It all started in a Vermont farmhouse in the ’90s. Artist Ellyn Boone was working on a painting on the floor because she had recently hurt her back. Her dogs were playing nearby, and in a burst of energy ran across the wet canvas, spreading painted paw prints all over.
Instead of getting upset, Boone looked at the mess and felt excited. “The paw prints inspired me to do something with them, because they were beautiful,” she said. In that moment, Paws for Love was born.
When Ellyn and her husband, George, moved to California in 1998, she decided to use her idea to help pets in need. She reached out to the Healdsburg Animal Shelter in Sonoma County about holding a fundraiser.
“I have a background in art galleries,” she explained. “So selling the paw paintings was a natural fit.”
The first event was housed in a vacant storefront, dressed up to resemble a “big city” art gallery, complete with framed paintings, artists’ biographies, wine, and hors d’oeuvres. It was love at first sight for the attendees and a big hit, with all of the paintings selling quickly. After holding several more such events for other area shelters, Boone and her volunteers decided it was time to start their own nonprofit organization to benefit those pets most in need.
“I wanted to call attention to homeless pets who had been forgotten; those who remained unseen. I knew I could bring them out into the public by making art with them. They don’t understand anything about the process, of course — but they do understand the touch of a human, our smiles, laughter, and encouragement. What I learned is that I was able to share their personality with everyone who came to view their art. Their paintings told a story — and they each had a story worth telling.”
Paws for Love provides small grants for shelters and other organizations that cannot afford the cost of medical treatment for certain pets; for example, treating parvo virus, mange, or orthopedic surgery for a pet hit by a car. These treatments make the difference between life and death, as shelters and veterinarians that handle strays can euthanize a suffering animal if the owner is not known. For a number of reasons, it can take some time for an owner to find and reclaim their pet, so stabilizing the pet buys the time needed to reconnect with the owner who can continue treatment. If the owner is not found, the pet has a chance to be adopted into a new loving home.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to fund expenses for personal pets,” said Boone. “The need is too great. We do counsel owners on other ways to get help.”
In 2012, Paws for Love launched its Silver Paws for Love senior-to-senior adoption program with Sonoma County Animal Services. This program has been such an amazing success in saving the lives of older pets that it has been able to add three more partners: Green Dog Rescue Project, Forgotten Felines, and Rohnert Park Animal Services. In the fall of 2017, it began a program to financially assist veterans in adopting a senior pet, Silver Paws for Vets.
Feb. 20 is the 20th anniversary of that first art gallery benefit, the Paws for Love Gala The organization is celebrating with the 20th anniversary Paws for Love Auction and Gala, which will be Sat., Feb. 9, 6-10 p.m., at the Finley Community Center, 2060 West College Ave. at Stony Point, Santa Rosa.
It’s a fun night with wine, beer, snacks, and entertainment, including live music. There are a number of paw paintings displayed for sale as well as both live and silent auctions. Local businesses donate a variety of great auction items like gift baskets, wine, and vacation packages. The highlight of the evening is the Red Carpet Parade for senior pets. Volunteers from local shelters present a group of delightfully gray-muzzled dogs currently available for adoption. “Senior dogs can really shine that night,” said Boone. “They are out of their kennels, dressed up, and loved on. People call ahead to check the time for the parade to make sure they don’t miss it.”
Paws for Love also holds smaller private events at Bay Area wineries and breweries. Pet owners can bring their own four-legged family members to create their own beautiful paw painting to display at home. The most common pet seen at these events are dogs, but any pet is welcome — a few folks have even brought a pet chicken.
Plans for 2019 include continuing to meet the goals in assisting senior pets find loving homes and offering more medical assistance including wellness care. “Many times,” explained Boone, “something as simple as dental care is the difference between a pet being ‘adoptable’ or not. We would like someday to be able to include some of this care has a routine part of our program.”
Boone gives a shout out to her dedicated volunteers. “Some of them have been with us the whole 20 years. I truly appreciate them. They are an amazing group of people, the backbone that keeps it all going.” She also feels the love from their supporters in the community. “People have good hearts. I really believe that. They know that they are part of something bigger.”
Brigid Wasson is a lifelong animal welfare advocate and retired animal shelter director. She is the president of Mission Reunite and CEO of The Path Ahead Animal Welfare Consulting. She lives in Sonoma County with her partner, Maureen, and their animal family. For more information, visit MissionReunite.org, AnimalWelfareSuccess.com, PawsForLove.info.
Editor’s Note: This article has been modified to reflect the correct date of the gala, which is Sat., Feb. 9.
Main article photo by: Photos courtesy Ellyn Boone