Rene Ruston has been an L.A. based Realtor for the past 28 years and has earned countless awards doing so. In addition to her successful real estate career, she finds time to rescue animals from hoarding conditions and high kill shelters, going nose to nose with animal abusers and city officials alike. In addition to co-founding START, she is on the board of The Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center (SPARC) and the Rock & Rescue.
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Rene Ruston has been a top producing realtor for the past 28 years and has earned numerous awards for her production and professionalism. Aside from her successful career, she is the ultimate animal rescuer! She’s on the front line, helping many different organizations that strive to save animals such as START Rescue, The Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center and her newest project the Rock & Rescue, which she co-founded alongside her husband and other animal-loving friends.
Hey Rene, welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Well, I’m so excited to have you. You do so much for animals and I wanna learn more. So why don’t you start and kind of tell us your story in your background and how you got into all of this? Well, I was a realtor here in Los Angeles for 30 years. It was about maybe 17 or 18 years ago. I was doing real estate for banks taking in foreclosures, and I discovered that people sometimes leave their pets behind. And I had no background in animal rescue, no clue about the animal population crisis, nothing, and like most people, probably are if they’re not exposed to it. So I called animal control in the area and said, “Hey, can you come pick up this dog? They left it behind in a closet.” Oh my goodness. Did they? And so, it was shocking to me. But, you know, at the time I was just more or less trying to get this home on the market, and my naiveté figured, “oh, they’re probably be coming back for it. And you know, I don’t have time for this. I will take it to the shelter. They’ll get it from there.” Right. But little did I know, this is not how it works.
So animal control gave me a reality check and said, “you cannot take the animal out of the property. It has to stay there for two weeks like the furniture that they left behind. It’s property.” Really? And I argued with them for quite a while and realized they weren’t gonna budge. So I ended up taking this dog home, and that’s kind of how it started. It just kind of snowballed from there, and I would find these pets and I would call animal control. They wouldn’t come and get it. So I found animal rescues, and then I realized, “wow, these people just are amazing.” They take in these animals that nobody wants and want to help them. So as a realtor, I travel around a lot. So I volunteered to go pick up a dog at the shelter for them. So then I got exposed to shelters and how dysfunctional a lot of them are. Sure. And it just snowballed from there. I started fostering.
I started with an animal rescue that is called Britney Foundation, and it focuses on special needs and seniors. So I started fostering them, donated some money and got on their board of directors. And then from there, I just sort of branched out and started rescuing. You know, bringing dogs into my home and much to my husband’s chagrin, just kept bringing animals into the house. So I ran into some friends who were actually doing sort of the same thing. I have a passion for Pit bulls. They’re just a breed that really speaks to me, you know, not to breed, but the type of dog that I liked. So I rescued Pit bulls one at a time, and then I ran into some friends who were actually doing the same thing. And we sort of pulled our resource is together and decided, “Hey, there’s a better way to do this.”
So we reached out to rescues up north in Oregon and Washington who we’re not having the population issues that we were. So we bought a truck sort of put together with the song and prayer and, you know, we outfitted it with crates. We started driving them up there, and that’s how START began. And now you know, of course, we have the massive—est motorhome that pick them up there, and we do about 150 every month now. That is so awesome. I just love your passion and just figure it out like you just kind of stumbled into this world when you were selling a house. And then the rest is history. And that was what did you say? 17 years ago. I think so, yeah. I haven’t had to do that math in a while. It is in about 17 years now.
And it’s fascinating to me because my story is very similar, that I kind of stumbled into it and you start learning more and you start asking more questions and you just don’t know how deep the rabbit hole is gonna go now. No, and it just continues. You know, I’m still learning and finding things out that still shock me. But it’s not my nature to say—I never say die. I figure things out and I always try to find a solution. Don’t spend a lot of time on the negativity. I just try to find a positive outcome, and I think you need that in rescue. You’re not going to survive it with your mental faculties intact. It’s definitely you have to—you gotta be able to dust yourself off and support each other, and, like you said, just kind of figure it out because it’s not easy. As I always tell people, there is no Amazon Prime for animals. You try to get the logistics and coordination and transport of animals is always hard.
Maybe it was somewhat naive to think we could just do it. But I think that’s what sometimes works. The fact that you don’t know that you’re not supposed to be doing it that way and you just do it and it works. Yeah. You know, people can tell you. “oh, no, that’s not gonna work.” But you just put whatever resources you have together, and a lot of times, that is what is needed. So you decided at the time that transport, right? So you found other organizations up north of where you are that could take these animals. And you just decided, “Hey, let’s start doing this.” Right.
