by Allen Martin and Jennifer MistrotCounty

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — On a recent sunny morning Shirley Zindler started out the day like she often does, walking her one-and-a-half acre Sonoma County property with some of her favorite companions, the dogs she’s taken in at her non-profit, Dogwood Animal Rescue Project. The pack included dogs of every description from pure breeds to adorable mutts, all eager to tag along with Zindler.

“I think the job [of rescuer] came from, you know, loving and enjoying the animals,” said Zindler.

Zindler’s worked in rescues and shelters for 35 years, 15 of those as a Sonoma County animal control officer. Dogwood – as it’s known for short – became an official non-profit a few years ago.

So what’s in a name?

“You know, this is a good question,” answered Zindler with a smile. “I always liked the Dogwood flower. And even as a child, I thought it was the coolest thing that a beautiful flower had a name, with you know, a dog in it.”

But it’s not just dogs that Zindler and her army of volunteers, including numerous foster homes, have cared for over the years. Kittens and resident cats like Chuck, himself a rescue, also get lots of love.

“Chuck’s been on the job for fifteen years and he is a dream,” explained Zindler as she cuddled the mellow orange tabby. “He teaches all the foster puppies, how to have respectful behavior with cats.”

Chuck is not above giving a puppy a good swat when it gets a little too playful, according to Zindler. Chuck is also not the only animal at Dogwood that helps out with new arrivals.

Resident Great Dane Shelby is also a surrogate aunt to newbies like two bottle-fed puppies whose stray mom could not nurse. Zindler’ s been feeding the adorable rescued duo around the clock.

While one of the missions of Dogwood is to rescue, another main goal of the non-profit is to educate the community about the importance of spaying and neutering animals. Zindler points out many folks would like to do this but do not have the economic means to do so. So Dogwood helps to offer low and no-cost spay and neuter options as well.

But the non-profit does so much more, such as helping to fund a low-cost vet clinic, while also providing free pet food and supplies to the homeless. Volunteer foster families take in animals into their own homes. Other volunteers work at Dogwood’s property itself, feeding, watering, and loving the animals on site.

Dogwood’s Hannah Houston and her daughter Tilly are inspired by Zindler’s loving heart and accepting attitude.

“Shirley allows you to be imperfect,” explained Houston. “She allows you to be who you are.”

But it’s moments like these that Zindler loves: a new owner has come to the rescue to pick up a kitten. It’s a new beginning. Zindler smiles with joy as she hands off the kitten to its new family and says she has no plans to ever stop helping animals and people.

“As long as I can and long as there’s a need [I will help], “said Zindler. “Which will be forever.”

So for helping to improve the lives of animals through rescue and other services, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Shirley Zindler.

Dogwood Animal Rescue Project is always in need of donations and volunteers.