In September of 2016 myself, my husband, and my friend Courtney sat down for our first board meeting to found Wayward Ranch. The three of us had all worked previously in rescue, with Courtney and I working alongside each other for several years at a dog shelter. The three of us had a similar passion for the “broken” animals, whether they had behavioral or medical special needs. In founding our own rescue, it was important to the three of us to make these animals a priority, and so our tagline “The Underdog’s Last Hope” was born, as was our Underdog Program.
Our Underdog Program is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and caring for medically special needs animals. Many of these animals are able to go on to find wonderful forever homes, while others spend their last years, months, days, or even hours with us as their final family. Whether an animal in this program simply requires medical treatment or hospice care, these are the journeys that we become the most emotionally invested in.
Above: Special needs animals currently in our Underdog Program.
The very first animal we brought in to our Underdog Program was a one year old pit bull mix that we named Socrates, or Sox as we liked to call him. Sox was born with epilepsy that his family did not witness until he was about four months old. He had horrific grand mal seizures, and by the time he turned a year, the toddler in the house was so afraid of his seizures that they were forced to rehome him. Luckily we had space for him and took him in to our rescue. I personally have an epileptic dog who has such occasional seizures that he doesn’t require medication, and we felt confident that with the proper medication we would be able to manage his seizures. Unfortunately, we were wrong. In the month Sox was with our rescue, we had him on a number of seizure medications and nothing could stop the seizures from happening. The more medication we put him on the less he played, cuddled, or wanted to stand up even to eat. His options were to spend his life highly medicated, lacking any quality of life, and still have major seizures several times a week, or to be taken off of the meds to allow him to have a week of fun before we said goodbye. Under the advisement of several veterinarians who felt that his condition would only worsen and would likely never be better managed with medication, we chose the second option. This was one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make, but that week that Socrates had the chance to run and play without falling over (his medication had taken away his ability to balance and he often would collapse even just walking) is something I would do a million times over.
Another memorable hospice experience was with a dog I named Rosie. Love at first sight is something I really only believe happens with animals, because that is when it happens in the purest form. When Rosie and I laid eyes on each other, that is what we experienced, and I will always feel honored that she chose me to be her last person. She had lived a life of terrible neglect. She had been hit by a car and paralyzed in her back legs and forced to drag herself on just her front legs for fourteen years. Her family never sought medical attention for her and even forced her to breed and have multiple litters of puppies after she had been paralyzed. By the time she came home with me at sixteen years old, we knew she did not have much life left to live. She was tired, her body hurt her so badly, but she still yearned to soak up every ounce of love she possibly could in the time she had left. Rosie wanted nothing but to sit by my side and breathe her hot breath on my face. I was the first person to take her home, hug her, and love her unconditionally and to her I was like a drug. The first day we put her on a nice cozy bed in the living room, put up a dog pen by the stairs, and I went downstairs to search for a lift harness for her. Moments later this sweet dog used every ounce of her fiery spirit to rip the dog gate out of the wall and fling herself down a flight of stairs to come find me. Being loved by Rosie was beautiful, but it was also difficult. She needed me every moment of every day, and that meant I was sleeping on the floor next to her, working on my computer next to her, eating next to her, and only taking breaks to run to the bathroom and right back. I knew her time left was limited, and I wanted to make every last moment of it happy. I don’t know that I accomplished that, but I know that I tried. We made her a bucket list, and by the time we had finished it, she let me know she was ready to go. In my home, her home, and in my arms, she left peacefully after giving me a final kiss on the cheek.
Merlin was our most recent hospice case, which is why this topic is so fresh in my mind and I chose to write about it this week. Every day we receive 10-30 emails begging us to help save animals in the NYC ACC system. One of these daily emails is always titled “First Alert Dogs” and has photos and information on every dog that came into a city shelter that day. I always scroll through this email, even if I know we don’t necessarily have space, out of curiosity, and when I saw his face I stopped scrolling. He reminded me of another hospice dog we had in 2017 named Ozzie and I read his write up and saw he likely had cancer, with one mass having severely ruptured. I forwarded the email with his bloodwork to one of our board members who is also our main veterinarian and she agreed with the city veterinarian that he was in very bad shape. I knew it was a long shot, but something about his face made me need to at least try, so that is what we did. He arrived several days later and we immediately took him into the vet. He had terribly itchy skin in addition to the open wound on his hip from the ruptured mass. We decided to start him on allergy medication for his skin, pain medication, and antibiotics, and to do a recheck in a week to see what his progress was. Merlin was miserable when he arrived, itchy, uncomfortable, and in pain. Two days after seeing the vet and starting new medication, he was completely itch free and his goofy side started to come out. He played with me (as much as a mostly blind/deaf dog can) and loved to cuddle up to my husband. Sadly, Merlin did not make it to his one week check in. He began to struggle to breathe and within a few hours took a very bad turn for the worse, and I knew we had to let him go. As soon as I returned home from his euthanasia I cried to my husband “Did I fail him by making him come here?” I now know the answer is “No,” because at least before he passed he was comfortable, he was loved, and he had happiness. He passed away in my arms, not in a cold, scary room. He had a family, just a little too late in his life.
Each hospice case is painful. Every single one hurts, and as I’ve written this blog today I’ve stopped several times to cry for the friends I’ve lost, still just as affected by that loss today as I was at the time. I have learned from each experience, and we have adapted and grown as a rescue from the lessons these animals have taught us. Socrates taught me what my limits were in terms of whether we were keeping an animal alive for their sake or for ours at their detriment. Rosie taught me the meaning of self sacrifice and that when an animal has a limited amount of time left, their needs have to come first. Merlin validated my need to try, even knowing we may fail, because to not even attempt something is the only way to truly fail.
I know for some, this blog post may be more difficult to read. It was difficult and emotional to write, especially so soon after losing Merlin. However, I feel it was important. In the animal rescue world, it is well known that compassion fatigue is a real threat. We see so much heartache, of course people start to go numb. I have seen this happen firsthand to other people who have done hospice care. To me, hospice care has the opposite effect. When I get into a rut in rescue or I feel any signs of compassion fatigue (and I absolutely have in the past), magically a hospice case finds their way into my life. They remind me of how passionate I am about my personal definition of rescue, and how much this work means to me. What matters most to me, and the reason why I chose to write this blog, is for these animals that have affected my life so profoundly to never be forgotten. I can make sure their short lives mattered. Isn’t that the best any of us can hope for?
Wayward Ranch Animal Sanctuary, Inc.
This post is dedicated to the animals I have loved and lost. Vinka, Dillon, Pike, Kara, Marshall, Bella, Tobey, Merlin, Simba, Grandpa Whiskey, Jimmy, presley, Roger, Gambit, Tater, Apollo, Hoban, Socrates, Bandit, Rosie, Ozzy, Catie, Rex, Po, Dewey, Elsa, Grumpy, Merlin (2), and Speedy.
Because of you all, I am forever changed and you are never forgotten.