You know, we were picking up Pit bulls and getting them adopted but that was really getting it done. We’re always bailing with the spoon, as I’m sure you know. But in order to save more lives, we needed to do something on a bigger scale. And there are parts of the country that there are places to put these animals. So we focused on those areas. We won’t obviously transport to states that still have the same problem we do like, for example, we won’t send dogs to Arizona or Texas or New Mexico. They have the same population issues. But there are areas that don’t have maybe smaller dogs, or they might not have this type of dog that we have here. Right. So it’s interesting how you can fit these dogs into sort of a puzzle around the country.
No, it really is. And when you look at the things, an aggregate and when you kind of step back, I mean, there is an overpopulation of Chihuahuas as an example in some of the Southwestern states. But it’s ironic when you go up the East Coast, you can’t find them and they’re in high demand. Yeah, they are, I mean to some degree now. I mean, even the East Coast is getting saturated with Chihuahuas. My hat’s off to the organizations that are pushing legislation and trying to get politicians to really crack down on spay and neuter. I mean, we’re not going to transport our way out of this problem. Right. And so it’s always met with some sort of reluctance, and I don’t understand why it seems to me, the common sense approach.
So START actually does fund spay-neuter. We do a lot of the mobile clinics in areas that don’t have the resources to get their dogs to spay and neuter clinics. So we’re able to bring the clinics to them. And that’s a major focus of ours because it is great and rewarding to rescue these dogs out of the shelter. But we’re not going to solve that problem by doing transport. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I was told people, transport is a tool, it’s a tool in your toolbox. But you still need to focus like you said on the things like spay and neuter and having the right programs and the support of your community to prevent from having this problem in the first place. Correct.
And we worked a lot with uhm—our focus is rescuing dogs from shelters that give us the cooperation that is required to make it a successful partnership. Some of the shelters that we have rejected for the reason that they just aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to help us get their animals out. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s their roadblocks. There’s too many dogs and too many shelters to help for us to like waste our time and spin our wheels with shelters that don’t want to work with us. Right. So we focus on underserved areas, for example, Tulare areas and the San Bernardino area and their tiny little shelters with high intake and really have no foot traffic for adoption. But the staff and volunteers are incredible people, and they go over and above to try and help us get their animals out alive. And to me, that’s part of the reward is helping these people and giving them what they need to save their lives.
It seems like you guys have really gotten involved in lots of aspects. I mean, the spay and neuter like you talked about the transport, the building, the relationships. All this is just kind of come from you learning as you go. Yes, exactly. Off camera. I was telling you about a homeless man we’ve been helping with his dog. Just had surgery today. So whatever comes our way, we try and pitch in where we can. And always, always, we are struggling for finances, but that’s our job, is to raise the money through donations, get any—obviously any help from the government.
Like most rescues and our transports are fully funded by us, we do not take money from the rescuers or the shelters that we send them up in Oregon. They don’t pay anything for that service. We just bring them the dogs and they take it from there. The transports cost us, I think, roughly we have it about $5,000 to $7,000 every time we load up the bus. Wow. So it’s not a cheap. Yeah. Yeah. But we save a lot of lives if you break it down over how many dogs and cats, by the way, we also do cats and comes out. I think to be about, like, $70 a dog or a cat. So it’s actually pretty cost effective. But it’s just very expensive? No. No it is expensive. And I am glad that you mentioned cats because I hear that a lot of people say we’re never transporting cats because everybody has a cat problem. That’s actually not true. There’s a lot of reasons to be able to transport cats and dogs as you talked about different types of breeds and different behaviors and just different supply and demand needs. Correct.
Yeah, we just discussed it. We have a lengthy contract and application process to be a partner with us, so we assess what they need. You know we have requirements, for example, if the animal goes up there and for some reason, it doesn’t work out, you know, some of the shelters that we work with may not have the resources to deal with a dog, maybe with a behavioral situation that’s just out of their wheelhouse. So they must contact us, and we will assist in trying to place that dog and another rescue that can handle it. Or on the very rare occasions, we will bring it back down here and work with one of our trainers. So it’s a very successful program we’ve done. I think we’ve surpassed 12,000 dogs and cats in the last two years. That’s amazing.
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Yeah. It is absolutely amazing. What a service that you guys were providing and at no cost to the people that are taking these animals in. Yeah, exactly. And sometimes, you know if it’s a rescue partner we’ve worked with for a long time, particularly, they get a dog, for example. It turns out to have, like, a medical problem. Or, you know, something comes up that’s just out of the ordinary and urgent. We will often sometimes assist with finances in order to get them over that hump for that particular animal. And what I really love about you is that it wasn’t enough. So running start moving 12,000 dogs wasn’t enough. And so now you decided, “I think I need to start my own animal rescue center.” Oh yeah, my hometown is Thousand Oaks, California. It’s where I grew up, and I live in L.A. now, but it’s a place obviously near and dear to my heart. My mom still lives there.
And their animal shelter in Ventura County. It was a very high kill and it didn’t need to be. And I got together with some other professionals. One was a lawyer and the other lady is a philanthropist. There was, like, five women, and we decided to bring a case to the grand jury against this particular shelter. And the grand jury was extremely helpful, they ruled in favor of our recommendations and what happened was there was some, a few changes implemented, but as you know, with some types of political situations, they just, you know, sort of give you a token gesture, and then they don’t go forward. So that’s we discovered was happening. Then we decided, “okay, what’s the best way to make a change, and especially in a county shelter?”
So we decided to approach one of the cities that contract the county shelter and said, “hey, what if we’d form a 501(c)3? We opened a shelter here. We do your animal sheltering for less?” And that’s what we did. So we opened the shelter, it’s a no-kill shelter. And what I mean by no-kill shelter is a real no-kill shelter. I’m sure you know that term is bandied about quite a bit and diluted. We opened the shelter and serve just the city of Santa Paula. Once the contract was canceled with the county, they suffered such a financial blow as a result of it that the county supervisors were no longer able to sustain the shelter. So what they did was they turned it over to the health department. Once I went to the health department, that guy that ran the health department at the time was a big animal lover and he approached us. He worked with us to try and help him build a shelter that would truly be low-kill. I mean, obviously his goal was to be no-kill, but even a low-kill was better than they had. So long story short, the shelter was improved. They got a new Shelter Director for Ventura County and it changed dramatically as a result.
So I always tell people that, you know that are always calling me and asking me advice about how to change the dynamics of a county shelter. It’s the only way you can change it is to take the money away from them. So we approached the city’s—if you have resources and a way to create another shelter and give them an option, they’ll do it. And then once that happens, the county has no choice. They lose money. They have no choice but to change their ways. And I’ve seen it being attempted in shelters around here. But it’s a very big project, and it’s not for the weak of heart. To take on animal sheltering for a city. Sure. But I was on the Board of Directors there for seven years, and then that animal shelter still going Santa Paula Animal Rescue Centre. That is awesome.
And you get that started and took that on even while START was still running. Yeah, it wasn’t in the credit for that entire project goes to a lovely women who is the one that really got us all together. She sort of hand-picked us all and decided who she was gonna have on her team. And to her credit, she is still going strong there, so. My hat’s off to her. It’s a lot of work. No, it is. And it’s definitely a team effort. And it sounds like you’re somebody that sparks people to do things and just gets the flame going. And then from there, you kind of move on to the next thing because we haven’t even talked about Rock & Rescue. So tell me about what that’s all about. We’ll, Rock & Rescue was a sort of a project that my husband and I and our two best friends put together. They’re attorneys here in Los Angeles. My husband’s in the music industry. My husband’s lovely, he puts up with a lot of the animal rescues stuff. He really is a saint. It was just sort of a fluke. We raised some money for, I think it was for Britney Foundation. We did it for—we put together an impromptu concert that was very successful with some bands that my husband worked with and they donated their time and we raised thousands of dollars through this organization and we thought, “wow, we should just—it would be kind of fun to do this sort of either semi, regularly or regularly.”
So we created this organization called Rock & Rescue, and it’s more or less to put people in music together with rescues. So most recently, we put together a band called Matt and Kim. They’re quite popular with the younger generation. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but they’re lovely and animal lovers. And they reached out to us because of Rock & Rescue and said, “hey, I knew you guys align rescues with music talent we’re looking to do our next video with an animal rescue with actual adoptable dogs.” And so my husband was like “yeah, you know we can do that.”
So we put them in touch with an animal rescue here called Animal Hope and Wellness, which is very well known animal rescue here. And they shot their next music video there. Oh wow, that’s cool. Yeah, super cool. And you know, once they got there, of course, they were so taken by the stories of this organization. Mark Chang, he rescues animals all over China and Korea from the meat slaughter industry, so they were sort of really just taken aback by these stories of these animals, and Kim emailed me and said, “oh, I’m determined to get all those dogs adopted.” And I’m like, good. So it’s great to like introduce people from entertainment to these grassroots organizations that do all the work. You know, all of the national organizations get so much credit, and it’s those grassroots groups that do the work. They’re the ones on the front line. You know they need the most help.
