Warmth radiates from the Zoom screen as Victoria Lily Shaffer nestles six-week-old puppy Pumpkin in her arms. The tan and dark-muzzled furball is from a litter Shaffer’s fostering through her just-launched Pup Culture Rescue. Alfie, a special needs dog she recently adopted, pops into frame to check on the guest. The foster dog devotee and aspiring TV host Shaffer, wearing a T-shirt branded with her operation’s logo, is savvier about marketing and social media—TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter—than how to stop the pings of incoming e-mails she fears will interrupt our session. We agree to just let it go.
A winning combination of upbeat energy and chill attitude, Shaffer credits her dog adventures for the latter. “Saturday night I scraped my car on a pillar,” she says. She was trying to squeeze into a too-tight spot. “The friends I was with were like ‘wow, you’re really cool about this, like this would kind of ruin my night,’ and I was like ‘when you are in dog rescue, you start to realize that these sorts of things don’t really matter.’” The car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, is fine, she assures. It’s “already a mess from the dogs.”
Our distance meeting is due in part to her debut book, Pup Culture: Stories, Tips, and the Importance of Adopting a Dog (Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). The spiffy trio gracing its cover are the aforementioned Alfie, plus Rue and Echo, the lucky pooches to whom she’s granted a fur-ever home. Just days after our call, she would take them on a cross-country drive to New York for the holidays to be with her family, a pack including Dad, Paul Shaffer, music man of Late Night with David Letterman. In the book’s introduction, he claims to have been a cat person, until 10-year-old Victoria worked her “dognitive” therapy on him. Her childhood rescues, Jake and Riley, resulted. The book boasts a cover blurb from Bill Murray (“I now use Pup Culture’s ‘Doggie Travel Tips’ as my own travel tips…”), David Letterman writes of Bob, the cheeseburger-eating dog he rescued from a Los Angeles comedy club, and other celebrity contributors include Glenn Close, Dan Levy and Tony Bennett. But the book is also a heartwarming memoir of her life-to-date saving dogs, and includes interviews with dog experts and notables of the rescue world, tips on what to seek in an adoption outfit, a puppy care check list, instructions on making towel tug toys, and recipes for a pup-tacular cake.
Though promoting her new book has been taking up a lot of her time, Shaffer remains busy practicing her own pup culture skills—fostering Pumpkin and her three siblings (currently camping in the “Puppy Room” of Shaffer’s four-bedroom, Spanish-style Los Angeles home) and Finn, an adult dog pulled from a Riverside shelter “literally ten minutes” before he was to be euthanized. The house has a dog run, a pool, and a yard for her charges. The garage is filled with the free fixings Pup Culture sends along to foster homes—crates, beds, and food. The washing machine and dryer are constantly busy, Shaffer says. “Doing puppy linens—that’s a regular occasion around here.”
Pup Culture is what Shaffer calls a “foster-based rescue,” meaning they don’t have a fixed location for sheltering dogs and must find temporary homes until adoptions can be arranged. Securing those foster homes is a major challenge.
“It’s just super difficult to find people to open up their homes,” Shaffer says. At their first adoption event, held the weekend before we talked, Shaffer kept her focus on the foster prospects. All too often, the response was, “I don’t know if I’d be able to give it up.” In her book, Shaffer states her belief that fostering is the most selfless thing a person can do. She also acknowledges the emotional toll of having to give up a foster dog. “But if you don’t open your foster home, that dog might literally die.”
Dogs were almost always at the top of 28-year-old Shaffer’s concerns, though she’s been drawn to other devotions as well. Born and raised in New York, she grew up backstage at The Late Show with David Letterman, deciding early she wanted a career in show business. In 8th grade, a switch from public school to private brought further inspiration. “The floodgates opened . . . I was so much more comfortable with myself, more outgoing and extroverted.” She discovered the stage and became friends with the theater kids.
For college, she headed off to The New School in Manhattan to study acting along with “culture and media.” At 19, when the world could have been her treat-filled chew toy, she was begging her folks to co-sign adoption papers for a rescue dog. “I definitely felt there was something missing because I went from a house of two dogs to none.” Big-eared, little Rue (napping off camera) resulted.
“That experience was super eye-opening because she was so fragile when I got her.” Found in a dumpster, scared and in bad health, Rue’s medical problems weren’t divulged by the adoption agency. Victoria didn’t miss a beat. “I’ve always been a nurturing sort of person. It just came naturally to me to nurse her back to health.” She didn’t regret the social sacrifices or sleep deprivation required for Rue’s recovery.
“You see a direct response to the hard work that you put in,” Shaffer says. “And it’s a living thing, so you’re literally saving a life.” Her brother, Will, she notes, is planning to be a doctor and save lives on another front. “I’m not quite as book smart as he is, to do it in that capacity, but I’m able to save lives every single day.”
