Mutual Rescue: Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Both

A new book explores the depth and complexity of pets in our lives.

Posted Apr 02, 2019

Who rescued whom?

"Giving a shelter animal a home confers a special kind of restorative grace." 

"Mutual Rescue was written for every human who has ever felt enriched, invigorated, soothed, or restored by an animal and wanted to know why."

I just received a very important new book called Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too, by Carol Novello with Ginny Graves. Carol is the founder of Mutual Rescue,™ a national initiative that highlights the connection between people and pets. Mutual Rescue’s first film, “Eric & Peety,” went viral around the world and has been viewed more than 100 million times. All in all, this excellent book "profiles the transformational impact that shelter pets have on humans, exploring the emotional, physical, and spiritual gifts that rescued animals provide. It explores through anecdote, observation, and scientific research, the complexity and depth of the role that pets play in our lives. Every story in the book brings an unrecognized benefit of adopting homeless animals to the forefront of the rescue conversation...Each story in the book takes a deep dive into one potent aspect of animal adoption, told through the lens of people's personal experiences with their rescued pets and the science that backs up their results. This book will resonate with readers hungering for stories of healing and redemption." 

I've known about Mutual Rescue for a while and was thrilled when it appeared at my door last week. I wanted to know more about the numerous important messages contained between its covers, so I was glad that Carol Novello was able to take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Mutual Rescue?

When people asked, “Why are you helping animals when you could be helping people?”...I’d quote the statistics that spurred my passion for animal welfare: While great strides have been made in saving animals’ lives, more than 6.5 million cats and dogs still enter animal shelters each year – and 1.5 million are euthanized.  And of the roughly $410 billion Americans give to charities each year, a meager 3 percent goes to animal-related and environmental causes combined." 

After spending many years as a senior executive in the high-tech sector, I shifted my career focus and became president of Humane Society Silicon Valley, one of the largest privately funded animal rescue organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The reactions I received surprised me. From former colleagues and casual acquaintances to people I met as I began raising money for the organization, they didn’t understand why someone who had an MBA from Harvard and had run multi-million dollar businesses would veer into animal welfare. Others could relate to the impulse to do something philanthropic, but didn’t get why I wasn’t trying to alleviate human suffering. Ultimately, they all asked similar versions of the same question: “Why are you helping animals when you could be helping people?”

 Grand Central Publishing
Source: Grand Central Publishing

In response, I’d quote the statistics that spurred my passion for animal welfare: While great strides have been made in saving animals’ lives, more than 6.5 million cats and dogs still enter animal shelters each year – and 1.5 million are euthanized. And of the roughly $410 billion Americans give to charities each year, a meager 3 percent goes to animal-related and environmental causes combined. People nodded their heads, and many expressed genuine concern, but I could tell that most weren’t fully persuaded. I began to sense that those statistics were only part of the story – that I was missing a deeper truth.

As I groped for a fuller explanation, I started thinking about how animals have impacted my own life and relationships – how they’ve given me hope when I was despondent, laughter when I was stressed, companionship when I was lonely. I saw the same thing in the lives of nearly every pet owner I know.  And that’s when I finally saw it – the hidden “why” of animal rescue: By helping animals I am helping people – in many cases helping them to heal their own pain and to find greater purpose in their lives.

How does it follow up on your previous work in this field?

Originally, I started doing presentations in our local community about how helping animals helps people. Then, in 2015, a board member introduced me to David Whitman, a storyteller and creative producer, who helped me come up with a way to more effectively spread the word about the transformative power pet adoption. He coined the phrase “Mutual Rescue” and suggested we make short films of people whose lives have been dramatically bettered by rescuing an animal. As it happened, I had the perfect candidate already in mind. A couple of years before, we’d received a letter from an obese man who told us he’d become vastly healthier after adopting an overweight dog from our shelter. We made his journey the subject of our first short film, hoping it would reach enough people to inspire others across the country to submit their own stories for consideration and encourage people to adopt shelter animals. We had no idea what we were in for. Eric & Peety, that first short film, caught fire and has now been viewed more than 100 million times in more than 40 countries. We were flooded with story submissions from people who’d been depressed, suicidal, diabetic, grieving, homeless, jobless, heartbroken, and more – all of whom had moving, uplifting stories about how their rescue pets had saved them. We turned four of their redemptive stories into short films and watched this international phenomenon continue; those films have garnered more than 35 million views to date. 

