Imagine you’ve had a dog or a cat for its entire life. You raised it from a baby, cared for it, shared your life with it. It trusted and loved you and you enjoyed its company for many years. You might have even called it your “baby.” Then your pet began to grow older. Its muzzle grew gray, its coat became rougher, its eyes turned cloudy, its breath less pleasant. Maybe it developed a congenital disorder or an illness that required expensive medication. Maybe it began having trouble getting around and started soiling in the house. Your pet, the one you used to think you were so attached to, was gradually becoming more dependent and difficult – it had become “a pain.”
But instead of understanding that caring for an animal through its elderly years is simply part of the commitment you make when acquiring a pet, you decided to rid yourself of the burden by taking it to your local animal shelter. It doesn’t even phase you to when your sweet old pet goes from being so excited about going a ride in the car to cringing in fear when you drag it into the shelter. You don’t even flinch when the shelter worker takes your pet in her arms and walks away with it, trying to hide the look of disgust on her face. As you drive away it doesn’t even cross your mind how frightened, confused and upset your pet is at that very moment, sitting in a cold kennel in a strange, noisy place, wondering where it is and waiting anxiously for you to return. You don’t care that your once adored companion will probably be euthanized within days due to its age and thus, “undesirable” adoption status. But then, that’s not your problem.
There’s a special place in purgatory reserved for the sub-humans who abandon their aging or special needs pets. Who could be so cruel? Of course, there are people who must give up their elderly pets due to circumstances beyond their control, such as changes in lifestyle, chronic illness, going into a nursing home or worse – stuff happens – but those who dump their animals simply because they’d rather not be bothered with their inevitable aging process are the cruelest of sorts. Luckily, there are many wonderful, kindhearted individuals in the world who have made it their mission to save and care for the gray-faced, the forgotten and the discarded. They are the heroes who truly deserve to be celebrated.
Sherry Polvinale is such a special person. She is the co-founder and director of House With a Heart Pet Sanctuary, a forever home for elderly and special needs pets (who have lost their families and homes at no fault of their own). Due to advanced age and various medical conditions, these pets would have little chance of being adopted, but at House With a Heart they are safe, nurtured and pampered for the rest of their lives.
“These animals have no one and would otherwise be euthanized all alone in a shelter, frightened and confused,” says Sher. “At House With a Heart they are loved until their very last breath.”
Starting a pet sanctuary was a natural evolution for Sher and her late husband Joe, who had been rescuing and rehoming abandoned dogs and cats together for two decades. Whenever she got a call from someone looking to give up their senior pet it disturbed her to think about all those sweet animals losing their homes simply because they were old and had become inconvenient for their people. But it finally took a “what if” conversation to push Sher into pursuing what turned out to be her true calling in life.
“I was at lunch with friends and the question on the table was what would you do with your life if money was no object?” she explained. “I said I would do something like Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, but for senior dogs and cats. My friends said, well…why don’t you?”
So Sher and Joe decided to go for it and soon their Gaithersburg, Maryland home was inhabited by a 10-pack of homeless senior pets (ten animals became their limit, a number Sher soon surpassed after Joe passed way in 2008 from lung cancer). Once their non-profit status was obtained in 2006, House With a Heart was officially up and running.
Nine years and almost 100 dogs and cats later, Sher is living her dream. Over two-dozen dogs and four cats are now enjoying their golden years at the sanctuary, comprised of a clean, comfy home on more than two acres of fenced-in yards and grassy fields. All its furry residents receive high-quality food and treats, or special diets, and quality healthcare, including regular wellness screenings and visits to veterinary specialists when needed. Everyone gets plenty of love and attention from Sher, doting sanctuary Vice President Harriette Sackler and the sanctuary’s invaluable army of over 55 devoted volunteers, who help with daily tasks including feeding and administering medications; bathing and grooming; cleaning and laundering; sanctuary and grounds maintenance, and providing exercise and playtime.
But even with so much assistance, Sher maintains an intensely rigorous schedule and rarely leaves the sanctuary. Some would say she doesn’t have a life. But this devoted caretaker doesn’t see it that way.
“I live here by myself and do all the nighttime and early morning care, then the volunteers come to help during the day,” she says. “Sometimes I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and immediately the animals need me and I may have already gotten up three times during the night to attend to one of the dogs. I’ll go through until midnight or one in the morning and I’m so tired at that point that I’ll just lay down in my clothes and sleep on the couch with the dogs. People think I’m so wonderful because I don’t have a life, but that’s silly – I’m just weird, I’m just different.”
