Like many, Rebecca’s childhood was riddled with dysfunction. She poetically labels it, “Other People’s Party;” in other words, you really don’t get to choose the location, guests, theme or even food; you are merely a participant in someone else’s reality.
Ironically this is the very thing I respect most about her because you would never know it. According to Rebecca, it has helped her shape her sense of compassion and given her the talent to recognize vulnerability in the darkest places; setting the stage for what was to come.
“You see this a lot when you are working with animals”
Rooted in solutions, she is always looking for the answer to life’s greatest questions.
Although she harbors conflicting feelings about people, she is motivated to inspire them and ignite their compassion.
“I believe in people but at the same time I despise them.”
What does she mean? What has created this dichotomy?
At first sight, Rebecca is a beautiful person, inside and out, who has accomplished more than you can imagine. Of course, you don’t notice the hidden cracks that have at times crushed her very soul. However, that very same pain has helped to mold an extremely powerful woman and warrior for the animals.
As a child, she noticed animals would gravitate towards her, recognizing their vulnerability, living at the mercy of the people around them. At 7 years old, she witnessed her mother drive past a dog who had been abandoned along the freeway, suffering and forgotten. Her mother agonized over the sight of this but at the same time felt completely helpless, with no solution to offer. Rebecca vowed to never be like that. To never be helpless or hopeless. To believe there was always a solution.
In 1988, at the age of twenty-one, she married a member of the U.S. Navy and moved to Guam, a U.S. island territory, 32 miles long by approx. 8.5 miles wide in Micronesia with a population of about 200,000 people.
Although Guam is considered an expansion of the U.S. as per the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the laws and standards of animal care and animal rights in the late ’80s was not. For Rebecca, this was her own personal hell. There were packs of dogs everywhere, injured, starving, and dying in the streets. She couldn’t understand why no one was doing anything about this.
In 1989, with no experience at all, she decided to start an animal welfare organization and called it Guam Animals In Need (GAIN). She began writing organizations for help. One of the first responses was from PeTA who sent a package to her in response to her request. This exposed her to things she had never seen before. She had always been a champion for companion animals but didn’t really know about farmed animals and the agricultural industry’s practices. She immediately put the pieces together and became a vegetarian, which she maintained for a long time.
“Looking back, I have a tremendous amount of guilt about not adopting a fully plant-based diet, earlier in my life”
The only animal shelter on Guam was in terrible shape, with outdated practices and archaic equipment. Certain her new group could help; she and a veterinarian took a trip to the shelter and found that the animals were not being properly looked after or even fed. All the horrific things she saw would haunt her.
“Why don’t you let us help you, but they didn’t want us there.”
An Act of Congress!
Making a kind appeal didn’t work. She was military, an outsider, not a local, and wasn’t welcomed. “It literally took a Senator to interject so we could start a volunteer program at the shelter,” she said. Following her presentation to the government committee that oversaw The Department of Public Health which oversaw the animal shelter, Senator Madeleine Bordallo told the shelter representative “Go back and tell the head of the Department of Public Health they need to find a way to work with these nice people, or I will turn it into a law and cram it down your throat.” Those words burned into her heart and shortly after, Guam Animals In Need entered into a memorandum of association with the Department of Public Health, allowing them to operate a volunteer program at the shelter.
She spent her first day helping with feeding, cleaning kennels, and taking care of the animals. Later in the day, she was approached by a staff member who looked at Rebecca with heavy eyes and said, “We need to euthanize.” There were 35 dogs that needed to be euthanized that one day. Rebecca had never taken a life before, and she certainly wasn’t certified or trained to do so. She was terrified but determined to stand within the commitment she made. It turned out to be a soul-changing moment.
“I will never again be the same person I was, one second ago”
After witnessing firsthand how euthanasia was performed, she said “F#$K THIS”. As far as she was concerned this was never going to happen this way again. She frantically researched “standard practice” and what supplies were needed. She was horrified and vowed to make changes. After ordering the needed supplies, she had to literally threaten the rest of the staff to stop what they were doing until the supplies arrived.
“I will call the media and allow them to witness what you are doing here”
The early working relationships between the GAIN volunteers and the government shelter workers were bumpy but soon the shelter staff realized that Rebecca was fighting for them as well; their lives, their jobs, their self-worth. The fundraising programs associated with the shelter were another problem. Rebecca had to raise hell about the money that should have been going to the shelter and staff but instead was being siphoned off to other unrelated programs. The staff began to see that she was on their side. She had connected with them in ways none of them expected.
