We got the following story from the good folks at Muttville, a remarkable senior dog rescue organization in San Francisco. They publish wonderful stories from their adopters about their new senior pups and this one, by Tricia about her dear Winston was especially inspirational. Hopefully this will motivate you to consider opening up your heart to a homeless senior dog.
Oh, Winston. You are: hungry, happy, waggy, ridiculous, hungry, sweet, grumpy, hilarious, hungry, adorable, cute, impatient, hungry, endearing, charming, resilient, hungry, spunky, excitable, friendly, hungry and, without a doubt, unique.
When I first saw Winston on Muttville’s website in June of 2011, I was immediately smitten. I had never seen a dog quite like him before. Or since.
I still get a little sad when I think about his kennel card from the shelter he was at before coming to Muttville. STRAY HOLD ONLY – NOT RECOMMENDED FOR ADOPTION. Yeah, he’s old. Yeah, he’s got two teeth. Yeah, he’s got some health issues. Yeah, he seems pretty pathetic at first glance. I’m just so grateful that Muttville saw past all of that. It’s now two years later and he’s more excitable and spunky than either of my other two Chihuahuas, both of whom are considerably younger.
Winston is so unique in both appearance and personality. He’s been compared to a lemur, a sugar glider, a sloth, a badger. He does not, however, resemble an American Water Spaniel, which is what came up in his DNA test. I’m pretty sure Winston would sink like a stone if submerged in water.
I met my boyfriend after Winston entered my life. He has never been a big animal person and definitely not a Chihuahua aficionado. Winston has changed all that. He recently mentioned that he can’t believe that Winston was in foster care for four whole months prior to me adopting him. “I can’t believe that people weren’t lining up to adopt a dog like him.” I can’t believe it either. I was the lucky one.
I know that it is not uncommon for people to be quite incredulous at the idea of adopting a senior dog, especially one like Winston. They are put off at the idea of becoming attached to something that, most likely, won’t be around for a terribly long time. I’m of the opinion that it’s a very selfish way to look at it. Is the prospect of being upset at the passing of a pet more important than giving that pet a good life? Your feelings are more important than saving an animal’s life? Really!? I don’t think so. I’ve been through it before and I know what it’s like. I know that when it’s Winston’s time to go, the pain will be nearly unbearable. But it will be bearable. Just bearable enough to offer a home to another senior dog that got dealt a bad hand in life.
And yes, Winston is always hungry.
See Winston's Facebook page
News: Karen B. London
Australian programs acknowledge links
There are many links between domestic violence and animal cruelty. There is the tendency of individuals who hurt animals to hurt people, too. Many abusers threaten their victims by telling them that they will hurt or kill their pets if the victim tries to leave. Many people who have been harmed by domestic violence stay in the situation because they don’t want to leave their pets behind, and many shelters do not allow pets.
The Patricia Guiles Centre in Australia acknowledges these links between violence towards people and cruelty to animals. The organization provides housing and counseling for women and children affected by domestic violence. They also offer a fostering program called Safe Families, Safe Pets (SFSP) for dogs so that when a woman leaves an abuser, her dog can be taken care of for three months by a volunteer while she focuses on building a new life for herself and her children. Australia and the UK are ahead of the US in providing such fostering services, although they are becoming more common here, too.
One of the programs offered by the Patricia Guiles Centre is for kids. Building Animal Relationships With Kids (BARK) is a therapeutic program for children who have either lost a pet when they left their home or who have begun to hurt animals as a result of the violence in their home.
BARK is aimed at elementary school kids with the goal of increasing children’s empathy, trust and self-esteem. It also helps them heal by handling the grief, loss and confusion that results from exposure to domestic violence. The kids learn to care for animals, and are taught to be respectful of them. One of the goals of the program is to break the pattern of kids who are cruel to animals as children and grow up to commit acts of violence towards people.
By considering the importance of animals, these programs support people who want to escape from abusive situations. They also educate children about how to be kind to animals and to people.
The good people at the Search Dog Foundation sent us this notice about a PBS show that is not to be missed.
Starting April 1st, PBS affiliates nationwide will feature SDF Search Teams as part of a series that celebrates shelter animals and the people whose lives they touch. For the first time, a video crew has captured the story of our teams -- from recruitment, to training, to pairing with a first-responder. The show is hosted by Jane Lynch, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress, singer, and comedian.
