By Sterling Sidebottom
Somewhere along U.S. Route 74, between Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina, Ali Domrongchai realized she had to pee. As an animal lover and owner of four rescue dogs, she figured an animal shelter would be the perfect place to pull over.
Dashing inside a building resembling an abandoned warehouse, she noticed trash littered across the floor and unwashed dogs of all ages crowded into cages, the rank smell filling her nose. Only one person was working. She had entered the Richmond County Animal Shelter.
A new passion
Beyond the dirt and grime, however, Ali noticed a brown hound mix. Adopting him was so easy a decision it was as if she had run into a gas station for candy as opposed to a shelter. Ali took the puppy with her, naming him Evie.
That same day, Ali became a volunteer at the shelter and, just like Evie, found herself a forever home.
Ali grew up surrounded by foster animals. Currently, her house is filled with four dogs, three cats, two chickens, one snake and five rats. Three of the dogs wound up there because her family was simply known for taking in animals. The fourth is Evie.
Ali’s big heart and sympathy for those most in need of love is evident even in her favorite animal: not a dog, as one might expect, but a manatee — because a kindergarten classmate once called them ugly.
The first few times Ali went to the shelter, her emotions overwhelmed her.
“I’d cry every time I’d leave,” she said. “But sadness is useless. Now, I’m just angry. And anger is more productive.”
In high school, Ali started a club called Green Team, a gathering for planting flowers and visiting animal shelters, though to Ali, it was really just an excuse to visit her new favorite place and make her friends adopt the animals.
Twice a semester, toting collars, leashes, cleaning supplies and about $2,000 in donations,
Ali would lead 100 students through the front doors of the shelter. Dressed in ratty t-shirts and gym shorts, they would scrub cages, clean the food cupboards and sweep the entire facility.
That’s when Ali would work her magic.
Having gathered a captive audience — ranging from bleeding hearts to kids who just wanted out of school for the afternoon — Ali would show off the animals, bringing her friends around to meet the ones who needed help the most. By the end of the day, there would be 20 kids taking home their own version of Evie.
Ali also began posting pictures of the animals on her Instagram.
“It gave me the biggest adrenaline rush,” she said. “It felt so good. I didn’t realize I could use Instagram to get animals out of the shelter.”
The first dog she helped connect with an owner was a look-alike of Evie when Ali was only 15. Since then, she has helped more than 500 animals find their forever homes, and every animal she’s ever posted has gotten adopted.
Going the extra mile
Now a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ali makes sure she never has classes on Fridays so she can drive the hour and a half from Chapel Hill to Rockingham each week. That may seem like a lot of effort, but the drive is only a small fraction of the work Ali puts in. Just as she drives the extra 92 miles for the animals at Richmond County Animal Shelter, Ali also goes out of her way for her classmates.
If a college student wants to adopt one of the animals Ali posts on her Instagram, she offers to cover the adoption fee for them. She’ll also pick the animal up from its foster family and bring it back to Chapel Hill with her.
Each Friday, when Ali walks into the shelter, her first question is, “Who’s been here long?”
Immediately, a picture is taken, the animal’s story and name are added and all three are shared with her more than 2,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter.
That’s how Clara Luisa Matthews, a UNC-CH student, found Poe.
Clara was scrolling through Twitter when she saw Poe for the first time. Originally named Inky, Poe’s bright orange eyes were pleading for a home through the phone screen.
Before that day, Clara had no plans for a pet to become part of the picture. That attitude immediately disappeared as she became convinced this cat needed to be in her life. She sent a text to her roommate, Payton Tysinger.
“I was like, ‘look how cute this cat is,’ completely knowing what I was doing,” Clara said.
It took a few minutes for him to be convinced, but Payton had been pleading for a pet. Who was he to say no to his prayers finally being answered? Unfortunately, it would be two weeks before Ali could go back to Charlotte to pick up the cat from her mom’s house — a wait that was too long for Clara and Payton.
Blaring music from their car speakers and tearing across the highway, the two headed to Indian Trail, North Carolina, the very next day. Now, Clara can’t imagine a day when she didn’t come home to Poe and has since become a big fan of Ali’s, reposting dogs and cats she finds particularly adorable or in dire need of a family.
For Cindy Chambers, another volunteer at the shelter, it isn’t unusual for someone to walk in and list Ali as their reason for visiting.
“She’s gotten so many out,” Cindy said. “Even now that she’s in college, I have people come in and tell me they’re friends with Ali.”
Avery Ziegler, a family friend of Ali’s, knew exactly whom to contact when her family considered adopting a second dog. Within a few days, their new addition, Shelby, was snuggled on the couch between Avery and her chocolate lab, Bolden.
It’s been a year and a half since the Zieglers welcomed Shelby into their family, and they’re all happier for it.
Those are the connections Ali loves to make. She makes them out of the sole purpose of finding homes. Her postgraduate plans don’t include veterinary school — or animals at all. Her work at Rockingham County Animal Shelter isn’t even on her resume.
“It will always be just for me,” she said. “It’s really special. I feel lucky that I’ve made this place for myself to do this.”
Edited by Addison Skigen