Pets & Animals

'Match made in heaven': Elderly nuns adopt aging pit bull

Today
Sisters Alice Goldsmith, Virginia Johnson and Veronica Mendez (left to right) get acquainted with Remy the dog.

It’s not every day that three women in their 70s and 80s walk into an animal shelter and say they’d like to see a dog that nobody wants.

But to Sisters Veronica Mendez, Virginia Johnson and Alice Goldsmith, nuns who live together in Nyack, N.Y., the request made perfect sense. Why not adopt an animal most in need?

That mindset led them to Remy, a 9-year-old pit bull that had been overlooked by shelter visitors for more than three months.

“As soon as I saw the sign that said ‘9 years,’ I said, ‘This is the one,’” recalled Sister Veronica, 71. “‘No one is going to want this one.’”

In thousands of shelters across the United States, it’s common for senior dogs and pit bulls to languish, unwanted, before being euthanized. Justin Scally, national director of emergency services for the American Humane Association, said both populations of dogs face stigmas for different reasons.

For older dogs, it’s often a perception problem: Many people think it will be too sad to open their homes to dogs over the age of 6 or 7, even though they tend to make the calmest, easiest pets and they’re already house-trained.

It's even worse for pit-bull breeds, whose numbers can skyrocket in shelters when landlords, homeowners’ insurance policies and local communities ban them. (The American Humane Association opposes breed-specific legislation on the grounds that it isn’t effective; the White House agreed with that position last year.)

The nuns’ connection with the dog was immediate. Remy was docile; Remy was sweet. And when given a moment to mingle with the sisters at the shelter, Remy leaned her head into Sister Virginia’s chest and sighed.

“She just got right up there,” said Sister Virginia, 79. “She said, ‘This must be my new family.’”

Today
Looking for love: Remy instantly felt at ease with Sister Virginia Johnson.

For the nuns, a four-legged addition to their convent could not come fast enough. They were grieving the loss of their dog Kate, a gregarious 7-year-old mutt who had been a boundless source of energy and comedy in their lives.

Kate had left them too quickly. In the course of a weekend, she went from looking healthy to ailing so much from apparent lymphoma that the veterinarian put her down.

“She was healthy one day and then, all of a sudden, lymphoma?” Sister Veronica said. “I was furious. I was so angry. I cried! Oh, how we loved that creature.”

Today
The nuns were bereft when their dog Kate died unexpectedly in January.

The sisters rattled around their house crying for one week before they decisively hopped into their car on Jan. 26. Their mission: Rescue a shelter animal on death row.

Minutes later, they explained their goal to West Artope, executive director of the Hi Tor Animal Care Center in Pomona, N.Y. Artope liked these women. He learned that Sister Alice was 87 and that Sister Virginia, while spunky, often used a walker to get around.

He made a hopeful connection: Remy. 

“It just worked out so well,” Artope said. “We did a follow-up with them and went to the house, and the dog is so comfortable in that environment, you wouldn’t believe it. It was like a match made in heaven.”

The nuns said they had no concerns about adopting a pit bull because they could tell how good-natured Remy was. They decided not to dwell on Remy’s age, either.

“Our feelings were that she was in danger of being euthanized, and we wanted to give her the best three of four years she has left,” Sister Veronica said. “Here we are, three senior sisters, so we adopted a senior pet!”

“These women showed compassion and took in this elderly dog that has a negative stereotype simply because of her breed,” said Scally. “It’s just a strong testament that we really need to change our mindset as a society.”

Today
Sister Veronica plans to take Remy on many long walks.

Between the three of them, Sisters Veronica, Virginia and Alice have spent 179 years serving as nuns. Their main mission has been religious education for children and adults up and down the East Coast.

Remy may not realize it yet, but Veronica has a plan for her: To get her a bit more fattened up and lively after her shelter stint, then take her on long walks and contemplative hikes.

