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Junior Ensures 'Happy Tails' for Shelter Animals

April 4, 2008

Anyone who thinks all cats are aloof never met Rocko, a 3-year-old Siamese mix that UC Merced junior Javad John Fatollahi adopted as a stray. When Fatollahi would come home after class, Rocko nuzzled and purred. The cat would scamper along behind Fatollahi when he went to the mailbox, just like a dog.

Rocko was Fatollahi’s first pet and when the feline was fatally mauled by an animal predator last fall, the UC Merced student took it hard.

“It was difficult to even go to class the next day,” said Fatollahi, a 20-year-old biology major who aspires to become a physician specializing in sports medicine.

A couple weeks later, his grief subsiding, Fatollahi decided that the best way to deal with Rocko’s death was to do something to help give meaning to his pet’s short life.

Since moving from Thousand Oaks to Merced in 2005, Fatollahi had noticed a lot of stray cats and dogs wandering around. One time, he saw a car pull over, then as quickly pull away, a helpless dog left behind. Fatollahi’s girlfriend, Heather Orrell, also a junior at UC Merced, was just as concerned.

“It’s just so sad that there are so many animals on the street. I told Heather, ‘We should really do something about this.’”

Fatollahi contacted Sharon Lohman, the volunteer rescue coordinator for Merced County Animal Control. Grateful for the extra sets of hands, Lohman put the pair to work at the animal shelter exercising dogs and posting online photos and descriptions of adoptable animals. It was a big job. Thousands of animals come to the shelter each year. Many are adopted, reclaimed by owners, or taken in by rescue groups. But due to crowding, more than one-third are euthanized, according to Merced County Animal Control. The euthanization rate would probably be higher, Lohman noted, were it not for the online profiles, which are viewable at www.petfinder.com.

Fatollahi decided to turn to his fellow UC Merced students for help. He contacted Jim Greenwood, the university’s student life coordinator for volunteer services. Greenwood helped Fatollahi fill out paperwork to start a campus club.

The UC Merced Happy Tails Club was born. Fatollahi and Orrell set up a table at the mid-January club rush.

“It was amazing,” he said. “In a two-hour time frame, we got 20 signatures of people who were interested, and six people signed up for the (shelter) volunteer program right then and there.”

At Happy Tails first meeting, 18 students showed up. Word of mouth spread, and membership has since grown to 25 students. Many already are volunteering at the shelter, exercising animals, photographing dogs and cats for online profiles, and giving some love to neglected animals.

Beyond recruiting students to help out at the shelter, Happy Tails has two goals: to educate people about the importance of spaying and neutering pets and to raise funds for shelter animals in need of medical care and for the purchase of a new van to take animals to rescue organizations, Fatollahi said. Already, Happy Tails members have raised $160 in donations from fellow students, he said. On April 19, during the campus’s annual Bobcat Day activities, Happy Tails plans a raffle to raise even more money.

Lohman credits Fatollahi and his fellow UC Merced students with revitalizing the volunteer program at the shelter, not only by posting profiles but caring for animals in need of a little TLC.

“Even if it’s a pet we know isn’t going to get out of there,” Lohman added, “at least it’s known kindness at the shelter.”