At Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary, animals live out their final days
surrounded by comfort and love
Ben Swan |
The New Mexican
September 23, 2006
"Death is a part of life around here. We cry and all hug,
but mostly itís good memories." - DEBORAH SCHILDKRAUT, Kindred Spirits board member
A low whimper can be heard as Ulla Pedersen leaves her portal to receive
a guest. The whimper becomes louder the longer she stays away.
"Itís Benedict. He doesnít like to be alone," she tells
the visitor, rushing back to cradle the dog in her arms. The mournful
whine stops as Pedersen comforts the elderly dog by stroking his neck.
"Benedict is having a hard time. He had a terrible seizure last
night, and he just had another one a little while ago."
Benedict appears to be dying, his panting a sign of anxiety, pain or
illness. The large shepherd mix, an affable dog who cries when heís
alone, was frail, despondent and arthritic when he arrived at Kindred
Spirits Animal Sanctuary about a year ago. Nutritious food, physical
therapy and a community of his own extended his lease on life.
"Once he felt safe and really loved, he started trying to
walk," Pedersen says. "Now he gets up and walks short
distances. He has a little trouble, but he gets around."
Every dog, horse and bird at the elder-care animal sanctuary and hospice
south of Santa Fe has a story, and most stories belie the wagging tails
and the contented neighs heard here.
Their tales come quickly from the gentle, caring Pedersen, who saw a
need for end-care comfort for animals when she moved to the land in 1987
and quickly opened her home to creatures in need. Three years ago,
Pedersen established the sanctuary as a nonprofit, and the 20 dogs, two
horses and 90 poultry animals that now fill her rural acreage remain in
a loving environment until their days end.
Pedersen and her volunteer staff will welcome visitors during an open
house from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday. The free event
also features artwork by Ginny Tape and Mary Jo Halpin.
Most of the animals at Kindred Spirits have ended up at the sanctuary
under dire circumstances. Many were abandoned at animal shelters because
they were old or ill, or their human companions had died or could no
longer take care of them. The sanctuary rarely takes animals from
private individuals; they are generally referred by veterinarians,
shelters or other animal-welfare organizations.
Pedersen, who supports the sanctuary through donations, grants, her own
income and the generosity of businesses and veterinarians, says despite
the neglect and mistreatment many of the animals have suffered, they all
have a resiliency thatís astounding. She says itís one of the
mysteries of animals that after so much abuse, they can turn a page and
return to health.
Almost all the sanctuary animals undergo a dramatic change after they
adjust to their new environment, says Deborah Schildkraut, a longtime
volunteer and board member. Good nutrition and proper medication help,
she says, but the animals also relax once they realize the sanctuary is
An animal behaviorist, Schildkraut says she became involved in the
sanctuary when her daughter-in-law wanted her to evaluate the place as a
possible project for her second-grade class. Petersenís care and
philosophy meshed perfectly with Schildkrautís.
"I understand the importance in dealing with older dogs," says
Schildkraut, who is involved in greyhound rescue. "Itís hard to
adopt out older dogs, and people think if a dog is 4 or 5 years old,
itís an older dog, let alone 10, 11 or 12."
Elderly animals should stay at home with their human companions, but
thatís not a reality in todayís throwaway society, with its emphasis
on youth and neglect of the elderly, Pedersen, Schildkraut and
volunteers stress. Schildkraut recalls when the owners of a rescued
greyhound returned the dog because the couple had changed their
living-room furniture and color scheme. They wanted a dog that
complemented the decor.
"We said, ĎThank you for bringing the dog back. However, youíre
not getting another dog,í " Schildkraut says. "If I hadnít
been involved with (the case), Iíd have thought it was an urban
Schildkraut and Pedersen hope someday the sanctuary will no longer be
needed. Itís part of the sanctuaryís mission statement to make
itself obsolete, which is why the groupís emphasis is on education and
"If everybody took care of their own animals at home, we wouldnít
need to be in this business," Schildkraut says. On-site workshops
on death and dying, first-aid and caring for elderly animals help people
grow, but changing attitudes toward senior companions is an uphill
"Itís about making a lifelong commitment," Schildkraut says.
"Animals arenít disposable. I donít think people realize what
theyíre saying to their children by doing things like that. Thereís
a value ó across the spectrum of life, (aging) is just another phase.
You can teach your children to ignore it or be fearful of it, and
thatís a disservice. They really need to embrace this phase of their
life just like any other."
Another goal at the sanctuary is reworking the animal-human
relationship, Pedersen says. Sanctuary workers avoid words like
"pet" and "owner." Changing the way people look at
animals changes the paradigm.