In her new home, Remy can luxuriate on soft dog beds in multiple rooms, romp in the tree-filled backyard and play with toys donated by well-wishers who were thrilled to hear about her rescue. Remy quickly earned herself a nickname — “Thumper” — because of the happy way her heavy tail goes thump-thump-thump whenever any of the nuns approach her or rub her stiff left hip.

Sister Virginia said Remy’s contentment reminds her of foster kids she helped years ago as a social worker. When those children clicked with their adoptive parents, they showed an unmistakable sense of tranquility and relief.

“Remy did that with us — she sensed, ‘These are going to be my people, I can tell,’” Virginia said. “And we knew this was our dog. We could tell.”

Need a Coffey break? Connect with TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

  • Slideshow Photos

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    Los Angeles animal photographer Lori Fusaro is on a mission: To change people's perceptions of older dogs and help more gray-muzzled pooches find loving homes. Alarmed by how many senior dogs languish in shelters because no one wants them, Fusaro launched a photography project to show how much older dogs have to offer. Here are photos from the project, which led to a book called "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts":

    “Fiona was a 15-year-old stray at the West Valley Animal Shelter (in Los Angeles),” Fusaro said. “She couldn't walk and she had to be carted around in a red wagon." A volunteer with a local animal rescue group took her home thinking she would not last long, but the dog blossomed. Fiona went on to "dance around the house for treats" and enjoy scratches behind the ears, Fusaro said.

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    These closely bonded dogs lived in a backyard with no attention until they were rescued in the summer of 2012. "They have arthritis, but they are not old dogs who like to sleep all day," Fusaro said. "They play, chase cats and squirrels as best as they can, and love their walks and park time.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    “Healey was adopted as a senior,” Fusaro said. “He had the odds stacked against him: He was old, a pit bull and blind. His mama couldn't bear the thought of him dying in the shelter and so she adopted him. He loves to go on walks and sniffs every inch of grass. He loves his doggy brothers and sisters and especially his human daddy. They are inseparable.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    “Lady was found at the shelter as a senior,” Fusaro said. “She was sweet as pie and her foster mama decided on the spot to bring her home. She loves her human friends and dog friends too. Her favorite pastime is rolling in the grass and belly rubs.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    “Rosie is an 11-year-old English bulldog,” Fusaro said. “Tennis balls are her favorite toy to play with and tease you with. She will dare you to take it from her. She also likes to take the pillows off the bed or clothes that are at her reach until you give her a goldfish cracker. Her hips are wobbly, but she will still run and play.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    “Sparky has lived with her family her whole life,” Fusaro said. “She is the neighborhood dog welcoming committee. All the new dogs become her very best friend. She loves to go on long hikes with her human family.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    Stella -

    “Stella was adopted from the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA in Virginia,” Fusaro said. “She was abandoned right before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2010, when her owner moved and decided to leave her behind. Her new daddy saw her picture on a website and decided he needed to meet her. It was love at first sight.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    Sunny -

    Sunny is the senior dog who started it all for Lori Fusaro. Sunny was left at a Los Angeles shelter at age 16 with cancer and infected eyes. When Fusaro saw Sunny’s face in June 2012, she decided she couldn’t let the dog die alone, so she adopted her and cared for her. Sunny thrived for two and a half years in Fusaro's care. “She inspired me to use photography to show how many senior animals need homes,” Fusaro said.

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    Fusaro’s two dogs are pictured here: Sunny in front, and Gabby, who also is a senior dog. Fusaro rescued Gabby when she was 2 years old. Gabby "loves playing with her doggy friends and has a kitty boyfriend named Enzo,” Fusaro said. “Enzo grooms her every morning and sleeps with her at night.”

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography
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    “Blossom was adopted as an older dog,” Fusaro said. “For some reason, no one wanted her. She is such a character! She has such great expressions, she dances for you as she awaits a treat, and she is loving and affectionate. She gives good doggie hugs.”

    To see more of Fusaro's photos and read more stories about happy senior dogs, check out the book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts," written by TODAY.com writer and editor Laura T. Coffey.

    Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography / Copyright 2013, Fusaro Photography


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