I didn’t quite know what to expect the first time I pulled into the driveway of the House With A Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I was afraid that a charity dedicated to caring for old, abandoned dogs (and a few cats) would be a sad place, one that much like a hospice for people reeked of decay and despair.
Minutes after walking through the front gates, however, I thought I had accidentally stumbled across a modern-day re-make of the movie “Cocoon” that starred senior animals instead of senior people. A little blind poodle named “Faith” somehow flew into the arms of Orion’s Attic co-founder Won-ok Kim. Another little one was bounding around after recovering from a spinal tap. In another spot, Daphne seemed to have no memory of a second broken leg she suffered before arriving at House With A Heart.
A Portuguese Water Dog with some collie in her DNA may have represented the biggest transformation.
“She had completely shut down by the time she got here,” House With A Heart founder Sherry “Sher” Polvinale tells us. “Now she moves around, goes in and out of gates, and will sit and let you rub her belly.
Part of the joie de vivre might come from the energy of the temporary — and younger — residents that are boarded there while their parents are away. The rest clearly comes from the force of nature that is Sher, who started rescuing animals 30 years ago and never looked back.
“People love animals but they don’t always love them forever,” she says, her beaming eyes off-setting the sadness of her words. She is good at delivering powerful one-liners because the demands of her day don’t often allow for time spent wasting words. She’s not one for sitting down, either. She fields one call while pinching the phone to her ear so she can spray a cleaning agent on the floor with one hand, wipe with the other, and dry with a towel she drags underfoot as she paces.
Though Sher and more than 50 volunteers provide a spotless, loving home and medical care for nearly 30 dogs and four cats, she won’t accept praise for work that rightly deserves to be called saintly.
“I love spending time with these animals,” she says. “This my treat to myself in my old age. It’s selfish, really.”
I beg to differ. Working that hard — the Army would be impressed by what she gets done before 9 a.m. — is anything but selfish. If it weren’t for House With A Heart, these old animals would likely spend their last days unwanted and alone in a shelter before euthanasia took their lives prematurely.
Part of me understands what Sher was trying to say. Our company is named after the world’s greatest Siberian husky who was in God-awful shape the day we met. Orion gave me ten of the best years of my life. His shelter-rescued companion, a half-husky named Alexis, wasn’t supposed to live a week when I got her. That was 13 years ago. She rests at my feet as I write today.
Then I watch Sher toil away for another hour and am quite convinced that she is extraordinarily unselfish.
Won-ok and I will try to do our small part to help House With A Heart’s effort to bring joy to
old animals but the nonprofit organization needs — and deserves — a lot more support. It takes about $12,000 a month to operate the facility, though the number is going up due to increased medical care needs. That veterinary tab alone could hit $70,000 this year. House With A Heart could also use at least 20 more volunteers.
Sher admits that one of her biggest problems is asking for help. I do not suffer from that affliction and I ask everyone who reads this to click on the charity’s Web site above and pass it around to everyone you know. Make a donation if you’re so inclined. Volunteer.
Who knows, you might even get the chance to be an extra if Ron Howard swipes my idea and makes an animal version of “Cocoon”.