Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Lori Golden
After talking to Shelley Morrison I got the feeling that if Frank Capra were making It’s A Wonderful Life today, he would use Shelley as the model for his main character. “I love life,” she says, “and I have a lot of gratitude. There have been a lot of bumps in the road, but my sense of humor gets me through a lot.”
That bumpy road began 68 years ago in the South Bronx where Shelley Morrison was born, and continued on to Los Angeles when she moved here with her family at the age of 10. She still lives in the same apartment building her father owned and managed six decades ago, having promised her parents that she would always take care of it.
She’s had a long career playing character roles in feature films and television, and, at 22, became the youngest theatrical producer in Los Angeles. She appeared with Gregory Peck in the western MacKenna’s Gold, and co-starred with Sally Field as Sister Sixto on the TV series The Flying Nun. But perhaps her greatest claim to fame is the role she currently plays, Rosario, the salty El Salvadoran housekeeper of Karen Walker on the hit NBC comedy Will and Grace, where she is described as “the only one who can stand up to Karen and dole back as much abuse as she dishes out.”
Consistency could be Shelley Morrison’s middle name, given her family values, her storied career, her charitable nature, and especially her love of animals.
“I was always bringing home strays, mainly cats,” Shelley says. “I was a cat person until my husband and I got married (32 years ago). Then we began rescuing dogs… on the freeway, starving to death in Hollywood, even in our alley. We still have cats. But I would say since I was 10 years old I was collecting animals.”
“There were birds, too. A wonderful cockatiel landed in our apricot tree and I talked her down. She made a lot of sounds, and she would wake us up in the morning. We don’t know how old she was when we rescued her, but we had Carmen for a number of years until she had a stroke and died. That devastated me.”
“We also had a parakeet years ago that spoke, named Chico. My father used to swear in Turkish a lot. And Chico picked up some choice words. One afternoon the Rabbi and his wife were visiting us and there was little Chico in his cage saying, ‘hello, my name is Chico.’ And then he would add a Turkish phrase that meant ‘go screw yourself.’ The Rabbi, who was Sephardic, kept looking around saying in Spanish, ‘what’s this?’ My father was ready to cook that bird!”
The dogs that came into Shelley’s life were all very special. “We had one dog, Charley, who just crossed over on Labor Day weekend. I found him in our alley. He was truly an angel… a black Schnauzer-terrier mix with ears like The Flying Nun. When friends of ours would come over who were going through a difficult time, Charley would jump up on the couch with them and put his paw out as if to say, ‘give me your pain.’”
Two other rescue dogs that were very special to Shelley were Mumser and Shayna Punim, And she still has Katee, (see cover photo), who “we found starving to death in Hollywood when she was about 5 months old. She just turned 9. She has some chow in her as well as Swedish Lapphound, which are herders. When the kids come over Katee herds them all into the same room. She’s very gentle. She’s been battling anal cancer and has already had two surgeries. But now I cook her food and she’s doing great. She gives these wonderful snorts of pleasure, and she can also snore a blue streak, but it’s such a wonderful sound.”
Although Shelley has become quite a dog person, she still has a very special place in her heart for cats. “Cleo is our feral cat. We discovered her when she was about 6 months old at the end of our alley. Every day I would put down a dish of food and put it closer and closer to our backyard. Finally we got her in the backyard and I trapped her and took her to my vet. She was pregnant, so I had her aborted and fixed, but she wouldn’t come in the house. For a week I camped out in the backyard in a sleeping bag in a tent with her. Then we had our friend build a condo for her in the yard. She has her sleeping quarters, her feeding area and her bathroom. She has the run of the whole yard… but she will not come in the house. I’m the only one who can pick her up and massage her and cuddle her. If anyone else tries to do that, she hisses.”
Shelley has always been a supporter of animal causes, attending special functions, donating items to silent auctions, as well as helping out when her schedule permits at the Best Friends Super Adoption Festivals here in LA. Then a few years ago her husband, non-fiction writer Walter Dominquez, went to have his teeth cleaned. “This lovely lady, (dental hygienist Linda Baker,) told him about her organization called A.N.G.E.L.’s Day that she had started. My husband immediately said, ‘gosh. I think my wife would be interested in helping you out.’”
