Hosting a party on a recent Friday evening, Susan Karp and her guest of honor wear matching pink leis around their necks as they greet guests at the door. Bubbly drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and fancy pastries line the tables, but the guest of honor can’t indulge–because she’s a dog. Karp planned the “meet and greet” to help find a home for Petunia, a two-year-old pit bull-terrier mix. Fellow volunteer Jennifer Hart organized the party with Karp at a local pet store. “When Susan gets an idea in her head, watch out!” Hart says. “She works nonstop to get it done.”

Karp, fifty-one, is a petite, gregarious woman who says she’s always had pets–right now she has two dogs and four cats–and has the “time, energy, and passion” to devote herself to helping animals. “They’re vulnerable, they can’t speak, they’re at the mercy of humans,” she says. Now that two of her three children are in college, Karp has more time to devote to the cause, whether it’s picking up a litter of unwanted puppies at a Jackson truck stop or helping to pay the vet bill for a sick dog. “The more involved I get, the greater need I see,” she says.

As a volunteer at the Humane Society of Huron Valley, she walks shelter dogs and trains them to make them “more adoptable.” She also answers customers’ questions and helps match them with the right animal. “Adopt instead of shop” is one of her mantras. She’s a big proponent of foster homes for animals when adoption isn’t possible and she volunteers for HSHV’s Trap, Neuter, Return program to help control the population of feral cats.

Her commitment goes far beyond Ann Arbor. Through CHAINED, a nonprofit started by a community nurse who noticed many chained and neglected dogs during her rounds in southwest Detroit, Karp joins volunteers to build or extend fences in low-income Detroit neighborhoods to enhance dogs’ lives. She also visits their owners to offer advice and resources, including insulated doghouses and vet services.

Petunia was discovered at the home of a hoarder, an elderly woman who had taken in so many animals she couldn’t care for them properly. “She’s a kind-hearted, overwhelmed woman,” explains Karp. The woman willingly gave up Petunia, and Karp says the dog is responding well to training.

“Pit bulls get a bad rap, but they can be wonderful family dogs,” Karp explains. “Like any dog, they need to be trained and socialized. But the media has done a number on them. It shows when you walk down the aisle at any shelter–half the dogs are pit bulls. And thousands are euthanized. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Karp’s animal advocacy has come at a personal price–“I lie awake on cold, snowy nights thinking about the homeless animals,” she says. There are an estimated 50,000 in the Detroit area. “So I’ll get up and write an email or a letter. Injustices drive me nuts.”

When the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners proposed to cut its funding for HSHV by 50 percent, Karp invited the commissioners to tour other shelters to see the dismal conditions Washtenaw County’s homeless animals could face if the county were forced to choose an alternate service provider. Commissioner Felicia Brabec accepted Karp’s offer, and the pair visited a shelter in Oakland County. Karp says community support for HSHV swelled through word of mouth, and subsequently the board restored most of the funds.

On a weekday afternoon, Karp walks briskly through the quiet, winding roads of her neighborhood near the Arb as her two rescue dogs, Scooter, an “all-American mutt,” and Wrangler, a mini Australian shepherd, lead the way. Karp says she’s “always on the move,” walking dogs and exercising at the YMCA every day. She moved to Ann Arbor eighteen years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband–Oren Sagher, a U-M neurosurgeon–and their young family. She says it’s been a great place to raise her kids and she’s cultivated a “really strong network of women friends.”

Karp was raised in the small western Pennsylvania town of Kittanning, where she was the only Jewish student in her high school. Her father ran the family jewelry store, and her mother co-founded the local shelter for battered women and worked as a victim and witness advocate in the courts. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and an MSW from Temple University.

Her career in social work led to a job at University of Virginia Hospital, where friends introduced her to Sagher, a resident physician. Sagher recalls that when they met at a dinner party, he was so exhausted “I kept falling asleep at the table. I think she found that endearing.” They were married two years later.

“We are our own individual people,” Karp says. Sagher supports her passion and the hours she spends at HSHV. “If she’s not home I know where she is,” he laughs. Son Ethan, twenty-two, is a U-M student and HSHV volunteer, and daughter Abby, eighteen, volunteers at a humane society in Ohio, where she attends Kenyon College. Daniel, seventeen, is a Community High student and the neighborhood dog walker. “It’s true that my love for animals has rubbed off on them!” Karp says.

After Karp had her kids–three in five years–she left social work and stayed home full time. Now she uses her social work skills–“helping, making connections, finding resources”–in her animal welfare work. “Helping has always come naturally to me,” she says.

And for those who think her animal advocacy efforts go too far, she smiles and says, “I’m really not a kooky, crazy dog person. My family comes first.” However, Karp does allow the animals in her life some luxuries. After Petunia’s party, she brought the dog home for one last hurrah before returning her to the kennel where she’s being boarded. (Petunia is still up for adoption.) Karp jokes that she and Petunia had a pajama party–and then they both slept on the pullout couch in her basement.