Imagine you’re stuck at home during the current pandemic. Maybe you’re immunocompromised or have just been laid off. You can’t leave the house, let alone purchase or afford dog food. You feed your pup scraps off the table.
It’s just another somber night, but then you hear the doorbell ring. You open to the door to find a man in front of you, smiling from ear to ear underneath his medical mask. He brings you cases of dog food and offers kind words of support.
That man is Zach Skow — founder of Marley’s Mutts, a nonprofit based in Kern County in California — and he’s nothing short of a local hero. The organization’s mission is to rescue and rehabilitate abandoned, lost, neglected or abused dogs on “death row,” who are about to be euthanized.
“[The food drive] was an improvisational response to COVID-19 and the heartbreaking messages we were receiving,” Skow says. “A lot of people don’t realize how poor Kern County is. We are simultaneously hit with an oil crisis and agricultural devastation. These factors have combined to create a perfect storm of desperation.”
Skow received messages such as, “I’m feeding my dog leftover cat food from my cat that passed away years ago,” and “We’re feeding bread to our chihuahua.” A lot of these folks in need have a considerable number of rescue dogs. Many are in marginalized communities, hit the hardest by these crises.
Skow knew he had to do something.
His plan was to accumulate as much dog food as possible and to deliver it to every needy household. Marley’s Mutts created an online form residents could access, addressing their needs and leaving their contact information. The organization then followed up and let families know they were coming to drop off dog food.
“We have a great group of employees in Bakersfield,” says Sharon Johnson, Executive Director of Marley’s Mutts. “We call them the Rescue Team. Two of them have been in charge of the deliveries. We have such magnificent supporters on the outside, too, who we call our Mutt Militia.”
The organization has a Mutt Mover van that they fill with dog food. They also have a Mutt Mobile. (Cute, huh?) Zach and employees spent several days delivering dog food all around the county in these movers. The team spanned 230 miles wide and 160 miles North-South.
“We covered a huge swath of territory,” Skow says. “We delivered food to nearly 200 households. Each of those households had varying requests: some needed one bag, and others needed seven.”
The response to the food drive has been incredible.
“Having not left our home in more than 50 days, we could not be more grateful for these food deliveries,” says a member of the Kim family. “My husband and I are both in a very vulnerable category. What [Marley’s Mutts] has done really makes us feel seen and valued.”
Skow describes the food drive as one of the happiest experiences he’s had in the last six months with Marley’s Mutts.
“Everyone’s so grateful, and a lot of these people have seen us on social media,” he explains. (Marley’s Mutts has a HUGE social media presence.) “The last thing I was thinking of, especially with a mask on, was that people would be like, ‘Hey, are you the Marley’s Mutts guy?’ But they did, and were so excited.”
Johnson says they’ve received excellent media coverage, including interviews with TV stations. But what she loved most were the comments on social media.
“It really gives fuel to our employees’ fire to continue doing this,” she says. “It makes them feel so good. We want to make a positive change.”
In the first phase of the drive, which ended a few weeks ago, Marley’s Mutts was able to hand out more than 300 bags of dog food. That’s almost two tons of food. The food drive continues and the website says to check back for updates.
“We’re just trying to help people in our community,” Skow says. “Especially now, it’s such a depressing and anxiety-provoking time. If we can just find some way to connect and let people know we’re here for them, it means a lot.”
Marley’s Mutts Beginnings
The human-dog connection means a lot to Skow. In fact, it changed the course of his life forever.
“I was a lifelong alcoholic and drug addict,” he says. “My liver failed in 2008; I was diagnosed with [late] stage liver disease and given less than 90 days to live. I spent six weeks in the hospital and then got admitted to a transplant center. If I was to stay in the program, I had to accrue six months of sobriety and be healthy.”
At the time, he was very suicidal and still struggling with addiction.
“I was as sick of a sick person as you can be, both physically and mentally,” Skow says. “Long story short, my Marley — a rescue pitbull rottweiler — gave me purpose and helped get me into rescue work.”
His pup had him leaving home, walking around and bettering himself. Doing this helped Skow escape the dark recesses of his mind.
“[Marley’s Mutts] started in my dad’s garage in 2009,” he explains. “I started adding a dog or two. I was going to meetings every day. I was sending my reports to the transplant center, letting them know I was working on my sobriety and wasn’t suicidal. Working with these dogs saved my life. It gave me a sense of purpose for the first time.”
It started off as one dog, then two and three, and then suddenly he had dozens. Now, at any given time, Marley’s Mutts has around 150 dogs, which is more than many shelters. As this work continued, Skow noticed his body healing. By the time he qualified for the liver transplant, he no longer needed one.
Aside from fostering and adoptions, Marley’s Mutts operates the largest in-prison dog program in the U.S. through their Pawsitive Change program. These are fourteen week-long programs, and the only ones that take place in the prison yard, with the dogs living in the prisons for three full months.
“When it comes to our inmates, a lot of our guys are now trainers doing incredible work,” he says. “I want the medicine of the human-canine bond to go to work on people who have been through really challenging times in life.”
Today, Skow is healthy and happy. In addition to doing work he’s highly passionate about, he has a loving wife, a child and another baby on the way.
“[These struggling people] have something to offer these dogs, and these dogs have something to offer them,” Skow says. “It’s mutual rescue and rehabilitation.”
And when it comes to doing unexpected work like this food drive, Skow says, “We’re a community organization. We were born of this community and we service this community. When the community is hit hard, especially when it comes to our pets, we will do whatever we can to help.”