Her name was Jersey Girl. She was an old dog. She had cancer. And her owner decided she'd become too much trouble to deal with.
So he brought her into the local animal shelter to get rid of her. He sheepishly filled out the required paperwork. But a cold heart didn't dull his fear of shame, and he tried to soothe it by lying. At first he wrote down the boxer's real age, 10, then he crossed it out and put it as 20, thinking it would make this abandonment more socially acceptable.
It didn't work.
"I thought, does he not realize that turning in a 20-year-old dog actually makes him an even bigger a(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)?" said Kim Skarritt, the woman who wound up rescuing his dog from the shelter.
Skarritt is the owner of Silver Muzzle Cottage, a rescue and hospice for homeless old dogs. It's the only one in the state and one of the few in the country.
She started her rescue two years ago because there are people who will abandon their dogs when they get old and sick and slow, just when they need someone the most. Because there are people who simply tire of their longtime pets when they get a new puppy, and dump the old dog at a shelter. And because some people don't even make that much of an effort, and instead just leave their old dog along a road somewhere and drive away.
Silver Muzzle Cottage takes dogs left behind either by choice, like Jersey Girl, or by circumstance, as when a dog's owner suddenly dies and nobody else claims their pet. She's taken in more than 70 dogs so far. Almost all of them are old, many are sick, a lot of them are near death. They're the last dogs on anyone's wish list. But they're the exact dogs she seeks out. Because no matter how bad their lives may have been so far, she wants to make their last days wonderful for them.
"They don't ask for much when they're really old. They want to be loved and cared for, they want food and they just need a warm place to lay their head at night," said Skarritt, a 56-year-old former auto engineer. "At some point they were cared for, and then when they needed it most they're not. And that's why they really need a place like ours."
FOREVER HOMES ARE HARD TO FIND
Five years ago, Skarritt bought an empty tool and die shop on a remote industrial road and opened Bowsers by the Bay, a dog fitness, rehabilitation and cage-free boarding center. Her work brought her into contact with local animal shelters, where she noticed a disturbing pattern.
"I kept seeing these 14-year-old dogs and 13-year-old dogs in shelters and needing homes, and I'm going, 'What is that? Who does that?'"
She called several animal shelters throughout the state and estimated there were about 900 senior dogs within 500 miles of Elk Rapids needing a home. It turns out there are a lot of old dogs out there who've been abandoned.
At the Genesee County Animal Shelter, volunteer Beth Hanson said plenty of old dogs wind up here, often dropped off directly by their owner.
"It's a hard thing to see," said Hanson, 57. "You see them walking outside, and the dogs have their tail tucked between their legs, they put on the brakes, like when they go to the vet. I think they sense it and smell it. They know something not good is happening."
At the Cherryland Humane Society in Traverse City, some people don't even bother bringing the old dog inside the building.
"Sometimes they dump them down our road a little bit so it's not right in front of our building. But we do have cameras up," said Tia Barbera, 22, a kennel technician. "We get threats that they're going to do it, like, 'If you can't take this dog we're going to dump him.'"
At the Otsego County Animal Shelter, people sometimes come in with a dog they claim was a stray they found, but it's really their lifelong pet. If the staff finds out the owner is lying, they'll make them return and take their pet back, like the guy who recently brought in a tumor-riddled 15-year-old dog, pretending he found it. It turned out to be his.
"They're just looking for a scapegoat instead of taking responsibility," said Christie Pratt, a 37-year-old animal control officer. "We are a little bit harder here. We will make them have a good reason to surrender their dog."
These kinds of stories compelled Skarritt to buy an empty storage building next door to her business and open Silver Muzzle Cottage as a nonprofit rescue just for elderly dogs, which she defines as age 10 or older, unless they're terminally ill, in which case she'll take the dog at any age.
It's an unusual scene inside the rescue. There's a big living room with couches, throw pillows, a fake fireplace with decorations atop the mantle, end tables with vases and a coffee table with a thick photo book about dogs atop it. It looks like a normal house, except there's a bunch of dogs lounging on the couches like they own the place. "We wanted it to be a home," Skarritt explained.
This is home for her, too. The dogs aren't caged at night, which means someone has to be here at all times to keep watch over them, and since she can't afford to pay someone to do that, she moved into a small room at the corner of the house, sectioned off by plain drywall, with little more than a bathroom and a bed.