After college, a job at Jimmy Kimmel Live brought her to Los Angeles. Work on both coasts followed, everything from production assistant on HBO’s Divorce, to producing the ten-episode Facebook reality series, Extra Innings with Bill Murray and Brian Doyle Murray. Along the way, she adopted a second dog, the gentle white giant, Echo. At one point, Shaffer was regularly flying with both dogs from New York to Los Angeles to edit the Murray series. “And they got good at it,” she says of her four-pawed traveling companions. Now, with three dogs and stricter airline policies, she doesn’t even attempt it—thus the upcoming road trip. And if Shaffer does have to travel by air, Mom has been known to fly to Los Angeles to dog sit.
Raising two dogs in her early twenties while working seventeen-hour days in entertainment production was “exhausting,” Shaffer admits. The work places weren’t generally dog friendly, or the sets were outdoors and freezing in the winter. Luckily, she had a healthy supply of generous friends and family willing to help with the canine care.
Currently settled in Los Angeles for the long haul, she’s pursuing her two passions, “entertainment and dogs.” So far, results include hosting the interview series Tails of the City for Pet Life Radio, streaming on iHeart Radio, and creating canine-centric content for TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, including the K9 Covid show, during lockdown, when she fostered some 100 puppies (but not all at once) and featured a regular puppy weigh-in.
“I always wanted to be a host,” Shaffer says. “I have a background in production, so why not use those talents and combine it with my passion for dogs and encouraging other people to adopt?” Animal world role models include Beth Stern (animal rights activist, host of Hallmark’s annual “Kitten Bowl” and Howard’s wife) and Jackson Galaxy (aka Cat Daddy and feline behaviorist best known for Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell). She’s also a fan of the shows Amanda to the Rescue and Pit Bulls and Parolees. The latter, she says, “I could just have on all day long.”
Shaffer’s expertise comes from experience, paying her dues on the frontlines of dog rescue. “I’m not a dog trainer or a vet,” she says, “I’m just super passionate about dog rescue and dog ownership and how much it can enhance your life.”
Pup Culture, the book, has been “in the works” for about a year. “I had the stories, I had the knowledge, just sort of in my head, and we did have sources to back it up. It just poured out of me. I did not think that it would be so easy to fill that many pages.”
Before launching her own Los Angeles-based rescue operation, Shaffer worked closely with San Diego’s Mutt Scouts as an adoption and outreach coordinator. (The founder of Mutt Scouts, Nikki Audet, is interviewed in the book.) Rescuing hasn’t been all grateful licks and wagging tails. Shaffer’s been bitten by traumatized dogs, yet is fast to forgive them. “It’s usually out of fear and confusion. I have definitely had some scares.” She adds that many have been health scares for the dogs, with distemper and failure to thrive, especially this past year. Three of Pumpkin’s siblings passed before the litter could be rescued. “The other night we had a dog rip out his neuter stitches—it was Saturday night and all the ERs have six-to-eight-hour waits and his insides are coming out.” These are the things she doesn’t post on social media. “I’m not going to stop and post and say I’m a hero because I’m getting this dog fixed.” Both Shaffer and the dog survived the trauma. “The crises always happen over the weekends, when the vets are closed,” Shaffer says. “We always laugh about it afterwards.”
Then there’s the driving, as much as five hours to rescue a dog. “I post the photo of the dog when I get it to my house, but you don’t know how much I drive. I’m just always driving dogs around. People don’t know how many hours we put in…it’s 24/7.”
At the end of the book’s acknowledgments, she says, “Humans don’t deserve dogs.” I ask her to elaborate. “They’re just so innocent and pure. So loyal. Humans can be so nasty, abandon their dog, leave it tied up outside. We get the dog and they’re so sweet and so forgiving and we’re like ‘What did we do to deserve this?’ Humankind failed you, that is why you’re covered in wounds and skin and bones, because a human failed you. But somehow, you’re the sweetest being ever. That’s what I meant by that.”
Still, she manages to power through the bad, never letting go of the good.
“Definitely there are ups and downs, and I think I said in the book, when we do get an up, we really hold on to it to keep us going, because there are so many downs.” When the dogs get to their forever homes, “it’s all worth it.”
Especially when she gets to see the dogs she’s adopted out. “I see them all the time. I go hiking regularly with adopters of mine. The best part is the folks that adopt their very first dog. They need a little bit of handholding in the beginning and they’re so nervous. To see them a year later and they’re so happy and their life has been changed—it’s pretty amazing.”
Despite mankind’s failings, Shaffer considers giving joy, be it through dog adoption or show business, her life’s purpose. While the rescue work is “more rewarding, I would love to have my hands in both things. They both make people happy in different ways.” Whether it’s the routine of watching a late-night TV show or the routine of having a dog in your life, Victoria Lily Shaffer sees boundless potential for joy in both.
The perfect picture, I suggest, might be a rescue dog watching a late-night show with their person. Shaffer’s laugh is quick and generous.
“Exactly. You come full circle.”