On her final day she pulled up to the shelter with a heavy heart; she sat in her car in the parking lot, joyfully watching the staff caring for the animals as she taught them. By the end, they knew that she was their champion and loved each of them. They weren’t just “dirtbag dog catchers” as they were known. They had all formed a bond because they knew that Rebecca added value to their lives and the lives of the dogs and cats in their care. And in the suffering, they shared a connection in a very special way. “People need to be validated and celebrated. They realized that to help an animal means you’re strong — a warrior in fact — when you protect those who are weaker than you.”
“I finally did something right”, she said, leaving the Humane Society behind; they are still going strong. GAIN actually runs Animal Control now and the shelter, and they are the go-to group in the region.
Because of her initiatives, actions, and compassion on Guam, she has inspired others to form additional animal rescue organizations, and dogs and cats are now, on the island of Guam, perceived differently than they were 30 years ago.
In 1991 Rebecca left Guam, ended her marriage, and took a job as the Animal Care Supervisor at The Oregon Humane Society in Portland, Oregon.
Now supervising the intake of more than 20,000 animals a year and about 20 staff members and volunteers, she was tasked with overseeing the euthanasia program and the entire organization. In Guam, she selected the animals to be euthanized as well as performed the procedures herself. Now her job in Portland was to choose the animals for euthanasia and then turn the paperwork and procedures over to the animal care technicians, who would, in turn, euthanize the animals.
For her, this was harder and caused more despair. Assigning this to another human was more difficult, realizing firsthand the heaviness she was passing along to her staff. “Euthanasia had been the accepted ‘solution’ to a surplus of animals. We often heard that we must euthanize the few to save the many,” she added.
The Shattering Moment
When the Oregon Humane Society celebrated its anniversary, she was asked to write a commemorative piece on what her department had accomplished. When she looked at the staggering number of dogs, cats and rabbits euthanized; a number which was used as a tool to shame people, she realized that taking part in this celebration was a joke. Devastated to think that she was a part of something that was still supporting a broken system fractured her beyond repair. When she saw the thousands of documents she had signed “PTS” (Put To Sleep), over the time she had worked at the shelter, in that moment, her world came crashing down. She became ineffective in her work and simply could not support killing animals anymore. Rebecca finally saw it for the broken system it was from within.
“We are such a capable species. We can and should do better.”
After self-sabotaging her job when she couldn’t go along any longer, she was let go for helping a puppy who became sick after he was adopted, having contracted parvo at the shelter.
In one final attempt to make a difference, she pitched a research paper to find a solution for the root cause of companion animal overpopulation. This resulted in a job offer as a program manager with the Bosack-Kruger Foundation where she helped animal shelters in rural communities, improve their practices. Unfortunately, the job soon required a relocation, something Rebecca couldn’t do at the time, so she reluctantly stepped away from the position.
Originally stepping into animal welfare with visions of hope and change, in 1996 she finally walked away.
A New Beginning
Distraught and burnt out, a friend suggested a distraction. “Let’s take a film-acting class on the side.” Rebecca agreed and joined a Portland acting school operated by Loren Bivens. She was really enjoying this. It was an escape from all the dreaded reality she had been a part of for the past 7 years. After studying for a year, she secured an agent and began booking jobs. She landed gigs with Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Toys R Us, as well as a national Southwest Airlines Commercial, to name a few.
One year in she wanted to try her hand at screenwriting and directing her own film. She buckled down and wrote her first screenplay, “Coming Up Easy”, a raw script reflective of her life and struggles. The film consequently won best feature at The Reel Women International Film Festival in LA in 2005, more on this later. Rebecca immediately decided to become a director. When she returned to school and shared the screenplay and her newfound aspirations with the class, they responded with, “Stay here and practice directing, and we will continue acting.”
That worked well for everyone! She was ready to explore all the world of film had to offer her.
She began by traveling to the Sundance Film Festival for 10 days. Her stay was meant to immerse herself in the film festival world and decide how she would enter it. She decided to make a short film. One of two of the ideas Rebecca had been working on was a 7 min short film titled Floater – a date gone wrong.
She called friends Todd Korgen and Randall Timmerman. “You need to crew up,” they said, a term in the film world meaning, get a film crew together.
She was excited about the prospect of shooting on 35mm; she was even more determined to shoot both Floater and another script she had been working on titled Soul Collectors.
