By Lauren Lewis
Although she has been making music for more than 30 years and has 12 Grammy awards under her belt, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris has another passion: animals. In fact, the Nashville-based musician runs a dog rescue out of her backyard and was recently honored by the Humane Society of the United States for her work on behalf of animals. “You have to pick and choose what your causes are,” she says. “And now I know what mine is—it’s animal welfare and homeless animals.” We chatted with Harris about her love of pets and her mission to find them good homes.
How did you get into animal-welfare work?
All our dogs and cats that we’ve had over the years have come from shelters. One particular dog, Bonaparte, was with me for 10 years. He was my traveling companion, my buddy. We were pretty inseparable. He was on the bus, backstage, he slept in my bedroom. He died quite suddenly in 2002. I just didn’t think I could ever replace him. I wasn’t ready to replace him. But I felt that I wanted to be involved with helping other dogs, especially since all our animals came from a rescue situation.
I saw this really amazing documentary called Shelter Dogs [ShelterDogs.org]. I was profoundly affected by that. I thought, well, I have this big backyard, and I talked to Nashville Humane [Association] [and found out that] if I had the setup I could foster dogs. So I had it built, and it’s only for three dogs at a time. We got it started. And got our first three dogs. And have learned as we go along.
And you call it Bonaparte’s Retreat?
Yeah, in honor of my buddy.
Where do the dogs at your rescue come from?
At [Metro Nashville] Animal Control the dogs have a very short window of time. That’s basically where we adopt from. We go ahead and adopt the dogs, rather than foster, and then find homes for them.
Do any of them end up staying with you permanently?
I ended up adopting two of the foster dogs. I adopted one [Keeta] rescued from a shelter in Mississippi after a hurricane. Keeta came up with 12 dogs from this one shelter. All of them were adopted except her. She ended up being a great road dog. And then last year I got an older Black Lab [Bella] who just became Keeta’s dog. They’re just meant for each other. She’s a very low-maintenance dog. They both go on the road with me and sleep in a bottom bunk.
What’s it like traveling with them?
You know, it’s great. I only do this when I’m on the bus. It’s much better than not being with them. You always have somebody that’s happy to see you, keeps you company, gets you out of the hotel room to go for nice walks. They love to run around—at sound checks I let them run loose. Then they run up and down the aisles—you can just see their tails. They have a great time. I think it takes a certain dog—just like it takes a certain person—not everybody can deal with the road.
Tell me about the Keeta Fund.
That was the idea that a fan had to celebrate my 60th birthday, which just passed in April. Instead of people sending me presents, if they wanted to do something in honor of my birthday this would be a way to do something for the animals we love—especially animals dealing with disasters. I was very touched by that.
What have you learned from the work you do?
On the positive side, there are a lot of good people with great hearts that are working really hard to make the lives of animals better. On the negative side, you know, there is so much work that needs to be done with educational legislation. Spaying and neutering is the first order of business.
What are your biggest goals when it comes to animal welfare?
Well, in the best of all possible worlds that every dog and cat has a home. I’d also like to see factory farms dealt with, but that’s a whole other issue. I’m just trying to do something locally, as a citizen of this community.
What has the response been to the concerts you do to raise money for animal welfare?
I have a lot of help. The one we did at the Ryman [Auditorium] a year and a half a go, Paula Cole was there, Patty Griffin, and Mindy Smith. It was a sold-out show, 3,000 people. We raised $100,000 for the Rover mobile veterinary unit [at Nashville Humane Association].
Is it hard to get other musicians on board?
Oh, listen it’s so easy. First of all, we live in Nashville. There are just so many great people here. And it’s very hard to find somebody that doesn’t love animals amongst artists. You don’t really have a problem in this town. Community problems are all worth people’s time and attention.
You also participate in the North Shore Animal League’s Tour For Life program.
Nashville is one of their stops on this tour. They come to Metro Animal Control and that’s where we get our dogs from. They come every year. And this year we had a booth and passed out information. The best thing about that day—every single cat, every single small dog, and a large percentage of the larger dogs got adopted that day. That was pretty great.
What has been your most rewarding experience when it comes to animal rescue and adoption?
Most rewarding is obviously when a dog that you have been able to rescue finds a good home. Bar none that’s the most rewarding thing. That’s what you’re trying to do. That’s the whole reason I started Bonaparte’s Retreat.
Anything you’d like to add?
Shelters and local animal controls desperately need people to come and volunteer. And this can make huge a difference in the lives of animals, and I think it can really make a huge difference in the person’s life, too.