Click here to see the Dates/times in your area
Dog's Life: Humane
Old Dog Haven accommodates senior dogs
It’s not easy to catch up with Judith Piper, founder and executive director of Old Dog Haven (ODH). She reschedules our first interview when one of her charges starts having grand mal seizures and another needs immediate treatment for glaucoma. The following week, she cancels when a tumor sidelines a pup named Pearl.
So, even before meeting the 15 mature dogs on Piper’s five acres north of Seattle, I have a pretty good idea that rescuing homeless seniors is a more-than-full-time vocation. What I’m not prepared for is how Piper—dressed in fleece, sweatpants and sneakers—gives herself fully to the moment. Talking about her work, she betrays no impatience. She introduces each dog: A Spaniel named Byron may have Cushing’s disease, a little black mutt named Jet has flunked out of several adoptions, a yellow Lab named Malik has Horner’s syndrome, a Cocker named Biscuit is “a little bastard” and so on, until I have stroked nearly every graying head.
Inside, the décor is “donated dog bed,” and everyone quickly settles onto a soft surface. Only one dog fails to join in the greetings. Off in the kitchen, a Terrier-mix named Snoop sleeps on a bed. He’s a recent arrival—underweight, with untreated dry-eye, ear problems, and terrible skin and fur. “I think he’s going to be a short-termer,” Piper says sadly. “He’s just not here.” She confides later that cases like Snoop’s, when she can’t provide even a few hours of real contact before death, are the most difficult.
Talking in terms of hours is not your typical rescue timeframe. But Old Dog Haven isn’t typical. It’s one of only a handful of organizations around the country that focuses exclusively on the unique challenges of old dogs. With the help of 148 foster homes and 62 volunteers up and down Western Washington, the three-year-old nonprofit provided placement assistance, assisted living and “Final Refuge” (hospice care) for as many as 400 eight-and-older dogs last year; about 85 percent are Final Refuge dogs.
Although Piper and her husband, Lee, who is a key collaborator in the organization despite a full-time job, always had space for rescue and shelter dogs in the past, it wasn’t until a few years ago that they became aware of the particular plight of old dogs. In 2004, a friend asked them to save an ailing oldster named Liza, who had been dumped at a shelter. In a loving home, Liza rebounded, and though she didn’t live long, she had some happy days. It took only a few more elderly shelter dogs for the Pipers to realize that it wasn’t all that rare for people to abandon an old companion, and to see that in shelters, these dogs were passed over for adoption. At some point, they looked at each other and said, “You know, this is the pits. They can’t be dying like this.”
Piper sold the tack store she’d run for 18 years to dedicate herself to the mission of providing quality of life for old dogs for as long as possible and then letting them go surrounded by friends rather than alone in a concrete cell. In 2005, news stories about her fledgling group drew calls for help from as far away as Florida. “Be careful what you ask for,” Piper says, as the dog in her lap—Alice, a 14-year-old deaf Schnauzer with four teeth—looks on adoringly with her only eye.
“She is an amazing person who has focused on a population that most would rather forget,” says Kathleen Olson, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society, which operates the busiest shelter in Western Washington. Old Dog Haven rarely takes dogs from owners, although it will post notices on its site for owners who need to rehome old dogs. Mostly, ODH takes in those faring poorly at shelters or on euthanasia shortlists. As many as 75 Pierce County dogs find homes through Old Dog Haven each year.
“It’s hard to think about the hundreds of dogs who would have died in shelters by themselves if it hadn’t been for Judith,” says Ron Kerrigan, a longtime shelter volunteer on Washington’s Whidbey Island. He runs the ODH website (which is key to placement and fostering efforts) and serves on the board. He and his partner live with nine old dogs—including Calypso, who is blind and deaf.
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.
Coming together at Best Friends
In 2008 Best Friends Animal Society took in 22 dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. On March 11, six of the dogs and their families came together again at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to mark five years of freedom. Vicktory dogs. Watch Cherry, Handsome Dan, Halle, Little Red, Mel, Oscar and their families in their joyous reunion.
Dog's Life: Humane
Helping “rez” dogs
Dogs may be our oldest companions, but around the world, far too many are homeless, with an average life expectancy of three years. This brutal fact is compounded by canine reproduction rates, which result in tsunamis of puppies who suffer the same fate.
In southern Alberta, Canada, homeless “rez” dogs are now getting a helping hand from the Dogs with No Names project, brainchild of animal health technologist Lori Rogers and veterinarian Judith Samson-French. In 2009, they designed a pilot program to reduce the population of homeless dogs on two First Nations reserves in southern Alberta by implanting a contraceptive under the skin of females. To date, volunteers with the project have successfully implanted more than a hundred dogs and prevented the birth of hundreds of thousands of pups.
