In the Trenches of Tunica
How two sisters changed Tunica County
from an all-kill to a no-kill area for stray animals
Story by Tonya L. Thompson
Sometimes people don’t find their calling — their calling finds them. No one understands this better than Sandy Williams, Executive Director and co-founder of the Tunica Humane Society in Tunica County, Mississippi. As a highly successful real estate agent who, like many, found herself on unstable footing after the market collapse in 2008, Williams had a lot of financial worries on her mind and a lot of free time on her hands. It was a bad combination and she had to do something to get her mind off her own struggles.
“When real estate slowed down, I began to get extremely depressed because I kind of lost my purpose,” says Williams, who along with her sister, Gail Johnson, and a close friend, decided to dedicate her time and energy to her community instead of wallowing in self-pity. “We started looking around and noticed that [Tunica County has] a lot of stray dogs. Any time you have the economic situations we have in Tunica County, you’re going to have a lot of stray animals.”
Since there wasn’t any kind of county wide or county-funded animal control, the three women decided to focus on starting their own small humane society in order to give the abundant stray animal population some kind of future. “We had a little piece of land that the county let us use and one by one, we built outdoor kennels,” says Williams, recounting how difficult the work was for the founders and the few volunteers they could scrounge together from the area. “In the beginning, we had no money from the county and were a completely volunteer organization. I remember that we opened a bank account with $100. We got our 501(c)(3) status and I was finally able to solicit for donations, but from the very beginning, we were alone.”
Being alone with no funding from Tunica County meant that the shelters were primitive, at best. Williams recalls days wading through mud and rain to rescue the animals from their abusive or absent caregivers, after hours spent building shelters by hand in the best way they could on the small plot of land they had.
Despite the difficult conditions the women were working under, Williams immediately began to see progress in the health and dispositions of the animals they were bringing in. It was life changing, almost from the beginning. “What I thought at the time was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me with my income and career turned out to be the biggest blessing in my life,” says Williams, “because it opened me up to a passion that had always been there but I had not always been able to do it. I wanted to try to bring people into the trenches with us. We were working outside in very rough conditions for these animals but we were saving them and we were saving a lot of them.”
In a short period of time, through the selfless actions of Williams and Johnson, Tunica County went from being an all-kill county to a no-kill county, despite the absence of funding. “We were picking up animals right and left,” says Williams, “and because we were outside, in rain, sleet and snow, or in 115-degree temperatures, the media got on our bandwagon and the TV stations would come down and show us saving these animals under the most adverse conditions.”
No stranger to marketing after years in the real estate industry, Williams realized that if they were going to give the animals they were rescuing a real chance to find good homes and a better life, it had to be done through aggressive networking. After exhausting every option available through the local government for bringing in more funding, Williams finally sent a letter that attracted the attention the women’s work deserved—and from the most unlikely of places. It came from Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox 20.
“I sent a short video to Rob Thomas because he has a charitable Foundation called Sidewalk Angels,” says Williams. “The video showed us working in the conditions we were working in and explained our lack of funding…how we just fell through the cracks.”
Williams smiles when she remembers the result of that video—a result that still hangs on the wall of the Tunica Humane Society today. “For some reason, we touched his heart, and within a matter of weeks, Sidewalk Angels sent us $125,000 to purchase some land and the building where our shelter is now. We purchased 3 ½ acres and an old metal building out in the country, which was just perfect for us.”
Around the same time, a letter Williams sent to the Harrah’s Foundation (which is now Caesars) was answered with a $200,000 grant. “We became known as ‘the little shelter that could,’” laughs Williams, “and the blessings just started pouring in.”
With funding secured, Williams then began focusing on finding as many foster families and adopters as possible in order to maintain the shelter’s no-kill status. “I began to see the value of Facebook and social media, and discovered how we could capitalize on that and expand our support base,” says Williams, who now puts every animal’s photo and story on the shelter’s Facebook page so that others can see just how much impact the shelter is having on these animals’ lives.
“We have built a Facebook network of over 8,000 followers now,” says Williams. “Our messages and our animals are networked throughout the country. We get donations from around the world now…all stemming from our Facebook page.”
However, the outreach of the Tunica Humane Society’s social networking has not stopped there. “We’ve also been able to connect families that have lost animals throughout Desoto County,” says Williams. “We are constantly posting animals that have been lost in DeSoto County and reconnecting them with their owners, so social media has been a valuable tool and it’s allowed me to pull people into the trenches with us so that they feel what we feel and see what we see.”
When asked if there was one animal that stood out in her mind as an example of everything she hoped the shelter could achieve, Williams’ first thought was of Joey. A delivery man had seen the dog just north of Tunica and called Williams to tell her about it. Williams jumped into her SUV and went alone to track the dog down. When she finally found him, Joey was the most emaciated animal she had ever seen. His back was arched and he could barely stand or walk.
“Joey was starved beyond belief. He should have weighed 50 pounds or more but weighed in just under 20. Beyond that, his stomach was full of rocks. He had been eating rocks just to survive,” says Williams, with tears welling in her eyes. “There were people all around him. Nobody stepped up to help this little dog. He was such a force to live…he just had such a heart. Now, Joey has made a miraculous recovery with us and people can read about it on our Facebook page. He is a stunningly beautiful dog and we pulled him from death’s door.”
Recoveries like Joey's are paid for by continuing contributions of donors, and sometimes, out of Williams’ and Johnson’s own pockets. “We have some clinics that work with us at a discounted rate,” says Williams. “At Horn lake Animal Hospital, Dr. Davis and his crew are wonderful at handling our animals. They work with us at a discount, as does the Animal Medical Center in Hernando.”
Now, 4½ years after Williams and Johnson decided to do something to change the lives of abused and stray animals in their community, the Tunica Humane Society has taken in more than 2,000 dogs and cats, and has adopted out 80 of those to loving families. Most of their adoptions are very successful. The ones that do fail are the dogs that have been with the shelter for several years and simply don’t want to leave the company of the two women who saved them. “When they leave the shelter, they’re not happy,” says Williams. “They want to come back.”
Sitting in the middle of a cotton field just three miles outside of Tunica, the Tunica Humane Society, in its short life span, has provided a loving respite from lives of abuse and neglect for thousands of animals. Gail Johnson, a retired Delta Airlines employee, works tirelessly at the shelter six days a week, and can’t image her life without it.
“It means the world — it’s just been overwhelming,” says Johnson, who had to wait a minute to collect herself and dry her own eyes before continuing. “When we first got involved, we were not prepared for the toll it would take on our personal lives. These dogs mean the world to us. It’s very rewarding and I wish more people would get involved and understand. A lot of people think we’re crazy, but one thing I have discovered is there are a lot of people out there who love animals and we have acquired so many new friends who care about what we’re doing. It’s life-changing and I never thought I’d be doing this in my retirement years, but I’m here. I could count on my hands how many days I’ve had off but it’s so worth it.”
To learn more about the Tunica Humane Society, contact Sandy Williams by phone at 662.519.1700 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To visit the shelter’s website, go to tunicahumanesociety.com. You can also ‘like’ them on Facebook to stay informed about animals available for adoption or fostering who are on the path to recovery from neglect.