Iowa sanctuary is like animal hospice
DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Little Gumby was blind, deaf and toothless.
The Silky Terrier lived for years in a ghastly Iowa breeding facility from which he and others were removed.
The people who took Gumby in “didn’t like that he would lie in his poop and pee,” said Deb Wallace, of Long Grove. She is proprietor of Down By the Creek Companion Animal Sanctuary — a home for more than 100 rescued or re-homed pets that are rehabilitated, socialized and trained for pet therapy.
When Gumby joined the sanctuary, Wallace put a diaper on him and took him to nursing homes to sit on residents’ laps.
“I carried him in a cute cloth bag/purse stuffed with a towel in case he wet through his diaper,” she said. “Before too long, he never wet himself again and didn’t need a diaper.”
Gumby became a popular visitor at care facilities.
“Being loved for a living seemed to give Gumby a purpose,” Wallace said.
Though he has since has passed away, the little terrier is featured on one of the note cards the sanctuary sells. He was one of dozens upon dozens of animals Wallace has rescued and given a place to live out their lives. She saves “all types of unwanted or mistreated pets ... anything with fur, feathers or scales.”
Wallace then shares the animals’ stories, including their “amazing ability to forgive,” by giving tours of the sanctuary and taking some of the animals into the community as proof of their power to trust again.
Despite his ill treatment and his handicaps, Gumby became one such ambassador.
Over a decade, Wallace’s mission kept growing.
“We started small, with a few nursing homes in the area,” she said. “These pet-therapy programs were so well-received, and demand increased so rapidly that we have grown beyond anything I could have imagined.”
The Quad-City Times reports that the sanctuary teaches kindness, using rescue animals to carry out the mission: “Encourage humane and respectful behavior toward all animals and each other and to promote the preservation of the environment we share.”
Since her start in November 2007, Wallace has encountered challenges in her teachings, but the animals have ways of helping there, too.
For example, when she took in a 2-pound dog that had been abused by children, the animal helped Wallace teach children “the power of their little hands.”
A former educator at the Fejervary Park Zoo, she got some of her ideas there.
“It took me a while to develop,” she said of her mission. “I felt there was enough cruelty. These animals’ stories give hope, I think. Socializing with people who hear their stories changes them, as it changes us. It’s contagious.”
When children touch and hold the animals, she said, she is encouraged by the transformation that occurs in both.
Dozens of volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life are essential to Down By the Creek.
“It’s almost like they become part of the family,” Wallace said.
Their labors of love are far from glamorous: They clean litter pans, wash rear ends and tend to the endless feeding of sanctuary residents.
Wallace’s husband, Ron — a letter carrier who is retired from the Air Force — is among the volunteers. He frequently is found lugging carriers or wrangling animals at public presentations, including a recent appearance at Dan Nagle Walnut Grove Pioneer Village.
Other volunteers include Parker Kress, 16, of Bettendorf, who needed service hours to meet a requirement at Pleasant Valley High School.
“What Debbie is doing is special, and I just wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
Carly O’Toole, 18, who also wanted to complete service hours for Pleasant Valley, has stayed with it for five years.
“Volunteering here is an opportunity to show the community the place these animals came from, and the situations they’ve been in, and how they’ve recovered from their trauma,” she said. “The animals have the opportunity help the community and show people they’re also not alone.”
O’Toole was so inspired that she started her own rescue — O’Toole Oasis — for Betta fish, which she said are “one of the most abused species of fish. People don’t realize the care they need.”
Added Wallace: “Ignorance is often the way cruelty manifests itself.”
Isaac Shepherd, 10, of Bettendorf said he learned about Down By the Creek during a visit to the Putnam Museum, Davenport, where he saw degus (small rodents) and sugar gliders that were visiting from the sanctuary.
“I found out about Debbie and what she does for animals,” said Shepherd, who has been volunteering since he was just four years old. “We try to inform people and to acknowledge that so many things are happening to these animals, and that it’s horrible.”
