Abused and abandoned as a child, Rocket Dog Rescue founder Pali Boucher is determined to leave no dog behind – especially the underdogs
Pali Boucher has worked every day leading up to Christmas at Chocolate Covered, a specialty sweets shop in Noe Valley, but when she leaves her job at 7 p.m., there are hours of work left to do. With the housing crisis and shaky economy still in full swing, more dogs than ever are coming into Rocket Dog, the rescue group she founded a decade ago, and it is Boucher’s mission to leave no dog behind. The presidents of nonprofits make more per year than Rocket Dog’s entire annual budget, and last year Rocket Dog worked with even less, which is just one-eighth of the donations they got when the economy was solid. But Boucher is proud that her all-volunteer group has managed to save just as many dogs as they did in better times.
That’s no small feat considering Rocket Dog takes mostly the dogs other rescue groups reject. “We’ve had a pit bull in a wheelchair; lots of blind, deaf and really old dogs; we took a pit bull that had been shot and hit by a car; we just found a great home for a pit bull with acid burns all over his body – we’ve sadly gotten quite a few pit bulls with acid burns.”
Paying medical bills for society’s unwanted dogs isn’t cheap – vet bills eat up most of Rocket Dog’s shrinking budget – but Boucher has a special place in her heart for the throwaway dogs because she was a throwaway kid.
Born as a ward of the court to an unfit mother, Boucher and her younger brother spent their childhood moving from place to place. “In those days, all a mom had to do was check in once in a while,” Boucher explains. Sometimes, when their mother got arrested or was strung out on drugs and alcohol, she and her brother would end up in foster care, where they were often abused and sexually molested – but then again, that happened when they were with their mom, too. “Once my mom was going with a guy who had molested me, and she knew it, and she would bring him along when she visited me in the foster home,” Boucher says.
When her mom would manage to get the kids out, they were helplessly along for the ride as she moved from man to man. “When I was little, I watched my mom get raped and beaten by her boyfriends, and I got raped by those same men while sleeping in the same bed with them,” Boucher says matter-of-factly.
When they weren’t crashing at somebody else’s place, Boucher and her brother lived with their mom on the streets. “Once we were living under somebody’s stairs, and we were starving. I could see a cherry pie inside the house, and my mom told me to go steal it, but I got caught. My mom ended up having sex with him for the pie.”
Although she was only 4 years old, Boucher has vivid memories of the year she spent with her mother (who was serving time for drugs) in a Mexican prison. “In those days, they kept the kids with the moms,” Boucher says. “All we had to eat was beans – these four guys would carry this giant pot in once a day. But if the women had sex with the guards, they would get extra beans. My mom had her guard, and she would point to him and say, ‘There’s the man who’s nice to us.’ Sometimes he’d bring us a roast chicken from the supermarket.”
While locked up with her mom, Boucher experienced more than any 4-year-old ever should, from watching a man get shot in the head while trying to escape to having guards taunt her with scorpions and feed her red hot chili peppers, laughing as she gasped for air.
“The women were locked up, but the kids and the men were loose,” Boucher says. “I remember one time I was taking a shower and this young guy started having sex with me, and I just stared into space, watching a spider on the wall. I was numb; I didn’t want to be in my body.”
When Boucher was 10 years old, her mother died from sclerosis of the liver. “She was only in her early forties,” Boucher recollects. “She’s buried in an indigent unmarked grave.”
After that, Boucher was sent to live with her father, a Bay Area disc jockey who also had his problems with drugs and alcohol, but her younger brother was sent to a foster home. “My mom had three kids with three different guys, and my brother wasn’t his biological kid, so he didn’t want him,” Boucher says. “They sent him to live in a foster home with a sheriff in Humboldt County who sexually abused him; once, when I was older and living in San Francisco, he found me and asked to stay with me, but I was too screwed up on drugs then – I couldn’t even take care of myself, never mind him, so I told him no. I never heard from him again.”
After years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Boucher found settling in to a “normal” life difficult. “I had no one to help me,” she says, “I was just walking to school one day when I was in the sixth grade and I turned around and never went back.” Her father, also in his forties, died not long after.