I really love the idea behind Rock & Rescue because it’s something that seems just totally unrelated. But you guys have really brought the two together. And there’s a lot of passionate animal lovers that are in the music industry. Yeah, absolutely. And there are some other organizations that do sort of what we do. So I, I love to see that I’m always of the opinion that rescue should all work together. I know there’s always a lot of contention and we at START, we have one major rule and it’s no drama. Oh I love that. No drama. Yes, I love that. Yeah, and you know, it’s always try to help each other because we need each other to be a stronger voice for the animals when we’re not getting along with other animal rescue organizations. That doesn’t help anyone, so it’s important.
Oh it is, and it’s remembering that we’re all in this for the same purpose, and we may approach things differently. But I’m always a big fan of focus on your why. Focus on why you do it this way. Educate, explain and share your knowledge because, like a lot of people, you and I both kind of stumbled into this and there’s other people that do, and it’s not that they don’t want to do it the right way, but nobody’s ever showed them. And when you approach people with that open mindedness and compassion and trying to just share, you get a different reaction. And like you said, there’s always so much drama and competition, which I never really understood. I don’t know what we’re competing for.
Yeah, and I always focus on the end result, you know, and I’m like “if this rescue’s getting the work done. And why do you care how it happened?” Right. It has really opened up the armchair warrior contingency. And you know, I constantly get e-mails and postings from people with contentious opinions and, you know, 90% of them have never even gone into a shelter before, let alone just rescued an animal. They feel like they just forward and send e-mails that they’re rescuing. And, yes, it’s good to get the word out, but the people that are actually doing the work and going down to the shelter and picking up the animal. Those people deserve the credit. And they also deserve our compassion because it’s not an easy thing to go in a shelter and pick up the dog.
First of all, most shelters make that a little difficult process for rescues. It’s not like the public just walking in and adopting a dog. For some reason, they put a higher level of security on the rest of human and honestly I don’t know why. You know, I’ve had these conversations with government officials many times. They’re, they’re always the ones getting the scrutiny and always the ones getting the criticism. It boggles my mind, and I always tell rescuers, “don’t take these things personally from people you don’t even know. Someone sends you an e-mail or post something on your Facebook page. There’s a button called delete and block, Just use it.” It’s the most powerful tool they ever gave us on the internet. Exactly. It’s fantastic. I love it. I love it. Yes, that’s exactly it. Like, don’t let the drama in. Just ignore them and focus on what you’re doing. Yeah, don’t engage. It’s a liberating way to live. Honestly, I—as a rescuer. It’s a high-stress situation to be a rescuer. But I don’t have any stress from social media because I don’t engage. I will block you. I will delete you. Yeah.
So what’s next for you, Rene? I’m just curious. Like what else is on your mind? I mean, you’ve gotten into spay and neuter, and transport, and Rock & Rescue. It sounds like you’re the powerhouse. What’s the future look like? Well, I’m hoping that you know, the next generation coming up is going to be taking this over because I’m cooped. Yeah. I do you see a lot of young people getting into it, so it’s really encouraging, and I’ll do it as long as I can keep doing it. You know, my real job keeps me pretty busy now, so I’ve actually sort of retired from real estate. Now my passion is my new position, which is VP of Sales and Operations for MINK Shoes. We make vegan luxury shoes in Italy. So I fly to Italy. Somebody’s got to do it. Exactly, right? And, yeah, I’ve gotten into the shoe business and I can’t be happier making vegan shoes in Italy. It’s the dream come true. Well, that’s really cool. Just a journey that you’ve had to get this far is just amazing. All the things you’ve accomplished. Oh, thank you. I don’t—there’s so many other people out there accomplishing much more than I have. But I have no regrets. And I’m probably one of the happiest people you’ll come across.
Yeah. No, that’s great. I mean, this has been really awesome to talk to you Rene and to learn about how you got into this and all the things you’ve done. I mean, is there anything else you wanted to mention? Before we wrap things up? I want to mention that people should spay and neuter your pets and don’t buy. Yes. Do not by pets. So those are the two things I want to leave you with. Well, Renee, thank you so much for coming on the program and sharing it is great to talk to you. Nice to talk to you too.
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