"Seriously, I sometimes wonder if I'm just crazy," she said, laughing. "But somebody has to do it. I don't require much. I don't need a big fancy house. I've got everything I need here."
Skarritt admits that sometimes there are unarguable reasons for giving up a pet, and the owner does so reluctantly.
"There's been a few cases where, without question, it's been one of the hardest things they ever did," she said.
Sometimes their new landlord won't allow pets. Other times the owner can't afford expensive medical treatments for the dog. Then there are cases like the woman who had to give up the family's 10-year-old retriever because their 5-year-old daughter had developed severe asthma, and the doctor said the dog had to go.
"She was clearly devastated," Skarritt said. "Sometimes it's really tough."
About 100 rotating volunteers take the dogs for walks or car rides, or sit on the couches with the dogs and pet them or play with them. It can be difficult – many of the dogs they become attached to are visibly suffering, many of them are sad and lost after losing their owners, and none of them will be around very long.
Most of them get adopted, despite a short future, thanks to Skarritt's persistence in spreading the word about the plight of old dogs. But some aren't adoptable because they have such little time left, and have to be put to sleep when their suffering becomes too great.
"For some people it's too hard," Skarritt said. "They really can't handle it. But for those who can, they find it very rewarding. We have to look at it in a positive light, otherwise it would be very depressing. But it's a win-win for us and it's a win-win for the dogs."
"It's tough, yes, but life is tough," said volunteer Anita Marshy-Bosley, 63. "If somebody has to step up and do this – and I think this group and this organization are wonderful people – we do what has to be done and we make a difference. And that's important."
HIS LIFE BEGAN AFTER HIS RESCUE
Nobody knows what Dozer the dog's life used to be like. But he sure kept trying to escape it.
He wound up at his local animal shelter several times after running away from his Flint home. Then his owners moved and just left him behind in their empty house, where he was stuck for two weeks until a neighbor called police because they could still hear the 12-year-old dog whimpering inside.
By the time Dozer was brought to the Genesee County Animal Shelter almost two years ago, he was in bad shape. He was emaciated, and anemic, and heartworm positive, and blind in one eye, and he had a lung infection, and his back muscles were atrophied from lack of use.
"He was a sweetie, but he just kind of laid there – sad, lethargic, like he'd given up," Hanson said. "Can't blame him."
Ever since hearing about Silver Muzzle Cottage, Hanson calls Skarritt whenever one of these old dogs comes into the animal shelter. Skarritt had Dozer examined. "The vet said he's not even treatable," she said. "He was just one sick dog."
She still took him in. He spent four months being fed, getting medical treatment, and receiving care and attention. It brought him back to life.
"He's one that we were just going to put him in hospice, but he blossomed so much," Hanson said. "It's like a miracle. Just coming in such a sad case, and just to see this transformation after going to Silver Muzzle. Really, his life began once he got there."
A volunteer would take Dozer for walks or car rides, or to the beach, or bring him home for a few hours to play with his own dog, a Labrador named Cooper, before returning him to the rescue.
"He was always so loving and so happy to be with people," said Michael Stephens, 51. "And I would take him for a ride in the car, and he'd look out the window and let the world go by."
Dozer's transformation was so dramatic that Skarritt posts regular updates online for all his fans, who've fallen for the gentle expression and sweet disposition Dozer has maintained despite the rough life he's had.
"It's hard to see an emotion like gratefulness in a dog, but you do see that when they have had really crummy lives and then all of a sudden they're in a home with people who are just doting on them and giving them love and attention," she said. "There you see a grateful dog. And it's obvious. They know they've hit the jackpot."
NOT ABOUT WHERE THEY WERE, BUT WHERE THEY'RE GOING
Poor Louie. It was late fall, and the black-and-white mutt was lying on a floor pillow, his head resting on his paws, intent on keeping to himself other than to look up with an unamused expression at the loud antics of the energetic other dogs in the room.
Louie had spent his whole life in the quiet predictability of an elderly person's house. Then the wife died, the husband was sent to a nursing home and Louie became an orphan.
Although some dogs at Silver Muzzle Cottage were willfully abandoned by someone, many were left homeless when their elderly owner suddenly died or moved to a nursing home. Most people don't include a provision in their will about their pets, and some families don't want to take in their parents' dog. A lot of them wind up in a shelter. Many never come out again.
