BEACH PARK, Ill. — Driven since a child to shelter and care for animals, Cari Clark’s spare time and money is largely devoted to them, whether getting up in the middle of the night to help rescue a displaced dog or opening her Beach Park home to foster pets.
Clark, 51, has rescued an estimated 50 or more dogs and cats, and fostered 19 until permanent homes could be found for them. She responds to rescue help requests from many sources, ranging from other animal lovers and social media users to occasional calls from animal control facilities.
For the past six years, Clark has added rescue work to a schedule that already includes her full-time job with Arcoa Recycling in Waukegan and her position as a humane investigator in Lake County with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
She said the rescue work “takes all of my spare time.”
“I’ve always been this way. When I was a little kid I wanted to house strays,” she said.
Clark said many people would be surprised by the number of people who simply abandon animals. Sometimes families or people will just leave dogs and cats behind when they move out of a home.
Lyons Woods and the Waukegan Dog Park are among local locations where domestic dogs and cats are found abandoned fairly regularly, she said.
As an animal lover, Clark said the concept of just leaving a dog or cat that has been a member of a family for months or years is hard to understand. She said it is equally hard for the animals to understand.
“It’s heartbreaking for the dogs,” she said, noting the look of longing for owners she sees on the faces of abandoned pets.
While abandonment, irresponsible overbreeding and strays make up much of the rescue animal population, Clark said, an even darker source — dog fighting — leads to some of the saddest and hardest to help examples of animals that have been discarded in Lake County.
“It’s the worst. I see it as an investigator. It’s heartbreaking to see what these animals go through at the hands of evil people,” Clark said. “Gang-bangers train them to kill. They are being made to fight. Then, if they are injured in a dog fight or they lose, they dump them.”
Clark said two of the animals she was called to help were pit bulls who had been injured in a dog fight and were literally dumped on York House Road. She said she believes the breed gets an unfair reputation based on the illegal fighting trade, and that the dogs are not naturally more aggressive than other dogs, but are attractive to dog fighters due to their strength.
“The cruelty I’ve seen is unbelievable,” she said.
Through social media and networking, Clark tries, usually successfully, to match rescue dogs and cats with owners. Fortunately, she said, there is a demand, and she has a list of people waiting to adopt rescue animals of varying breeds.
Waukegan Animal Control Director Susan Elliot said Clark is one of the most devoted volunteer animal rescuers she has seen.
Elliot said Clark has a skill for finding and coaxing abandoned animals who need help, but are scared and on the run from people trying to lend assistance.
“She’ll be out there late at night looking for them,” Elliot said. “She’s amazing.”
Elliot said Clark’s compassion for animals drives her to go the extra mile.
“It’s not just Waukegan. She goes all over. She’s awesome,” Elliot said.
In addition to helping animals dumped or abandoned, Clark helps find homes for animals at animal control centers and shelters, and she says she tries to give first priority to those at risk while being held in facilities that do not have no-kill policies.
Clark currently has a mixture of foster dogs and her own pets in her Beach Park home.
Lola, a Staffordshire, is a longtime rescue pet and a large, slobbering bundle of friendliness to a stranger visiting the home last week. Other personal pets include Riley, a poodle mix, and three cats. She is currently providing foster care for Lexi, a Yorkie mix, and Shadow, a schnauzer and poodle mix.
“They all get along,” she said, even as new animals come and foster pets go.
Clark said that while fostering dogs and cats until a permanent home is found is rewarding, it also comes at a price.
“I love animals so much that it gets to me when they go,” she said. “It’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet, because without foster, you can’t save lives.
“The reward is seeing how thankful the dogs are to be saved,” she said.
It comes at a literal price as well, when grooming, food and health care costs are totaled up.
“It’s expensive,” she said. “My parents think I’m nuts. I don’t get paid for it.”
She also speaks to kids at local schools about treatment of animals. Clark said she is concerned about what seems to be a rising trend of kids and teens hurting and abusing animals, sometimes to post such actions on social media.
“The new thing I’ve been doing is going to schools and talking about animal cruelty, I think reaching out to kids while they are young and make them understand all animals feel pain and how they suffer in extreme temps when left out is key,” Clark said.
“Sadly animal abuse is on the rise,” she said.
Clark said that in her talks, she also makes sure teens know the legal consequences of being caught abusing an animal, including potential felony criminal charges.
As a humane investigator, much of her tasks involve responding to calls about animals, primarily those left outside in extreme cold or heat. She said for the most part, owners respond positively to her visits and correct the situation without further enforcement being necessary. Clark said many seem to genuinely not understand that most dogs are not built to survive outside in extreme winter temperatures.
Eventually, Clark said, she hopes to buy a small farm where she can concentrate on sheltering abandoned older pets who tend to have a harder time in shelters than other animals.
Clark also holds a fundraising event, “Cause for Paws,” in September of each year, featuring band performances, food and raffles. This year will be the 10th anniversary of the event, which draws hundreds of attendees each year.
She also heads up blanket collections for an animal shelter in Chicago.
Todd Schmitz, a retired Waukegan police officer who has done some rescue work of his own, said he has known Clark for decades and that her energy when it comes to helping animals never seems to flag.
“She’s got a passion and love for animals,” Schmitz said. “She’ll get up in the middle of the night when it’s below zero and leave that warm bed to go out and help find an animal.”