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Kari Whitman: Saving dogs one pet at a time

Kari Whitman poses with circular Greener Pup Earth bed.
Kari Whitman poses with circular Greener Pup Earth bed. Jessica Gulley
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with celebrity interior designer Kari Whitman about dog-rescue organization she founded. The foundation works to save dogs, the day they are to be euthanized, from Los Angeles shelters and place them in loving homes. It also raises funds for medical care for injured dogs. Whitman also she developed the concept for

Whitman works as a and has collaborated with celebrities including Kristin Bell and Jessica Alba. Her work has also been featured in decorating magazines as well as "In Style" and "US Weekly." She also hosted her own show, "Designer to the Stars," on the WE network.

Q: Tell me about the Ace of Hearts Foundation.

Whitman: I started Ace of Hearts after my beloved dog, Ace, that I adopted from the shelter the day he was going to be euthanized, passed.  When he passed I had all this anger inside of me, so I decided to use it constructively and turn it into saving other dogs’ lives.

Q: Did he pass of old age?

Whitman: Yeah, I adopted him from the shelter, he lived until he was almost 12.  He was a 120-pound American bulldog, so he was huge. When he died, I couldn’t go to my house, I couldn’t walk in my house without having the energy of a dog in my house and especially him.  So I decided, instead of being angry and sad, I’m going to be constructive, and so, I started the foundation, hence the name, Ace of Hearts. It’s been a long road, I’ve saved over 2,000 dogs, and I started in 2001. It’s a lot of work.

Q: Do you just work with dogs, or do you work with other animals as well?

Whitman: Well, I have this real, kind of crazy, affinity for farm animals.  I really just work with dogs, but every time I see some weird animal in the middle of Los Angeles, I end up trying to find a rescue to take it.  In downtown Los Angeles there was a deer that got dropped off at the pound.  We found out it was some sort of rare deer brought in from Europe.  So then I found a deer sanctuary in Malibu, and I facilitated getting it to the sanctuary. 

So I really just rescue dogs, but I love all animals and if I had the time and enough donations I would rescue everything.  But there’s only one of me and I’m pretty crazy about the way my rescue’s run so I don’t know how we’d be able to do that.

Q: Tell me about how you got the title “Green Guru Warrior.”

Whitman: I didn’t know that I had that total title!  Basically, I was raised in Boulder, Colo., and I was raised kind of with a hippie family.  I’ve always been a tree-hugger; Boulder was green before green was cool.  I’ve always kind of been green.  I didn’t know how not to be green.  When I got off the bus to the different parts of the country, I realized that people aren’t green. 

How can people not save animals?  How can people cut down trees?  How can people throw stuff out? Especially in New York. Nothing against New York, but the amount you get when you go to get something to eat and they give you so many bags.  I’m like, “don’t give me any more bags!”  Four bags for this!  Two bags for that!  To me it’s astounding.  I kind of grew up green and in my interior design I really specialize in being green.  Like I said, it’s innate for me, it’s not something that I try to do.

Q: Do you think that it’s more expensive to be green, or not really?

Whitman: I don’t think so. I think, food-wise, it’s more expensive to be organic sometimes with food. To be green, if you do it the right way it’s actually cheaper.  I finished Jessica Alba’s house a while back and we were picking furniture up from Craigslist, off the street and redoing it. That furniture is actually made better than the furniture that you would down buy at ABC [Liquidators in Los Angeles] or PDC (the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles), just because the craftsmanship is so much better.

It’s really cheap to buy a couch for $150 and then spend $500 or $600 re-covering.  So it’s actually cheaper, it’s much cheaper to go green.  Food-wise, the organic is having a hard time catching up, but cancer’s expensive too.  You’ve got to weigh it out and figure out where you want to put your extra funds.

Q: What sets your animal charity apart from other animal organizations?  What makes yours special? Why did you feel the need to start one when there are other ones rather than just supporting one?

Whitman: They kill 500 dogs a day in Los Angeles alone.  That’s just in Los Angeles County.  Forty percent of those dogs are purebred with papers.  It’s the highest kill rate in any urban city in America.  I was volunteering for a bunch of different rescues and I didn’t like the way they were running their rescues. 

To be honest, I spoil all of our rescue dogs.  I don’t believe that dogs should be living in cages.  How do you place a dog you don’t know?  How do you know a dog that’s living in cages? So I really work hard, and diligently, along with my operations manager, to facilitate foster homes, and we even do a paid foster program; out-of-work actors, people in school, students, they rent a dog and get paid a little bit of money.  I think the reason that my foundation is so successful and that the return rate is less than 2 percent is because I really know dogs before I place them. I really spend the time rehabilitating before I get them in a home, so I won’t have as many returns.

