Nancy Benevento-Brown gives a treat to Lionel, who is in ‘Angel Care’ hospice for terminally ill rescue animals at Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary.
PORT CLINTON, Ohio — Lionel really doesn’t care that his head looks more like that of a llama’s than the dog he is.
The shepherd mix, estimated at about 10 years old, is more focused on the pieces of steak being fed to him than the large soft-tissue tumor that distorts his head.
“We cook for them every day,” said Nancy Benevento-Brown. “Lionel really like noodles, too.”
Lionel is fortunate. He has found a home at Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary in the organization’s Angel Care Watch program. Mrs. Benevento-Brown, a nurse who founded and runs the sanctuary, established the program a few years ago as hospice care for terminally ill dogs without a family.
“All they want is comfort, and that’s what they come here for,” she said. “It’s a unique program, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a tough program to be dealing with. It’s emotionally, physically, mentally draining, and it’s constant.”
A memorial wall at Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary includes a picture of Lucky, center.
Many of the animals Mrs. Benevento-Brown takes in are first found in area pounds where options and resources for medically needy animals are limited.
“It happens every day,” said Michelle Reichlin, executive director of FIDO’s Companion Rescue in Avon, Ohio, that often works with Mrs. Benevento-Brown. “These are dogs who are seniors, who have neglect cases or some extensive medical issues, but still have a good quality of life. The need is so great.”
IN PICTURES: Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary hospice
The lucky ones are pulled by rescue groups. From there, a few will find their way to Island Safe Harbor to be carefully monitored, loved, and spoiled until their time comes.
Just a handful of dogs have been through the Angel Care Watch program over the last few years. Aside from Lionel, the sanctuary is caring for an 11-year-old Parson Russell terrier named Cutsie, who has inoperable liver cancer among other issues.
A golden retriever named Lucky was the inspiration. He came to the sanctuary after having a stroke. Angel Care Watch was formed about a year after he died in 2012.
“With Angel Care, we go overboard. They get anything they want, everything they need,” Mrs. Benevento-Brown said. “It’s palliative care.”
The dogs receive extensive medical care, but Mrs. Benevento-Brown refrains from doing anything invasive. She focuses on providing the highest quality of life she can for the dogs without putting them through stressful procedures that won’t necessarily have a good impact.
“We watch for any sign of pain. They tell you when it’s time,” she said.
While there are a number of pet hospice programs nationwide for owned animals, those like Angel Care Watch that work with rescue animals are few and far between.
“There’s an immense need for it. There will always be thousands more [animals] out there with no place to go,” Miss Reichlin said.
In Lucas County, very elderly dogs or those with end-of-life issues arrive regularly at Lucas County Canine Care & Control. Director Julie Lyle said age alone is not the deciding factor in the shelter’s determination of what happens to such dogs.
“If a dog has significant issues that may be controllable with medication, we will usually try to transfer the dog to one of our transfer partners so they can get a better picture of how the dog does in a home, and try to find a good match for the dog’s needs,” she said.
Like other rescues, Planned Pethood does not have a dedicated program for hospice pets, but has taken a number of dogs from the county shelter to let them live out their remaining days in comfort. One of the organization’s foster homes will often feel compelled to take in a dog that may otherwise die at a pound.
“We maybe have five or six like that at a time,” Nikki Morey, executive director, said. “It isn’t always one particular foster. It takes a lot out of your heart. But there are certain fosters that are more likely to take them.”
Ms. Morey acknowledges many people will question using large amounts of any rescue’s limited resources on one animal.
“We recognize that it doesn’t make sense when you’re looking at just the numbers,” she said. “They are potentially eating up resources that several other animals could use. Sometimes you make decisions not because it looks good on paper, but because it’s the best thing to do.”
A paw print and card for Lucky, the dog that inspired ‘Angel Care’ at Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary, appear in a scrapbook with other paw prints and cards honoring pets that have passed away.
But finding an open space in a rescue is frequently an insurmountable roadblock, leaving shelters with only the last resort of killing the dog.
“Foster homes in our transfer partners is a limited resource that affects these dogs often,” Ms. Lyle said.
Dogs in the Angel Care Watch program can be adopted, but Mrs. Benevento-Brown doesn’t ever really expect it to happen. It’s a rare person who can handle falling in love with a dog knowing their time together is limited.
“It would have to be that very special person,” she said. “People don’t realize the toll it takes on you. It’s extremely difficult.”
Sometimes dogs will get lucky beyond their rescuers’ wildest dreams. For Mrs. Benevento-Brown, a rat terrier with mammary cancer is a prime example. Lil’Won not only found a home with an elderly man who loves her dearly, but all of her future medical care is being paid for by an anonymous donor.
But Mrs. Benevento-Brown doesn’t pity those that aren’t adopted. They have a comfortable home at the sanctuary and will die peacefully, surrounded by people who adore them.
“It’s an honor to be able to give them dignity when they do cross over, to hold them and let them know that they are loved,” she said.
Donations to Island Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary can be made online at islandshas.wix.com/ishas, or by mailing a check made out to I.S.H.A.S. and sent to the sanctuary's business office at 337 S. Linda Dr., Marblehead, Ohio, 43440.