“A.N.G.E.L.’s Day (Animals Needing Generous Endowments of Love & Support) is a group of volunteers who help Senior citizens on fixed or low incomes with either low cost or no cost veterinary care. They volunteer to take the animals to the vet. If the senior is hospitalized, the volunteers take care of the animals, and they also assure the seniors that if anything happens to them their animal will have a good home.”
“For instance,” Shelley continues, “one of the seniors had broken her hip and a volunteer went twice a day for eight months to walk her dog. Right now the group is just based in Southern California (on the Westside) but we would love to start this up nationally. It’s all volunteer with approximately 30 people right now.”
Founder Linda Baker explains, “I am limited to what I can handle here in Culver City and nearby communities. (Currently A.N.G.E.L.’s Day offers assistance in Culver City, Mar Vista, Palms, Santa Monica, Venice, and Inglewood.) It takes a tremendous commitment, energy and enthusiasm to keep the program alive. The dream is to have other people in other cities and states who are committed to making this work in their communities.”
“I am basically a one woman show with volunteers, doing this in my home,” Linda continues. “We have no office space for helpers to answer phones, call vet offices, mail applications, coordinate volunteers, do fundraising, etc. I’m not complaining, but if there are people out there willing to put in the time and who are able to create funding to run their own outreach group, I am willing to assist them with how it can be done. The more people that find out about this project of helping low-income seniors with pets, the connection to make this happen will occur. But for right now, my greatest needs are for office space and grant writers experienced in writing grants for non-profit animal organizations.” (If you can help, call Linda at (310) 680-0798.)
Shelley Morrison has truly become an “angel” to Linda Baker’s A.N.G.E.L.’s Day organization. She is their honorary spokesperson and does her best to publicize the group whenever she can. “I played in a Celebrity Blackjack TV tournament,” explains Shelley, “and designated my winnings to go to A.N.G.E.L’s Day. I knew that win, lose, or draw, I would get a check for at least $10,000.00 to donate to my favorite charity. And, you know, we get a lot of SWAG. Well, I have stuff. I’ve been in the same house for 58 years. So I donate this SWAG to different charities- to A.N.G.E.L’s Day, Project Angel Food, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, etc, so they can use it to raise funds for their programs.”
Shelley loves to play blackjack, but says that she’s been reluctant to play the Poker tournaments. “But if they’re going to give money to charity, then, what the hell! I also enjoy watching Jeopardy. They’ve been pitching me to that show, but lately they’ve been using younger celebrities.”
Shelley and her husband follow the Native American traditions of the Lakota Sioux, who believe that everything and everyone is sacred, and that all parts of Mother Earth are to be protected and honored. That definitely applies to the way we treat animals.
“I think from a very, very early age, if children are aware of how animals are teachers… how much they give to us… how to take care of them… that spills over into relationships with people. There should really be a concerted effort in grammer schools to teach children how to care for animals. Stephen Sondheim had a wonderful show called Into The Woods. There’s a song in there that says, ‘be careful of things you say, children will listen. Be careful of things you do, children will see.’ My parents were like this. This is what I saw. This is what I heard. It’s to keep the continuity going. That’s why we’re very family oriented.”
“I get very upset with people who do not leash their dogs when they’re walking them,” Shelley continues. “Dogs are running into the street and getting killed. To the people who abandon animals, there are no words that I can say. These days I find MORE stray animals than I did when I was younger growing up here in LA, because people don’t spay and neuter their animals. That’s a responsibility.”
“Teach your children how to behave with animals. Adopt a pet. Don’t go buy one. PLEASE. That’s a sin. Let’s get these puppy mills out of business. And DON’T WEAR FUR! We’re not living in caveman times. There are so many synthetic materials that are warmer than fur. And for god sakes, don’t clone an animal!! That woman paid $50,000 to clone her cat. You can’t clone an animal’s soul. It was her right to do that, but if you know of anyone else who is thinking of doing the same thing, sit down with them and talk to them. Don’t play god.”
“If everybody who reads this article just did one thing… just one thing once a month, do you realize how cumulative that movement could be? Volunteer. Send some money. Write a letter. Once a month. That’s all. Just do something! Especially if they have children. Once that starts it becomes a lifelong commitment.”
Shelley Morrison takes her commitments very seriously… her commitments to her family, to her neighborhood, to her work, and to animals. Now if only we could clone a few more people like her…
(In addition to Will and Grace on NBC, Shelley Morrison can be heard as the voice of Mrs. Sanchez, a fat little fish in the animated film Shark Tale, coming soon on DVD.)
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:
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