Tito’s Vodka goes to the dogs with Emancipet partnership

12:00 a.m. Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 Austin360

Stella appeared on the grounds of the Tito’s Vodka distillery in rural Southeast Austin, in much the same way other strays have. She ran with a pack of feral dogs. She wasn’t fixed. She also was very sick.

“She looked like a coyote,” recalled Beth Bellanti, relationship marketing director for Tito’s.

Not longer after, Stella gave birth in a woodpile. Distillery employees brought her and her puppies into the bottling line room, where they noticed she almost no hair on her thin body and seemed to be getting more ill with mange, three types of parasites including heartworm and chronic pneumonia. That’s when Bellanti decided to step in and take Stella and her puppies, who also had mange, to a veterinarian.

Now, Stella often sits at Bellanti’s feet as she works at Tito’s marketing office in a warehouse space not far from Austin Animal Center and Emancipet. She’s come a long way in the six years since Bellanti adopted her — she’s “zen, doesn’t bark much and she likes to give me kisses,” Bellanti said.

Stella isn’t the distillery’s only success story. The team behind Tito’s Vodka has rescued countless dogs since Tito Beveridge started building the distillery in 1995 with his half-Labrador, half-German Shepherd mix constantly nearby.

“I always had dog food and water, and these dogs would show up and eat the dog food,” Beveridge said. “Eventually, it’d get to the point where you could approach them and pet them, but I wouldn’t take them to the pound because back then they’d just kill the dogs. So they’d come and go, and if a truck driver or someone stopped by and said, ‘Hey, that’s a cool dog,’ I’d say, ‘Hey, you want them?’”

Those were the early days. Now, with the help of the Internet and with Emancipet just a short drive away, Bellanti and the company’s employees will get the stray dogs fixed and help to find them homes. And, like Bellanti, many other dog-loving employees have taken in stray dogs — not just from the distillery, but from area shelters as well.

Rescuing dogs, in fact, has become one of Tito’s Vodka’s core missions, and the company now sponsors several dog rescue events and donates to rescue organizations. Since November, Tito’s has also started up Vodka for Dog People — a website that helps to raise awareness about Emancipet — organized a spay/neuter and preventive care veterinary clinic, and has raised money for additional Emancipet clinics by creating dog-related items for purchase, from dog leashes and toys to T-shirts. All of the profits from Vodka for Dog People go to Emancipet.

“Emancipet has been so grassroots,” Amy Mills, the nonprofit’s CEO, said. “We started out with lots of heart and not much else, but Tito’s and the national ASPCA invested in us early on. We’ll always be grateful.”

Tito’s participation with Emancipet will help clinics spread outside of Austin before it branches beyond Texas. Since its founding in 1999, Emancipet has provided a valuable service for the Central Texas region: getting dogs and cats that belong to low-income families spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Because these services cost money, unwanted litters or sick dogs like Stella often end up in low-income neighborhoods. They might be turned over to shelters, but even though Austin now saves 90 percent or more of the animals that come into shelters, some still get killed.

That’s not the only problem with animals that aren’t spayed or neutered, Mills said. Without the surgery, they are compelled to roam the streets to find a mate, and studies show that unfixed pets have shorter lifespans than those who have been fixed.

Bellanti thinks many of the stray dogs that show up at Tito’s distillery are ranch dogs who have mixed with coyotes. Beveridge suspects those dogs are dumped by people who fear leaving the animals at shelters, assuming they’ll be killed. Bottom line, Mills said, is that strays are all too often a socioeconomic issue.

People who have gotten their pets spayed or neutered “knew about it and had a place to go to get it done, and the people who haven’t don’t. Period. That’s the barrier,” Mills said. “Once you make it affordable and accessible, people will do it.”

Emancipet makes these services either low-cost or free, depending on what pet owners can pay. Another key component of the organization is letting people know they exist. Mills prefers to use the words “share information” versus “educate” when she talks about outreach.

“Emancipet is special, but I don’t want it to be,” she said, noting that its clinics have performed more than 200,000 spay/neuter surgeries in the organization’s 15-year history. “I want the services to be everywhere. Even though it sounds kind of counterintuitive, that means our goal is to not stand out.”

Vodka for Dog People, with a tug-at-your-heartstrings social media campaign, is certainly drawing attention to Emancipet. Mills is happy with that right now. “This is such a special partnership because it has an alignment of values. They also all love animals and they want to be part of something greater than themselves,” she said.

“A lot of people think this is part of the marketing — what we’re doing with dog rescue — but it’s simply part of our life,” Bellanti said.

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