With cats and dogs as with people, little things can make a big difference. In the same way a cup of good coffee can rescue a lousy morning or a thoughtful text can cure a bad mood, giving a simple blanket to a cat or a dog in a shelter can relieve stress and provide much-needed comfort in an intimidating environment.
No one knows this better than Eileen Smulson. She is the founder of the California-based nonprofit Operation Blankets of Love, which has provided blankets to countless animals in the area since 2008. In addition to making animals more comfortable, Smulson says, blankets also make them more adoptable — and various studies back her up, stating that comfortable animals are healthy animals.
"When a potential adopter is going to the shelter, [a blanket] reminds them of a home environment," Smulson says. "Those are the animals that are picked one after another — the ones that are happier, more relaxed, and more active. A simple blanket can actually make the difference between life and death for an animal."
If it weren’t for a curly-haired, golden dog named Ginger, Smulson never would have started collecting blankets. She never had pets growing up, and she didn’t want any — but her husband, Brad, did. The couple adopted Ginger in 2003 after the tiny dog was found wandering a desert highway in Palmdale. Ginger was scared, thirsty, and confused when she arrived at the shelter. When Smulson’s husband petted and hugged Ginger, it changed the dog’s life.
It changed Smulson’s life as well. That first night with Ginger was a rough one — Smulson had an anxiety attack, she says, because she’d never been around animals and she had "no idea what to do." But after attending an obedience training class with Ginger, Smulson says they finally bonded.
"I fell in love with her after a few weeks, but I didn’t know anything about dogs," she says. "I just loved her because she was so cute. I didn’t understand how much love they can give you."
It was Smulson’s love of Ginger that propelled her into activism regarding cats as well as dogs. When a multimillion dollar shelter was constructed near her home, she dropped in to visit and was shocked that the cats and dogs in this state-of-the-art facility lacked basic bedding.
"I saw how uncomfortable the animals were," she says. "I saw puppies and senior dogs lying on cement. It was disgusting. And that’s how it started. There was a need."
She spoke with the director of the shelter and offered to use her 20 years of experience planning special events in the nonprofit sector to help the animals at the shelter. She came back in a month with 300 blankets. Then the number grew to 3,000, and Smulson and her husband haven’t slowed down since.
Operation Blankets of Love now serves 12 shelters in Los Angeles, another 25 shelters in southern California, and hundreds of animal rescue groups as far away as Canada and Mexico. Through blanket drives and the efforts of volunteers, the organization has collected more than 1 million items valued at more than $3 million, including blankets, towels, beds, food, leashes, harnesses, carriers, and pet clothes. Their efforts have garnered national attention and have allowed Operation Blankets of Love to branch out and increase efforts in other areas.
They’ve recently started an awareness campaign called I Dream of Justice Too that puts fliers and posters in public spaces reminding people that animal abuse is a crime. They are also increasing low-cost spay and neuter efforts to help homeless individuals stay united with their pets, who Smulson says are often the only family they have.
And of course their shelter advocacy efforts continue. Smulson often visits shelters, which frequently have limited or no budget dedicated to bedding, and asks, "How can I help you?"
"I explain to them what we do and how we can make their [cats and dogs] more adoptable," she says. "It’s cost-effective two ways: We’re providing these items free of charge, and it doesn’t cost the city or county any money. Also, one blanket can save two animals — when one animal is adopted, you have room for another."
Still, not every shelter she visits has been receptive to her message. One nearby shelter does not accept donations or volunteers, believing that negative publicity helps get the cats and dogs out faster, regardless of the animals’ comfort or well being. But Smulson has not given up — and if she can help even one animal, she feels the challenges she faces are worthwhile.
If you are interested in starting a blanket drive for a shelter in your area or would like to learn more about Operation Blankets of Love and support its mission, Smulson encourages you to contact Operation Blankets of Love. You can also follow it on Facebook and visit it on YouTube.
"Anyone can do a local blanket drive," she says. "You don’t need money to do this. You need a cardboard box and a flyer. People can look in their closet and look for an old blanket or towel. Everyone has an old towel that they can contribute."
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