River Rouge — In many ways, David McMurtrie’s troubled past might mirror that of the dogs he cares for.
The co-founder of a Downriver dog rescue says his mission to save homeless dogs began with a relationship with a pit bull after he got out of prison in 2007.
“I am a walking billboard for the American pit bull terrier,” he said. “These dogs saved me ... finally gave me something to care about that’s not about me, and I never had that before.”
McMurtrie and Kayli Sparks have spent more than three years running the independent shelter Pit Stop For Change Rescue & Rehabilitation from their home, spending thousands of dollars and countless hours taking in unwanted or abandoned dogs, arranging medical care and matching the pups with new owners.
Now, Pit Stop is fighting to survive. After a generally friendly relationship, River Rouge authorities recently cited the group for failing to have a kennel license as well as not registering dogs with the city, McMurtrie and Sparks said.
“Dog rescue in general is the only kind of war that you’ll sign up for knowing you stand no chance in hell of ever winning. But we’re still going to fight every day because for every single dog we help, that makes it worth it,” McMurtrie said. “It’s an exhausting life, but it’s a very rewarding life because we’re making a difference with these dogs.”
To resolve the case and continue tending to the nearly 40 dogs in their care, the group is working to relocate to a new building in an appropriate area, their attorney, Tracy Thomas, said. Meanwhile, they are pursuing nonprofit status and have launched a GoFundMe page seeking donations to stay afloat.
“We want to make the community a better place,” Sparks said. “We aren’t sure why they decided to charge us with misdemeanor counts when we’re not hurting anyone. We’re helping people.”
The transformative relationship McMurtrie found with a pit bull, Odin, after his release from prison in 2007 launched his mission to save dogs, particularly “bully breeds.”
“... I am proof that karma exists. Dogs were the first things I ever encountered that I was capable of giving to, of caring about,” McMurtrie said.
Over time, McMurtrie and Sparks honed their dog-caring skills and earned a reputation for rehabilitating aggressive breeds as well as taking in those from other shelters — even city animal control, they said.
The couple live on a residential street in a multi-unit house with special sections dedicated to the canines, Sparks said. “It’s never-ending, but to see the dogs that come from the worst situation grow into happy dogs that get to eat and become healthy and learn what it is to be loved — it’s really cool.”
Pit Stop, which relies heavily on donations and outside support, also works to educate dog owners about proper care, fields owner-surrenders, secures adoptions and partners with other rescue groups, the leaders said.
The Downriver-based nonprofit CHAINED Inc., which aims to help chained up dogs, recently tapped them to reorient Chacha, a brown brindle pit whose troublesome behavior prevented her from finding a permanent home, field representative Teri Daniels said. “I went back there a week after he had her and I could already see a difference in how she was walking. I have yet to see a dog that he was not able to rehabilitate.”
Dr. Rajbir Chadha of Dix Animal Hospital in Lincoln Park often treats the animals from Pit Stop. “I haven’t seen a rescue group who is as good as they are,” he said. “They keep up with the vaccines, keep up with the heartworm tests. They have saved actually several dogs over here, just in this facility — animals that were about to be put down because of parvo, because of obstruction, blockage. I have worked with many rescue groups, and this is one of the best.”
McMurtrie and Sparks say city officials have freely worked with them and meted no discipline until this year. “We’re in no way, shape or form a burden,” he said. “Our only agenda is to help dogs. ... I don’t understand why they’re trying to make an example out of us when we literally have never done anything but try to help and assist them.”
Mayor Michael Bowdler acknowledged the group long has helped River Rouge animal control as well as other communities. He said the city is not out to target or unfairly penalize them and he believes the misdemeanors stemmed from another resident’s complaint.
Other city officials support McMurtrie’s efforts “as long as he has it in the right area,” Bowdler said. “We’ve got people rooting for him throughout this community and Downriver.”
Thomas said his clients, who faced a court hearing last month and another in December, are working to comply with the city’s ordinances.
“I think the city recognizes that they are in fact doing some good and ... if they can move their operations to a better spot in the city, then I think everybody benefits,” he said.
As the relocation looms, Pit Stop’s operators are working to help other dogs. “We’re not going to give up,” Sparks said. “We fought for these dogs when nobody else would.”
So far, devotees have contributed more than $4,800 to the cause through GoFundMe. “You guys are amazing,” one donor wrote. “You are doing such a selfless and wonderful thing for these dogs. The world needs more people like you. :)”
Daniels of CHAINED intends to help find grants for the group and hopes more supporters step up. “It would be a shame to watch these dogs end up suffering and a lot of them being put down because there is nowhere to put them,” she said.