Story by Emily Dieckman
A typical morning for Sue Bergier and her husband involves waking up around 6:30 a.m. to feed the several dozen dogs they keep on their large ranch property outside Patagonia, AZ—including several with cancer, Valley Fever and other special medical needs. Then there’s the cleaning and laundering of all the items and places the dogs get dirty. Then there’s making sure each one gets the amount of exercise he or she needs (which varies, depending on size, medical condition and age). Three to four days a week are spent on the road to vet appointments, home visits with potential adopters or to pick up more animals. She guesses about 11 of the dogs are her own. It’s hard to keep track.
“As long as I can provide their care, a safe home and a happy home, I try not to put a limit on it,” she says.
She’s the director of Arizona Desert Rottis & Pals Rescue, which she founded in 2009 after some time fostering animals through Tucson Cold Wet Noses, another nonprofit dog rescue. Before she’d started formally fostering, she’d already been a resource in the community to help people who couldn’t afford to get their dogs spayed or neutered. Before that, she was just a lifelong animal lover, from the time she was a little girl growing up in Florida.
“I brought home every snake, bird, lizard and frog that I could find,” she says. “So I would say it’s always been in me.”
Over the course of nearly ten years—and just over two since it got its 501c3 status in 2017, AZ Desert Rottis (which finds homes and provides care for all breeds of dogs, not just rottweilers) has found homes for nearly 1300 dogs. And that’s just since they started keeping track. For all of the work that she and her volunteers put into the organization, their goal is simple:
“Our mission is to see every dog spayed and neutered, and to see more responsible pet owners,” Bergier says. “I think a big part of rescue is education…. We try to make sure people understand a dog is a full-time job.”
No Dog Left Behind
Before she was an animal rescue mogul, Bergier spent 26 years as a police officer and 31 working at a post office. So perhaps it’s only fitting that now, she’s not only in charge of keeping creatures safe, but in getting them exactly where they belong.
Bergier takes in most of her dogs from the Douglas Shelter, and occasionally the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. She likes to take in difficult cases, to help out the dogs that might be struggling to find forever homes. That’s what Debbie Ammons, a volunteer administrator and foster mom with the organization, likes so much about Sue and AZ Desert Rottis.
“If there’s a dog that, say, gets hit by a car and has a broken leg, she takes them in and she gets them medical help and surgery,” Ammons says. “They don’t fall through the cracks.”
Powered by Volunteers
There are about 10 volunteers with the organization, who do everything from administrative work to fostering animals. Many of the volunteers started volunteering for AZ Desert Rottis after they adopted an animal from the organization. Ammons started off agreeing to foster tough cases: a deaf dog, an epileptic dog, two that needed knee surgery. Now, she has eight dogs of her own, all from AZ Desert Rottis. She says she never imagined—not even in her wildest dreams—being this involved with a rescue organization.
“They’re called foster failures, because I failed to find a home for them, because I love them,” Ammons smiles.
But it’s hard to look at her smile and think of all the dogs in her happy home as any sort of failure. Ammons says she believes the organization’s purpose is to provide dogs with the best and safest homes possible, even if that means taking the dogs in themselves. Barbara Oates, for example, adopted Willy, a one-eyed French bulldog who was found in the desert outside of Douglas and whose family said they didn’t want him back.
Volunteer Stephanie Garrett has been volunteering with AZ Desert Rottis & Pals for about four years. She adopted her chihuahua terrier mix, Buttons, from the organization in 2011 and her Pugapoo Zipper in 2013. Kathi Orr, a volunteer for the last six and a half years, has Zipper’s sibling, Mollie.
They’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time on these animals. Many of them have cried or agonized over decisions, often crying tears of joy when a dog must leave them to find a forever home.
“If you’re an animal lover, you just do it to help the animals,” Oates says.
Only the Best Homes
Adoptions are a serious business at AZ Desert Rottis. Before adoptions are official, Bergier or someone else from the organization makes a visit to the potential adopter’s home to vet it.
