In 2009, Karen and Eric Belfi started a nonprofit called the Blind Dog Alliance and have saved the lives of more than 150 dogs.
Karen and Eric Belfi never particularly saw themselves as advocates for disabled dogs. Then Ray Charles entered their lives.
Back in 1999, the Far Northeast residents were mainly concerned with purebred Siberian huskies. The couple already had one of the fluffy, white and gray creatures living in their town home and were in the market for another.
“We had a Siberian Husky that we wanted to find a playmate for,” Karen said.
While searching the Internet for an available orphan, she stumbled upon a listing for a dog named after the legendary soul musician. Not coincidentally, the canine Ray Charles was blind.
Karen continued Web surfing and discovered a Yahoo! discussion group dedicated to the advocacy and care of blind dogs.
“I just asked them, ‘What kind of care does a blind dog need?’ I found that they really don’t need anything more than a regular dog needs,” Karen said.
She also found that there were a lot of other blind dogs available for adoption, dogs that likely would be euthanized if not adopted soon.
Days and years passed. Karen and Eric began their own small, local Siberian husky rescue group, but continued to stay active on the blind dog Web forum. As membership in the forum continued to grow, so did the postings of available and endangered blind dogs. By 2009, the list looked more like a telephone book.
“It just seemed to get worse and worse,” Karen said. “(Then) one day there were several blind dogs posted on that list, and we knew that, as mixed breeds, most rescues wouldn’t take them.”
“We started seeing all of these dogs being euthanized and said, OK, we better look into it.”
That was in early 2009. Karen and Eric, along with several other frequent users of the Yahoo! group, decided to do something about it. The Blind Dog Rescue Alliance was born.
In the two years since, the alliance has grown, thanks mainly to its Internet presence, to include some 150 volunteers throughout the United States and Canada. Its influence has stretched as far as New Zealand.
The Belifis are aware of just two other rescues specializing in blind dogs. One is in Louisiana and the other in Washington State.
So far, their organization has rescued some 175 dogs, all of which are blind or vision impaired. Many have had other illnesses or disabilities, too. Currently, it has about 35 dogs in foster care.
“A lot of our dogs come from down South,” Karen Belfi said, “and a lot of dogs
don’t have a lot of time in shelters down South, especially blind dogs.”
In addition to her job as a registered nurse and her graduate school studies, Karen serves as president of the alliance, while Eric, an environmental consultant by profession, is treasurer. According to the couple, the general perception of blind dogs is more harmful to the animals than their disabilities.
“People don’t think blind dogs have a quality of life,” Karen said.
“Or (they think) that they’re extra work,” Eric added.
“But they’re just like other dogs,” Karen said. “Some need a little extra work, but it’s not about the blindness.”
Ray Charles is no longer with the couple, but they have three other dogs in their home. Isis is a 10-year-old Siberian husky that they’ve had since she was 1. She is not blind.
Pete is a beagle mix aged 3 or 4 that the couple rescued about 18 months ago. He is totally blind. At first, the Belfis were going to foster him, but then decided to adopt.
Mabel, a beagle aged 10 to 12, is the newest addition to the household. She arrived in June with partial vision, cancer tumors in her abdomen and arthritis. She was one day away from being put to sleep when the Belfis fostered her.
And just like with Pete, the couple ended up adopting Mabel.
“We thought, ‘How much time could she have? We’ll just keep her here,’” Eric recalled.
“A lot of fosterers end up keeping their foster dogs,” Karen said.
Today, Mabel is as active as ever, greeting strange visitors with a distrusting, yet understated growl. She never refuses a gentle stroke, however.
Pete and Isis, meanwhile, are shameless attention seekers.
Most of the rescue’s 150 volunteers provide foster homes for the animals until they can be placed in adoptive homes. Many dogs must be transported great distances to safety.
“We have a dog in Delaware County that came from Iran,” Karen said. “Somebody offered to ‘vet’ him and fly him to the U.S. And somebody else offered to foster him.
“Another dog from Western Canada came to us. It’s like a relay where everybody takes a leg of transport.”
In yet another near-miraculous success story, the Belfis helped reunite a Texas couple with their blind and deaf 16-year-old husky stray.
Karen found the dog listed at a Texas shelter on the very day it was to be put to sleep. She hastily called the shelter and arranged to have the dog transported some 1,500 miles to her home. After a month and a half, the shelter called her back to report it had found the owner of the dog, who was named Cody.
According to the owners — an airline pilot and his wife — Cody wandered away from home during a storm. The owners had been looking for the dog but somehow neglected to contact the shelter until weeks later.
“The woman (owner) called me (and was) crying because they thought they’d never see him again,” Karen said. “All that (her husband) kept saying was, ‘How in the world did he get to Philadelphia?’”
Before any dog can go into a foster home, it must be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and treated for any acute physical ailments. The alliance owns all foster dogs, but the caregiver must agree to take the dog to the vet on a routine basis.
One of the alliance’s greatest supporters is Dr. Jerome Glickstein, a veterinarian specializing in eye care. He practices at the Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Langhorne. He works for them pro bono.
Last summer, the alliance got another big boost from Toyota, which donated a 2012 Highlander to the group. The alliance was one of 5,000 applicants for the auto manufacturer’s 100 Cars for Good program. Toyota selected 500 finalists. The 100 winners emerged from an online voting process.
The Belfis acknowledge that little if any of the good work that the alliance has done would’ve been possible without the Internet.
“Just for the amount of people involved and the number of dogs we’ve been able to save, without the Internet, we wouldn’t have been able to do a tenth of what we’ve done.” ••
Visit www.BlindDogRescue.org or call 877-BLIND-01 for information.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org