Q: So let’s go back, you rescue them from the pound?

Whitman: The day they’re going to be euthanized, I only take dogs on the day they’re going to be euthanized, but 500 a day, I can’t take 500 a day.

Q: So what do you do, how do you pick them?

Whitman: It’s the worst. You play God. It’s awful.

Q: Do you personally do a lot of it?

Whitman: No way, I can’t go to the pound.  I have absolutely no discipline.  I will bury myself.  I cannot go to the pound.

Q: Is it just random or is there some criteria?

Whitman: I get a lot of emails from a lot of the volunteers at the pound that I really trust.  Then I send somebody down to temperament test.

Q: So you have to feel that they’ll be able to be placed?

Whitman: It’s harder because rescues should be about taking dogs that we don’t think are “placeable” and rehabilitating them and placing them.  That’s what rescues should be.  But rescue now is just trying to save placeable dogs, because unfortunately, everybody’s just overbreeding. 

Thank God for people like Oprah that go on and say, puppy mills are not cool, man, let’s do something about it.  It’s really, really bad; we should not be breeding any dogs until there are no more dogs at the shelter.  So I get calls, we go in.  I send a temperament test person in to test them, and a lot of them fail.  You know they’re going to die that die, and it’s hard because I know that I’m going to be able to save more dogs if I don’t take that dog.

Q: You talked a little bit about what prompted you to get involved — your dog passing and wanting to do something else — is there anything else you wanted to add to that?

Whitman: I’m an only child, and I’ve always had a really strong affinity for animals.  I grew up with all of our pets kind of being my family.  I don’t get how we can euthanize all these dogs.  I still haven’t comprehended it.  Where I’m from, in Boulder, we don’t have a kill shelter, it’s a non-kill shelter.

Q: So they just keep taking the animals in and taking care of them?

Whitman: People are just more responsible, there are not as many backyard breeders.  In Los Angeles, people are backyard breeding just trying to make money; they’re selling the dogs for profit.  We just don’t have that where I’m from, so I just didn’t know it.

Q: So if the backyard breeders can’t get rid of the dog or sell them, they just bring it to the pound?

Whitman: Or they place them with any random person for $50, $20, $30 and the people can’t keep them and they dump them at the pound.  I just feel like you have to give back.  I’m lucky. I make a good living as a designer.  I just feel like we have to give back.  I have no desire to have kids and it’s kind of like this is my baby.  I want to be able to give back, so that’s the main thing.

Q: Is there a memorable or moving moment you’ve had while working with Ace of Hearts?  I’m sure that there have been many.  But is there something that really inspired you and that might inspire somebody else to rescue?

Whitman: God, there are so many amazing rescue stories.  There was a dog that we got, a gang member had it.  I don’t know what’s going on in South Central LA, but it had been lit on fire with lighter fluid.  It was this little sort of Corgi-Shepherd.  When we got it, we didn’t think it was going to make it.  It needed a couple skin grafts, and a lot of rehabilitation.  The dog was a great dog, but I thought, I’m never going to get this dog a home: it only had hair on about 20 percent of its body; its face was burned; its entire back, its entire tail.  It just looked like a little piglet. 

Finally, this lady came after about a year — and it had scars all over it — and she adopted it.  She now takes that dog to the children’s burn unit at UCLA.  It’s amazing how this dog has given back.  She takes the dog in there, and she sends me pictures of the kids with it.  The dog has no issue with being burned over 80 percent of its body.  It’s still happy, it wants to play.  I think it makes the kids feel ok with their deformities, because the dog’s ok with it.  I think that’s probably one of the most touching stories

Q: Tell me about the Greener Pup.

Whitman: Most of my clients are celebrities, I didn’t plan it that way, but when I start doing their houses, they often drop off a dog for me.  They’re like, “what’s the best energy you can put in my house?” and I say “a dog.” They all say, “make custom dog beds!”  So, I started making these custom dog beds. 

The beds are made out of recycled plastic bottles.  Every bed contains anywhere from 70-120 recycled bottles that don’t go into landfills.  It’s really mushy and great. What I did first, was I got all the fabric donated from fabric places that were throwing it away — really cool high-end fabric.  Either they had a lot left over from last year, or they had a discrepancy in the run. 

I started Greener Pup to make money for Ace of Hearts. One-hundred percent of all profits go back to Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue.  It’s a nonprofit dog bed company.  We’ve been doing great, it’s been amazing.  I put my first ones in Jessica Alba’s home when I finished it. I think every dog deserves a bed, and I’d rather take that money and put it right back into the dogs.