MATCHING THE RIGHT animal with the right home amid increasing demands for furry friends.
All in a day’s work.
“Those calls have come in and we’ve been able to do increased adoptions overall,” said Kim Hessel, president and founder of Heaven Can Wait, a Foothills County rescue animal shelter located just south of High River. “We’re still being our usual careful selves when it comes to screenings, we’re trying to do what’s best for the animal and ultimately what’s best for the family or individual.
“It still needs to be looked at as a long-term commitment, not just ‘geeze I’m sad and isolated during COVID.’ There’s that balance we’ve been trying to find with the people we’ve been dealing with.”
With diligence and a committed group of adoptees, there have been many success stories to come out of the first few months of 2021.
As Hessel explained, it can be difficult to find homes for older pets and the shelter worked hard to find the right home for Arnold, a black lab, German shepherd and collie mix approximately seven years in age, and the family reciprocated by making the efforts to have him feel at home.
After some initial hurdles, Natalia Bills and her partner Shawn took in Arnold a couple months ago.
“It’s always been our decision to try to adopt senior rescues,” she said. “We’ve always had dogs in the seven years that we’re together, at one point we actually had five dogs at the same time, all rescues.”
After one of their rescues passed a couple years ago, the couple took the time before being ready to take in another animal. After going through shelters in the Calgary area, the search narrowed towards Heaven Can Wait.
“We just don’t have the time to adopt a puppy, we want to continue with senior rescues and give them their last best years,” she said. “Usually, a lot of the senior rescues had a pretty traumatic life.
“We think it’s a win-win for us because a lot of the older dogs know the basic training, we don’t have to do potty training. But it’s also that we really have a soft spot for trying to give these dogs another chance to show them that life is not that bad at all, that there are still some good people that will take care of them.”
Arnold had to be rehomed in short order before finding his forever home, something that’s far from a desired outcome and a situation the shelter works diligently to avoid.
“Kim understood what we were looking for, what we were capable of giving,” Bills said. “She matched us perfectly with Arnold, it was her suggestion and we agreed to meet him.”
The first meeting went ok, with the Bills’ other older rescue lab Thunder acting up a little bit with the unfamiliar surroundings.
That changed quickly and the labs are fast friends along with the family’s shih tzu.
“There was two weeks where he stayed with us as a trial, we expected him to be shy and nervous, first time we brought him home,” she said. “But Thunder was really nice to him and I think that gave Arnold more confidence and more reason to trust us.
“To be honest, after one week he felt like home.”
The rescues are treated like royalty from a dog friendly backyard to play in to weekly steak dinners for the pooches.
“We just want to give them their last best years so that when they’re ready to go they will only remember the good memories,” Bills said.
High River’s JoAnna Fay, a longtime supporter and client of Heaven Can Wait, added two feline companions, Bort and Mando, to her home on her birthday.
“Between my sisters and I and my parents we’ve adopted probably five or six cats total from Heaven Can Wait,” she said. “We’ve always grown up with cats, growing up in High River, cats have come and passed on in our household.
“We just found ourselves with a cat that reached a ripe old age and passed away and this was at the beginning of COVID. We knew that our family isn’t whole without a cat, we love having them around, and we thought let’s go get another one.”
Or two, after the family moved to a new home.
“Now we have our own young children, we have a six-year-old and three-year-old so it was a little more exciting this time because the children were involved in the adoption process,” she said. “At Heaven Can Wait, they know (the animals’) personalities, they’ll say ‘don’t pet that one, that one doesn’t like children’ or ‘come and meet this one, it’s younger and loves to play.’
“We thought getting two would be nice because if they could bond, the cats would play together and we have the space for two.”
She sees the adoption of rescue animals as a win-win situation, particularly during a time where adoptees are being returned to shelters at a higher rate during the pandemic.
“One thing it does is I think for the kids it adds a novelty, something new and exciting because when you’re so limited in what you can do on the weekends, what you can do socially, this is a built-in friend,” she said. “These guys being so social, they love to play, they’re little purring machines, it adds a little bit more joy to what is an otherwise pretty mundane world.
“I come from a family of animal lovers at heart and knowing that we can make a positive difference to a need in the community, they need forever homes and in my mind it’s a win, win. We’re adding to our family while helping creatures while also easing the burden on others who are helping these animals.”
For Donna McInnes, a former Okotokian now living in Calgary, her rescue McKenna arrived at the perfect time in her life.
“I had a lot of life changes in the last couple years and one of them was my golden passed in 2018, and everybody has that one dog and he was that one dog,” she said. “For me it wasn’t the right time to get a dog, and there have been many times over the last couple years that I wanted to get in contact with Kim, but I never did, kept putting it off.
