By Holly Kozelsky
By next year, two unique kinds of pet sanctuaries should be up and running in Patrick Springs.
Willow Branch Sanctuary would be for senior horses, dogs and cats who otherwise would be unwanted, and Robyn’s Haven temporarily would take care of the pets of people who are going through medical emergencies or are under Hospice care.
Both facilities will be located on Spring Road, about 1.3 miles from the post office.
Willow Branch Sanctuary is being established by Navy retiree and veterinary student Jean Grace of Stuart to provide shelter, affection, medical care and obedience training for elderly dogs and cats, in hopes homes can be found for them, and to provide a place for horses 30 and older to live.
Grace spent seven years working as an animal control officer in Mathews County and said “one of the situations I noticed in shelters was the absolute non-care and euthanasia rates for senior dogs and senior cats,” she said. “It seemed like they were not the top priority, at least in most shelters, when it came to adoptions.”
Grace, who is from Nebraska, entered the Navy in 1974 and retired in 2007 after a career in communications and two tours of duty in the Middle East. Her home was in Norfolk, but she moved to Mathews County on the coast after she retired.
In 2016, she entered the veterinary school at Virginia Tech, and she is slated for graduation in 2021. She moved to Stuart so she could be near both school and an internship in North Carolina, she said.
After her graduation as a veterinarian, she doesn’t intend to practice, she said, but rather “take this experience I have and care for the animals” of the sanctuary.
“It will help us in the long run,” she said. “A lot of medical costs is extremely high.”
The plan is to provide a home for unwanted “elderly horses, of 30-plus years” plus a respite for “dogs around the 8-year range and cats about 8 or 9 years, a place where they could go live out their lives or be taken from shelters and cared for medically, and eventually fostered out or adopted out to another senior person … or to a family that would take care of it until it passed” away, she said.
Willow Branch has a board of directors: President Amber Agee; Treasurer B.J. Noland; Secretary Dee Noland; and chair of the Grant-Writing Committee Paula Drady. Grace, as the executive director, is filling in for vice president until one comes on board, she said.
When David Kuser of Patrick Springs heard about Grace’s idea, he donated 18 acres of land to the sanctuary, she said.
The land has been transferred, and the survey just completed.
This month, the area for the barn will be blocked off and cleared, Grace said. The barn should be built by August.
The “pretty good sized” horse barn will have six stalls and a place for a caretaker to live. Four or five dogs will have a climate-controlled area, and several cats will be free-range in the barn. Perhaps a dozen or more horses could live on the property, Grace said.
The whole thing will be self-sufficient, powered by solar power, “and all done with no emissions,” Grace said.
Ready by fall
By fall, the property will be ready for dogs and cats to live at, and for grass seed to be planted for a pasture. It should be ready for horses by spring 2021. Lean-tos also will be built around the property.
Agee, who runs Pet Provisions in Stuart, will teach the dogs obedience and social training, to help the dogs be better pets in their new homes, Grace said.
Agee said it was easy to come on board helping Grace with Willow Branch because “it’s inspiring to see somebody who’s already lived a good full life going back to school and starting another career … and her dream come alive with the animal sanctuary.”
“There is a great need for a safe home for senior animals,” said Tanya Schoor, owner of Clover Cat Rescue of Patrick County.
“Sadly, often they are left behind when an elderly owner moves into a retirement home or passes away. People looking to adopt a cat need to remember that a 10-year-old kitty may only have lived half its life.”
She recalled Cassie, who was 21 years old when she got a home — where she went on to live for another two years “and was dearly loved.”
Rockie, an old brindle dog Willow Branch took in, will attend a spaghetti dinner fundraiser on Saturday, at the Rotary Building in Stuart, as an example of what proper care can accomplish. He was surrendered to Patrick County’s animal shelter by his owners, who had kept him outdoors.
“He could barely walk or get around and was in very bad shape, with his ribs showing,” Grace said.
Now Rockie lives permanently with Agee, “and you can just see the remarkable difference in him. … He’s coming along fine.”
Rockie, who “was skin and bones” with two ailments when she got him, has put on 20 pounds “and now runs circles in the yard. It’s great to see how much life he has,” Agee said.
Through her shop and related work with animals, Agee helps pets find homes.
“This past year I pulled six senior animals from our local shelter,” she said. “They get turned in, and they’re so broken. They’re traumatized. What they knew for so long left them. ... that weighs on your soul.”
In December, Willow Branch raised about $1,000 with two fundraisers, pet portraits at Pet Provisions and a barbecue cook-off, Agee said.
At Saturday’s spaghetti dinner, the cost is just donations, and sanctuary board members and other supporters will be there to talk with folks about the plans.
In honor of his wife
David Kuser’s Robyn’s Haven is a work of love – in honor of his late wife, Robyn Blevins, who died in the fall.
The couple moved to Patrick County 21 years ago from the Maryland-Pennsylvania area, where they ran a swimming pool business, he said.
Blevins founded P.A.W.S. (Patrick Animal Welfare League) in 2001, he said, but shortly after that she was thrown from a horse.
“She was in pain for 14 years. She ended up with nerve pain, being bedridden and couldn’t be involved with it,” he said.
They have had many “rescue animals” through the years, he said, but now he’s “down to two pot-bellied pigs, one little dog, two cats and two horses.”
A couple’s dream
As well as P.A.W.S., the couple also had a dream of providing a place for pets to be taken care of while their owners were going through crises. It was only after his wife’s passing that Kuser had a chance to start working on it, he said.
His property has 24 acres, a house and a barn, he said. The house will be set up in a way to take care of more animals, and “the basement will be converted to take care of pot-bellied pigs.”
A place will be made in the house for a caretaker to live in, so “when I pass, people will have to be brought in to live there as caretakers, rent-free, he said.
After subtracting his land donation to Willow Branch, he still has 5 acres on the site of an old plywood mill, he said. There, he would like to create an emergency shelter that could house 150 to 200 animals in temporary situations, such as evacuations from hurricanes, floods or fire zones. Part will be set up for campers, “so people can come camp with their pets while floods are going on.”
Finally, Kuser also plans to start a food bank for animals.
He has incorporated Robyn’s Haven, and now he is awaiting tax-exempt status. To get his shelter operational, he also will “have to go through the state’s veterinarian … they’ll have to inspect the facility, as I understand it.”
It should be open by December, he said.
‘What am I going to do?’
Meanwhile, his sister-in-law, Sherry Cowan of Patrick Springs, is painting the name and images on a truck he will use for the shelter. He plans to drive it in the Christmas parades of Martinsville, Stuart and Floyd.
To help keep it funded, he would like to operate a thrift shop in one of the buildings on his land, he said. “I am hoping to include P.A.W.S. on that. … I want to get all the resources or pet entities together,” he said.
So far, he’s handling costs himself. He collects Social Security, and he also works weekday mornings for Stuart Concrete Products, both of which take care of his personal expenses. He spends weekends “running fuel for Firewater Transport. Firewater’s money goes right to my nonprofit,” he said.
The shelter has been a dream of Kuser and his wife for years, he said. However, “because she got ill, we couldn’t do anything.”
After she passed away,” however, he thought, “What am I going to do?” with his time.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.