“I like animals. They make me feel great.”
Ellin Doyle must feel very, very good.
Doyle is a feline adoption counselor at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook, matching cats with homes. And her South Portland home is no exception. Her own cats number “in the seven range,” she says, all with health issues that demand special care and special attention.
“I run a small hospice,” Doyle says.
Pets with special needs are becoming more and more common, says Lynne McGhee, community relations manager at the Animal Refuge League. Luckily, there are baby boomers like Doyle who either foster or adopt them, quite literally saving their lives.
The benefits are mutual, Doyle says.
“I can relate to something that’s hurting,” she says.
Indeed, it was upheaval in her own life that led her to begin volunteering at the Animal Refuge League nearly a decade ago, she says. While Doyle, 64, tries to find homes for cats surrendered to the shelter, she herself welcomes some of those who might otherwise be euthanized.
“They might be in kidney failure or have hyperthyroidism,” she says. “All they want is to sit in a room and have a little sunlight.”
And they may live another “two or three years,” Doyle says.
They often defy the odds. One of her cats she adopted was born with a polyp in her ear as well as kidney failure.
“She is the sweetest thing,” Doyle says. She is also 5 years old “and still going.”
McGhee says caring for animals with special needs “takes a very special person.” Individuals who foster or adopt such animals need careful counseling, she says.
“Getting medical care can be very costly,” she says. “We have a very open dialogue.”
As a result, McGhee says, special-needs animals often “really are rescued from an emotional and financial perspective.”
Animal rescue organizations often face the task of placing special-needs animals, advocates say. Those needs may be medical or behavioral, says Bonnie Martinolich of Almost Home Rescue, a local all-volunteer dog rescue organization.
Martinolich, 57, says many of the pets she has fostered – and adopted – since 2006 have special needs, particularly around socialization.
For example, she has fostered dogs with “extraordinary” shyness, and others that behave aggressively toward other dogs. Another dog “took years to settle” around people.
Martinolich, an attorney, says she has “an incredible passion for dogs.” She owns four dogs and fosters a fifth – an 18-year-old long-haired dachshund whose special needs are based on her age.
“It’s an overwhelming love,” she says, adding that “all dogs can be good.”
Holly Fent, 52, is president of Maine Sheltie Rescue, another local rescue operation formally established almost a year ago. Fent, a self-employed hair stylist from Portland, has rescued shelties since 2004. Two special-needs dogs she has placed are now in “phenomenal homes.” One of those dogs had vision and hearing loss, and another, which she fostered in her home for six months, suffered from seizures and had lost a leg.
Sally and John Price of Gray have made taking in “problem pets” a way of life, Sally says. It helps that John, 59, is a veterinarian. Sally, 61, who works as the director of development at Waynflete School in Portland, says they currently own a cat they found as a stray that is blind in one eye. Their dog, adopted from a shelter, suffers from panic attacks and often hides in the bathtub, Sally says. In addition, her husband treats it with antihistamines for a medical problem.
She says her love of animals goes back to childhood. She vividly remembers at “age 5 or 6” witnessing a friend’s father drown a litter of kittens. Her mother was an animal lover, she adds, and she has one sister who rescues horses and another who rescues greyhounds. She herself initiated a foster program for abandoned dogs near New Jersey’s Fort Dix during the time of military deployment connected to Operation Desert Storm.
She admits her passion is a blessing and a curse, simply because she has witnessed such cruelty to animals.
“We don’t even hurt insects,” she says, “I have this respect for all livings things. I see how they fit into the world.”
“How can I explain it?” asks Martinolich. “You watch them develop and improve and become functional,” she says of dogs with behavioral issues. “It’s so rewarding to help them adjust.”
“We love what we do,” she says. “We’re passionate about it.”
Kristine Millard is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.