"When itís an ownership relationship, it brings with it all those
pitfalls," Pedersen says, such as considering animals
"stuff" that can be discarded. "We try to create a
consciousness that this is a relationship that is to be respected and
that brings with it a certain amount of responsibility."
ĎA magical feelí
The sanctuary plays a vital role in the community, says Mike Dobesh, a
veterinarian with Santa Feís Smith Veterinarian Hospital, where many
of the sanctuaryís animals go for care.
"Itís unique in that they take the older animals with many
medical problems who only have one or two years left and give them a
high quality of life," he says. "It (the sanctuary) truly has
a magical feel and the dogs get excellent care and are so happy."
Santa Feans love their animals, Dobesh notes, and generally look after
their well-being. But sometimes owners die or become unable to care for
their animals. When that happens, Pedersen and her volunteers help fill
in the gaps.
Pedersen provides a role model for end-care of elderly animals, says
Bill Hutchison, communications director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter
& Humane Society. The shelter turns to the sanctuary when it has an
older dog or one with medical conditions that make it hard to place in a
The sanctuary is part of the Companion Animal Alliance of New Mexico, a
12-member coalition that provides a unified voice for animal welfare.
Members include the Santa Fe shelter, EspaŮola Animal Shelter, Felines
& Friends and Santa Fe Animal Control.
The sanctuary is the only resource of its kind for elderly canines,
"Thereís no other organization that comes to mind in the state
that cares for older animals," he says, adding he plans to
volunteer at the open house. "Itís very cool what she does."
As Pedersen guides a group to the stables where two horses munch their
midday meal, a big, black dog comes up to nuzzle her. Itís Lorenzo,
whom Pedersen calls the resident poet and animal mentor.
"His name, he told me, is Lorenzo de Santiago de Compostela,"
Pedersen says, recounting the legend of the black dog that sometimes
accompanies travelers on the 500-mile pilgrimage in northern Spain.
"Not everyone sees it, but if you do, itís a special gift
thatís involved in your journey."
Much like the black dogís healing gift, the sanctuary is Pedersenís
calling, vocation and passion. A nurse and bereavement counselor,
Pedersen grew up on a small farm on the Danish island of Fyn. There she
listened to the animals on the farm ó dogs, horses and poultry ó and
enjoyed the company of her grandparents who lived nearby.
"Iíve always had such an affinity for the elderly," Pedersen
says. "Itís a treasuring of that gentle wisdom that comes with
aging and understanding. They see the whole picture better, more
contemplative. Iíve always been drawn to a more contemplative way of
The stables were recently enlarged to accommodate two more horses,
Pedersen says. Right now, she has only enough resources to support Bo,
who has been with her for 21 years, and Loki.
"Bo was so crippled (when he arrived), he couldnít even put his
head to the ground and eat his hay," Pedersen says. "So heís
had a lot of rehabilitation."
Sanctuary animals live family style with no cages, only protective
areas. Cats arenít part of the mix, but Schildkraft says she hopes
other people are providing places for elder felines.
The 4-acre grounds are filled with comfortable chairs and other sitting
areas for contemplation. Many memorials and altars bear flowers and
photos of animals. Thereís a newly constructed rose garden memorial
wall, and Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the breeze near the poultry
area. In the henhouse infirmary, colorful posters and magazine covers
adorn the wall.
Theyíre for the birdsí enjoyment, Pedersen says, along with the
volunteersí. The poultry have two separate spaces, both covered with a
large netting to thwart predators. One area is for new arrivals or birds
that arenít socialized or are older or timid. Such birds donít do
well in the big yard, Pedersen says.
Itís noon, so Pedersen is scattering donated greens, and the birds are
happy for the visit. Peacocks, chickens, ducks and even a turkey cluck
for their share of salad. A huge spreading juniper dominates the yard
ó at night itís a roosting spot for the population.
The smaller creatures
At the main house, volunteer Gudrun Hoerig has been comforting Benedict,
who seems to be improving. Hoerig, a volunteer for more than a year,
said the sanctuary intimidated her at first. She worried it would be too
sad and sheíd want to take all the dogs home. But the friend who
encouraged her to visit told her it was a wonderful place and the dogs
werenít available for adoption.
"And that was the beginning," Hoerig says. "I came here,
and I thought, ĎOh my, what a wonderful place. Itís so beautiful and
all the animals are happy.í"
Hoerig, who lives near Abiquiķ with two dogs and a cat, also volunteers
at the EspaŮola Animal Shelter. She remembers one abandoned dog that
was left at the shelterís drop box. The dog was shaking, and his fur
was so matted he had to be shaved down to the skin.
