After making a career out of taking in dogs no one else would adopt (including more than a few “psychos”), Kerrigan’s switch to ODH’s Final Haven dogs has required a change of mindset. “We do it to give them a place to die in a loving home,” he says. “We don’t do it to have pets.”
On the other end of the Old Dog Haven volunteer spectrum is Lisa Black. She has two traditional rescues, plus a Final Refuge Pointer named Betty and an elderly mystery-mix foster named Lucy (for whom she finds a new home within days). Black lives and breathes the faith that these can be the best years of a dog’s life.
“They are easy,” Black says. “They’re usually housebroken. They don’t chew your stuff. If you want to take them for a walk, they’re ready to go. But if you want to hang out at home, they’re happy to do that too.”
Piper’s phone rings frequently, and during my visit, she lets the machine take messages. But when her cell phone sounds, she answers it. A new dog has been diagnosed with a grade-4 heart murmur. As the main contact for more than 130 dogs in ODH care, she is a seasoned sounding board and fairly expert on geriatric health.
“The great thing about Judith is that she has so much practical hands-on experience,” says Julie Nowicki, who volunteered for ODH before launching a national senior dog advocacy group, The Grey Muzzle Organization, in May 2008. Because Piper is so immersed, she is often a better judge of an old dog’s condition than many vets, according to Nowicki.
“By the time we get them, it can be years and years of neglect,” Piper says. Sometimes their guardians were too old to manage. Other times, aging pets’ special needs (and accidents) overwhelm their people both financially and emotionally. Unlike shelters, which vary greatly in the information they gather, ODH makes sure their dogs receive thorough checkups, blood and urine analyses, dental exams and treatment, and sometimes ophthalmology exams. The group has even financed open-heart surgery and eyelid lifts. Piper has a standing veterinary appointment every day of the week, and the organization’s bills can run $20,000 a month.
One-eyed Alice switches to my lap as talk turns to the future. Piper admits that the 18-hour days are catching up with her. Even as her organization has accomplished so much so quickly, she sees problems for old dogs exacerbated by the recession.
“Right now is a disaster,” Piper says. “I’m getting calls about every two hours from people wanting to surrender their dogs. At least half to two-thirds of those are, ‘I lost my house. I lost my job. I can’t keep my dog.’ It’s really hard—I get these people who are just hysterical, and I don’t have any more batteries in my magic wand.”
She has learned to say no. She has also had to counsel some people that euthanizing an old dog in the company of loving familiars is far kinder than dumping him at a shelter, where he will most likely be put down alone after days or weeks of stress and discomfort.
After a couple of weeks, I e-mail Judith to check up on poor old Snoop. I’m expecting the worst. “He’s actually doing better!” she replies. “Getting much brighter ... started eating everything in sight last week … seems to be enjoying himself … and gives tiny little kisses and tail wags every so often.”
It looks like there’s still a little power in her wand after all.