That was the beginning of another chapter in Boucher’s life where she fended for herself living on the streets, sleeping wherever she could. “I slept a lot at Gates 5 and 6 in Sausalito, where the boathouses are. There was a half-sunken mansion called the Owl Boat, because the owls would dive at you when you were up top. I would climb this spiral staircase to this perfectly round stained glass room, and that’s where I slept a lot. It was really beautiful.”
Eventually she wound up in San Francisco, living in what is now the Carl Hotel in the Haight-Ashbury. “It was called the Pink Palace,” she says, “and some really bad people lived there, like serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ing.”
To keep people at a distance, Boucher would act “crazy,” carrying an ice pick in her belt and slashing at things, but she found solace in animals. “When I was living in Golden Gate Park, I would take little animals and birds that were injured and nurse them back to health.” About this time, she found her first dog, a female Doberman pinscher-hound mix she named Charlie. “I was on a really self-destructive path, doing a lot of drugs, and I kept going to jail. They took her away and killed her at ACC. It killed my soul.” Boucher says she never got over losing Charlie, but she began going to the SF/SPCA, walking up and down the kennels, visiting the dogs. “It wasn’t all nice like it is now,” Boucher points out. “They were just another kill shelter then.” One day she saw a big black and tan hound named Bogart. “He would bay so loud that people would be holding their ears. But I loved the way he would stand there and sing to me.”
Because nobody wanted Bogart, he was set to be euthanized. Homeless and addicted to drugs, Boucher wasn’t an ideal candidate to adopt a dog, but she found someone who was willing to adopt him for her, and it was a huge turning point in both of their lives. “I renamed him Leadbelly, after the blues musician who was released from prison because the governor was so impressed with his beautiful singing,” she says.
“We lived in abandoned buildings south of Market; I remember walking through there – it was a ghost town – and I’d listen to music and it would echo off the walls. There were abandoned train cars, too, where the 7-feet-tall drag queens would live; then I found a Morris Minor pickup truck trailer, and that became our home – not the truck, just the trailer; it was 4 feet by 4 feet, just big enough for Leadbelly and me, and I could just pick it up and move it.”
They found a spot off of Bayshore and set up their home. “I asked a man for this little Christmas tree and he gave it to me; I put it outside the trailer and decorated it with lights that ran on batteries.”
But it wasn’t long before Boucher was back behind bars. Not wanting what happened to Charlie to happen to Leadbelly, she knew she had to get sober. “I had someone depending on me,” Boucher says. “I’d never had anyone to depend on my whole life, but Leadbelly taught me what it was like to have a family, to have someone you love and want to protect so much that you have to learn to take care of yourself so you can take care of them.”
As soon as she was released from jail Boucher entered rehab, and after rehab, a program that helped find housing for people who wanted to get off the streets. She found the place where she still lives today. “The reason I wanted to move into this house was because there was this white pit bull living in the neighbor’s yard, covered with sores. At night I would bring him in and feed him, and in the morning I would put him back in the yard. When the family moved they left him behind, and I found him a home.”
After that she started working with rescue groups, helping to save more than 1,500 dogs over several years. Then one day she saw a 14-year-old hound dog about to be put down. “I asked the rescue I was working for if I could pull him, and they said no. He was old and they thought he wasn’t adoptable, so I lied to ACC and pulled him anyway. I felt terrible lying – I knew it was wrong – but I had to get him out. And that’s when I knew I had to start my own rescue.”
She had learned the ropes working with some of the Bay Area’s best-known rescue organizations, and she put that knowledge – and fierce determination – to work, rounding up volunteers, registering as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and saving dogs.
“For years we were known as ‘the group that only takes pit bulls,’ and we got a lot of flack for it, but I always wanted to help the dogs that were being put down most often and didn’t have a chance. Shelters didn’t even offer us cute, fluffy dogs or purebreds – those went to other rescues. We took the pit bulls, the old dogs, the ‘behavior’ dogs, the ones with medical issues, the one-eyed, three-legged dogs ... the ones that were considered unadoptable.”
The new faces of euthanasia – puggles, poos and purebreds
Recently, Boucher is seeing a disturbing trend. “Small dogs and hybreeds are showing up on the kill lists ... Maltipoos, teacup poodles, puggles, Labradoodles, schnauzers, miniature dachshunds; it used to be rare to see even one little dog, now they’re on every euthanasia list.”
