What kind of person takes a prized, purebred hunting dog and leaves it for dead at the animal shelter? Worse yet, three hunting dogs?
That’s the question Megan Villarreal was asking in May of 2005. She was graduating from college that month and learned that someone had dumped three English pointer puppies, siblings, in the “dead box” on the north side of the City of Amarillo’s Amarillo Animal Management & Welfare facility. The container is intended to be a 24-hour-a-day receptacle where people can drop off deceased pets for safe, hygienic disposal.
“You’re not supposed to put live animals in the dead box, but people did it all the time back then,” Villarreal says. The puppies were around 6 months old and only weighed 17 pounds — around half of what they should have weighed. Clearly, they had been neglected. The city has since added new signage in Spanish and English, along with brighter lighting identifying the dead box. According to Richard Havens, director of Animal Management & Welfare, the city hasn’t had a live animal in the depository for more than a year.
Regardless, it happened for those pointers in 2005. Hunters love these vigorous gun dogs, which are bred to be hard-driving, tireless companions. Today, a pointer puppy from a reputable breeder might cost upwards of $1,000. Why would someone abandon three of them?
Villarreal never found the answer to that question, but those dogs changed the course of her life. She adopted one of the siblings, naming him Balyn. “He was nothing but bones,” she says. He fought through several weeks of illness but gradually gained strength. The more playful and healthy Balyn became, the more Villarreal and her husband, Roberto, started thinking that he might need a playmate. In the process of looking for a canine friend in local shelters, they discovered an abundance of sporting dogs like Balyn. Most were German shorthaired pointers (GSP), a related breed. “I just kept finding one German shorthaired pointer after another,” she says.
She remembers one in particular, a female that an owner had taken to a local veterinarian to get spayed. “She just never came to pick up the dog” after the surgery, Villarreal says. For two months the vet cared for the dog, but eventually had to stop dedicating so much time and resources to an abandoned pet. The GSP ended up in the shelter.
High-energy dogs, pointers are bred to run miles and miles alongside hunters. When confined, they become restless and even destructive. Villarreal couldn’t bear to see such dignified creatures locked up in animal shelters. “I knew I had to do something,” she says. “I couldn’t just leave them there.”
Villarreal took the spayed dog home and began looking for options. That’s when she discovered a nonprofit organization called Texas GSP Rescue, which is dedicated to placing abandoned German shorthaired pointers into loving homes. It relies on a network of volunteers that foster GSPs until they can be adopted. The Villarreals temporarily took in the dog, contacted the rescue organization, and eventually found her a home.
They were hooked and knew they needed to get further involved with the organization. Villarreal says she simply couldn’t believe that such good dogs were being put down when an organization existed specifically to help them. “We’ve been doing it ever since,” Villarreal says of fostering GSPs.
Even though they lived in a second-story apartment, the couple began taking in GSPs for one or two weeks at a time, then driving to Austin every few weekends to transport the dogs to the organization and potential adopters. Through connections made with local vets and the Humane Society, Villarreal would get a call or message anytime a pointer became available.
She learned she was the only GSP Rescue volunteer in the area. Knowing this, the state organization began asking Villarreal to perform home visits for families wanting to adopt. Then GSP Rescue took it a step further, naming her the West Texas area coordinator. Today, the organization has grown to encompass Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Villarreal is now a board member for the organization and oversees a region that extends from Wichita Falls to Brownwood to El Paso. GSP Rescue saves the lives of almost 200 dogs a year.
Saving shell-shocked lives
“My whole life, we picked up dogs off the side of the road,” Villarreal says. “We always took in the haphazard animal here or there. My dad never told us that we couldn’t bring an animal home.” She grew up in a home filled with, in her words, “dogs that nobody wanted” and “cats that just wandered up.”
Today, as she continues to foster GSPs and advocates on behalf of rescued dogs in general, she sees much of her role as a way to educate people about the benefits of fostering animals, whether they are German shorthaired pointers or iguanas. When you foster, she says, “you not only save that dog’s life, you save the next dog that goes into the shelter to take its place. He gets extra time because you took that dog [before him].” She says people seem to be surprised that popular hunting dogs like GSPs need to be rescued, but that’s the case with almost every dog. Almost every breed has a rescue organization dedicated to it. “If it’s a cat, bunny, guinea pig, iguana – they all have a rescue,” says Villarreal.
She has found some of her best friends in the fostering community but admits it takes a special person to rescue high-energy hunting dogs like these. “Anywhere you’re getting a dog from a shelter, they’re coming from a shell-shocked environment,” she says. “It’s like getting someone out of prison. They’ve listened to dogs bark and scream and yell, and they’ve seen their friends carted away and never come back. Understanding where the dogs come from is the hardest part for fosters.”