“And on Family Day weekend I had this overpowering feeling I had to contact Kim that day.”
McInnes inquired about any goldens that might have come into the shelter with Kim replying back with a picture of McKenna, a retriever.
“Oh my god, I cried. Her eyes were so expressive, so pleading,” McInnes said. “I knew she was the one.”
Though a young dog, at roughly a year and a half old, McKenna grew up in tough surroundings and has already had a litter of puppies.
“When she came to Kim, she was very, very timid, very unsure, didn’t want to go near people, scared of brooms, scared of shovels,” McInnes added. “And we brought her home, she was just terrified to leave, got her in the truck, drove all the way home and she was so, so nervous, panting and drooling.
“It was a struggle. I’ve got an extensive background in guide dog, service dog training, so I worked with her to build up her confidence.”
With hard work and consistency, McKenna is now going on almost daily 10-kilometre walks, with lots of training and exposure to build up her confidence.
“I have come to realize that I need her as much as she needs me,” McInnes said. “She already is a different dog, it’s amazing to see the difference in her, she’s coming out of her shell. She’s pretty confident, loving, smart as anything.”
McInnes is a strong supporter of going the adoption route with dogs, but cautioned that it’s a big responsibility and when the pandemic ends and people go back to working outside of the home the animal still needs to fit into that changing equation.
“Most of my dogs have been rescues and I feel strongly about that, we want to make their lives the best they can be after having rocky starts,” she said. “It wasn’t their fault whatever the circumstances were before and I feel it’s owed to them, we need to make up for whatever’s happened in the past.
“And nine times out of ten they become the best dogs, they know they’ve been given a second chance, they’re appreciative and do their best to say thank you.”
And despite the old axioms about cats and dogs not living in harmony, that’s been anything but the case for Tim and Robin Laidlaw.
In fact, their new feline friend Big Papa has taken on the personalities of his four canine companions in the home.
“He’s a cat who thinks he’s a dog,” said Tim, who with Robin runs the K9 Gentle Dental business based out of Calgary. “That’s actually the reason we were on site (at Heaven Can Wait), he was actually there in one the cages and whenever we’re there and we have time we say hi to the cats and the dogs up for adoption.
“He kind of stole our hearts from the get-go, he was so cute, he wanted to be cuddled and the only sign of any discontent he showed is when you actually put him back in his cage.”
With four dogs at home over 10 years old, adding another friend to the pack had to be the right fit in demeanour and temperament.
“We were advised to keep him locked into his own space to keep him comfortable, but he was actually uncomfortable in that space and demanded to come out immediately,” he said. “As soon as he came out, he was part of the pack and lays with them every day.”
For the Laidlaws, going the rescue route just makes sense and fills a need in society.
“Nothing against breeding, but why would you bring more dogs into the world when there’s dogs that are being put down because there aren’t enough homes taking them in,” he said. “We’ve always been pro-adoption whenever possible and all of our animals since we’ve been together, which has been coming up eight years now, have always been adopted.”
Adoptions certainly are up within the Foothills, but the effect is being somewhat offset by the quantity of owner surrenders the shelters are seeing.
That’s added to the financial challenges places like Heaven Can Wait have endured during the pandemic with fundraising events like golf tournaments on the shelf.
“On the positive side, there’s definitely been an increase in interest for adoption, which is great, we’ve unfortunately seen that increase as well in owner surrenders,” Hessel said. “So it’s been almost even. “These are folks that aren’t working the hours they’re used to, they outright lost their jobs, worried about their homes, worried about their kids. Most of the people we talk to for owner surrenders are legitimately sad about having to give up their animals.”
Hessel added the shelter does its best to help those struggling with payments for food or veterinary care.
On the other side of the coin, lots of families are looking for young animals to grow up with the kids with most folks spending much more time on the homestead than in years past.
Heaven Can Wait brings in its animals from a variety of places, from transfers from the likes of the Calgary Humane Society and other shelters, owner surrenders and quite a few from calls from the public within the Foothills around Longview, Black Diamond and Turner Valley and acreages in the surrounding area.
“Some of them just need to be spayed and neutered and others need more work,” she said. “It really is luck of the draw in terms of what’s on the other end of the phone when I pick it up.
“Health issues aside, the behavioural issues are more of a problem because it’s more difficult to find the right home for dogs with behavioural issues, even cats to a lesser degree, so there’s that aspect. Some of the animals we get aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“They need time, they need training and they need independent help to reach their potential.”
This article was featured in the spring 2021 edition of Foothills Magazine.