Leader of the Pack 

Emmylou Harris provides a safe haven for dogs on ‘death row’

Soon after she adopted him from the Nashville Humane Association in 1991, Bonaparte became the legendary country singer’s constant companion on tour.

Bonaparte was a road dog.

“He loved people, loved travel, loved going backstage, loved the hotels, loved the bus,” recalls Emmylou Harris, seated in a chair in a homey sitting room at her house in Green Hills. Soon after she adopted him from the Nashville Humane Association in 1991, Bonaparte became the legendary country singer’s constant companion on tour. “He just had one of those personalities, totally low-maintenance,” she says. “Bonaparte was my special dog.”

The black cairn terrier helped Harris, who by that point had been touring regularly for over two decades, to finally learn to enjoy the places she was visiting. “I used to go on the road and just lie around in the hotel room,” she remembers. “I never ventured out except to get on the bus, do the gig and come back. Once I got a dog, I had to walk the dog. If you start walking, you start to discover where you are. It gets you out of yourself.”

When Bonaparte suddenly fell ill and passed away five years ago, Harris couldn’t bear to attempt replacing him as a travel buddy—so she channeled her deeply instilled love of animals into finding loyal companions for others instead. In 2004, she built a shelter and dog run in her wide-open backyard, fostering animals in a facility she dubbed Bonaparte’s Retreat.

At first, Harris took in dogs from the no-kill Humane Association. But soon she turned to Metro Animal Control, where if animals aren’t adopted they are eventually put down. More than 10,500 animals were euthanized at Metro between July 1, 2005, and July 30, 2006, a record high. “I felt that my facility was better off helping the dogs that had almost no chance,” she explains. “So I started taking three dogs at a time that were on ‘death row,’ so to speak.”

Building Bonaparte’s Retreat, Harris admits, “was feeding into a childhood fantasy. When I was about 10, I wanted to live in a great big house and take in all the strays in the neighborhood.”

Harris’ love for animals was instilled by her pet-loving parents during her youth in North Carolina and Virginia. After Harris’ father died in 1993, her mother, Eugenia, came to live with her here and brought what Harris calls “a menagerie of animals” with her. Since then, the pitter-patter of paws has always been heard in the Harris household.

In fact, Bonaparte’s Retreat even helped Harris find a new traveling companion: Keeta, a yellow mixed-breed dog rescued after a hurricane. “We just couldn’t seem to get her adopted, even though she’s a very sociable dog with a lot of personality,” Harris recalls. “I decided to adopt her, and it turns out she’s a great road dog. She loves the adventure of the road.”

Then Harris took in a black Lab mix named Bella, and found yet another bus buddy. “I took her with the intention of fostering her, but she and Keeta kinda fell in love,” Harris says with a chuckle. “They have this great relationship. So I take them both with me. They sleep in a bunk on the bus, and keep each other company.” (Bonaparte’s own companion, a terrier mix named Radar, died last September.)

The house holds two more dogs, a bearded collie named Toby and the 13-year-old dog Harris says is her mother’s “personal pet,” Pepper. There are also five cats, one of which is taking a catnap on the couch opposite Harris. “It doesn’t seem like that many to me,” she says. “You can get used to anything. The dogs are in one part of the house, and the cats are in another, and it all works out.” The cats tend to congregate in Eugenia’s room. “The cats all love my mother,” Harris says. “She’s got that loving vibe.”

Dogs staying at Bonaparte’s Retreat are pictured at Harris’ official website, emmylou.net . Webmaster Kate Derr is also what Harris calls her “foot soldier” at Bonaparte’s Retreat, fielding calls and emails from prospective adopters. Adoptions are only green-lit after a careful interview and two-week trial period. “We’re determined to find them a good home no matter how long it takes,” Harris says.

On top of her ties to Metro Animal Control and the continuing support of Nashville Humane Society, Harris has reached out to larger organizations like the North Shore Animal League America in hopes of promoting dialogue among animal adoption agencies. Harris will be on hand at the Bonaparte’s Retreat booth when the NSALA’s Tour for Life comes to Metro Animal Control on April 21.

Tour for Life is a nationwide effort to find adoptive homes for animals in need, and to raise awareness of shelter animal issues. “It’s a gathering of a lot of like-minded souls, and hopefully some people who might be thinking about adopting a dog or a cat,” Harris says.

It’s also an opportunity for members of the public to get to know Metro Animal Control itself. “I’m trying to get more of the community to realize that there are a lot of great places to adopt a dog, and that this is also one of them,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a place where dogs and cats go to die. There are so many wonderful animals there, and they have a very short period of time before they have to be put down by law.”

Promoting Tour for Life is just another step toward Harris’ goal of helping to make Nashville “one of the really great animal-friendly communities in the country.” She is also urging the city to institute an anti-tethering law. “Some people just want a burglar alarm in their yard, so they think it’s OK to tie up a dog on a 3-foot chain for their entire life and just give them some water,” she says, her disgust palpable. “Dogs are very, very social creatures. They need loving human contact almost as much as food and water. To me, not giving it to them is animal cruelty.”

She has also urged the city to impose a “breeder’s fee” for pet owners who do not spay or neuter their animals. “That’s a very simple solution,” she says. “Eventually you could eliminate the homeless dog and cat population. It’s just a matter of education, and coming together as a community and saying, ‘This is what we want. This is the kind of community we want to be.’ ”

Harris’ animal advocacy earned her a salute from the Humane Society of the United States, which is currently conducting a fundraiser in honor of her 60th birthday (information is at hsus.org/keetafund). “Everybody makes a big deal about 60,” says Harris, who reached the milestone on April 3rd. “I guess it is a big deal, because it’s such a nice, round number. For me, it’s just another birthday. I have so much going on.”

The things going on also include intermittent work on a new album with ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her classic 1970s recordings. “We’ve been working on it in a piecemeal way,” she says. “It’s like a patchwork quilt. I’m not exactly sure what it’s gonna be.”

Harris’ new music won’t hit stores until next spring. Before that, listeners can look forward to the Sept. 18 release of Songbird, a four-CD, one-DVD box set featuring 80 tracks chosen by Harris herself and spanning the breadth of a body of work whose influence on modern country and Americana is palpable. The collection will sport a bounty of unreleased tracks, outtakes, soundtrack and tribute-album songs, demos and even material from her long-out-of-print 1970 debut Gliding Bird, which she has long disowned.

“I actually bit the bullet,” she says with a laugh. “I listened to it and went, ‘You know, this is not bad. I’m actually not ashamed of this at all.’ ” Harris will also be touring all year, including two shows at The Factory at Franklin, May 30 and July 4, benefiting Franklin animal shelter Happy Tales Humane. On April 22, she’ll be inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame—only the latest in a seemingly endless series of honors that already includes 12 Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement trophy from the the Americana Music Awards.

Kellen Brugman, a Metro volunteer who helps choose animals for The Tennessean’s weekly adoption feature “Take Us Home” and who helps out at Bonaparte’s Retreat, met Harris at last year’s Tour for Life. She quickly learned that Harris’ work with animals is motivated by the same warmth and humanity that comes through so clearly in her music. “She’s a very compassionate person,” Brugman says. “I think she sees beauty in the world through music, through her home, through her friends and also through the shelter animals.”

“Animals have really enriched my life, so it gives me a great deal of pleasure to give back,” says Harris. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to feel like I’m actually accomplishing something, a few animals at a time.”

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