Sue Herrera, 67, of Milan, has been a Down By the Creek volunteer for five years.
Her interest was piqued when her mother was in a Bettendorf nursing home from 2008-2012.
“She was about 70 percent paralyzed from a stroke and was in a wheelchair,” Herrera said of her mom. ”(Wallace) was doing a program there.”
Herrera’s mother developed a kinship with Gumby and responded to the dog, “because he was handicapped in a different way,” Herrera said.
She witnessed other nursing-home residents who hadn’t spoken for days suddenly come to life in the presence of animals.
“That happens all the time,” Wallace said.
Herrera now is a board member for the organization, does the books for the sanctuary and helps with programming and marketing.
The sanctuary is teeming with life, including the collection of dogs that “announce” the arrival of visitors.
One such canine is Yeller, a favorite among sanctuary visitors, nursing home residents and just about everyone he encounters.
Just inside, a friendly cat named William continues the welcoming duties.
Then a surprising fact confronts the nose: There is nothing to smell. The place is so clean, there is no evidence of the abundant menagerie.
The bird room contains all sort of airborne creatures, including sugar gliders.
There’s a dog-washing setup in a bathroom and, in an extra-warm area, a bearded dragon, a gecko and a ball python. Cockatiels and dainty button quail share another enclosure.
In such an active environment, order counts. Food and cleaning products are labeled and neatly organized, and a huge clipboard lists the names of the dogs and their feeding schedules.
Bunnies have their own space, too, including a Hotot, which is a breed of white rabbit with black markings that appear to be wearing glasses or eyeliner. The sanctuary’s bunny was discovered in a construction area, surrounded by Rottweilers.
The cat area is full of purring felines.
“I know who pees the most,” Wallace said of the cat collection. “When you’re rescuing cats, you’re going to have fights, and you’re going to have spraying. Cat behavior is to mark their territory.”
Chinchillas take dust baths while turtles peer up from their enclosures.
Outside in the barn, a miniature pig named Hamlet shows his gift for napping as a miniature horse strolls its grounds.
Back inside, Wallace points out one especially important room in the sanctuary.
“The living room is the safe zone,” she said. “This is our room where we sit as a pack.”
Wallace, who presented 253 programs in 2017, said animal rescue and rehabilitation work is not for everybody.
She and her husband are a team, and his main job, he said, is to give support.
“I followed him around the world,” Wallace said, smiling. “This time, you follow me.”
She spoke candidly about the hardships of the undertaking, warning, “You can’t be broke and start something like this. You have to be very careful. You can’t do this when you’re young.
“You’ve got stuff to learn. I had to think really carefully before I did it. I decided to put it in the Lord’s hands.”
She is licensed through the USDA, which categorizes the operation as an “animal acts exhibition.”
Some days are “ridiculously hard” and “the payback is huge, but it’s not in cash.”
Animals must be fed day and night.
And it can take hours to prepare for a presentation, particularly if travel is involved. People don’t always understand why the animals are visiting, and the explanation must be delivered with patience.
“A lot of nursing home residents are farmers, so they see the animals in a different way,” Herrera said, adding that one woman told her, “Before you came, they were just chickens. In your hands, they’re beautiful birds.”
Continuing education is work, too, and many people buy or otherwise acquire animals without having any idea how to take care of them.
“It’s not for the faint of heart or the faithless,” Wallace said of her work.
And while she and the volunteers tend to every critter, they must tend to every dollar, too.
“We have five vets,” she said. “Most give us a little discount.”
Wallace is chronically in need of donations and volunteers. But she entertains few regrets, and is routinely reminded that the sanctuary impacts everyone; human and animal.
“I wanted to make a difference in the world,” she said. “I never knew the impact that it would make on my life. When I take animals on programs, nearly every day, that gives them a chance to be loved.
“I find myself rescued by them every day.”
Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.com