Jeff Sanderson has a seasonal job in the bagging department at the sugar factory in Nampa. He works temp jobs in the off-season. Most recently that’s been for a local auto auction, driving cars out for display before they go up for bid.
Still, he finds the time and dollars to take canine residents of the Canyon County Animal Shelter out for lunch at least a couple of times a week.
Sanderson drives. The dogs ride shotgun.
“I’m not in a place where I can spend $100 a week on burgers. So I get the value meals or I go to the store when there’s a sale on hotdogs,” said Sanderson. “They like hotdogs.”
He frequents local drive-ins. Sometimes he splurges on Goodwood Barbecue or Texas Roadhouse. Sometimes he’ll get a dog a “more natural” lunch — a ham-and-cheese sandwich from the Boise Co-op.
“Jeff’s got a golden heart with the dogs,” said Cathleen Catti. “It’s something that’s so amazing for them to get out of the shelter for a break.”
Catti heads the nonprofit Boise Bully Breed Rescue and Black Dog Rescue, both of which work with the Canyon County shelter to get often-overlooked dogs into permanent or foster homes. It was Catti who gave Sanderson the nickname “Hamburger Jeff.”
Sanderson, 46, started volunteering at the shelter last summer after the death of his dog Sadie, a 12 1/2-year-old Staffordshire terrier. She was struggling with hip problems and arthritis. Acupuncture, laser treatments and pain pills didn’t work; Sanderson had to have Sadie euthanized.
He needed something to take his mind off the loss. He went to the shelter and asked to volunteer. He quickly became a regular, walking dogs and more. When he pitched the idea of taking dogs out of the shelter on a rotating basis to play in the park and shake off some of the stress that comes from living in a crowded kennel where lights shine and dogs bark, staffers said yes.
One day, after Sanderson had been out with a shelter resident, he got hungry and decided to stop at Jack in the Box. He ended up eating a couple of bites then giving most of his meal to the dog.
“I can go for a burger any time. They can’t,” said Sanderson.
Stopping for burgers became a regular part of his outings with the dogs. Lunch out is also another chance for him to introduce them to potential adopters.
Sanderson loves all breeds but has a special affinity for pit bulls. Some people at the shelter call him “the pit whisperer.”
“I like to show everybody they’re a good breed, that what you hear in the news isn’t the whole story,” said Sanderson, referring to the dogs’ reputation — often out of step with reality — for being violent.
His volunteer work includes pre-adoption counseling so people know what it means to commit to a pet.
“I try to educate people that before they adopt any dog they should study the breed so they know what they’re getting and dogs don’t end up back at the shelter,” he said.
The shelter names all of its dogs. Pauly, a pit bull who came to the shelter as a stray in April, is one of Sanderson’s favorites. Pauly has a volleyball-sized head and the muscly stance of an old-time wrestler. He waits to eat his fries until Sanderson dips them in ranch dressing. Pauly will take a shred of ham from your fingers with the precision of a surgeon.
Pauly found a home and left the shelter on Tuesday. Sanderson sent him off right. They took a drive together for one last burger.
ALWAYS ABOUT THE ANIMALS
The Canyon County shelter, which had been run by the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office, became a private nonprofit in 2011.
“They have a skeleton staff,” said Catti. “They work really hard, but they don’t have the luxuries other shelters have. Volunteers are the lifeblood.”
About 650 people are registered as volunteers. About 125 are regulars. A core group of about 25, including Sanderson, go above and beyond to help the shelter, said Rena McKean, part-time volunteer coordinator.
Sanderson lives with his mom in Middleton. He wants to adopt his own dog, but first he needs to find a full-time job and get his own apartment, he said. He just got a letter from the sugar factory calling him back to work in September. No matter what his future holds, he’ll keep helping dogs find homes.
Anyone who meets Sanderson will likely start receiving text messages from him, complete with photos of shelter dogs: Kane, Gracie, Harley, Electra and others.
“With Jeff, it’s not about him. It’s not about his ego. It’s always about the animals,” said McKean.
“We have a lot of transitions here, animals coming and going. Jeff knows every one of them by name.”
Anna Webb: 377-6431