To support this effort, Dr. Samson-French has recently published a new book, Dogs with No Names: In Pursuit of Courage, Hope and Purpose; 100 percent of the profi ts go to the project. Go online to order and to find out more about their work.
News: Guest Posts
Overcoming fear, Learning to trust again
Many dogs, rescued from the trauma and abuse of puppy mills or hoarders, need lots of extra TLC before they're ready for their forever homes.
Lacking social skills, having lived with fear, pain, and hunger, some remain overwhelmingly fearful even after being removed from their deplorable conditions and given physical, medical and emotional support. Their psychic wounds can cause them to cower, retreat from a loving touch, pee submissively, even growl or bite to keep humans and other animals away.
Such behaviors, while understandable, make them a challenge for shelters already overwhelmed with dogs needing homes. Fearful dogs often become part of a revolving door problem, being returned to shelters by adopting families ill-equipped to deal with the behaviors. Or worse, they may be euthanized because they can't be placed.
ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has created a flagship program that will attempt to fill the gap between rescue and placement for the most severely traumatized dogs, the fearful ones. The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J. opens this week.
"For some animals, the reality is that after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, the rescue is just the beginning of their journey to recovery," said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "The ASPCA recognized the need for a rehabilitation center that will provide rescued dogs customized behavior treatment and more time to recover, increasing the likelihood that they will be adopted. We partnered with St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center and identified the unique opportunity to utilize their space and collaborate with their behavior and care experts for the rehabilitation of victims of cruelty and neglect."
To start, dogs rescued from animal cruelty investigations will be eligible. To help reduce these dogs' fears and anxieties, the rehabilitation team will gently introduce them to unfamiliar sounds, objects, living spaces and real-life situations that a normally socialized dog handles with aplomb, but can induce trauma and extreme stress in this special population of dogs.
The ASPCA has funded this project for two years. The work done at the Center will become part of a research project, studying and evaluating methods for rehabilitating undersocialized, fearful dogs. The findings will be shared with animal welfare organizations and other researchers nationwide with the goal of helping shelters and rescue organizations rehabilitate abused and fearful dogs coming into their own facilities.
News: Shirley Zindler
A spider scurried across my face and the ropes around my ankles bit into my skin as I was lowered head-first down the steep, dark culvert. It wasn’t much bigger around than I was and it was set deeply into a steep hillside. It was intended to divert water around a remote home and I couldn’t even see the dog yet as the pipe curved slightly about 20 feet down. I felt a little claustrophobic at not being able to move much in the tight space but I could hear him whimper and that motivated me to keep sliding downward on my belly. I had never even met the men who held the ropes that kept me from tumbling straight to the bottom but I had to trust that they would keep me safe.
Finally a dog appeared in my flashlight beam. He looked like maybe a Cattledog mix and he growled ominously as I slid closer. He must have been terrified and the sound echoed in the narrow space as he began to back away from me. The pipe was so narrow that I struggled to reach my hand into my pocket and remove some liver treats. I tossed one in his direction and he gobbled it and looked for more. It was critical that he not retreat much farther as I was nearing the end of 60 feet of rope and the pipe went on indefinitely. I tossed a few more treats and slowly slid the catch pole out in front of me. With some careful maneuvering I was able to get it over his head and cinch it to a safe level.
The caller had described hearing a dog barking and whining in the area for a week or so, but had been unable to locate him. He finally found the source of the noise in the long pipe on the hill and being unable to even see the dog, he had called animal control. When I arrived and saw what we were dealing with I was taken back. The pipe was too narrow to even crawl into, and too steep to back out. After brain-storming with the property owner and his friend for a few minutes we decided that the only way was to lower me in by my feet.
Thankfully he had a very long sturdy rope and some knowledge of knots, but it’s an odd feeling to have two men you have never met tie ropes to your ankles and lower you sixty feet down a hole. Still, when I had the dog safely caught, and hollered for the men to pull us up, it was all worth it. The dog scrambled up the slippery pipe after me and then stood blinking in the bright sunlight. I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I watched him taking in the scenery. He looked to be in pretty good shape and had a bandana but no tags or microchip. We offered small amounts of water as he was terribly thirsty and then loaded him into the truck.