Her goal was to shoot both short films in a single weekend and take on many of the staff roles herself. Director, Caterer, Producer; her enthusiasm was overflowing, and she was determined to get it done. According to Rebecca, the weekend was bananas; but she did it.
Her next goal was to enter the Seattle International Film Festival. She cranked the films out and submitted them after receiving a deadline extension. Soul Collectors was accepted to premiere at the film festival — a rare opportunity for such a new director. On the same day, she also received a call from a man who was the director of the new Short Film Division from Universal. “I want to option your film; do you have anything else?” He optioned both films before they screened. Not typical, but a testament to Rebecca’s talent and tenacity. The films premiered at The Philadelphia Film Festival, The Palm Springs Film Festival, Japan’s Short Film Festival, and she was flown to Singapore to be included in their International Short Film Festival. It also aired on Showtime and The SyFy Network. The audience’s reaction was overwhelmingly accepting. Needless to say, this was the beginning of a long-overdue healing process.
Having had a challenging childhood and being on her own since 15, Rebecca had always struggled with self-esteem. At 19, she realized that she was under-educated and worried that she would never be good at anything. Now as an adult, she was finally receiving confirmation that she possessed an ability to create something tangible that would inspire others. But because she was someone who took responsibility seriously, she still questioned herself, “Maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was the crew who carried me,” she thought. Putting her fears and doubts aside she was determined and motivated to march forward.
Her next screenplay was titled Blind Mice. This time, she was going to approach a project with a clear head; she decided to stand in her power as a director and hire out the other production roles. Blind Mice is a film that addresses the taboo subject of sexual violence towards men.
When she submitted it to the film festivals, they admitted they had no existing program for this raw and violent content. However, Rebecca saw to it that it showed at the Longbaugh Film Festival in Portland Oregon.
As she sat in the audience and listened to others discuss the film, she recognized the impact it was making on the viewers. The realization that sexual violence towards women had become so acceptable that the idea of a man being raped was simply unfathomable, even to filmgoers who did not believe their own eyes. On a more positive note, Tom Pollack, a career studio executive, chairman of the American Film Institute, and former head of Universal likened Blind Mice to a Hitchcock movie. It was the ultimate seal of approval she was looking for.
It was at this time that she dusted off that original screenplay that had inspired her to be a director back in acting school. Coming Up Easy was a raw and honest film and won Best feature at The Reel Woman International Film Festival in LA in 2005. Exercising the perfect combination of medium and subject, she was now using her talents to not only entertain but as a cathartic exercise to heal herself. This film never got a distribution deal although a higher compliment was when it was chosen by the supervisor of a government-funded domestic abuse and child endangerment treatment program, to be used as an integral part of the rehabilitation program that domestic abusers were mandated to complete.
This was quite the accomplishment! Now she was in charge of her own destiny, rewarded with the knowledge that her work could transform her pain into healing for others.
Still a Broken System
Although an absolute lover of animals, she still hadn’t included them as subjects in her film work. She had still been fostering, rescuing, and helping animals but needed to maintain personal boundaries for herself as she was still harboring deep emotional wounds from her humane society work.
Knowing from within that animal organizations were always struggling to raise money for capital campaigns, for things like new buildings, shelters or kennels, and supplies,
she set out to make a series similar to Extreme Makeover, but for animal shelters.
Hesitant to re-enter that world, she sat on this for over a year. While working on various projects that intentionally had nothing to do with animals, she knew they were always her motivation.
“Why don’t I use my skills to help solve some of the problems that animals are facing.”
2011 to 2013
She decided to move forward with her Extreme Animal Shelter Makeover concept and called it Animal House.
It took many months to promote this idea on social media in order to get the support and followers needed. She posted ideas, images, and stories to rally the troops. At 100,000 followers she released a sizzle reel. The next step was to raise money for it, create an invitation for organizations to apply, create a shortlist, and finally choose an animal shelter location for the pilot.
Picking one was difficult. They all had merit, and they all desperately needed help.
Her vision for the show was solid, so she chose a location. A shelter in Othello, Oregon had burned down, and the staff and animals were left with nothing. The shelter being local was logistically perfect. Traveling was affordable and signing on local sponsors was realistic.
“This was the hardest thing I had ever done,” she said about the re-build. There were so many moving parts and players, but they did it, and it was monumental for many reasons.
