a German Shepherd named Layla — found a home quickly, adopted by St. John School principal Susana Anderson. She came to the photo shoot with Father Sanders on a whim.
“I was going on vacation the next day,” Anderson laughed and was in no way planning to adopt. “When they gave me the dog, the dog sat down for that photo and posed. I could feel the dog pose for the picture, and then I saw her laying down with the kittens and thought, ‘This dog is so gentle,’” she said. “I had a German Shepherd for 14 years before she passed away. I just knew she was right, just right for our family. We had an in-sync mental connection. I just knew and it was just perfect.”
While Anderson is vocal about the need for families to understand and research before adoption because animals are a long-term commitment, she’s had plenty of practice in knowing when keeping an animal is simply fate. A law enforcement officer for almost 30 years before she became a Catholic school teacher and principal, Anderson has a passion for saving animals, including fostering wild animals. Layla has joined Anderson’s other rescues, including Boston Terrier Winston, Pomeranian-chihuahua mix Steve, rescue chickens and a rescue pig, Jerry Swinefeld.
“I’m a nature girl. I’m a St. Francis girl; let’s just say that’s how I am,” Anderson laughed. “I love animals. I’ve had to help animals that were severely abandoned and abused; just to get an animal to trust you and help them recover, it’s my heart.”
Anderson said people of faith who are ready to bring a pet in their home should consider adopting.
“It not only helps the shelters; it helps the animal, but it also helps the person who receives the animal,” Anderson said. “... It’s not just that you rescue them, they can rescue a person back. There’s a bond that’s between God, people and nature.”
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