Pets and Their People - Our Love Affair With Our Animals
By Deborah Taylor
It was a hot September day and I was trudging slowly up and down acres of cornfields on the north shore of the Rappahannock River, row by row, searching for Jackie. My brother-in-law was across the field working his way toward me, row by row. Jackie was his mother’s Jack Russell terrier. We all dreaded the possibility that she might actually be gone. What would his mother do? That dog was her whole world. We never found Jackie, not that day, or the next, or the next. Her owner, Jean Bonnell, was devastated. “In the beginning, all I could do was cry. I was lost without her. She was my significant other. I raised her from a puppy.”
One year later, Jean was finally ready to adopt another Jack Russell terrier. She put the word out to local animal hospitals and shelters, but when months passed without a single call, she gave up. Then one fateful day, while she was running errands, something told her to turn into Kilmarnock Animal Hospital. As she walked through the front door, the vet seemed to be waiting for her, beaming. They’d found a young Jack Russell, badly injured and left in a ditch, and no one had claimed him. “The minute I put him in my car,” said Jean, “we took to each other. I was his and he was mine. He cuddles and climbs into my lap to watch TV with me. And he’s usually very obedient—except on Sundays,” she said, laughing.
Seems it didn’t take long for young Jake to realize that his closest neighbors had nine acres full of playmates—twenty-six, to be exact. So every Sunday morning like clockwork, Jake bounds across the field, wiggles through the neighbor’s cat door and jumps into bed with Gus Shelton, owner of Kilmarnock’s Blue Water Seafood and Deli, and his wife, Vicki Kinsel, nephrologist. “He stops by every day for a short time, but Sunday we’re both home,” explained Vicki. “Jake runs over at about 6 a.m. when Jean lets him out, gets under the covers with us and falls asleep, then stays for breakfast ’cause he knows that’s when the animals get a little bite of bacon or sausage! Then he stays to play with his buddy, a Jack Russell terrier I found on Route 17 one day on my way home from work. I saw this puppy out of the corner of my eye, so I turned around to look again. When I stopped and opened the door and called to her, she jumped in, covered with ticks and fleas. I put an announcement on the radio. I knocked on doors in the area. But no one claimed her. Now she’s Gus’s dog and she basically runs the house!”
Gus and Vicki are among the area’s most dedicated animal rescuers, and apparently are on speed dial with area veterinarians and rescue groups when animals need homes. At the moment, the couple have two goats—Lilly and Elvis—Phyllis, a twenty-five-year-old Arabian Welch mare whose owner had to give her up; a Chincoteague pony named Ink, whose owner died; and seven dogs and fifteen cats, who’ve arrived at the Lancaster farm as a result of every manner of circumstance. “When I came to the Northern Neck twenty years ago,” said Vicki, “I was looking for a secluded place where I could have a few animals.” But she didn’t intend to become a rescue sanctuary or an animal hospice; that just happened. “I’d find animals on the road, or get a call from Joyce Page at the Animal Welfare League about a cat or dog about to be euthanized, or someone would call me about an animal that was sick or dying.”
“Sometimes I get them when the animals here obviously need a companion. I got two baby goats sometime ago and raised them. Then Clarisse was gored by one of the pigs we had at the time and I noticed that the other one, Lilly, was so sad after that. She would just stand in the stall, obviously depressed, and stare out and make a mournful sound. So that’s when I inherited Elvis, our billy goat, for her companion.”
Why Have Pets?
Sixty-eight percent of US households—some 82.5 million homes—have pets. We pamper them, regard them as full members of the family, and carry their pictures in our wallets. We even buy them holiday gifts, spending an estimated five billion dollars every year, according to a recent petfinder.com survey.
So why do we do it? Why do we go through the sadness and agony when they die and add to the responsibilities and expenses that already crowd our hectic lives? The simple answer is it makes us happy, said Vicki. “We spend more money on animal food at our house than we spend on our own food, but I couldn’t live without my animals. My life is richer for having had them. I think of them as my companions and I know many, many people whose lives and sanity have been saved by them.”
Judy Harvell, president of the Animal Welfare League (AWL) of the Northern Neck, agrees. She and her husband have three rescue dogs: Ginger, the beagle; Eddie, a terrier mix; and Hoodie, an Australian shepherd. She is a tireless advocate for animals at AWL. “The best way to describe our relationship with our animals is unconditional love. They love us no matter what we do. They don’t judge us. They just want to be loved. But they’re defenseless. It’s our job to be their caretakers. In the morning, our dogs wait at the bedroom door and when my husband opens the door, their tails are wagging ninety miles an hour. His perspective is ‘my day doesn’t start till I pet those animals.’ You can never get up feeling bad when you have animals!”
Judy has been working with the Animal Welfare League for nearly nineteen years. The nonprofit corporation, established in 1965, is dedicated to reducing overpopulation through spay and neuter programs and community-wide education in Lancaster, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Richmond counties. An all-volunteer organization, AWL receives no county or state funding and relies entirely on donations, fundraising events, and sales at the Animal Welfare League Thrift Shop in downtown Kilmarnock. According to her sister, Joyce Page, who is a Lively resident and vice president and adoption officer of AWL, where she has been a volunteer for seventeen years, “Last year the AWL sterilized over one thousand dogs and cats and rescued nearly three hundred, which were later rehomed or given to Northeast rescue groups where there is a shortage of animals to adopt. And our vet bill for last year totaled $163,000!”
As the resident adoption officer, Joyce is the one who follows up on calls when AWL receives reports of possible animal neglect or abuse, when animals are lost, or when owners can’t handle their care. Over the years, she has adopted many animals and admits that she has devoted her entire retirement life to her quest to stop the abuse and neglect of animals. She also started her own foundation, “The Shirley Perkins Memorial Fund for Animals,” with seed money of one thousand dollars she inherited from a friend. She dips into the fund to help animals in need in surrounding counties—Essex and Middlesex counties, Mathews, and even Florida—and in situations AWL programs don’t cover. “I’ve done everything from paying for heart worm treatment for a dog when the owner couldn’t afford it to buying forty pounds of food for a horse whose owner needed financial help. As far as I’m concerned, these creatures are a precious gift to us: pure unconditional love. It’s our responsibility to care for them.”
They’re also healers and teachers who, through some mixture of synchronicity and grace, seem to come into our lives at those times when we need them most. Adine Jones, veterinarian and owner of Countryside Animal Hospital in Saluda, remembers the day she received a frantic call from someone driving behind a pick-up truck. A puppy on a leash in the bed of the truck had fallen out and was being dragged down the highway. Onlookers at the scene gave the puppy CPR, but by the time she arrived at the animal hospital, the puppy was in serious shape. “Her paws were horribly worn down to the bone and she had huge wounds on the side of her body. But when I scooped her up and she flashed me with those big brown eyes and wagged her tail, I knew she was saying we can get through this.”
When her puppy’s owner decided he couldn’t handle it all and immediately took the dog to a local area shelter, the shelter called Adine and she intervened. She knew just the person who could care for the dog. “It was a woman I know very well who had been through so much. She’d lost her home and her money after having been very wealthy. She had to put her horse down after she’d had a horrible illness, and then her dog right after that. I knew it would help her to focus on someone else.”
It took months and months for the puppy to heal. “For the first thirty days, I thought we would lose her,” said Adine. Her skin was sloughing off. She had to wear booties and be carried up and down the steps. And the woman who was caring for her kept telling Aiden, “I don’t want this. As soon as she’s better, we need to find her a home.” But something miraculous happened along the way. The caretaker fell in love with the puppy-with-those-big-brown-eyes, and the puppy fell in love with her. Today, her owner readily admits that life has become so much more meaningful and wonderful, all because of her little brown-eyed dog.