They completed the shelter with over 157,000 followers and a staff of 200 volunteers coming together: liberals, farmers, ranchers, contractors, etc., they had all come together for the animals.
In November of 2013 as luck would have it, a New York reality show editor Rebecca knew had an executive contact at one of the major cable networks. In preparation for this meeting, they formed a partnership with a broker and were prepared to work with the network. When Rebecca pitched the series, she was rejected; the executive said the show was fantastic, but the network at this time was going in a different direction.
Not too long after that rejection, the network announced a future show. A cheap version of what Rebecca’s production company had pitched was set to air as part of their new lineup. There went the relationship with the broker, the partnership, and the series, along with all the good work they could have done for animals. Six episodes in, the network canceled the series. They had had problems getting sponsorships. Funny that Rebecca had over 100 sponsors including Home Depot, Costco, Tractor Supply Co, and more. She was advised to not file suit, which she would have won, due to reputation damage in the industry. She decided to look to the long term and took her lawyer’s advice.
What she did have was all the behind-the-scenes footage and all the work that had been done. This is now being turned into a documentary titled Rescue Road. She believes deeply the story that lies within is the golden nugget from all that transpired; a coming together for animals in a time of division is a beautiful takeaway.
It’s Time for the Future
While Rebecca and production partner Alycia Barlow were working on the Animal House project, a passionate animal lover and vegan advocate named Tracey Kleber was observing on social media sidelines, watching the mini-films that Rebecca would create and post to gain traction and interest.
One of the Othello Shelter dogs named Abby was brought in with a big male shepherd. Due to circumstances, they were separated, and Abby was later scheduled to go to the Coyote Ridge prison program, a three-month program that helped rehabilitate prisoners by providing them with canine companions. Rebecca would film the story. Abby had been bonded with the shepherd and separating them pained everyone at the shelter. After three months had, Abby returned to the shelter and was adopted to a very nice couple who lived in Oregon City in a beautiful home on 14 acres. Soon thereafter the couple had called Rebecca and said Abby needed a companion. Rebecca called Othello and requested recommendations.
In a spark of magical serendipity, the shepherd was being returned on that very day. Their reunion was very emotional. The entire trip was recorded with Rebecca’s dashboard camera, and when the dogs finally reunited, it made for some of the most heartfelt footage Rebecca had ever witnessed. It was an explosive moment between two dogs that loved each other and were destined to be together. After the film was posted online, it quickly went viral and to date has garnered more than 1.2 million views.
Rebecca has traveled worldwide to help animals. Her international efforts have brought her all kinds of notoriety and attention, both good and bad. She has found herself to be a target of jealousy, hatred, and greed at times. Again, using her talents and resources to bring attention to much-needed subjects, she is now producing a documentary titled Pushing Water, about the animal rights and animal welfare arena and how people are leaving because of the harassment and bullying occurring from within.
“We are not supposed to be tearing each other down! Do you think there are so many of us fighting for animals and willing to bring it all to the table that we can afford to lose even one? What are we thinking? ” she laments.
She cites a story about a veterinarian who committed suicide, an activist who took their own life. “There are lives that are being shattered by this. We all work so hard, and we try and accomplish things that other people shy away from, and we are being attacked,” she added.
Cook Vegan for Me
Coming out of Animal House cemented the idea of using this medium to inspire change. She had been looking to create and provide more animal-related content. Not only about companion animals but for the animal rights community as well. Becoming vegan in 2013, she felt that the animal welfare community and their love of companion animals could extend their compassion and love to farmed animals if she could create content to educate and inspire them. This opened up a new set of questions.
“It comes down to creating bridges. Providing that opportunity to expand on one’s sense of connection,” she said.
In 2016 Rebecca along with Tracey Kleber formed Animal Time, LLC, a film production company aiming to create content that will help make the world a better place for animals. They began working on several properties: Cook Vegan For Me, a vegan cooking, lifestyle, and travel show, being developed for TV, and documentaries Rescue Road, Pushing Water as well as The Perfect Hunt, which follows a family who documents a vegan take on shooting wildlife; with cameras and not guns while enjoying amazing vegan food, cooked on a campsite.
Director, Writer, Animal Rights Activist, Philanthropist, and Entrepreneur; Rebecca Rodriguez is just getting started. She has merely scratched the surface of her potential. This process has been inspiring, one that continues to motivate me to write future tributes to the many true heroes in the Animal Rights movement.
I for one am excited to see what is in store. STAY TUNED!