Thankfully, a faded and tattered flier on a nearby telephone pole proved to be a match. The shocked owner stated that the dog had been missing for three weeks and they had all but given up. The dog certainly didn’t look like he had been down there for weeks but a visit to the vet confirmed that the formerly overweight dog had lost 15 pounds since his prior visit. The owner explained that they had been trying to get 15 pounds off of the dog for some time. I suppose a trickle of condensation on our foggy nights may have kept him hydrated. I felt a wonderful euphoria for days after returning the dog to his ecstatic owner. A call like this is so rewarding and helps make up for some of the sad, difficult things we see in this job.
Dog's Life: Humane
Mall Adoptions: Shelters expand into retail locations
When Camille Limongelli and her boyfriend Ted Drummond decided to bring a new puppy into their home, they knew exactly where to find one: the mall. Specifically, the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, N.J., an upscale retail paradise that includes everything from Victoria’s Secret to Abercrombie & Fitch, known locally as a puppy mecca. In fact, when the couple arrived, they found themselves among a horde of shoppers jostling for space beside a wall of cages occupied by adorable pups. Soon enough, a love connection was made and 13-week-old “Tibet” was off to his new home in Brick, N.J.
While Tibet is clearly special to Limongelli and Drummond, he’s also special in the evolving world of animal welfare. That’s because Tibet isn’t a typical petstore puppy—he didn’t come from a puppy mill, where young female purebreds are used as puppy-producing machines and live in deplorable conditions. Rather, he and his abandoned siblings were rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico by a San Juan-based animal welfare organization. Moreover, Tibet wasn’t purchased, he was adopted, and this took place not in a pet store, but at the Freehold Adoption Center, a satellite site of the Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA), which serves the northern Jersey shore.
A New Approach
“The concept was that by giving people what they want in terms of the retail experience, you can save more lives,” says Ellen La Torre, director of finance for MCSPCA. “The fact is that if people come to our main shelter and don’t see what they want, which is often a cute, cuddly puppy, they may end up going to a pet store, which just perpetuates puppy mills. So, from an animal-welfare perspective, we figured, why not give them what they want, where they want it?”
While it’s difficult to know how many such retail-based adoption sites are now in operation, variations on the concept are clearly beginning to take hold and grow. The MCSPCA mall site opened its doors in April 2012, about six months after Humane Society Naples (HSN) expanded into Coastland Center, an enormous shopping hub in southwestern Florida. AniMall Pet Adoption and Outreach Center of Cary, N.C., began developing a slightly different model in 2005, using rent-free space in a nowdefunct outlet mall to provide local rescue groups with a centralized location to showcase their adoptables. Three years ago, AniMall made the bold decision to move into 3,000 square feet in Cary Towne Center, where they pay market rate. That move was so successful that the nonprofit plans to expand into 4,000 square feet of space in the same mall this February.
With neighbors like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney, these adoption sites have had to learn to embrace a full retail model, starting with merchandising. Most stock an array of high-end pet supplies, from logo-wear and gourmet treats to dog beds and designer leashes. AniMall specializes in organic and specialty pet foods that contain no wheat, corn or other potentially harmful additives. The sales of these products are critical to funding the overall operation, as well as supporting rescue and adoption efforts.
Greatly extended hours are another component of the new retail model. Like their mall neighbors, these adoption sites are typically open seven days a week, and in the evenings, as late as nine. On “Black Friday” 2012, the Freehold Adoption Center racked up $600 in sales between midnight and 8 am on its way to a record-breaking $2,695 day. And AniMall is so serious about building customer loyalty that it recently launched a rescue-rewards program, where up to 6 percent of every sale is donated to the rescue group of the client’s choice.
The adoption sites have also become adept promoters. Last summer, a fashion show at Coastland Center paired adoptable dogs with runway models wearing styles from tenant collections, and was so popular that it is being restaged this year with a “Furry Valentine” theme. “It’s really nice to incorporate [the animals] into these events because it makes it fun for the whole family,” says Melissa Wolf, Coastland Center marketing manager and herself the owner of a rescued Doberman. “We have had some wonderful events here … that showcased many of our tenants and also helped many pets get adopted.”
The sum of these retail efforts—from sales and promotions to convenience and creation of a loyal customer base— supports the main goal: saving the lives of animals.
By the Numbers
The Coastland Mall adoption site placed 775 puppies in its first 12 months, essentially increasing Humane Society Naples’ total adoptions by nearly 40 percent and putting it on track to reach 3,000 in 2012, up from 2,200 in 2011. HSN executive director Michael Simonik says that the organization reaches out to high-kill shelters in rural parts of the state that don’t typically do many adoptions. They pulled 1,300 animals from death row last year alone. HSN also showcases adult dogs under 20 pounds, a size limit dictated by the site’s cages, which were constructed by the space’s previous tenant, a pet store. In both Florida and New Jersey, the animals are housed on-site, but are cycled back to the main shelter if they have not been adopted within about 10 days.
AniMall has facilitated about 5,000 adoptions over a six-year period using a variation on this model. Rather than representing a single group or shelter, it serves as a central resource for about 50 local organizations, including breedspecific dog groups, sanctuaries, shelters and animal-control facilities, and a host of specialized rescue outfits for animals ranging from llamas and pigs to rabbits and reptiles. Most of these groups pull their animals from local high-kill shelters, where the euthanasia rate averages about 70 percent. AniMall gives its members blocks of time on weekends and high-traffic days to showcase their animals to prospective adopters.
“We have a very active rescue community here, and people are doing great work, but they are very spread out. We wanted to support their efforts by bringing everyone together in one central space, and providing what they need most, which is exposure,” says Jeremiah Adams, executive director of AniMall. “So here, we can give them space in a high-traffic mall.”
Much of that traffic is actually driven by AniMall. “We have become a destination stop,” he says. “We don’t rely very much on walk-in traffic anymore. People are coming in specifically because we are here.”
“One of the best things about the setup is that we are educating the public,” says La Torre. “People come in saying they want to ‘buy’ a puppy, and that opens the door to talking about adoption and where our puppies come from and why they need our help. It’s almost as if you can see a light bulb going off in their heads.”
“People were telling us that there would be a lot of impulse buying, but we actually have fewer returns from the Coastland site than we do from the main shelter,” said Simonik. “People worried that our donations would dry up if the shelter profile was lowered, but now we have many more donors because so many more people know about us. It’s 100 percent positive feedback.”
Even at the mall, potential adopters are subject to the same requirements they would face at most shelters or through most rescue organizations. These typically involve questionnaires, reference checks and either proof of home ownership or written permission from a landlord to have a pet.
After being approved as adopters, Limongelli and Drummond took Tibet home. Intrigued by his origins, they have since educated themselves about the terrible situation for abandoned animals in Puerto Rico and have connected with All Sato Rescue, the group that originally saved Tibet from the streets. “It has been a wonderful experience and we appreciate all of the people who work so hard to find these animals homes,” says Limongelli. “Tibet is the most loving dog we have ever met—he is the perfect addition to our family.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Transformed by volunteering, Nora Livingstone helps others do the same
Four months after hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, college student Nora Livingstone decided to drive from her home in Toronto to New Orleans to assist at an animal shelter during winter break. Livingstone, a double major in environmental studies and anthropology, thought she’d be walking and grooming dogs who had been separated from their owners during the flood, in an otherwise comfortable setting. The experience wasn’t what she expected. “Up in Canada, we had no idea how bad things had gotten in New Orleans,” Livingstone, now 29, says.
Her first clue to the chaos came when she entered the city. Beside the road, a dead horse hung from a tree. “Everyone was too busy helping themselves and their families to deal with the horse,” says Livingstone. “It sort of set the precedent for the rest of the week.”
The section of the city where Livingstone had signed up to volunteer didn’t even have full power. She spent her Christmas vacation working up to 20-hour days at a makeshift animal shelter at Celebration Station, a former fun park. She slept on a cot alongside other volunteers in a second-floor loft overlooking hundreds of displaced cats caged on the floor below. Outside, chain-link fences separated the runs that housed about a hundred homeless dogs. “At that time, there were still houses on top of houses,” Livingstone says. “There was tons of debris. There was no food. There were stray dogs everywhere.”
Livingstone’s volunteer work in New Orleans was difficult, both physically and emotionally. Each morning, she fed hundreds of dogs and cats, and cleaned just as many bowls and litter boxes. She picked up countless piles of dog poo. By the time she had completed the breakfast routine, it was time to feed the animals dinner, and the whole process started all over again. The sheer number of dogs meant that she could only spend a couple of minutes with each. “I cried every day,” Livingstone says. “There were some dogs who were just so bewildered and scared. The hard part about working with animals is that you can’t rationalize with them. You can’t explain what happened, and that things are going to be okay. All you can do is lie down beside them and pet them.”
Despite the challenges, Livingstone considers her time volunteering in New Orleans as some of the most rewarding in her life. The sadness she felt was tempered by the joy of witnessing daily reunions with families who had come to claim their lost pets. She learned that in many cases, people had had their pets taken from them by authorities who prohibited them at human shelters, or were forced to leave their animals behind at gunpoint by the National Guard during evacuation. “I realized that the work I was doing was helping not only animals, but also people struggling to make their families whole again after a really awful situation,” Livingstone says.
While she didn’t know it at the time, her experience planted the seed for what would become her life’s work. Six years later, Livingstone co-founded Animal Experience International (AEI), a travel company dedicated to providing animal volunteer opportunities around the globe.
But before the idea for AEI could materialize, Livingstone would return home to Canada and finish university and a post-graduate program in Outdoor Adventure Leadership, which involved activities like canoeing and kayaking. Unsure how to combine her education, her outdoors experience and her love of animals into a career, she headed to Nepal in 2007 for another round of volunteer work. She hoped to find some direction, or at least the same satisfaction she had discovered in New Orleans.
While in Nepal, Livingstone volunteered at a medical clinic and as an English teacher. She noticed that dogs were not treated the same as they were in the west. Dogs in Nepal guard homes and gardens, and are not typically considered pets. Most Nepalese believe dogs are the reincarnations of bad prophets —humans fated to live as dogs as punishment for past misdeeds.
One day at a bakery in Kathmandu, Livingstone discussed her observations with a British woman she’d just met. The woman had been living in Nepal for more than 30 years and told Livingstone about a groundbreaking dog clinic, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). Shortly after, Livingstone showed up at KAT’s door and offered to volunteer. She wound up spending several weeks at the center, which aims to improve the lives of street dogs through vaccination, injury rehabilitation and spaying/neutering. After dogs are treated, experts at KAT evaluate them for pet potential, and keep those with promise at the shelter for adoption instead of returning them to the streets. “I loved being there,” Livingstone says. “A place like KAT is so rare in Nepal. I wanted to find a way to get more people involved, to let more people know about it.”
An idea formed once Livingstone returned to Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a company that connected standout animal sanctuaries, shelters and conservation programs around the world with interested travelers like her? The vision stayed in the back of her mind even as she took a job as volunteer coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. It was there that Livingstone met veterinarian Heather Reid, who helped bring her idea to fruition. Reid shared Livingstone’s passion for travel and her interest in volunteer work with animals. One step ahead of Livingstone, Reid had been considering what it would take to create international animal-based volunteer experiences for other veterinarians. “My brain practically exploded after talking to Dr. Heather because it was just so obvious,” says Livingstone. “I’m passionate about volunteering and encouraging others to volunteer and travel and stir up their lives, so why not get paid to live my dream while helping other people live theirs?”
In 2011, the two women founded AEI, launching it in March with five trips, including one to KAT, the dog clinic where Livingstone had volunteered in Nepal. Within a couple of months, they had 20 travelers signed up. In June, a volunteer tourism portal, GoVolunteering.com, picked up some of their trips and blasted them out to more than 13,000 subscribers. A few months later, AEI’s client list doubled. “We knew there was a market for this,” Livingstone says, “We were just surprised at how quickly it took off.”
Animal-based organizations from all over the world started contacting AEI to create volunteer travel programs at their locations. But Livingstone has been careful to add trips slowly. One of AEI’s core values is to partner with only the best and most effective organizations; Livingstone or Reid visits each before adding it to the lineup. After one year of operation, AEI offers 26 trips to locations ranging from Canada to Thailand and Australia. Travelers can choose to volunteer with dogs, cats, bats, turtles, monkeys, elephants, parrots, bears, leopards, tigers, crocodiles and kangaroos, among others. “People have been knocking down our door, which is both inspiring and a little overwhelming,” says Livingstone.
AEI travelers can also customize the length of their trip, from two weeks to two months, with longer options available. One client signed up for a full year working with orangutans in Sumatra. Her cost of $4,390 includes accommodations, meals, transportation, travelers’ insurance—everything except airfare. While $4,390 seems like a bargain for a full year abroad, Livingstone recognizes that money is the biggest inhibitor to international travel. She and Reid have devised aggressive fundraising techniques for clients, as well as a scholarship program. “If someone is inspired enough to go on one of our trips, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them there,” says Livingstone.
Trips also include cultural experiences and sightseeing excursions. Both Livingstone and Reid want AEI travelers to experience the natural and manmade wonders that draw tourists to the destinations where they are volunteering. But they are also clear that AEI trips are not typical getaways. “We’re not offering a vacation,” Livingstone says. “This is not going to a resort, this is work. But it’s work that’s transformational— through the animals you work with, through the family you homestay with, and through the community you live in.”
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