As a runner, I call every dog I meet “Monkey.” Big and burly or petite and wee, they’re all “Monkey.” So when I met the dog sitting with his human-mom at the table behind mine at Best Friends’ Animal Society’s Lintroller Party in Hollywood, I naturally greeted him with my usual: “Hey, Monkey!” What I didn’t know was that I was meeting with a real Monkey: Monkey Parker, the adopted canine-kid of Lu Parker, who first garnered global attention when she was crowned Miss USA in 1994. In chatting with Parker, it didn’t take long for my fascination with her to grow, and not simply because she was internationally ranked for wearing a bikini well. (Contrary to what my mother thinks, I’m actually not so superficial that I select my friends based on good looks.) Rather, my friend-crush developed when I learned that this pageant winner turned Emmy Award-winning journalist is a crusader blazing a rescue awareness path through Los Angeles. Along with high-profile boyfriend, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, she is gaining something of a reputation for changing the face of animal welfare. And that face belongs to one survivor in particular, whose name just happens to be Monkey. For real.
MJ: You’re originally from South Carolina, and you’ve joked about being raised in a barn. What kind of animals did you have growing up?
LP: My step-father lived on a plantation. Lots of land. We had horses, dogs, cats. We had piglets named Mork and Mindy. I was always saving animals. Even when they didn’t live, we knew we gave it a chance. Ultimately, animals were just a part of my life. I even did my homework sitting on top of my horse. That’s where I was most comfortable. I loved it.
MJ: There’s a difference between having animals, loving animals, and advocating for animals. You fall into the last category. What drives you?
LP: It’s what I’m supposed to be doing. After I won Miss USA, in the Miss Universe pageant, they asked what my mission in life was. And I don’t think I knew at that time. I was young. It came to me later. Sometimes a door opens and before you know it, you’re going 90 miles an hour. When I go to bed at night, I look at Monkey all comfortable and I can’t help but think of all the dogs in shelters.
MJ: Can you tell us how Monkey came into your life?
LP: In the news business, people tell you: “You travel, you can’t have a dog.” But I always wanted one. Then, about three years ago, I felt like it was time. So I started going around to shelters and, well, it was like when you decide you’re going to go out looking for a boyfriend. You know there’s lots out there, but you don’t connect with anyone in particular. So I decided: I’m going to stop looking, and he will come in to my life.
Then one day, I’m in my office at KTLA, and they air a pet segment every morning. I heard them all sort of saying “awwww…” and I turned around and saw this face on the camera. I was like: “He’s beautiful!” And he really wasn’t beautiful. He’d been run over, his head was shaved, he looked pathetic. But I ran to the studio, because I had to meet this dog. He was just getting off the set. And when I met him, he looked right into my eyes, and I was like: “This just might be the dog!” I visited him at the vet’s where he was staying later that day. And it was done. There was no going back.
MJ: When people hear that five million animals are euthanized in America every year, it’s hard to grasp. But when you see one dog like Monkey, you get it.
LP: That’s why I take him everywhere with me. Any time I am going to be around people in a high-visibility capacity, he’s with me.
MJ: You have a goal for 2010 that involves the development of a new nonprofit organization in LA. Can you tell us about it?
LP: We’re still working on the name. We like the idea of the name including more than animals. It’s about animals, the environment, kids, and even celebrities coming together.
My initial goal is to help positively remake the image of LA’s shelters. I want to make them a happy place. I want to get kids involved in painting them, in creating murals. Shelters right now are dark. There’s this feeling they are bad places. Even the collars around the dogs’ necks, where their identification hangs, are chain-link. The main reason shelters use them is because they are inexpensive.
I want to raise money so that they don’t ever use those chains again. Because with those chains on, for example, Pit Bulls look horrible. Those chains even look bad on a Chihuahua! It really impacts their image. It’s a small change in the way a shelter and a rescue dog are marketed.
MJ: It’s the tiny things that can create massive change. It’s the tipping point.
LP: It is. Antonio and I were visiting the South LA shelter recently and there were huge piles of dirty blankets and towels, and we asked what was wrong, and their response was that they were backed up because the shelter only had an apartment-sized washer and dryer. So we arranged for them to have an industrial sized washer and dryer installed.
We’re coordinating with engineering students in designing a gated area—where garbage cans are currently stored—and transforming it into a grassy meet-and-greet area. So instead of meeting your new dog surrounded by barking dogs, you’re in this peaceful area. One of the things I’d like to do with my non-profit is raise funds to get that done.
So I want to focus on small things like that, to help make LA a model in the shelter system. It’s all in Monkey’s honour.
MJ: You’re juggling a lot simply with the work obligations that come from being a journalist. How is it possible you find time to do what you do for animals?
LP: Passion definitely gets me out of bed each day. Sometimes I wake up and am like: “Ohhhh, I have way too much to do!” But as my mom always says: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Staying focused and looking at the positive…. It’s all about looking at the bright side and knowing you can get it done. And if it gets to be too overwhelming, I just sort of back off a little bit.
MJ: I love talking to an over-achiever who admits they get overwhelmed sometimes.
LP: Well, if someone doesn’t get overwhelmed, they probably have three assistants.
MJ: What have you learned about life from rescuing Monkey?
LP: I have learned to pay attention. Monkey pays attention. He knows when I am happy. He knows when I am sad. I think sometimes we get so busy we forget to pay attention to our friends and our families and our communities. Monkey really listens, he really watches. He really knows how to just be there.