That dog, Bishop Pudding II, an elderly Pekingese, found a permanent
home at the sanctuary. "I was so happy when I saw him," Hoerig
says. "And now he is so adorable."
That continuity of care, plus being around animals that seem so
grateful, makes work at the shelter fulfilling, said Hoerig, who is one
of 14 volunteers.
The smaller dogs own the main house at the sanctuary, although Pedersen
maintains separate quarters of her own.
Tico is one of the oldest residents. At 22, the teacup-sized Chihuahua
has no teeth and his tongue hangs out most of the time. But heís still
quite macho, Schildkraut says.
In a hospice room to one side, tiny Elfie rests in a playpen. The dog
was picked up almost two years ago in November, wandering in freezing
sleet and rain near Chimayů. No one called for him at the EspaŮola
shelter, so he eventually came to the sanctuary.
"He was just skin and bones," Pedersen says. "He still
is, but heís doing better. It took a long time for his digestive
system to get used to food. We had to feed him literally a teaspoon at a
time because he couldnít digest it, and little by little, he came
The long goodbye
While death might be a constant reality at the sanctuary, itís not the
focus. Most sanctuary animals die naturally, but euthanasia is an option
when medicine fails.
"Death is a part of life around here," Schildkraut says.
"Thatís really what it is. We donít all freak out about it. We
cry and all hug, but mostly itís good memories. Itís like with
Benedict. If he gets put down today, that will be sad, but you know,
weíre glad we knew Benedict."
Animals often die soon after arriving at the sanctuary, but dying is a
slow process for some. Pedersen says she spends a lot of time with the
animals, reassuring them in their final hours.
"I always talk to them and sit with them and listen quietly to what
they have to tell me," Pedersen says. "Itís through dreams,
impressions and what I have learned to trust. I always give them
permission to go or to stay. I keep reassuring them of that."
Being thankful always is a part of the goodbye ritual, Pedersen says,
and itís often accompanied by a sense of the presence of what she
refers to as the great spirit.
"Thereís a wonderful sense of awe," Pedersen says, "and
the thankfulness around it. Being on that threshold is part of the
Helping an animal through death is an excellent preparation for other
deaths in our own lives, she says. The trust that one builds with an
animal can help him or her make that transition.
"Itís not only helping them to the door, but through the
door," she says.
Diet, examinations and paying attention critical in elder care
Taking care of an older animal is as much a blessing as it is a
challenge, say area veterinarians and volunteers at Kindred Spirits
Animal Sanctuary. But there are important signs to be aware of as an
Mike Dobesh, a veterinarian with Smith Veterinary Hospital in Santa
Fe, says older canines have many of the same problems that people
encounter as they age. These include dental problems and heart disease
as well as a multitude of medical needs.
Examinations every six to 12 months, along with blood tests, can
prevent problems from becoming serious.
Diet also is critical. Older dogs donít need as much protein, which
can harm their livers. Bad breath and lethargy are common with dogs
that have liver problems.
Senior dogs also are more affected by bad weather, tire easily and
need more comforts, as do elderly humans. Older canines also require
more water at more frequent intervals.
Deborah Schildkraut, a board member at the sanctuary, says
establishing a relationship with your petís veterinarian is
critical. But paying attention to your animal also is important.
"If you spend time with your dog, you know when heís off,"
Schildkraut says. Ill dogs usually lose their appetite, which is a
good time to go to a veterinarian. If something is found during the
checkup, itís time to provide the same care a human would receive in
"Itís palliative care," Schildkraut says, "making
sure theyíre comfortable."
Schildkraut says it hurts her when she sees people scolding older
dogs. Their older dog might move slower because of arthritis or might
not respond as quickly because of hearing problems.
"The senses diminish," she says. "There are cognitive
changes, just like in older people. If we have the capacity for older
humans, then we should have that capacity for older dogs."
Some people, for example, might attribute incontinence to misbehavior
when the dog has a medical condition that might need to be addressed,
"Dogs donít let you know how much pain theyíre in,"
Schildkraut says. "Theyíve inherited that from their ancestors.
An ill canine is a drag on the pack, so to speak. By the time a dog is
showing pain, itís probably in pretty bad shape."
Most people know when the time comes for euthanasia, Schildkraut says.
People often project their own fears onto this way of dying, when
their pets might not feel that way at all.
"There are probably different philosophies that might think a
little differently, but the bottom line is the quality of life,"
Schildkraut says. "If that animalís in pain and you can no
longer manage the pain, thatís certainly an indication."
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