Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Lori Golden
34 years later the unmasked face is unmistakably the same, but "camp" has a new connotation – for Burt Ward’s 5-acre estate in Riverside County is nothing less than an incredible canine camp for Great Danes.
Holy Great Big Dogs
His life took this great twist when he married wife Tracy in 1990. "We thought an important ingredient for a family was to have pets. We started out with several dogs, but when we ended up here, we thought gee, since we have such a tremendous place, (10,000 square feet under roof and 5-acres), let’s get a nice big dog."
They heard about an abandoned Great Dane named Beauty who was being fed by a neighbor running out of money. "He couldn’t feed his own dog," Tracy recalls. "And the other neighbor was throwing bottles at her at night. She was going to be brought to a shelter the next day and killed, so we went and got her. At the time she had pneumonia, so our first month of animal rescue cost $3000 saving her. But we loved her."
Beauty joined their other canines that included a German Shepherd and an American Eskimo. They "all got along great."
"Then we adopted Apollo," Tracy continues. "He got so large his owners actually became afraid of him. But this was a very unusual case. They brought him to the vet to be destroyed. If we hadn’t come along that day he would have been killed."
"After being so happy with Beauty and Apollo, I called about the other 37 dogs that were on a list I had," said Tracy, "and every one had been destroyed. All these dogs that we thought were safe in their owner’s homes had been killed. Every day animals are killed at shelters, but these were ones we could have adopted!"
"We did some checking," adds Burt, "and learned no one was saving these dogs. So Tracy and I discussed it and decided we could take in a few more dogs. Maybe we could handle five… maybe even ten Great Danes. So we started rescuing more of them."
"The majority of the dogs come from owners who love and adore them and cry when they have to give them up," Tracy explains. "And every now and then one gets lost and ends up in a shelter. Or they get hit by a car and they’re found a month later needing thousands of dollars of operations. We don’t pick and choose them. So we said if we’re going to rescue the Great Danes, we’re going to rescue the Great Danes! If it needs a $10,000 operation it’s as wonderful as the one that needs nothing. And we started taking them all."
Tracy used to rely on the shelters and volunteers to call her when a Great Dane was brought in. Now she uses websites like petbond.com, because it has photos of dogs at the shelters. "I can look at pictures and tell which ones are true Great Danes. If I see one is available, I immediately call about it and get it out of the shelter before anything can happen to it."
Holy House Full of Dogs
"We felt if we’re going to do something… let’s do it right," adds Burt. "It kept growing and growing. And it’s still growing today."
Since they began their Great Dane Adoptions and Rescue, Burt and Tracy have rescued and placed about 3,000 dogs, averaging 500 a year, with 50 or more living with them at all times. "Once we had 150 that were full size, but many of them were still babies. (Great Danes are considered puppies until age 3; full sized at about 2 years.) Plus we had 5 or 6 litters totaling 61 puppies under 6 weeks of age, so the total was over 200. Tracy was feeding every litter every hour and getting no sleep. Even though the mother was there, if you leave her unsupervised, she may accidentally step on one and kill it. So Tracy was right there adjusting and re-adjusting the mom, making life good for the pups."
"The most dangerous thing about having all these dogs occurs at night… trying to get to the bathroom without tripping and breaking our necks. We probably have 25-30 dogs sleeping around our bed, so we have to move very carefully."
Holy Household Budget
"8 palettes of food are delivered here a week, and we feed a thousand pounds of food each day. Picture what it takes to just move, pour, feed and clean up 1,000 pounds of food each day. That’s about 35 forty-lb bags. It’s a significant expense. Occasionally we get help from food companies, but it’s sporadic."
They’ve just become a non-profit agency that will enable them to accept donations. But despite their average $400 adoption fee, "when the smoke clears, we end up losing about $100,000 each year."
"Our vet fees are also significant," Burt continues. "We have 3 vets that are practically full time, plus a whole battery of specialists. Our guest-house sometimes serves as a surgical suite and recovery room for the dogs. But we feel we have the best care available for Great Danes."
The dogs live communally, without any cages. And they’re all house dogs. The property has two huge, climate-controlled, insulated playhouses with air conditioning, heating and porches. The dogs have the run of the entire property through a system of doggie doors. There are also areas that can be closed off for puppies or dangerous dogs which Burt, himself, trains.
"In addition to the dogs we found homes for," Tracy adds, "I’ve probably helped, just this year, another 100 people keep their dogs. People who got divorced or had to move into an apartment and didn’t think they could keep their dog."
