Where life is hard for man, it is often harder for man's best friend.
"People in Colorado Springs, when we do adoption fairs, I tell them what goes on down here and they have a hard time believing it," said Aileen Peek, who founded and runs the nonprofit San Luis Valley Animal Welfare Society and its affiliated no-kill shelter with her husband, Frank. "Dogs are shot. Dogs and cats are used for target practice. We have lots of dumped animals and lots of animals run over by vehicles. That kind of cruelty happens here all the time."
Compared with the probable fates of starvation or death from exposure that homeless pets face on this sparsely populated frontier southwest of the Springs - a region roughly the size of Connecticut where about a quarter of residents live below the national poverty line - a quick ending might seem merciful.
The Peeks, however, have set out to rescue every animal they can, nurture it back to health - in their own home, if need be - and place it in a good and loving home. That's the mission statement of their group, the valley's largest animal welfare organization.
"The main reason we are doing this is there's nobody else to help these animals," said Frank Peek, 78. "If you have an injured or sick dog and there's not a shelter to take them to, your options are shoot the dog or let them go. It's the need of the animals that keeps us going."
In early March, the Peeks received a 3-month-old puppy who'd been left to die in a cardboard box near a rural highway outside Romeo. The puppy, later named Baby Hope, had been shot in the shoulder and her throat and trachea sliced open. Workers at the veterinarian's office who provided emergency treatment said it was the worst case of animal cruelty they'd ever seen.
"If you see stray and abandoned puppies and dogs who are at risk, please contact the (society). We can rescue or help these dogs before someone with the intent to harm animals finds them," said Aileen, whose group is seeking donations to offset Baby Hope's medical bills as well as offering a $250 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.
Since the society's founding in 2000, volunteers have rescued and found homes for about 6,800 dogs and 1,200 cats. All adult animals are spayed or neutered and fully vaccinated at the time of adoption.
Due to the lack of suitable and willing adoptive homes in the San Luis Valley, many of those adoptions have taken place in the Springs at a weekly adoption fair at PetSmart near Chapel Hills Mall. Aileen and a collection of adoptable pets have made the three-hour-plus trek to the adoption fair almost every Saturday for the past decade.
"I've only missed four Saturdays in 10 years: one for my son's graduation and the others due to not being able to get over the pass due to snow," Aileen said. "And we usually break down a couple times a year."
Saturdays begin at about 5 a.m. with the loading of 15 or 20 adoptees for the long van haul north. When the group's bus isn't broken down, they'll take more.
"Sometimes it's about a 22-hour day, which is a long day for us and the animals," said Aileen, 68, who became devoted to animal welfare growing up with a menagerie of creatures on a small dairy farm in northern Minnesota.
After she and Frank established the society, Aileen began speaking at schools and in the community - often accompanied by her Chow Chow, Biggles - about the importance of responsible pet ownership, doing what she could to fight the valley's growing homeless pet problem.
"We need a lot of education, especially about spay and neuter down here. Those are the things we need to cut down on all the starving animals,"she said. "We'll put out ads for dogs who've just had litters of puppies, take the puppies to adopt out and spay mom and return her to the family."
In 2006, the Peeks mortgaged their home to buy a 35-acre property, site of the 17,000 square-foot former Battle Mountain Gold Mine, near the town of San Luis. The site now houses a no-kill shelter. In addition to taking in local animals for adoption or transfer to no-kill shelters along the Front Range, volunteers also work with shelters in northern New Mexico to find permanent homes for dogs facing euthanization because of overcrowding.
The Peeks' facility is one of three licensed shelters in the San Luis Valley, including the Conour Animal Shelter in Monte Vista, which is operated by the nonprofit Upper Rio Grande Animal Society.
Still, the homeless pet population far exceeds community resources.
Aside from two minimum-wage shelter employees, the organization is entirely volunteer-run. Neither Frank nor Aileen draws a salary. So far, they've relied on adoption fees - $195 for puppies, plus a $50 state-required deposit for spay/neuter - to support operations at the remote, rural shelter.
But costs are rising and adoptions are down. Increased risks of parvo, a potentially fatal and highly contagious viral disease, mean additional, expensive vaccinations for puppies. The Peeks are trying to entice a veterinarian to set up shop at the shelter, but for now animals must be driven 90 minutes for medical treatment.
There will come a day when the pair will no longer be able to devote most of their time and money to caring for the valley's unwanted animals.
"We can't do this forever, but we will continue to be active in the society and helping animals as long as we can," said Aileen, who hopes someone will step forward to take over the reins.
"If we go out of business, there will be a lot of animals that won't be rescued."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. every Saturday
Where: PetSmart, 7680 N. Academy Blvd.
Info or to donate: Go online to slvaws.org or call 1-719-587-96631-719-587-9663