Special needs, unwanted pets find new life at CompAnimals
By Steven Hoffman
There is a place at the corner of Route 896 and Flint Hill Road in Landenberg whose inhabitants are cherished. Neither age, nor infirmity, nor tragic history are barriers for acceptance. Treated with kindness and compassion, the hope is to ultimately find these residents “a forever home.”
For more than 20 years, Leslie Hunt, founder and director of CompAnimals Pet Rescue, and her cadre of like-minded volunteers have been caring for the dogs, cats and other pets that need help and families of their own. Operating out of a converted garage and the homes of foster volunteers, the rescue can count more than 2,000 successful adoptions, a result that often starts with a heartbreaking beginning.
“We’ll take in the pets that are hard to place,” Hunt said. Special needs might be a pit bull with ovarian cancer, a cat needing extreme dental work or a cocker spaniel from a puppy mill whose experience left it painfully shy.
Sometimes CompAnimals finds itself with pets after a family misfortune such as death, illness or job loss. A recent example was the death of an elderly man, which resulted in his three cats being given to the rescue, said Lynn Monahan, president of the rescue’s board of directors and a longtime volunteer. “Gracie, True and Oliver are fabulous cats,” she said of newly obtained feline trio.
CompAnimals also works with other shelters in the general area, including the Brandywine Valley SPCA locations and the Baltimore Animal and Rescue Care Shelter. The Landenberg facility will often take an animal that the larger shelters know will receive more individualized attention.
And puppy mills – essentially birthing factories where the dogs are kept in cages and receive no socialization, little vet care or exercise – will often surrender their rejects to rescues. Dealing with the effects of a life spent in a cage takes its toll on the dogs, whether they are found-wanting puppies or 6-year-old, past-their-prime breeders.
“Some of the puppy mill dogs are afraid of grass,” Hunt said. “Just take them to the park and they freeze. You think they'd want to be out of the cage, but that's all they've known and it’s their safe spot.” Those dogs are often afraid of many things, including people.
Hunt said it can take a while for them to get accustomed to the outside and lose their shyness. “Some of them are always shy,” she said.
Growing up in the Prices Corner section of Delaware, Hunt’s expertise is rooted in her lifelong love of animals. “My brother just found a letter I wrote to [then-U.S. Sen.] Joe Biden when I was in fourth grade, asking him to save the woodpeckers and the Key deer [a type of white-tailed deer found only in the Florida Keys),” she recalled with a laugh. “And while in college, I knew I wanted to start a pet sanctuary.” She took care of the cat of someone who’d passed away. “I knew it was my passion back then.
“When my kids were young, we started a human daycare ... we took in some animals and it started there.”
The hard work of the many volunteers over the years has kept the rescue going. Hunter said there are about 40 volunteers this year, with a core group of 25 and the rest helping out when they can. There is a form on the group’s website on which people can commit to varying levels. One choice is called Pen Pal, in which the volunteer develops a relationship with an individual dog
Hunt, as with many others affiliated with the rescue, considers herself a “foster failure,” the tongue-in-cheek label given to someone who ends up adopting animals they foster. Her current three dogs are all pit bulls. She said, “I just love the bully breeds,” a category that includes the large, muscular dogs with “bull” in their name but also extends to such breeds as boxer and Boston terrier.
When adopting out certain types of dogs, such as pit bulls, the shelter usually requires that the adopter have experience with that breed. “We won't adopt pit bulls out to someone who rents or someone under 25 … we want you to be a little more established and know where your life's going.”
CompAnimals is committed to making sure a pet’s adoption is a good fit for the animal and potential adopter. The required form asks such items as: “Describe the general activity and noise level of the household,” “Describe frequency of visitors to home and their ages” and “Where will the pet be kept if no one’s home?” In addition to requiring references, the application compels the potential adopter to consider the breadth of bringing a new living being into their family.
“People have good hearts, but it’s not always the best match,” Hunt said.
If the adopter is bringing home a dog, CompAnimals advises them to adhere to a “Two Week Shutdown,” behaviors that help the dog adjust and become comfortable in its new environment. Details are available on the group’s website.
Holly Tyson, CompAnimals treasurer, described the experience after she and her husband started looking for another dog following the death of their previous one.
“We are both such dog lovers that it didn’t take us long to get on Petfinder [a free national computer database of adoptable animals from shelters and rescues] and find a dog in the area that we wanted to bring into our family. We had it on our minds that we wanted a dog with special needs.
“We found a blind beagle named Stevie Wonder who was in the care of CompAnimals. My husband and I kind of fell in love with him reading the description online. So we reached out to them.
“Stevie Wonder was in a foster home. But Leslie, the director of CompAnimals said you know, your home situation is not a great match for Stevie. He would really benefit from having another dog in the household and a fence to keep him from wandering into that pond on your property. But we have lots of other dogs in our care that might be a good match for you.
“My husband and I visited the facility in Landenberg and we went on, I would call it ‘speed dating’ with dogs. But it was the hardest speed dating experience I’ve ever had.
“We walked three dogs in succession and it was kind of like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’ The first dog was pulling and just very powerful with lots and lots of energy. The next dog was pretty small and kind of shy and timid. And then Trixie came out and she was just right. She had lots of energy but you could tell we were connecting with her so we fell in love right away. And she's been in our family for five years.”
Tyson was so impressed by her experience adopting the boxer mix that she started volunteering at the rescue. “Because I have a background in nonprofit community organizing, I figured I could use some of my talents to further CompAnimals.”
As a nonprofit, there is an enormous cost for caring for the animals. There is a constant wrestling with expenses, as the basics of rent, utility bills and food, are added onto its staggering veterinarian bills.
“Last year our vet bills were more than our rent,” Hunt said. It could be the dog needing a $5,000 orthopedic repair, the cancer surgery for the sweet, senior pit bull or “Oliver, one of the cats we got from the older man who passed away, needs about $600 worth of dental [work],” said Lynn Monahan.
And then there is the CompAnimals facility. The group’s landlord intends to sell the property and the buildings on it, so CompAnimals is actively looking for a new home. The group is interested in purchasing a property, perhaps with an established kennel and some land around it for the dogs to be exercised. But real estate in the area is expensive. However, CompAnimals hasn’t been around for two decades without the tremendous support of its neighbors.
“It’s a challenge to stay operational month to month,” said Tyson, the treasurer, “with our vet expenses far outweighing our ability to furnish a capital campaign with seed money to really show a bank or a lender that we have any kind of reserves to work with, so we put out a call to the community.” A GoFundMe campaign and other fundraisers have so far generated about $13,000 in donations for CompAnimals’ facility fund.
But to keep the bills in check and have money for the new location, benefit events continue. CompAnimals is seeking people to join its team in the Fusion for a Cause 5K on Nov. 15, sponsored by the Delaware Center of Horticulture. The rescue is looking to repeat last year’s first-place win and receive a donation of $1,000. Other benefits are coming up during the year, from bake sales to flea markets and restaurant events. Information is on the rescue’s Facebook page, along with plenty of photos and the latest CompAnimals news.
“Being here, I’m so impressed by the generosity of people,” said Lynn Monahan. “And by the stories, because with every animal there’s a story and behind that animal there’s a people story.”
CompAnimals Pet Rescue is at 1497 Flint Hill Road, Landenberg. More information about rescue is available on its Facebook page and at companimals.org. Forms, advice and photos of available animals are also on the website.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.