Occasionally, Villarreal will take in an owner-surrendered GSP, but until she brings a dog home from the shelter, she doesn’t know if it has been vaccinated or house-trained. Being flexible enough to handle unknown dogs coming from a difficult environment is the key to being a good foster. “Understanding and patience are the two biggest things,” she says. And with GSPs, fosters must also be committed to helping the dogs exercise. “Energy is always a consideration – and a secure backyard. We have people who foster in apartments but you have to go out with them. We don’t require a fenced yard, just somebody that knows what they’re doing.”
Miles and miles
Villarreal speculates that the exercise needs of hunting dogs may be one reason the GSP rescue organization sees so many pointers come through the system — because owners are unable to handle them. “Some people don’t realize what they’re getting into,” she says. Villarreal tells of a friend in Borger who adopted a rescue GSP several years ago and takes the dog hunting every year in South Dakota. “They’ll do 25 to 28 miles a day,” she marvels. “The people do less than half that, but the dogs will work that many miles a day and still come up smiling. They live for work.”
But that excitement to run and work means that GSPs don’t always find fulfillment in a small backyard. “To have a dog that could run 28 miles a day and then try to keep that dog in a backyard in the middle of town and not do anything with it” is a recipe for canine frustration, she says. “They start escaping. They injure themselves chewing on a fence, trying to get out or run out in front of a car. Some people just don’t want to deal with it. We end up with a lot of those dogs in our care.”
Sometimes, a pointer might get out of its enclosure and end up miles away from home. “A dog that can cover that much land in one day? If he gets away, you might not find him for a week or a month, even if you expanded your search to 30 or 40 or 100 miles. You may never find him,” she says.
Having served for 12 years with Texas GSP Rescue, Villarreal says she’s enjoyed plenty of good moments, from helping adopters connect with a new family pet to reuniting lost GSPs with their owners. But while incredibly fulfilling, some of her most significant memories weren’t accompanied by smiles. “The sad ones mean more,” she says. “They make you want to do it more and push you to keep doing it when you think you can’t anymore.”
She’s helped nurse badly injured dogs back to health, like a pointer the Amarillo shelter took in last year. “She had a broken pelvis, broken tail and broken knee,” she says. “She had crushed one of her vertebrae and was still getting around on her own when she was brought into the shelter. I think, man, if that was your dog with those catastrophic injuries, she would’ve been put down. But because nobody found her or nobody cared, she ended up healing [enough] to survive.” That resilient dog got adopted by a vet tech in Nacogdoches.
Others don’t make it, and occasionally Megan gets a call when a sick or injured GSP is going to be put down. “That’s the hard part, but I find it to be a privilege that you get to be with them in those final moments, to be the one that sees them off,” she says. “Every dog needs somebody to sit with them and be with them when they need someone the most, at the end of their lives.”
She says she’ll never forget the day the Amarillo shelter contacted her after finding a dog half buried in a pile of sand. His skull was crushed and his mouth was rotting. He staggered in circles and couldn’t control his bladder. “The shelter called me and I went to pick him up and take him straight to the vet,” she says. “He got to be loved on for a day or two. He still got to know that not all humans are horrible, even though we had to make that hard decision. He didn’t die out there in that sand, suffering.” Instead, he passed away peacefully, while Villarreal comforted him. “It was something that will stick with me for life.”
Despite those heart-wrenching moments, Villarreal sees her work as a blessing. She and Roberto are now the parents of two young boys, who love spending time with the family’s temporary pets — rescued German shorthaired pointers who will eventually find adopters — as well as the one permanent four-legged member of the family. Balyn, the English pointer from the dead box, passed away in 2016 after a long, happy life. A new sporting dog — a Vizla named Kaira, rescued from an Amarillo shelter – now runs and plays with the boys.
For the Villarreal family, animal rescue is not something they did one time in order to find a family pet. It is an ongoing commitment based on wanting the best for humanity’s noble, loyal companions. It’s a passion Villarreal hopes to pass on to her children. “Rescue has been a true blessing for us and I’m not sure how our lives would look without it,” she says.
That’s why she continues to advocate for fostering creatures of every kind, from dogs to cats, rabbits and even wild animals. In the process, one of the biggest hurdles she encounters is people who worry about getting too attached. They don’t foster because they’re afraid they’ll fall in love with a dog only to have to give it up two weeks later. Villarreal understands that kind of heartbreak, but she’s unfazed by it.
“I find that it’s harder to walk past the dog in a shelter than to let the dog be adopted,” she says. Additional fosters like her family mean fewer dogs in shelters, fewer euthanizations, and much less canine suffering. That’s the larger perspective. But personally, for Villarreal, fostering meant a new purpose and a changed life.
Balyn’s story may have begun with a pitiful dog tossed in a dead box. But his ongoing legacy continues in the lives of Megan and Roberto Villarreal, their family, and hard-working, happy German shorthaired pointers across the state of Texas.