Life goes on for misfit dogs that call Kamp Kritter home
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Sue Towler figures that she and the troubled dogs she loves are like the residents of The Island of Misfit Toys, from the old stop-motion “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas special.
“We’re all misfits,” sing the unwanted toys on the TV show.
That could be the motto at Jacksonville’s Kamp Kritter, a small no-kill shelter that’s home to some of the most troubled, most difficult to adopt dogs around: the old and the traumatized, the sick and the dying.
There’s Jethro, a “big buffoon” with a heart condition and spinal spondylitis that leaves him swaybacked and crooked as he heads to gum at a chew toy in the play yard. There’s Big Red, with a big heart but a penchant for loud barking and chewing anything he get his teeth on, and Betty Boop, who cowers whenever a man’s around.
There’s Kermit and Mr. Magoo, Boston terriers, the “Boston Brigade.” Kermit is terminally ill, Towler said, and Mr. Magoo has a surly streak.
“Something’s missing in his head, but we’re working on him,” she said of Mr. Magoo. “He’s a jerk, but he’s our jerk.”
Then she yelled out, “Don’t eat the teddy bear! It’s for pictures.”
And there’s Louise, who’s 13 and has lived with Towler since a year old. Louise and her late sister Thelma were among 27 abused, neglected dogs found out in the country. Only they survived.
They had been kept with hogs, who gouged out one of Thelma’s eyes and both of Louise’s. At Kamp Kritter, Towler let Louise out of her cage and guided her verbally as she headed to do her business: “La-la-la-la-la-la-halt!”
Kamp Kritter, in a concrete-block building on busy McDuff Avenue just north of Interstate 10, is sanctuary for these misfits.
It’s Towler, the owner there, who brings up the analogy. “Remember Santa Claus and the Island of Misfit Toys?” she asked. “I’ve always felt like I was a misfit, and so I identify with misfits.”
She’s 58 and calls herself an old hippie. She grew up in conservative small-town Virginia and didn’t feel at home there; bookish and out of step. As a young woman, she joined the Air Force. Between active duty and reserves, she spent 25 years in the service. It took her around the United States and the world, left her with hundreds of stories.
After retirement, she began pet-sitting, which is when she ran into Sir Little Champ, a skinny pit bull mix puppy, outside a convenience store. He needed help, and who else was there to help him?
She took in other needy dogs and in 2004 became a nonprofit rescue operation.
“It just evolved,” Towler said. “It’s like a drug habit. Anyone in rescue will tell you. It’s like doing drugs.”
Even with a crew of volunteers, it’s a lot of work. There’s no weekends or holidays for these dogs. It’s expensive: Food, medicine and vet bills pile high. The vets at Cedar Hills and San Marco animal hospitals are good to her and her dogs, but it’s still a lot of money.
She’s not complaining. She works for herself, and it’s her haven, and sometimes when the dogs get quiet she can even turn on the TV, lie on a couch and rest for a while.
Alexis Frame, a vet tech assistant at the Cedar Hills hospital, has worked with Towler and thinks her military background drives her to help the neediest.
“She’s very headstrong, has a very big heart,” Frame said. “She goes for the animals in need. What some people would call the rejects, she pulls them in and gives them the best last days that they could expect.”
Towler tells stories of being in the military, being young and tough and ready for anything. But hey, she’s slowing down now, shifting gears. She has to think strategically about the years ahead.
Money’s always a problem. It takes a lot to keep this place going, so she’s trying to up her fundraising efforts at her website, kampkritter.com. She’s increasing her morning pet-sitting job, taking in more boarders, even selling CBD oil for humans and dogs — a legal, non-intoxicating marijuana extract said to have a calming effect.
She has a plan: She gets her military pension in 23 months. She’s going to get an RV. She has friends out in Colorado and Virginia. She’d like to live there half the year, come here the rest of the time.
And Kamp Kritter? “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t got that far in the thinking.”
It’s clear though that she’ll need to have a replacement for herself if it’s to keep going.
“I’m working on that. It’s tough. That’s a reality. I’m winding down. I used to have 27 (dogs), now I’m down to 14,” she said.
And there’s so much need out there, where too many humans are thoughtless or cruel or neglectful to animals, and Towler is realistic: “Two thousand of me, a million of me, couldn’t solve this.”
Dealing with old and sick and abused dogs, death cannot be avoided. Towler doesn’t shy from it. She keeps a couple of dozen urns inside Kamp Kritter containing the remains of the dogs who’ve died there. It looks as if the Boston terrier Kermit will be next.
“I know now that Kermit has probably two or three months to live and I can do absolutely nothing about it. All I can do — these pills are not going to save him, but they’re going to make his ending happy. We’re going to give him some acupuncture, doggie acupuncture, some massage.”
Is it hard on her emotionally, seeing these misfit dogs die? “No, no, I’m doing a beautiful thing,” she said.
After a second, she revises that. “Sometimes. What’s emotional is the neglect and abuse they come here with because humans are idiots, that’s what ’s hard. So I have to take that anger, and put it down. I do a lot of meditation, a lot of zen kind of things. I’m an old hippie at heart.”
There’s a lot of work to do still. Consider the diminutive trio of Anna, Mickey and Monkey, the remaining members of the Rat Pack, which was once a group of eight pint-sized dogs. They all have their issues, not the least of which is a neighboring hawk that would like to eat Mickey the Chihuahua (Towler keeps him at bay with expertly aimed tennis balls).
Then there’s big ol’ Hoss, whom she would really like to see get adopted. He’s a gangly bloodhound mix, found abandoned in Putnam County with 14 other dogs. She’s had him six months, and dealt with big vet bills to get rid of the various infections in his body.
Hoss has gained weight and is healthier now. He’s affectionate, a clown, she said, and would be a good fit at the right home.
Some work, however, remains. His socialization skills are wanting, so she’s working on him with that. She’s teaching him how to lie on a couch, and he’s pretty good at that so far.
It’s been a little more difficult, however, persuading Hoss to stop repeatedly poking his droopy snout into people’s private parts, a habit that would effectively keep him a misfit for the duration. But even there she’s making progress — and for Hoss, that is reason for hope.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com