The films struck a chord because they depict the essence of Mutual Rescue. But digging deeper into our trove of anecdotes, I realized the full story of what happens when a human adopts an animal can’t be told in a five-minute film. That led to writing a book in order to include scientific research and the broader effects of animal adoption on the community at large.

What is unique in your book compared to other books in this general field?

Mutual Rescue profiles the transformational impact that shelter pets have on humans, exploring the emotional, physical, and spiritual gifts that rescued animals provide. Through anecdote, observation, and scientific research, the book illustrates the complexity and depth of the role that pets play in our lives. Every story in the book brings an unrecognized benefit of adopting homeless animals to the forefront of the rescue conversation. 

In a nation plagued by illnesses – 16 million adults suffer from depression, 29 million have diabetes, 8 million in any given year have PTSD, and nearly 40 percent are obese – rescue pets can help: 60 percent of doctors said they prescribe pet adoption and a staggering 97 percent believe that pet ownership provides health benefits. For people in chronic emotional, physical, or spiritual pain, adopting an animal can transform – and even save – their lives.

Each story in the book takes a deep dive into one potent aspect of animal adoption, told through the lens of people's personal experiences with their rescued pets and the science that backs up the results. 

What are your major messages?

The book is divided into four sections: Heart, Body, Mind, and ConnectionHeart highlights people who’ve pulled through terrible trauma and grief in part thanks to their rescue animals. In Body, there are stories of people whose adoption of a cat or dog helped them cope and recover from physical illnesses and injuries and showed them how to thrive and experience more joy. In Mind, the focus is on how rescue animals can bolster people coping with anxiety and depression, as well as influence and shift our deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, some of which can be the source of our own suffering. Connection reveals how pets can strengthen our relationships with the people we love; how we can bond deeply with many types of animals, not just cats and dogs; and how a remarkable outcome can occur when rescue pets make people healthier and happier. Their hearts mended, these humans often go on to make positive contributions to the world and pay forward the love and healing they received. 

Who is your intended audience?

Mutual Rescue was written for every human who has ever felt enriched, invigorated, soothed, or restored by an animal and wanted to know why.

Are you hopeful that in the future more people will rescue dogs and other wonderful homeless beings rather than buying them from breeders?

Giving a shelter animal a home confers a special kind of restorative grace. Naturally, I’m biased toward encouraging people to adopt shelter pets. I believe that showing benevolence for a homeless creature fertilizes the seeds of kindness, generosity, and compassion that exist in all of us, spurring those qualities to put down roots and thrive. It grounds us in love.

What are some of your current projects?

Mutual Rescue is releasing four more short films this spring and summer and we’re in the process of filming two more. Readers can view our current films and sign up to hear about upcoming releases at www.mutualrescue.org.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

"People needed to know that rescuing an animal doesn’t ignore humanity’s woes; it’s a vital part of the solution!"

In studies with a variety of different types of people, the same story emerges. Interacting with an animal can lift mood, increase well-being, and facilitate the ability to communicate and connect. Given our culture’s rampant ill health – both emotional and physical – that’s actually a profoundly hopeful and radically important finding. After accepting the role at Humane Society Silicon Valley, I began finding evidence of the life-changing impact of pets everywhere. The more stories I heard about people who’d regained their vitality and flourished after adopting a cat or dog, the more urgently I felt the need to share them. People need to know that rescuing an animal doesn’t ignore humanity’s woes; it’s a vital part of the solution!

Thank you, Carol, for offering readers such an insightful and inspirational interview. Many people and I know firsthand or from friends how important a rescued homeless dog or another nonhuman can be for homeless people and about the deep and enduring social relationships that are formed. (See "Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and 'Absorb Empathy'" and references therein.) I hope Mutual Rescue receives a broad global audience because the many ways in which nonhumans and humans can help -- rescue -- one another knows no bounds. Many people I know often say, "I'm not sure who rescued whom." Some occasionally smile or laugh when they say this, but I know they really mean it with all their heart -- when they saved an animal they saved themselves. My humble suggestion is to read this excellent book and share it widely. It'll be a win-win for all.