Little has changed since Amanda Arrington first met Champ. As she and her confederates approach him with tools and building materials in tow, the honey-colored pit bull is still being secured with a short leash in the back of his North Durham home, and he is just as wary of strangers as the day Arrington saw him there nearly a year ago.
Arrington is director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs (www.unchaindogs.net), a Durham based nonprofit charged with a mission that at first blush seems contradictory: "We build dogs fences to set them free," she explains.
Every weekend she, her husband, Casey, and the rest of "Amanda's Army," the Coalition's 25-member group of regular volunteers, build wire-mesh fences for pet owners who can't afford them—with the caveat that the owners also agree to first have their animals spayed or neutered.
In the three years since she and like-minded activists founded the group, Arrington estimates that the coalition has built 100 fences across the Triangle, taking tethers off the necks of some 130 dogs. On this crisp, mid-November morning, Champ will become the latest.
"The goal is to get the dog off of the chain and into an area where they have more than a few feet in each direction to run around," says Arrington. The result, she explains, is a less sullen, more loving pet.
As Arrington and the rest set about to work, Champ's owner, Carmen, stands at the the corner of the lot. "It makes me so happy to know that I won't have to leave him on that short leash anymore," she says in Spanish.
Off his tether, Champ, with newfound exuberance, luxuriates in a pile of fallen leaves.
Arrington, 32, readily admits that in her family of cattlemen and hunters, she is considered somewhat of an oddball.
"There were literally deer heads covering all the walls of the house where I grew up, and yet here I am, this vegetarian animal-rights person," she laughs.
As a youth growing up on her father's cattle ranch, she saw dogs and other animals treated as property. As a number of family pets died due to lack of proper veterinary care or neglect, she began to question her family's approach to their care.
Then came her initial dalliance with animal activism: A decade ago, after seeing him wandering near a well-traveled stretch of east Texas highway, she rescued her first dog—a diminutive collection of fur known as a Japanese Chin.
"The experience changed me," she says of providing the dog a foster home. "I just started taking in dogs and finding them homes, and the more I did it, the more I saw that there were an even greater number of animals in need of protection."
Many years and more than 50 foster dogs later, she and Casey moved to Durham, where she quickly plugged into the area's extensive network of animal activists.
When the Durham Inter-Neighborhood Council in 2006 moved to raise the tethering issue before the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Arrington and other animal protection advocates from the area began a two-pronged approach to help improve the lives of outdoor dogs.
"Going into it you know that trying to do anything at the legislative level is going to be a slow and painful process," says Arrington. "In the meantime, we wanted to form something that had a more immediate impact."
After two years of discussion and negotiations, Durham County Commissioners passed a tethering ban in August.
The coalition took a more direct role in supporting Orange County's tethering ordinance, which passed earlier this month. The group requested that the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Board examine the practice of tethering, and it lobbied hard for passage of the ordinance. But those who know Arrington say her true talent lies in motivating others around a specific need.
Jennifer Naylor, president of Independent Animal Rescue, a local animal services program that provides funds for low-income pet owners to spay and neuter their animals, attributes the coalition's success to its innovative approach to chronic pet control and safety issues.
"You can drive through Durham and see that there are a lot of people who just aren't able to afford to build a fence for their dogs," Naylor says. "There is a need and [Amanda has] motivated people to take the service directly to the people who need it most."
In the years it took for Durham and Orange counties to enact anti-tethering legislation, the popularity of the coalition's methods has swelled along with the backlog of fences it is scheduled to build, which now stands between 45-50.
Arrington estimates that the cost of each fence averages $300. Each one, she says, is funded entirely by private donations.
"And more requests come in each day," says Arrington, who counts on her background in business to help keep the funds flowing in.
The coalition has also formed partnerships with area animal protection organizations like AnimalKind, a nonprofit that offers residents vouchers to have their pets spayed and neutered at discounted rates. Executive Director Beth Livingstone says the work being performed by Arrington and the coalition directly benefits those addressing the equally persistent problem of pet overpopulation. (Tethered female dogs can be impregnated by roving male dogs.)
"The Coalition to Unchain Dogs has a simple idea, but it's not simple in its implementation," Livingstone says. "Not a lot of people are willing to go knocking on people's doors and try to explain to them why they should have their dogs neutered. And that Amanda is willing to helps educate a few people, and they serve as a model for other people. In the end, everyone who is doing work to protect animals benefits."
Word of the coalition has since spread beyond the Triangle. Arrington says she has received inquiries from as far as Oregon from activists looking for advice on how to start similar organizations. She says the coalition will soon feature a "how-to" video on its Web site. And Arrington now has a more prominent position from which to advocate for animal rights. Six months ago, she was named state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's a little unexpected," she says, smiling.
Meanwhile, she says, the coalition will continue to provide an entry point for people to see their ideas translated directly into action.
"What this does well is give people a place to begin," she says. "Most people who are involved in animal protection—the animals come to them. And it can be overwhelming, to go out into the community and see firsthand the problems that we face. But if they have someone that can help them focus on one particular issue, if they can see the benefit directly, it helps them see that these problems are not insurmountable."