Remarkable woman takes no-kill commitment to new level
By Kevin Lambert
There are typically two exit doors through which every shelter animal will eventually pass: one reads “Adoption” and the other, “Euthanasia.” Sadly, only the latter needs its hinges regularly replaced, as roughly 4 million unclaimed dogs and cats per year suffer the ultimate price borne of abandonment, abuse, incapability, and widespread ignorance. There exists a special place in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, however, that represents a third door: Home for Life Animal Sanctuary in Star Prairie, Wisconsin. Founded by Executive Director Lisa LaVerdiere in 1997, the state-of-the-art facility is a stunning realization of a vision that began for her as an 8-year-old girl.
“Like most little girls I was very interested in animals, and so I volunteered at the Humane Society in my area,” LaVerdiere recalls. “They used a gas chamber back then, and though I never watched an animal die, it was incredibly heart-wrenching to see them get pulled when their time was up. I remember begging people to adopt. We were overrun with animals, especially in the summer when cat litters were so numerous. Often there weren’t enough dishes or space; we had to combine litters. It was tough. I got a first-hand look at how challenging the problem is.”
LaVerdiere’s experience provided insights into human adoption tendencies that determined which animals in particular are especially vulnerable to euthanasia. “In the ‘80s, no-kill shelters started opening up,” she says. “Their mindset is that every animal is adoptable, but this just isn’t the case. People want what they want, and there are four general categories of animals that are virtually impossible to place in homes: seniors, and animals with medical issues, disabilities, or behavioral problems. I wanted to take a multi-faceted approach to giving these animals a stable, permanent place to live out their lives comfortably instead of subjecting them to a stressful environment designed for a temporary stay.”
Home for Life abounds with specialized features to accommodate these shunned animals, as well as those whose guardians have died or are unable to care for them. Most dogs and cats live in common buildings divided into “apartments” that have direct access to an enclosed open-air run. Dogs that exhibit aggression or behavioral abnormalities are issued “townhomes” that they occupy individually or in small groups, ensuring a more predictable environment without sacrificing comfort. There are also separate living areas for cats with FIV and Feline Leukemia. Typically euthanized at conventional and even no-kill shelters because these diseases are communicable via saliva and nasal secretions, cats with these conditions at Home for Life are housed together in a separate facility that includes all the plush amenities of the rest: Every living area is equipped with air conditioning, heated floors, piped-in music, furniture, and 24-hour surveillance. An extremely popular feature for dogs is the freedom of the expansive fields that surround the compound. Each outdoor run allows for light exercise and a certain amount of freedom, but apart from a juicy steak, there is nothing dogs want more than to uncoil their energy onto 40 wide-open acres of earth and grass.
Home for Life’s dogs don’t simply spend their days frolicking in blissful ignorance (well, some do); LaVerdiere puts them to work in different ways. “We certify many of them as therapy dogs,” she says. “We work with the elderly, wounded veterans, domestic abuse victims, the mentally ill, sick and dying children, and kids who have taken a wrong turn in life, among others. We started the Renaissance Project, where teenage felons help us train some of the dogs to become therapy animals. It gives them something they can be proud of, knowing that they have helped other people through their work with our dogs. I think it’s fitting and so wonderful that forgotten and marginalized animals can have such a positive effect on those forgotten and marginalized people in society.”