Rescuing Rex


They have been abandoned, abused and put on death row. Now animal lovers are coming to their rescue. Rescuing Rex follows the remarkable journey of the world's stray dogs on a freedom ride to Canada.


As Canadians, we’re always on the lookout for things to pat ourselves on the back about. So, here’s one for today: We have among the fewest stray dogs of any country on the planet.

You are not going to walk the streets of a Canadian city and run across a pack of badly treated stray canines, as you might in Mexico City, Calcutta, Bangkok, Istanbul or even Houston, Texas. 

The reason is simple. Canada has strict spaying and neutering laws. Other countries (including the U.S.) don’t. Chalk it up to “freedom” or something.

Leora Eisen’s documentary Rescuing Rex is about that conundrum, a dog-crazy, fairly affluent Western country, with a penchant for adopting “rescue” animals, for which we have to look far afield. It’s a seller’s market, and the doc, which airs on TVOntario Saturday, gives us plenty of buyer-beware insight.

Despite the apparent good intentions of the two Toronto operations it follows – Redemption Paws, run by Nicole Simone and Mary Choi’s project Adopt-a-Doggie – Rescuing Rex is an often dispiriting documentary, with some cringe-inducing scenes.

Yes, there are shelters in places like Taiwan, but they are often run by committed people on a shoestring budget (one fellow we meet caring for scores of dogs is himself living in a car). Other animals simply live their entire lives on the street, or are captured and euthanized. In some cases, the rescuers actually capture the dogs off the street (the dogs in turn are seen freaking-out in sheer panic over being leashed for perhaps the first time in their lives).

What’s unclear in the film is the philosophy of rescue. Millennials, we’re told, are the most committed to adopting rescue animals, with Baby Boomers preferring the relative behaviorial and health certainty of a purebred dog from a reputable breeder.

And rescuers seem to be attracted to worst case scenarios. We meet blind dogs, amputees, paralyzed dogs, dogs with chronic illnesses, and in one case, a dog who’s so traumatized by the trip to a foreign country, that he doesn’t survive.

I’ve known adopters who’ve given up in frustration and returned dogs who’ve come all the way from South Korea. I’ve seen people nearly bankrupt themselves paying medical bills for a pet who doesn’t survive. 

And other than a necessary round of shots, there is little in the way of regulation or licensing in the dog rescue business. Eisen takes a side-turn to California to follow the story of a woman who deliberately sold fatally-sick puppies to people under the guise of a non-profit.

Even the most principled dog rescue outfits are often accused of too-quick turnaround, delivering a dog within a day or two after arrival instead of allowing time for health issues to manifest.

But still Canadians sign on. We meet Harrison, a young man who is candid about his own history of anxiety, who believes his life was saved by the cowering Nigel, a dog so chronically afraid he would hide behind the toilet. 

At times, Rescuing Rex is literally a case of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. At one point in Texas, the Redemption Paws team locate the owner of a dog who’d been a stray for two years, and who wanted nothing to do with him. 

My personal feeling is that the vetting of “street dogs” should key on the ones least likely to be traumatized by a global move, younger dogs who can truly be a family’s life partner. 

But the act of “rescue” hasn’t really defined itself, and the number of ways it can be interpreted is one of the frustrating realities Rescuing Rex does manage to convey. Rescues are a contentious issue in the dog-loving world, and the film overall could have sought more dissenting voices. But it succeeds at painting a picture of the complicated dance involved in connecting humans and pets.

At the moment, closed borders have reportedly reduced the traffic of rescue animals to a trickle – just at the time when lonely, socially-isolated Canadians are most inclined to adopt a companion animal. Emotional supply and demand have seldom been so distant.

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