"Most apartment managers don’t know that Great Danes are the number one apartment dogs in most cities. So I would call them and tell them how their whole complex is safer for having them. Unlike the average working and sporting breed that is a more hyper dog," she continues, "the Great Dane is a true companion dog. His whole life is for his owner. When you’re not with him, he goes to sleep. They’re not chewers, barkers, or diggers and they will NOT damage things in your house. And if there IS a Great Dane in your apartment complex, most people don’t even know which unit it’s in. (In fact, once I was inside the Ward’s house, not a bark or whimper was heard from any of the animals in the house or on the complex.) And contrary to popular belief, it’s not cruel at all to have a Great Dane in a 1-bedroom apartment."
Holy Great Dane Myths
Although most articles about Great Danes claim they live only 6-8 years, Tracy says they are quoting breeders. "We have them living 14 to 18 years, as long as they’re spayed or neutered early. Before 6 months it’s too dangerous for a Great Dane. So right after 6 months they’re spayed or neutered, which doubles or triples their life."
Another myth is that they have bad hearts because their bodies are so big and their hearts are small. "Completely untrue," says Tracy. "Of the 3,000 Great Danes we’ve rescued, only 3 had heart problems. And I believe it was directly linked to their situation in the weeks before they were given up. A dog that had been an inside pet was left outside in the hot sun. Great Danes have no insulation- they have the hair and skin of a Chihuahua, and if left outside in the heat they can die from heatstroke or get skin cancer."
A lot of people are also concerned they’ll get hip dysplasia because they are such a large breed. Tracy has never had one with that condition and feels it’s not really something to be concerned about.
"They are gentle giants. They’re exceptionally good with children, dogs, cats and other animals. And despite their size, they are house dogs."
Holy Personal Pets
In addition to their constant 50 plus rescues and the previously mentioned dogs, they also have 4 horses, 7 cats and a bird. "Everyone is taught to get along with everyone else. People know when they get a dog from me it will be good with all other animals and kids." This includes their 9-year old daughter Melody, who loves living with all the dogs "because it’s like having a lot of playmates."
Each of the Wards has their own Great Dane. Melody has a year old Harlequin named Galaxy, "because of the hundreds of little black spots all over her, like a galaxy of stars. She was first adopted to people who wanted to crop her ears," explains Melody, "but my mother wouldn’t do that. So they didn’t keep the dog. We tried to find a home for her, but after a while she became my dog."
Tracy’s Dane is a black marbled, blind Harlequin named Miracle. "He’s probably one of the most self-sufficient beings on this earth, and he’s the most incredible dog in the world. I was originally his seeing-eye person and now we learn a lot from each other. He knows our whole property inside and out and hangs out in the middle of all the other dogs."
Burt has two Danes: Apollo, their second rescue, is about 6’7, 170 pounds. And Avalanche is 3 inches larger than the largest dog in the world according to The Guiness Book of Records. "On his hind legs he’s 7’1 and weighs 285 pounds," Burt says. "He’s a lap dog. He’ll sit on anyone’s lap. But when he does, no one can ever get up."
Holy Great Adoption Policy
"When someone adopts a Great Dane from us, for the rest of the dog’s life they can call us 24 hours, 7 days a week with any problem. Each dog has a tag with OUR phone number on it, and is entered into our computer system. If the dog gets out and is found, we’re called and can usually reunite dog and master within an hour."
Owners who adopt one Great Dane from the Wards can adopt additional dogs for just the cost of spaying and neutering and shots.
"If anything ever happens to a dog adopted from us," Tracy adds, "we would hope they could afford to pay for it. They’re probably in as good a position as we are. But we always tell them no matter what, if you can’t afford it, we’ll pay for it. And we have. We never let our dogs die, no matter what."
Burt still dabbles in acting, occasionally appearing in sitcoms and TV movies. "I’d certainly like to do more," he admits. Mostly he keeps busy with Logical Figments, a special effects film animation company he runs with Tracy. He’s currently working on a TV movie (due out this fall) called Danny and Max for which he’s making a chimpanzee speak.
Logical Figments also published Burt’s risqué, behind-the-scenes tell-all book, Boy Wonder, My Life In Tights, (c.1995) available at major bookstores. They’re also creating a Great Dane calendar book that will include pet care tips and all the essential facts Tracy has learned that’s not found in most books.
In the end, everything revolves around the dog. "Animals bring pleasure to people and balance their lives with a certain kind of reality," says Burt. "When you care for a volume of animals, you see a lot of things that are sometimes hard to take. And you realize how precious life really is. Life is the most precious commodity in the world. Human life AND animal life."
Burt Ward really hasn’t changed that much. Together with his wife Tracy, they give new meaning to that cult term- Superhero.
(Look for Burt, Tracy, and their Great Danes on Animal Planet’s Pet Stories, airing at 4pm on August 4th and September 18th. They’ll also be on the PBS series Woof, It’s A Dog’s Life sometime in September. For more information about their adoption and rescue program, call 909-279-5100)
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
pet lovers in the Los Angeles area. The mission of The Pet Press is three-fold:
Each issue of The Pet Press contains the following sections: