As I scratch my dog Jeffrey’s velvety ears and he looks up at me with his thoughtful face, it’s not lost on me that I get to love this precious creature because of one person’s selflessness.
A former nurse practitioner/educator, who has given her entire retired life to rescuing animals, saw Jeffrey’s potential and saved him from a local shelter. He had been scheduled to be put down before Kay Stewart stepped in.
Jeffrey is one of more than 9,500 dogs and cats Kay has saved, along with the non-profit she founded Happy Tails Animal Rescue of Washington County, Virginia.
With as many as 35 dogs and up to 25 kittens in her barn at any given time, Kay’s day starts at 7 a.m. and wraps up around 8 or 9 p.m. — except when there are sick animals that require round-the-clock care.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are designated as shelter days when Kay evaluates dogs and cats at the pound then sends out the information to partnering rescues.
Thursdays mean time to transport. While Kay feeds, walks, grooms and gives the foster and sanctuary animals their medications, her rescue partner Walter drives 5 hours one way to deliver requested animals to other no-kill rescues that operate in larger metro areas where more people are looking for pets, giving the animals a better shot at being adopted quickly. Walter then turns around and drives another 5 hours back home.
And if Kay is not caring for the animals, she’s taking them to the vet, or she’s online working with other rescues and doing endless paperwork. Then there are the fundraisers to help plan.
And while the rescue operation runs like a well-oiled machine, there is always the unexpected. And this one-time burn unit nurse handles it all with grace and compassion.
From the typical medical problems, like the parvovirus, to the unusual, and difficult to pronounce – including myasthenia gravis and hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy, Kay deals with emergencies on a daily basis.
And as the exhaustion sets in, so does the satisfaction one has when truly making a difference.
Kay remembers fondly the transformation of one particular pup she and Walter rescued.
Kathleen – our little Sheltie girl. She was the apple of our eye. We pulled her out of the shelter thinking she was 10 to 15 years old, but it turned out she was more likely only 4 or 5. She had strings of matted fur dragging out behind her as she laid in her urine and feces. She had the sweetest face and softest tongue. She could hardly walk she was so obese. The joints in her leg were ruined and she had a huge abscess on her front shoulder. She was unable to move about at all. Walter would put her in the house at night and bring her out in the morning and lay her in the sunshine and encourage her to walk. Then after a couple weeks she started to get up. Several months later she began running alongside our four-wheeler down to the barn. I remember her fur flying, her happy little face. She just never, ever complained.
– Kay Stewart, HTAR.org Founder
These days Kay is worried. Despite having wonderful volunteers working with Happy Tails of Washington County, Virginia she wonders who will take on her all-in approach when she can no longer carry out the mission: something she says is needed in an area where the homeless pet population is far too great.
A 29-year-old dog trainer from northeast Tennessee is proof there is hope. Along with her real job with Off-Leash K9 Training, her rescue work is like a second full-time gig for her.
“Rescue is a lifestyle,” said Ali, who has been dragging home strays since she was 12 or 13.
Ali, who is now a mother and the owner of 7 dogs, volunteers with Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, St. Bernard Rescue of Tennessee, New England All Breed Rescue in Massachusetts, Blind Dog Rescue Alliance, Siberian Husky Assist Rescue, SOS Beagle Rescue, Big Fluffy Dog Rescue out of Nashville and the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley. And on top of all that, Ali is a frequent foster parent for four-legged friends in need, with two in her care right now. Here is the story of her dog Stella.
And she still makes time to visit an area rescue to help socialize two dogs that the volunteers believe have not had human contact for a year and a half.
King and Noble are brothers. In an effort to get them to form other bonds, the two had to be separated.
During Ali’s first visit, she simply sat inside their kennels – no pressure, just a presence.
“They would move to the opposite end and get as far away from me as they could,” said Ali. “They would cower and shake and mess themselves they were so terrified.”
On a subsequent visit, Ali offered a hand cloaked in a bite glove. The next step, a bare hand with the bite glove hovering over it just in case.
“I have seen progress,” said Ali. “King started coming to the door as I was leaving. He wants to love me. He wants me to love him. He just doesn’t know how.”
Then finally that human contact.
It takes patience, kindness and a dedication many of us could never imagine.
“The desire to save more lives,” said Kay Stewart. “And the reward that comes when I get e-mails and pictures of animals that have been saved and they’re in their new lives. We see them running in meadows, jumping into rivers, on the bed with the family, curled up with siblings – canine and feline – that’s when the reward comes.”
As for my family, with so much love to offer our Jeffrey and new little shelter pup Dasher, we are grateful for people like Kay and Ali. They’re a reminder that there are saints among us.
(If you would like to recognize someone who does a lot for homeless pets, please leave a comment!)