"You can tell he was with an older couple," Skarritt said of Louie, who was about 10 or 11 when he arrived last fall. "He prefers a quieter environment. All the dogs will be spread out over the dog beds and the furniture, and he'll be in my office, asleep at night. Or he'll sleep in my room. He didn't want to be isolated from people, but he didn't mind being isolated from the other dogs."
Phoenix, an American bulldog mix, kept trying to introduce himself by jamming his nose in Louie's rear end. Poor Louie wanted no part of this, and would jump with a startled growl every time before trying to settle back into a curled ball.
While Louie just wanted to be left alone, Phoenix couldn't contain his happiness. He had been someone's backyard dog, the kind chained to a doghouse in all kinds of weather. He was only 10, but he had prostate cancer that metastasized into his lungs, a urinary tract infection, and severe arthritis, plus he was heartworm positive. His teeth were ground down from chewing rocks all day. He'd led a miserable life and now, at its end, he was lying on soft pillows, surrounded by fawning people.
"He's a really good boy and we quite often, when we talk amongst ourselves, the volunteers, we quite often find ourselves questioning who didn't know this guy was such a good guy? Who didn't recognize how great this dog is?" Skarritt said.
"And what a shame. But the new focus at that point becomes not about where they were, but where they're going to be and where they are right now. So he might have had a really crummy 12 years of life, but his next month is going to rock. And he's loved and he's cared for and he knows it, and that's what he's going to leave this world knowing. And that's what our mission is all about."
THE LAST DAYS OF LOVE COME WITH TEARS
As fall turned to winter, Louie found a home. "He got adopted by a young couple who had another little dog and he just fit right in," Skarritt said. "They love him to death."
So did Dozer, adopted by the volunteer who used to come by to walk him and take him for rides. "It was one of the best things that we ever did," Stephens said. "He's thriving. His health has improved. We still have him. He's still holding his own."
But Phoenix passed away. At least it was here at the rescue, everyone noted, with people petting him as he died, and not alone in some cold backyard doghouse.
Soon another wave of abandoned dogs came through, and when they're gone they'll be followed by more. There's never a shortage of old dogs who need a home.
There's Sasha, a springer-spaniel mix who's 8, younger than the usual age range that Skarritt will take in, but the disinterested family of her now-deceased elderly owners claimed she was 13 when they brought her. "They kept the younger dog, who was only 4 or 5, but they didn't want Sasha," Skarritt said.
There's Abby and Ben, a pair of 14-year-old miniature pinschers, breeding dogs who spent their lives in soiled cages, so untrained they lie in their own waste. They were left on somebody's front porch in Rochester, their tattoos an indication of their lives in a puppy mill.
And there's Toby, a pit bull mix who'd spent his life in a cage, chewing the bars until his teeth were worn away. He escaped and was so desperate to hide from animal control he hid in a picker bush that left slashes all over his face.
All of these dogs, like nearly all dogs who come through here, are up for adoption.
But Jersey Girl was the exception. Skarritt adopted the dog as her own. Jersey Girl was too sick to leave the rescue. A veterinarian removed a 4-pound tumor a year ago, after it burst and left a trail of blood all over the cottage. She developed another tumor, one that was equally large, but a heart condition made surgery impossible this time. Then the cancer spread to her lungs, leaving her coughing roughly as she tried to breathe, even as she still ran around and wagged her tail and otherwise behaved like a normal, happy dog. Skarritt knew she had to end her suffering, but this time it was harder. This time the dog had become a pet.
As they've had to do before with other dogs, Skarritt called in the veterinarian, and a few volunteers gathered around Jersey Girl as she was put to sleep, and they said soothing things while they petted her good-bye as she closed her eyes for the last time. Skarritt lay down on the floor next to her, and she cried softly as it became apparent that the dog stopped breathing. This is always a bittersweet act, a last gesture of kindness they perform for dogs like Jersey Girl who, for one awful reason or another, had to wait until their last days to feel loved.
"There's tears when they cross, but it's more we look at it as this is an amazing gift that we're giving to them," Skarritt said. "It's the one thing they would not have had if somebody didn't rescue them. They would have died at a shelter. And not that shelter staff aren't caring, because a majority of them are, but it's not home. It's not the same as being surrounded by people who love you and care about you. And that's how we say goodbye."