Durham County

‘A home for every dog’: She helped change the future for unwanted animals

“If Leslie came back (to Durham) now,” said Kathryn Demarco, a volunteer from IAR’s early years, “she wouldn’t be able to imagine how it has changed. She started the fire.”
“If Leslie came back (to Durham) now,” said Kathryn Demarco, a volunteer from IAR’s early years, “she wouldn’t be able to imagine how it has changed. She started the fire.” Courtesy of Independent Animal Rescue

When Leslie Mann was a teenager in Florida, she fought off a pair of dogs who attacked her miniature schnauzer Missy. After college, she worked on political campaigns in New York and San Francisco.

In the early 1990s, when Mann moved to Hillsborough, she took on a new cause: finding homes for stray dog and cats.

“I’m not in this to make friends,” Mann once told Durham resident Gray Tuggle, who volunteered with Mann’s then-fledgling grassroots organization, Independent Animal Rescue. “I’m in it for the animals.”

IAR would grow into a nonprofit that in 2017 reported over $320,000 in contributions. The money helps animals in and around Durham and Chapel Hill, served by a network of more than 300 volunteers.

On Feb. 8, Mann died at age 59 at her home in Florida while recovering from an infection caused by a broken ankle.

“There is a huge legacy of animal care in the area due to Leslie,” wrote Alan Dow, the current president of Independent Animal Rescue, in a statement read at Mann’s memorial. “We adopted out more than 400 cats and approximately 200 dogs last year, spayed or neutered about 1,500 feral cats and paid for the spay or neuter of more than 300 community-owned animals.”

“If Leslie came back (to Durham) now,” said Kathryn Demarco, a volunteer from IAR’s early years, “she wouldn’t be able to imagine how it has changed. She started the fire.”

Robert Marotto, director of the Orange County Animal Services Department, said the shelter works with IAR to help move animals to homes. He estimated the percentage of animals released from the shelter alive is now close to 90 percent.

“The rate of euthanasia was much higher 20 to 25 years ago,” he said.

House full of animals

“Twenty years ago, when you found an animal, it was all on you,” said Tuggle. “You took it to the vet or turned it in to a shelter. All of a sudden, this person pops up, saying, “’If we do (animal rescue) as a group, it will work.’”

Mann made it work initially by housing stray cats and dogs, 10 to 20 at a time, at her home in Hillsborough, until she could secure permanent homes for them.

“In the early years, Leslie always had a house full of animals,” said Leslie Grenick, one of IAR’s founding volunteers and original board members. “She would bring food for (feral) animals. ... She helped people set up fencing to get animals off of leashes.”

When Mann began reaching out to neighbors and colleagues to find foster homes for stray dogs and cats, a social network over telephone wire, word-of-mouth and newsprint was born.

“Leslie would put animal adoption ads in The Independent every week,” said Grenick. “She came to be known as the person to call to get help.”

Sarah Reichman of Durham came into contact with Mann the day Reichman learned her cat Cici, a thin stray with marbled fur, had just tested positive for feline leukemia.

“I was having trouble making a decision to euthanize [Cici].” Reichman said. “The veterinarian finally spoke up and said, ‘Call that woman Leslie. Call that Independent lady.’”

Reichman recalled Mann as being very no-nonsense over the phone.

“Stop crying,” Mann told Reichman. “We’re gonna find a home for this cat.”

After an initial foster placement didn’t work out, Cici ended up staying with Reichman, and ended up living four more years.

“This is how you learn about animals. You learn about death, life … and animal welfare,” Reichman said.

‘Home for every dog’

Mann, who commuted from Hillsborough to Raleigh for her job with North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, made time before or after work for animal rescue by dropping whatever she was doing.

“She would sit for hours… trying to befriend a (neglected) dog,” Grenick said. “They were dogs that no one wanted, and she had this ability to get them to approach her.”

Grenick said the only issues she recalled discouraging Mann were technical, such as the high cost of spaying and neutering.

“I never heard her say a dog was beyond her scope,” Grenick said. “At that time, I think her belief was that there was a home for every dog.”

Mann and her team of volunteers were able to incorporate IAR only a year after its inception, making it a nonprofit organization, which attracted donors.

“(IAR) was a grassroots group who saw a need that needed to be filled,” Grenick said.

Mann left the organization in the early aughts to return to Florida, closer to her parents. IAR would restructure and become a social animal of the 21st cCentury, where coordination between volunteers now takes place largely online.

“Leslie was very tenacious,” Allison Savicz said. “She was one of those people who comes through here … and makes an impact.”

The kind of impact felt by “Buster”, a 45 lbs. mixed breed whom Mann had rescued in 1996 from a life of being tied up in a Durham resident’s yard.

“This was a dog in a bad situation,” Grenick said. “He had nothing going for him.”

Cut to a lawyer working in downtown Durham who, after having a dream about a dog, saw a picture of Buster in one of Mann’s weekly adoption ads. Buster would spend the balance of his life, more than a decade, as her companion.

“It was a match made in heaven,” Grenick said. “An unlikely match.”

Steve Bydal: stevebydal@gmail.com