“We’re looking for the safety of the dog,” she says. “Can they get under the gate? Are there poisonous plants they could get into?”
Even when they have adopters from out of the state or country—they’ve had dogs find homes in Canada, Colorado, Washington, California, Canada, New Mexico, Texas and Massachusetts—they ask potential adopters to send photos of what the gates around their yards look like, so the organization can make recommendations, if needed, about how to keep the dogs secure and safe. They also don’t ever ship dogs without an escort. They’ll use a service like Pilots and Paws, the adopter will fly to pick up the dog, or a volunteer will fly with the animal to his or her new home. Once, a pilot who wanted to adopt a dog got his friend a ticket to fly to Arizona, bring the dog back with her to Houston, then fly the dog out to him in Massachusetts.
“People that have adopted from us like our integrity,” Ammons says.
AZ Desert Rottis & Pals attends events regularly in Tucson, including WOOFStock, an adoption bonanza in Reid Park hosted by the Tucson Dog Magazine. Gina Attaguile was volunteering at the event and had the idea of getting a new dog somewhere in the back of her mind. It had been two years since she’d lost her last dog, a black lab who she’d loved for 12 years. But her heart was open. The moment she saw a terrier puppy among the AZ Desert Rottis roster, she knew.
“She was in a crate with two other adorable siblings, and I didn’t even look at them,” says Attaguile of the pup, who she immediately decided was named Isabella. “She was destined to be my dog.”
Sue says it was clear Attaguile and Isabella were a perfect match. Attaguile has only glowing things to say about experience with AZ Desert Rottis team. From making sure all of the animals have their shots and microchips to vetting each would-be adopter, it seems clear to her that Bergier goes the extra mile.
“She wants the very best for these animals that she obviously sacrifices her whole life to take care of,” Attaguile says. “She changed my life. Personally, I think the world of the organization.”
Bergier remained a source of support even after the adoption was finalized. She sent over a medication for Isabella, for example. When the first couple of days were a difficult adjustment—accidents in the crate, crying throughout the night—Bergier was there to answer questions. Attaguile says she probably called Bergier 20 times within the first two weeks of bringing Isabella home. Now that Attaguile and Isabella are settled in, and sleeping side-by-side every night, neither adopter nor adoptee could be happier.
“She’s perfect. She may not be perfect, but she’s perfect for me,” Attaguile says. “I will have this dog until the last breath she draws. She’ll never have a bad day.”
With so many successful adoptions under their collective belt—or, perhaps, collar—it isn’t uncommon for the AZ Desert Rottis crew to run into folks who have provided their animals forever homes. There are people like Vicky Karanikola, who adopted her now-9-year-old German shepherd corgi mix, Sally, from AZ Desert Rottis in 2011. She attended one of the group’s adoption events and fell in love with the sweet puppy. The organization let her foster Sally for a week to make sure it was a good fit. “Good fit” was an understatement. Karanikola returned at the end of the week convinced she couldn’t live without Sally.
“She’s my life,” Karanikola says. “She’s my companion. The best thing I’ve ever done.”
Jeremy Brown, owner of the local dog training organization, the Complete Canine, adopted his dogs Archie and Lacey from AZ Desert Rottis. The two groups work together often, and at the Humane Society’s Bark in the Park Event at Udall Park this spring, Brown and his pups ran into Bergier.
“They hear Sue’s voice and they’re right in her lap, like ‘Mama Sue!’” Orr says. “They never forget they were rescued.”
Arizona Desert Rottis & Pals holds adoption events in Tucson on a regular basis, usually from noon to 3 p.m. every other Sunday at the Holy Cow Tack & Feed Store, 7878 E. Tanque Verde Road, and from 1 to 3 p.m. on the alternating Sundays at the Complete Canine, 4767 N. First Ave. To check the schedule, and for more information, visit azdesertrotti.com.