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To Louann VanKoevering, Lily and Lizzie were more than dogs. They were family members.
During the day, the 77-year-old held the miniature schnauzers on her lap and stroked their fur. At night, she snuggled them close. And during many of her waking hours, she ruminated on a troubling thought: What would become of Lily and Lizzie if illness snatched her away from them?
“Oh my goodness, my mom loved those dogs,” VanKoevering’s daughter, Kristine Lang, 49, told TODAY. “She had pancreatic cancer for three years and she really started to decline. It got to where she couldn’t walk them or take care of them.”
Right around that time, Lang heard about Tyson’s Place Animal Rescue, an organization that launched a year and a half ago with a highly specialized mission: to help terminally ill people care for and find new families for their pets. The group operates in western Michigan without a facility but with a small network of foster homes that welcomes animals when their human owners become too sick to care for them. Tyson's Place volunteers also clean litter boxes, walk dogs and handle other pet-care duties to help hospice patients keep their pets with them for as long as possible.
News of the group’s existence spread quickly among hospice workers, who have its founder, Jill Bannink-Albrecht, on speed dial. To date, Tyson’s Place has helped 22 dogs, 15 cats and a 17-year-old cockatiel named Bubba.
“I feel it’s really important to provide peace of mind to people who love their animals so much and are already dealing with something so stressful,” said Bannink-Albrecht, 31, of Byron Center, Michigan. “And it’s great to provide a second chance for the pets who might not have gotten it.”
Many of the animals who need to find new homes are older — often over the age of 10 — and Bannink-Albrecht said that can be “a hard sell” even though the lifelong pets are well-adjusted and well-trained. To increase their chances of getting adopted, Bannink-Albrecht arranges to have all their veterinary and grooming needs met — including anything that might have slipped while a family’s attention has been laser-focused on caring for a sick person.
Before Lang heard about Tyson’s Place late last year, she had been panicking about what to do with Lizzie, age 15, and Lily, age 7. She wanted to keep the schnauzers herself, but she knew she and her husband couldn’t handle it — they both have busy jobs and a house full of kids, grandkids and two large dogs.
“It was pretty stressful because I couldn’t find a rescue group that would take animals from residential homes — they only would take dogs from shelters,” said Lang, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Out of respect for my mom, I could not take these dogs to the shelter. I didn’t know what to do.”
Within days of hearing about Lizzie and Lily’s plight, Bannink-Albrecht found a place for the dogs to go. They ultimately got adopted by two different families who were happy to provide updates about how they were doing. Lizzie perked up after landing in a home with other animals who rekindled her playfulness; Lily took up residence in home with floor-to-ceiling windows, a huge backyard and a human mom who loves to knit stylish dog sweaters.
“I was able to tell my mom all of this and open my laptop and show her pictures — this was huge for her,” Lang said. “You could see a sense of peace on her face. She’d laugh when she learned that Lily was having sweaters knitted for her.”
Lang’s mother died on Dec. 4, 2015. Three days later, Lang sent Bannink-Albrecht an email message.
“My mom passed away this past Friday,” she wrote. “I cannot express to you how much it helped her to know that her beloved dogs were in good hands. … You are such a blessing for the work you do.”
Lisa Lunghofer, executive director of the Grey Muzzle Organization, said she did a double take when she heard about the specialized focus of Tyson’s Place Animal Rescue. Grey Muzzle gives grant money to programs that help senior dogs all over the United States, and Tyson’s grant application stood out.
“This struck us as a program that is very much needed,” Lunghofer said. “Knowing what a strong connection people have with their animals, it’s so important to give terminally ill people that peace of mind that their cherished companions will be OK.”
Like Tyson’s Place, other rescue groups that focus on helping the pets of sick people tend to operate in specific local communities. They include Pet Guardians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Safe Place for Pets in Colorado Springs and The Biscuit Foundation in Burlington, North Carolina.
Grey Muzzle recently awarded Tyson’s Place a grant that, among other things, helped pay for veterinary care for Bosco, a 14-year-old rat terrier whose owner died in hospice care and who is up for adoption. The overweight dog needed help trimming down and recovering from an infection caused by rotting teeth.
After undergoing a dental cleaning and having nine teeth removed, Bosco blossomed and began acting like a puppy again.
“It’s so nice to be able to tell adopters, ‘Here’s a healthy dog — we’ve put all this care into him and he’s ready to go and a lot more comfortable,’” Bannink-Albrecht said.
Bannink-Albrecht works full time as a county government clerk and runs the rescue group in the evenings and on weekends. She said she felt motivated to start Tyson’s Place after years of working at an animal shelter with a high euthanasia rate.
“Older animals just didn’t have a chance there, and it was so sad when we’d get in older animals where the owner had passed away,” she recalled. “They’d often be traumatized and they wouldn’t show very well or seem adoptable. They were often the first to be put to sleep.”
Debra Hamilton, a lawyer and mediator who helps people navigate disputes over animals, agreed that shelters can be dangerous places for older pets to end up.
“Dogs who had been longtime pets can seem shellshocked in shelters,” Hamilton said. “It puts the animal in a situation where nobody is going to adopt it because its personality won’t be showing.”
Hamilton described the focus of Tyson’s Place and similar groups as “a phenomenal idea.” She said people who don’t live in the vicinity of such specialized rescue organizations don’t need to panic; instead, they can make their own arrangements for the care of their pets.
“It doesn’t have to be a hospice situation — there are lots of reasons why you suddenly might not be able to come home and care for your pet,” she said. “What if you break a leg, or get in a car accident, or need short-term treatment for something?”
While it’s increasingly common for pets to be included in wills — (according to the American Pet Products Association, about 10 percent of pet owners do so) — people are far less likely to prepare shorter-term care plans for their animals, Hamilton said. Because she’s seen firsthand how important these arrangements can be in a crisis, she offers a free e-book and free webinars on the subject, and she noted that LegalZoom offers low-cost "pet protection agreements" that people can set up easily online.
“I suggest looking for three people who can be called on to help care for your pet — and only one should be a family member,” Hamilton advised. “You can ask a neighbor, a veterinary technician, a groomer, a kid who delivers your newspaper or shovels your snow. Think of everyone you know and talk to them. There are people out there who will do this for you.”
Follow TODAY writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, Twitter @ltcoff and Google+, and learn about her bestselling book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts" at MyOldDogBook.com.