The heartbreaking image of an apparently abandoned dog hugging a discarded toy was shared all over social media, and news outlets worldwide reposted the photo. Many were of course concerned about the dog, and some readers were angry that the photographer evidently did nothing to help the helpless animal. To find out more, Opportunity Lives reached out to the group behind the photo, Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project, in Houston. Project volunteer Yvette Holzbach responded after “a crazy few days.”

Holzbach took the photograph of that sad dog clutching the dirty stuffed toy. “When we saw the dog with the teddy it was a very sad sight to see,” she said. “I felt the need to take the picture, as it was a scene that clearly told the story of what we face week after week.”

“We are often faced with dogs sleeping curled up on piles of trash or on thrown away mattresses,” Holzbach explained. “This looked like a beloved pet sleeping on a child’s toy, but yet it was a street dog who found a soft place to lay his head.”

Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project was launched in 2011 by Kelle Davis, an animal rescuer and trapper who was asked by a couple of other rescue organizations to trap stray dogs for them. One of the dogs she had to trap was in Houston’s 5th Ward. Holzbach says she “was astounded at the number of stray dogs that were in the area.” She invited a few people to do a drive through the 5th Ward and from what everyone saw they knew something had to be done. So the group began.

The problem of stray dogs in Houston is enormous. An estimated 1.2 million stray animals wander metro Houston, though exactly how many of them are dogs, nobody can say for certain. “This problem is not unique to Houston although I think Houston probably has the largest number of homeless dogs,” Holzbach said.

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“Generally, Southern states have an overpopulation of dogs, due to the fact that dogs have two or three heat cycles a year, compared to the dogs up north, because of the warmer weather.”

The stray dog problem is especially acute in Houston’s 5th Ward, a low-income area about two miles northeast of downtown. Caring for pets is not high on the list of residents’ priorities, as most of them are struggling to make ends meet to support their families. Holzbach says it is not uncommon to see chained dogs who are not part of the family circle, but are there as a means of protection. “There are other rescue groups in Houston doing similar work in other parts of Houston, and we recognized that there was a need for someone to rescue animals in that particular area,” she said.

Just 12 volunteers run forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project. “We are spread very thin and volunteers are very much needed particularly in the areas of doing adoption events and fundraising,” Holzbach said.

5th ward dogs

An estimated 1.2 million stray animals roam the streets of metro Houston. Projects like Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward ensure some of them get a home and the care they need. | Photo: Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward

“Every time we go out into the 5th Ward, we are faced with the dilemma of which dogs to post to put out a plea for a foster or adopter,” Holzbach explained. “Over the years, we have figured out that a purebred dog or a small fluffy dog has a way better chance of being adopted than a black male pit bull, and a healthy-looking one at that.”

If they could pick up every dog they see, Holzbach says, “we would have a car full of 20 to 50 dogs.”

“We have no place to take them,” she said. “They would no doubt have to go into boarding, which would cost us thousands of dollars every month. We are already paying thousands. Once a dog is picked up, everyone considers it to be safe and do not give it another thought. Because of that dogs can sit in boarding for months on end. It is dogs like this that would benefit from volunteers picking them up and taking them to adoption events to get some exposure.”

Holzbach says that the reaction to the photo has been unbelievable. Because of the media firestorm, Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project decided to try to find out more about the dog in the photo. With some other volunteers, Holzbach went back to the Houston spot where she photographed the dog and were met by an elderly gentleman slowly raking the leaves off his sidewalk.

This was Calvin, an 89-year-old-man. “I showed him the picture I had taken, and asked him if he knew the dog, if he had seen him before. He quietly told us that yes that was in fact his dog, along with many others that he had rescued off the streets of the 5th Ward over the years.”

At one time Calvin had as many as 20 dogs in his backyard. He told Holzbach that the dog in the picture did not want to be contained. He was constantly jumping the fence, and Calvin could do nothing to keep him in.

“We could tell it was painful for him,” Holzbach said. “There was no doubt at all that he loved his dog.”

Holzbach is hopeful that this update will reach all that have followed the story and the viral photograph. She says, “We at Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project work tirelessly here in Houston to save as many animals as we can off the streets. We have to make decisions that are not always easy ones to make but we do the best we can.”

Since the picture went viral, Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project has received a number of donations, and offers from people to foster or volunteer. They hope this will lead to a turning point, where they can continue to rescue dogs, but also increase the numbers that they can pick up.

When asked how people can help Forgotten Dogs of the 5th Ward Project, Holzbach says wistfully: “Perhaps one day we will have a van ourselves where we can load a number of dogs up in the morning, and return them at the end of the day. We can only dream.”

“Our dream is to one day own a residence in the 5th Ward where we can store our food [and] medical supplies, and to have a place to take a critical dog to if we have no immediate offer of help,” she said. “Sometime we pick up dogs late in the day when veterinary clinics are closed. But once again, we can only dream.”