Rocket Dog is also getting rare, desirable and papered purebreds. “We just adopted out a perfect Bernese mountain dog pulled from a kill list, and next week we’re getting a Great Pyrenees – those big, fluffy white mountain dogs. The purebred rescues are just as overwhelmed as we are, but they’re also snobs. We got a basset hound and we called a basset rescue; the lady said ‘That is not a purebred – his ears aren’t long enough.’ The dog was as purebred as they come – she just didn’t want to take him because he wasn’t a perfect-looking basset.”
But now Rocket Dog is getting perfect purebreds, and the purebred rescues aren’t stepping up. “I worry now that we have these dogs too, about the dogs that never had a chance of being adopted before all the purebreds, little dogs and hybreeds started showing up in shelters. We are stretched to the limit for funding and foster homes.”
Boucher blames overbreeding, people who don’t spay and neuter their pets, and a lack of oversight. “You don’t need a license to breed dogs,” she explains. “It’s very low overhead – you buy a male and a female, breed them, and sell the puppies. In this economy, I think people believe they’re going to make their fortune selling puggles and Maltipoos.”
The puggles she just took in bolster Boucher’s claim. “This family called me and said they were losing their house and could I take three puggle puppies. So they show up at my work with the three puppies plus the mom and the dad. They said they had sold a couple of the puppies, so now those puppies are out there unaltered and probably being bred. Meantime, I found a home for the dad, but I still have the mom and three puppies.”
The family bought the male and female puggles from Serramonte Pet Shop, and Boucher says pet shops, along with websites like Craig’s List, are responsible for the explosion of little dogs, purebreds and designer pooches. With only 20 percent of dogs in America being adopted from shelters, the rest are being purchased from pet stores and online, and the majority of those dogs come from puppy mills. Without legislation, Boucher sees the problem only worsening.
“Places like Serramonte Pet Shop sell puppies from puppy mills, and they don’t care if you spay or neuter. On the dog’s papers, they list a breeder, but that’s typical. For example, almost all French bulldogs come from puppy mills in the Ukraine. They ship them here to a ‘breeder,’ and people think they’re buying from a reputable person, but they’re really just supporting a puppy mill. The dogs often have health issues and behavior problems. We had a Frenchie not long ago – he was a mess.”
Meanwhile, Boucher continues her crusade to leave no dog behind. “We even have a purebred mini red dachshund – about 7 months old, sweet and adorable,” she says as she ticks off a long list of purebreds and hybreeds looking for homes. But along with those “perfect dogs,” Rocket Dog Rescue continues to take the one-eyed hounds, the old mutts with mange, and the three-legged pit bulls.
A dog named Leadbelly saved her life, and Boucher honors his memory each and every day by saving the lives of dogs just like him. “They’re the underdogs like me, the dogs everyone’s given up on,” Boucher says with conviction. “They need someone to not just walk past their kennel and leave them to die; they need someone to stop and give them a chance.”
Boucher and her band of volunteers give those throwaway dogs that chance, and the best part of their job is watching them thrive and blossom in forever homes. Cooper, a 100-pound-plus pit bull mix that I fostered for Rocket Dog nearly two years ago, is living proof: he failed his temperament test, was said to be human and dog aggressive, and “unsuitable for adoption or any rescue.” Still, Boucher refused to give up on Cooper – I fostered him for a month and then a wonderful family in Half Moon Bay saw him on the Rocket Dog Rescue website (www.rocketdogrescue.org). After one meeting, Cooper moved into his spacious new digs near Mavericks beach. I recently got an e-mail from his mom, Kris Murphy. “Cooper is doing amazing,” she wrote. “I know it sounds so trite, but he really blows my mind ... he has been cornered in the ocean by snappy Pomeranians – all he does is look to me for direction. I overhear the regulars tell their friends, ‘Oh, don’t worry about him – he just wants to play ball.’ ... Cooper is my ray of happiness everyday.”
Support Rocket Dog Rescue at “Paws for Laughter,” a standup comedy fundraiser co-sponsored by Northside San Francisco and Fort Mason Center, starring co-headliners Jeff Applebaum and Steven Pearl and featuring Josh Applebaum, Coree Spencer, Max Curry, Sam Obeid, and special guests. Southside Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011, 8–11 p.m.; tickets $30 at 415-994-5335 or www.brownpapertickets.com. All proceeds benefit Rocket Dog Rescue.