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Rescued pets with second acts: An inspiring reason to adopt older animals

Sometimes a story comes along that’s so beautiful and so special that you have to fight past the tightness in your chest and remind yourself to breathe. That’s what happened when I encountered three nuns who went out of their way to adopt Remy, a 9-year-old pit bull who had been languishing at a shelter for months.

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In February 2014, I wrote a story for TODAY.com about the nuns and Remy that touched people around the world and had far-reaching effects, including this one: It helped inspire me to write “My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts,” a new non-fiction book with photographs by Lori Fusaro. Remy and the nuns are stars of the “My Old Dog” book. Here is an excerpt:

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

But to Sisters Veronica Mendez, Virginia Johnson, and Alice Goldsmith, nuns from Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine in Nyack, New York, their request made perfect sense. Why not adopt one of the animals most in need?

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

Pauline Jarney / Hi Tor Animal Care Center via Facebook
Sisters Alice Goldsmith, Virginia Johnson and Veronica Mendez (left to right) get acquainted with Remy the dog at the shelter in late January 2014.

“As soon as I saw the sign that said ‘9 years,’ I said, ‘This is the one. No one is going to want this one,’” recalled Sister Veronica, a vivacious 71-year-old with iron-colored hair and a no-nonsense demeanor.

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.’ ”

Copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
Sister Virginia Johnson gives Remy a hug at their home in Nyack, New York.

RELATED: 'My Old Dog': A paw-some adventure leads to heartwarming new book by TODAY writer

For the nuns, a four-legged addition to their small, no-frills 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. On a Friday, she went on a 4-mile walk with Sister Veronica. On Saturday, Kate’s groomer spotted some unusual lumps. On Sunday, Kate was lethargic. A few days later, she was ailing so much from 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.”

Copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
In shelters across the United States, it’s common for senior dogs and pit bulls to languish, unwanted, before being euthanized. Like Remy, many of those dogs could have years of adventure and affection ahead of them.

The sisters rattled around their house crying for one week before they decisively hopped into their car. 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, New York.

West liked these women. He learned that Sister Alice was 87 and that Sister Virginia, while statuesque and spunky, often needed a walker to get around. His mind raced and made a hopeful connection: Remy. Calm, gentle, unadoptable Remy.

Bingo.

“It just worked out so well,” West 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.”

RELATED: 'No dog should die alone': Photographer promotes senior pet adoption

The nuns said they weren’t concerned that Remy was a pit bull — they could tell how good-natured she was. And even though they were reeling from Kate’s death, they decided not to dwell on Remy’s age, either.

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

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Older dogs get second chance thanks to photographer

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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. “It’s a great life,” said Sister Virginia, a nun for 62 years. “I wouldn’t change it.”

They love living in Nyack because of Hook Mountain, the Hudson River, and other natural wonders that surround them.

“It’s the perfect place to pray because you stand here and see all of God’s beauty,” said Sister Alice, a serene woman of few words. Sister Veronica agreed; she likened looking at the mountain to “praying without realizing it.”

Copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
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 often already house-trained. The nuns said Remy fit right into their lives.

RELATED: See a photo gallery from 'My Old Dog' on TODAY's Facebook page

Veronica loves having a dog to take along on contemplative walks and hikes.

Remy also gets to romp in the tree-filled backyard, play with scads of toys, and luxuriate on soft dog beds in multiple rooms of her new, comfortable home.

Remy quickly earned a nickname — Thumper — because of the happy way her heavy tail goes thump, thump, thump whenever one of the nuns approaches her or rubs 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.”

Excerpted from the book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts." Text copyright 2015 by Laura T. Coffey. Photograph copyright 2015 by Lori Fusaro. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Laura T. Coffey is a longtime writer, editor and producer for TODAY.com. An award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience, Laura has written and edited hundreds of high-profile human-interest stories. Lori Fusaro is staff photographer at Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles and owner of Fusaro Photography, whose clients include BAD RAP, Guide Dogs for the Blind, k9 connection, Angel City Pit Bulls, and other animal rescue organizations. Their website is www.MyOldDogBook.com.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Image: Stella the dog

    There’s life (and love) in these old dogs yet

    A Los Angeles animal photographer is on a mission: To change people's perceptions of older dogs and help more gray-muzzled pooches find loving homes. See images from her "My Old Dog" project here.

  • Image: Fiona the dog

    There’s life (and love) in these old dogs yet

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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
  • Image: Dogs Flopsy and Sebastian together

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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
  • Image: Healy the dog

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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
  • Image: Lady the dog

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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
  • Image: Rosie the dog

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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
  • Image: Sparky the dog

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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
  • Image: Stella the dog

    There’s life (and love) in these old dogs yet

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    “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
  • Image: Sunny the dog

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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
  • Image: Dogs Gabby and Sunny together

    There’s life (and love) in these old dogs yet

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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
  • Image: Blossom the dog

    There’s life (and love) in these old dogs yet

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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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