Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Saturday, March 23, 2013
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
Dogs tend to stay where their caretakers leave them, thinking they’ll come back to take them home. “It’s a little psychological thing,” Marie Joyner begins to explain before breaking into laughter over Dudley, a young dog at Our Companions animal rescue in Ashford, Conn.
Dudley is bouncing around with a tennis ball in his mouth. “He’s just a hoot,” she says.
Dudley was abandoned in a Bloomfield cemetery and was found — still waiting for his owner — in “bad shape,” says Joyner, the rescue center’s canine operations director. Now, after medical treatment and proper care, he’s happy, healthy, and, most important, adoptable.
“That’s the idea, to be able to provide this level of care, because otherwise these animals would be destroyed. It certainly isn’t just,” says Our Companions CEO Susan Linker, who works at facility headquarters in Manchester.
It was 10 years ago that Linker and Joyner started working toward creating the rescue and sanctuary, whose core mission is to provide animals with the best possible level of care and attention while helping them become more adoptable. In the first animal cottage built on the donated 43-acre parcel, cats inhabit the main floor and dogs live downstairs, both floors equipped with toys, human furniture, crates, and plush pet beds. The décor not only gives visitors an opportunity to see the animals in a home like their own, but it also acclimates the animals to an environment that closest resembles where they’ll ultimately go.
“It’s like a rehab center, really,” Linker says, referring to both the home-like environment and the many training courses Our Companions offers to animals and humans. “That’s the idea of the sanctuary, to be a safety net for a lot of animals who otherwise wouldn’t survive a shelter experience but are adoptable.”
Humane Society shelters are adequate stop-gaps only for what Linker calls “hearty” animals who are less frightened in a cage-and-concrete environment and are therefore more approachable. They can be in and out of a pound in two weeks. But some have more trouble with the cages and the other animals, and the longer they stay in the shelter, the more they deteriorate.
Our Companions has relationships with certain animal control units and shelters and will contact them for potentially adoptable animals when there’s room at the cottage. Recently, they collected Barnaby, a boxer-beagle mix dropped off at the Windsor police station by someone who said they found him wandering loose. He was so frightened by his surroundings at the Windsor pound that he would back into the corner of his cage, bare his teeth, and growl when approached.
“He looked vicious. He looked horrible. No one would adopt him,” Linker says. “Cats get very sick, and dogs become emotional. I’ve seen dogs self-mutilate because they go crazy.”
Within one week of arriving at Our Companions, Barnaby became an entirely different dog, she says, adding that such a transformation would never have been possible in a shelter. Shy with strangers, he watches rescue visitors from a distance but sneaks in for a curious sniff when they aren’t paying attention. He’s a regular lap dog with the volunteers with whom he’s become familiar, and he and Dudley, both young, together annoy the friendly cocker spaniel (and tennis ball hoarder) Lucas after coming in from outdoor recess.
“These rehabilitations take time,” Linker says. “Putting a dog in a cage for even three months, if they can’t handle it, is, in my opinion, a death sentence.”
Linker had been working at a Humane Society shelter for eight years when she realized there had to be a different way to care for animals. After a chance meeting at a dog-training class, she and fellow animal lover Joyner began developing their plan.
In 2002, they received the Ashford land as a gift from Helping Paws, a cat rescue group that had received the old chicken farm as a donation 10 years prior.
Between 2007 and 2008, Our Companions raised $300,000 for demolition of the farm’s three chicken coops, removal of underground tanks and contaminated soil, and land restoration.
Phase One of the rescue mission’s capital campaign raised nearly $1 million between 2009 and 2011, funding the construction of the first rescue cottage, a garage, and a gazebo, as well as site work to support additional cottages. The goal is to have the full campus built in the next five to seven years, but there’s a more immediate campaign to raise $650,000.
“We’re building two more (dog) cottages hopefully this year, so the cats can expand to downstairs,” Joyner says.
Main-level feline residents include two playful calicoes, a sun-loving long-hair, an affectionate 18-year-old short-hair named Bonnie who has her own room to separate her from all the rambunctiousness, and a pair of Russian blues, returned after a month in their new home for not being outgoing enough.
Our Companions does interviews and home visits with prospective guardians to reduce the risk of a mismatch, but there will still be occasions when the relationship simply doesn’t work. In those cases, Our Companions will accept the animals back into the sanctuary.
“We just don’t want these animals going back to the shelter,” Linker says. “Every time they get returned, a little piece of them is more and more broken and they become harder to adopt.”
In their ongoing effort to reduce the number of homeless dogs and cats who end up in shelters, Our Companions is working with the political organization Connecticut Votes for Animals to pass House Bills 5844 and 5836, which would respectively prohibit chaining dogs outdoors and utilize existing funds in the state’s Animal Population Control Program to expand spay/neuter benefits to pets living in low-income families.
All of it, including their insistence that people participate in finding new homes for their pets, is part of the overarching goal to promote a cultural shift that will have people taking more responsibility for their animals.
“We hand-hold them through the (rehoming) process,” Linker says. “If you’re a client and you went through that and you saw a stray cat, you might be inclined to say, ‘Hey, I can do more than bring it to a shelter,’ and you’ll call Our Companions.”
For more information, call 860-242-9999 or visit: