Zach Skow is the ultimate example of taking the darkest of situations and turning them into a bright flame that changes the path for all in its light. When Zach’s organs began to fail at the age of 28, it was his rescue dog Marley who pulled him from the depths of his hardship and taught him a new way to live. Zach believes in the healing power of connecting with animals and has found that through utilizing the loving nature of dogs as a tool for therapy, positive change can be ignited, even in the coldest of circumstances. From inmates to addicts, disabled children to people with depression, animals have the ability to open a door to communication, connection, and understanding. That is his mission at Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue in California.
Jamie Agoglia: How did Marley’s Mutts start?
Zach Skow: I started working with the Humane Society locally in 2004. During that time, I drank and drugged myself into liver failure at 28 years old in 2008, andI was essentially dying. I had less than 90 days to live without getting a liver transplant and I knew I wasn’t going to get it because I was an alcoholic. So I spent 6 weeks in the hospital, got transferred to another hospital, and then was released pretty much on the basis of “we’re going to send you home, try to stay alive for 6 months so that you’ll qualify for a transplant. That’s your goal.” And I had never lived sober in my life. So there were a lot of really, really big challenges there. One being suicide, and then all of the things I was going through physically; everything that comes with being extremely, extremely ill. It was just a very tenuous, very deadly scenario. When I got out of the hospital, I started walking my rescue dog, Marley, just kind of putting one step in front of the other, trying to find any connection to the moment. Marley really helped me with that, and helped me learn to tolerate life on life’s terms. I was terrible at being me. I didn’t know how to be alive without alcohol or drugs; it was a huge challenge. Marley really showed me the way. I had him with me at all times. We started bringing more dogs into our pack, fostering them, started writing up stories about them and taking pictures in efforts of getting them adopted, eventually taking them on group walks once I started to heal up. And I really was making progress quickly. That set the tempo for the rest of my life. By the time I was six months sober and qualified for the transplant, I no longer needed it. My body was healing itself. I had also fostered about 40 dogs and found them all homes during that time, and Marley’s Mutts was really born out of that. From there it just never stopped, we kept fostering and volunteering at more shelters. We started Marley’s Mutts in 2009 and in 2010, we became a non-profit organization. It just keeps going, it all kept organically growing from that. It saved my life.
How would you describe the mission behind Marley’s Mutts?
The mission of the organization as a whole is several things. Our mission is to help the world become “no kill.” In other words, to live in a world where no shelter animals are euthanized, where animals are honored and where we don’t put them to death because of space or behavioral problems. On a grander level, our feeling is that dogs are medicine, and were trying to bring that medicine to the lives of people who need it. One of our statements is “rescue dogs rescuing people.” We basically focus on rescuing vulnerable, at-risk dogs from high-kill shelters and giving them another chance at life and we do that through a variety of programs.
What kinds of programs do you run?
We have a transport program, we have a really robust spay and neuter program, and we have a really big education and therapy program called Miracle Mutts. Miracle Mutts is a couple dozen therapy dogs that we’ve certified over the years that travel to different non-profit organizations all over Los Angeles county. Going to veterans homes, facilities for autistic youth or mentally and physically handicapped youth, foster youth, and really anywhere that dogs can make a difference.
Tell me about the Pawstive Change program, which integrates animal therapy into the California prison system and how it started.
A person I know got out of prison after serving 13 years, and his mother reached out to me to set him with a dog I was fostering at the time that had been shot. So he and his mom came up to my house and he was like a feral human being, having been locked up for 13 years. He was a little bit younger than me, I was 33 and he was 30 and he just became like a little brother to me. We ended up adopting Shadow to him and what that dog was able to do for him really revolutionize how he approached life. Having Shadow really helped him face some things that come with being locked up for so long. He was very uncomfortable talking to people, wouldn’t make eye contact. By having Shadow with him, it encouraged him to engage with people and connect with people, and it really started bringing the best out of him because that’s what animals do. He ended up getting hired at an animal shelter in Oklahoma. And we saw the power of how much Shadow made a positive impact his life, and we started to brainstorm on that. We tried to start a program at our local jail and a couple other places but kept hitting road blocks, and we had no idea what we were doing either. Three and a half years ago we finally got a program started at California City Correctional Facility after they reached out to us. We run our Pawsitive Change program differently than how other similar types of programs do it. It’s an immersive program, an extensive curriculum with a lot of presentations, and it’s essentially 13 hours a day of training. We have our whole training staff in there once a week with them, it’s very hands on. It’s initiating positive interaction between inmates and between races. Each element of the program has an empathy and honesty building components. It builds trust, builds connections, and gives these guys something that makes them smile again. You should see it, they head way into their own emotional identities and just bloom. They’ve been repressed for so long, so for them to find their voice is really a beautiful thing.
What have you learned about human connection through the years of doing this life changing work?
I’ve learned that there is more potential inside of the United States penal system that probably anywhere else in the world. We have three million locked up men, women, and children in the U.S., and those people are devoid of any real, meaningful connections. What I’ve learned is the importance of helping people make those connections, and the importance of helping them know themselves and tap into their potential. I’ve also learned that we need to readdress what we view as normal when it comes to animals and pets. Life is a struggle, and all of us go through different hardships. At first glance, most people can overlook an animal who has been through rough times, just like how we can overlook a person who’s in a hard place. We need to take a close look and redefine the preconceived notions of “normal” and “happy” to be more inclusive of animals (and people) who don’t fit the current standard.