Caring for so many senior and special needs pets is a costly venture – to the tune of $90,000 in annual vet bills – and while donations from generous supporters are incredibly helpful, they aren’t always enough to keep things running. That’s why Sher established a doggie daycare at the sanctuary to help support its operations. As a result, the property is now at maximum capacity, with 37 permanent and short-term care residents all under one roof.
While running one of the few senior and special needs pet sanctuaries in the U.S. definitely has its rewards, it also comes with frequent heartbreaks – over 70 pets have passed away in Sher’s home to date. Then there’s the other kind of heartbreak – dealing with pet owners wanting to give up their senior or ailing pets for reasons ranging from heart-wrenching to infuriating.
“People contact us all the time saying they love their pet, have had it for years and it’s been a wonderful companion, but now it’s old, wakes them up at night and has accidents in the house, so they don’t want to be bothered with it any longer,” explains Sher. “Then there are others who truly love their pet but are too ill to care for it, are going into a nursing home, or they’ve passed away and their pet has no one.”
While HWAH isn’t able to take in any more residents (at 70 years young, Sher is looking to retire in about 15 years), it still makes a point of being there for pets in-need by offering guidance to help owners either keep their pets or find them safe placement on their own.
“People would call me all the time and I’d be on the phone constantly and feel torn because it would kill me to say no to pets who needed me so desperately,” explains Sher. “So we formed our Give Up Team with counselors who talk to people about their particular situation to see if they’re willing to listen to suggestions and if we can help them in any way. Some people are up for that and we’re able to be helpful in that regard and some people aren’t – all they want is for their pet to be out of their lives and no longer their responsibility.”
Besides counseling, HWAH provides additional pet owner assistance, including its Senior Pet Safety Net online posting service that allows people to post images and information about their older pets they wish to rehome, as well as a Giving Up Pet Resources web page that features an extensive list of rescue groups and humane societies throughout the country.
In addition, the sanctuary also offers donor-funded give-back programs, including “Mitzvah Mutts,” which reserves a space at the sanctuary for a dog or cat whose family is in dire need of temporary pet care due to special circumstances, and “Faith’s Fund,” which provides medical care for senior pets who would otherwise not receive it due to lack of funds.
While Sher is definitely living the intention she voiced out loud at lunch all those years ago, she never would have thought that running HWAH would have done so much for her personally, specifically helping her heal from the loss of her beloved husband and best friend.
“Running the sanctuary has helped me through my grief process and it continues to help me through it now,” says Sher. “But if Joe was alive I think he would be really amazed and really proud and satisfied that we’re doing what we started out to do. Just being here with all the dogs and doing what I do makes me feel close to him.”
While Sher knows she’s filling an important need, she hopes for a day when more pet owners will take the commitment of a pet much more seriously, thus eliminating the need for sanctuaries like hers.
“I just wish we could teach people to have more empathy for those who cannot care for themselves,” says Sher. “How can you turn your back on someone who needs your help? If you have a pet realize it has feelings and be responsible for it until the end. Don’t throw it out when the going gets tough.”
Senior pets are some of the most endearing, loving creatures on the planet and just like any dog or cat deserve to live out their lives in the safety and comfort of loving, committed, forever homes. Unfortunately, homeless pets of advanced age are the most difficult pets to place in new homes, have higher euthanasia rates and often live out the rest of their lives in a shelter kennel. So in honor of National Adopt a Senior Pet month, please consider bringing a mature or elderly companion into your life. While they may not be with you for as long as you’d like them to, you will be able to find comfort in the knowledge that you provided a wonderful end-of-life experience for one very special, gray-faced fur baby.
Here are just a few reasons why senior pets are so awesome:
- They come as they are – their size, appearance and personality are already established
- They’re calmer and require less exercise
- Mature dogs will most likely housebroken and know basic commands (although they love to learn new tricks!)
- They’re much less demanding and destructive than younger animals
- They’re great company for young and old alike
- They sense that they’ve been saved (and will be incredibly grateful)
- You will always be their hero
House With a Heart relies heavily on donations, grants and wish list gifts to accomplish its mission of providing quality care for senior and special needs dogs and cats. If you’d like to help this wonderful sanctuary continue its amazing mission, please visit its donation page. If you live in the Gaithersburg area, consider becoming a HWAH volunteer!
Check out Sher and her incredible sanctuary in this beautiful National Geographic video: