‘Retirement home’ for pets looks to expand
JUPITER, Fla. — Mornings for Wendy Derhak, the owner of The Pet Cottage, start before sunrise. She dishes out chow for Elvis, Dash, 2-2 and Charlie Brown before taking three of them out for walks.
Elvis is a shepherd mix who Derhak adopted from a rescue that had saved him from a high-kill shelter. He and 2-2, a terrier mix, usually like trotting together, while Dash, an energetic pit bull mix, needs Derhak’s undivided attention.
Charlie Brown, a 15-year-old dachshund who is Derhak’s forever foster, can’t handle the walks, so he waddles around Derhak’s home like a slow-moving shadow, peppering her conversations with short yips.
The Pet Cottage is a Jupiter-based sanctuary for pets whose owners have died or who can no longer care for them, because of disability or deployment.
The West Palm Beach Police Department asked her to take in 2-2 because his homeless owner couldn’t take care of him anymore, and Dash lived with a military couple who had saved her from an abusive home until they were deployed.
Ready to expand: Derhak has a team of five volunteers and nine people who help foster the pets. Having operated out of her home for about six years, for three years as a nonprofit with a fluctuating number of dogs and cats, Derhak said she is ready for a bigger space.
“I say ‘no’ a lot, and I don’t want to have to say ‘no,’” she said.
Derhak is quick to point out the difference between her nonprofit and pet rescues: rescues work to pull animals from kill shelters and find them a permanent home, but on most occasions she and her volunteers keep the animals — like a “retirement home for dogs and cats.” She focuses on the quality of care, “honoring the promise of a human companion” and making sure they live out the rest of their lives loved. Until she finds an appropriate adoptive or foster family, The Pet Cottage is their guardian.
“It’s one dog at a time,” Derhak said. “When we take them on, it’s a promise of home for life.”
Ever since the organization’s inception, she has dreamed of building a three-acre community complete with six cottages that can house four dogs each and a cattery for 20 cats. Derhak wants it to be a place for senior volunteers, too, because she feels the demographic experiences a “big loneliness crisis.”
Fundraising: Soon, she’ll be launching a capital campaign to raise the $700,000 she needs to buy the land and get her vision off the ground.
Derhak’s first unofficial residents of The Pet Cottage were two cats, Jeremy and Smokey. When she was a personal trainer for seniors, she developed a friendship with a woman named Joan. Eventually, Joan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and Derhak became her caregiver, she said.
“What happens when people get older … they’re barely taking care of themselves,” Derhak said. “The care of the pet goes out the window.”
One of Joan’s cats, Shadow, had died before her, but she worried about what would happen to Jeremy and Smokey, so Derhak offered to take them in.
People began contacting Derhak after hearing about her initiative, and the organization took off from there.
Social media: She says her biggest challenge was navigating social media, but the nonprofit’s Facebook page has gathered more than 1,200 likes and the Instagram following has surpassed 24,000. Social media comes into play as a fundraising tool if a family can’t pay for the $500 assistance fee, which goes toward vet checkups and supplies for the foster family. She began charging this fee this year, after paying for these costs out-of-pocket and running up a tab.
“My heart is bigger than my pocketbook,” she said.
Shari Blitman has volunteered with The Pet Cottage for a year, helping with administrative and fundraising tasks. She said volunteering with the nonprofit has been “the most fulfilling thing that I’ve done.”
“Her heart is really into this,” Blitman said of Derhak. “She makes happy endings.”
Derhak wants to use her nonprofit to promote the need for pet owners to make a pet trust, which is a legal document that determines what will happen to a pet after the owner dies.
Derhak said orphaned pets are usually taken to shelters, which are “better than some of the other alternatives, (but) for an old dog, it’s terrible.”
“That’s why we’re trying to get people to make a plan ahead of time when they’re able to make their own decisions,” she said.