California man's gun collection aids no-kill animal shelter

(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A longtime southern California gun collector who recently passed away at the age of 78 has become the saving grace of a no-kill animal shelter in the area, after his will requested that the nearly 1,200 firearms in his collection be auctioned off with the proceeds benefiting the shelter.

Paul O’Donnell apparently wasn’t very outspoken about his firearms collection, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t passionate about it.

Paul O’Donnell would walk Huckleberry, his pet beagle, each day through his quiet Ontario neighborhood. Neighbors knew him as an animal lover who also took in stray cats.

They had no knowledge of his secret passion for guns — mostly antique firearms. O’Donnell had amassed a valuable military rifle and pistol collections, possessing nearly 1,200 guns dating back as far as the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World Wars I and II. These were secured in a steel-and-concrete bunker in his backyard, next to a French, anti-tank gun the size of a small car.

On Sept. 13, O’Donnell died of a heart attack at age 78. A few days later, the Ontario Police Department collected all the guns for safekeeping. O’Donnell’s will ordered the guns be sold at auction and the proceeds be donated to the West End Shelter for Animals in Ontario.

A California auction house ended up purchasing the entire collection for more than $600,000, and soon O’Donnell’s sister will present a check for $613,772 to the animal shelter, which says it’s the largest donation in its history.

I have to say, the only thing that spoiled this feel-good story for me were the comments by Karen O’Donnell, who apparently has a hard time with her late-brother’s passion for firearms and his love of animals.

It may have been Thomas Jefferson who said: “Those who hammer their guns into plowshares will plow for those who do not.”

On the surface, that is what Paul O’Donnell did posthumously for stray dogs and cats.

But his sister says she and other family members have a hard time reconciling her brother’s two loves: animals and guns. The family always had a beagle and a variety of cats, something her brother kept up until his last day. Also, he was a licensed gun dealer and had collected guns since he was 13.

“It doesn’t make any sense when you put (his love for animals) together with the guns,” she said. “I don’t know what it was that made those two pieces of his personality predominate.”

It makes perfect sense to me, but then again, I’d also consider myself an animal lover who has a great appreciation for guns. My wife and I have often talked about turning our small farm into a no-kill shelter for senior dogs if we ever win the lottery, but for now we content ourselves with our backyard chickens and goats along with our pair of barn cats, two indoor dogs, and a leopard gecko. Of course, I’ve also killed and eaten animals for food, so maybe O’Donnell wouldn’t go along with the idea that you can own and use guns for any number of lawful purposes while still having a soft spot in your heart for creatures great and small, but I don’t think there’s anything unusual about being a “gun nut” and an animal lover as well.

Honestly, it’s not Paul O’Donnell’s interest in both firearms and animals that I find most curious about his life story.

He served in the military during the Vietnam War, but never saw fighting. He was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state in an administrative position. One of his guns that sold for $4,000 at a recent auction was a North Vietnamese officer’s gun, according to his sister.

O’Donnell graduated at age 20 from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, and taught history, mostly in junior high and high school, his sister said. He applied for a job at the CIA but told his family he didn’t get it. Later he spent time in Southeast Asia, Russia and China, she said. Her brother spoke fluent Russian and Mandarin.

A junior high and high school teacher who speaks fluent Mandarin and Russian who allegedly was rejected by the CIA but spent a lot of time overseas? Yeah, I’m much more fascinated by that than the fact that O’Donnell had a love of historic firearms and stray dogs and cats.

Karen O’Donnell says her brother was writing his memoirs before he died, and that “one of these days” she’s going to delve into the eight three-ring binders full of his handwriting to see if she can learn more about what made her brother tick. I doubt she’s going to find any deep introspective passages revealing inner turmoil over his gun collecting and his love of animals, but I hope she does get to know (and will eventually share) a little more about Paul O’Donnell and the intriguing life he led.