Girl on fire to save animals

Dragonfly, three legged pit bull puppy, with Riley Hardison at Pet Smart adoption event.
Dragonfly, three legged pit bull puppy, with Riley Hardison at Pet Smart adoption event. Submitted Photo

Riley Hardison can barely control her enthusiastic passion. The love oozes from her every pore as this teen on a mission talks about the animals she has saved and those she aims to save. A volunteer with Animal Compassion Team (ACT) of Fresno since early 2016, she and her mother, Rebecca, (a YHS teacher) have fostered 91 dogs, finding homes for all but two.

“Our first foster dog was a Pitbull named Petey,” Riley recalled. “I love Pitbulls, they’re my favorite breed, but they have a terrible rep. Petey had been at our shelter for five months before we fostered him. He was found on the side of the road, with his back leg snapped in half after a car ran him over.”

Petey was part of the Hardison household for little more than four months before he was placed in his forever home, and Riley, who keeps tabs on how he’s adjusting, said he’s doing great.

Riley, 14 and a Yosemite High freshman is a top ACT volunteer, placing more dogs in forever homes than any other volunteer.

She not only lists the dogs on ACT’s website, but every Saturday, you can find her at Riverpark in Fresno, faithful in her involvement with PetSmart adoptions. Then there’s her weekday routine of getting up at dawn before heading off to school to clean and care for the 12 dogs (a combination of seven fosters and five of her own) and two foster kittens.

“Fresno has one of the highest kill rates in the entire country.,” Riley said. “We’re getting animals spayed and neutered, getting them micro-chipped, and flea and tick treated. When we take a dog to foster, we give the animal love, and then the shelter has space to take in another dog, so it’s like we’re saving two lives.”

“I love being involved with ACT,” Riley added. “Everyone needs to feel like they’re part of something. I’m terrible at sports, but I love dogs with a passion. There’s just something about them. They don’t judge you, and to save a life is amazing. To talk to someone over the phone and then to wind up giving that person a dog or puppy is so rewarding. I’m a part of that dog’s life and that person’s life ... giving the dog a forever home and the person a forever friend.”

Even though Riley has always been an animal lover, she caught the fever while an eighth grader at Raymond Elementary, thanks to a community service project. Riley never looked back. Her community service transitioned to caring for and bottle feeding ill dogs, taking in handfuls of puppies tied to a homeless man’s cart, feeding, loving, and finding good homes for countless dogs under her care. Some she admits were foster fails because she couldn’t help but fall in love, and the forever home turned out to be hers.

Then there are those dogs, walked daily on the mile-long grassy area, who have lived at the shelter for years. The larger breed dogs are in huge crates with sprinklers and shading during the hotter months, and heating pads and bedding in the cold of winter. The smaller dogs are inside a large space, and the cats are free to roam in a separate enclosed room.

Even though these animals get plenty of love and attention from volunteers, Riley would like each and every one to find a forever home.

“I wish that people would give older dogs a chance because they have a lot of love to give,” Riley said. “There are some dogs who may show some aggression (because they may be scared), but in the right home and with the right patience, I believe every dog can be placed.”

Riley is fortunate enough to have a very understanding mother, one she calls “a blessing” for allowing her to bring dogs home to foster, paying for pet food, helping out with the animals, and driving her to PetSmart in Fresno every Saturday.

And Rebecca finds her daughter’s devotion and dedication equally remarkable.

“It’s incredibly rare to know a young woman who is so determined and who is so focused on something bigger than herself,” Rebecca said. “Riley spends hours each day loving and caring for the foster dogs in our home, making calls to prospective adopters, following up with dogs already placed in homes, scheduling vet appointments, and working on obedience training for her future therapy dog. She uses social media to advocate for the dogs and for ACT as well as to encourage other foster parents. She works every weekend at adoption events in Fresno. It is such a blessing to be part of this process and to support her in her efforts.”

Given her love of animals, especially dogs, the obvious question comes to mind: is veterinary school in Riley’s future?

“I don’t want to be vet,” Riley said emphatically. “I wouldn’t want to put a dog down. But I do want to give people dogs. My dream job would be working with the Fresno Humane Animal Services in off-site adoptions (like PetSmart), cleaning cages and giving vaccinations.”

With so many fosters flowing in and out of her life, Riley has learned to condition herself not to become too attached, and crosses her fingers each and every Saturday that these animals will find good homes. Just last week, she adopted out six dogs, which gave her space to bring four more in.

“You won’t regret volunteering with animals,” Riley said, “but you have to be willing to get dirty. It’s all so worth it, and you will fall in love with certain dogs. You will also make new friends in the dog world community, friends you will also love, like Joyce Brandon and Amanda Allen, who are my role models.”

According to Brandon, ACT co-founder/director, Riley and Rebecca have made a huge difference, having saved close to 100 dogs. “Riley is part of a new generation that gives me hope that the future of animal welfare will be much brighter than the past.”

In the 10 Top Reasons to Foster, it reads: When people say ‘I could never foster because it would be too hard to give them up,’ we say ‘How could that be harder than knowing an animal died because no foster stepped up.’

In steps Riley, with her radiant smile and arms outstretched wide enough to encircle animal after animal, ensuring each feels special and loved.

“Riley is a lifesaver. She’s on fire to save as many lives as possible,” Allen said. “She and her mom open their hearts and home to temporarily foster animals until a forever home can be secured.”

“Riley has such an unbelievable gift with the dogs themselves - gaining their trust and loving them where they are,” Rebecca added. “We have both learned so much about the dogs, about ourselves, and what a gift it is to find the right home for each pup.”

ACT, a no kill rescue that takes in animals from kill shelters or other rescues, is located at 2789 S. Orange Ave in Fresno, (559) 299-6364; email: The organization is only open Saturday and Sunday, or by appointment on weekdays. Dog and puppy adoption fees are $185, while cat and kitten fees are $65.