Ozzie was too old and too big a dog for many households to consider taking in – until an animal sanctuary, and a husband and wife from Napa, stepped in.
Muscular, athletic and bursting with energy and endless barking, the shepherd-mix with tan fur has found human company with Joan and John Caselli. When the couple adopted Ozzie six months ago, they were taking in their third former resident of Lily’s Legacy, a Petaluma-area sanctuary that is one of a handful of facilities specializing in the rescue and adoption of the senior dogs – usually those at least 7 years old – that often are ignored by those wary of their medical needs and short lifespans.
“You have to think of them as you would any dogs – they may be old in years but they’re still a kid at heart,” Joan Caselli said last week in her living room while petting Ozzie, who was recovering from surgery after tearing a knee ligament playing in a neighborhood park.
“They still like to walk, they still like to play, they still like a good meal, but it’s all at a different pace,” added Caselli, a volunteer with the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. But John and I are older too so for us, it’s exactly the pace we need.”
Joan, 69, and John, 71, are part of a network of hosts adopting aging pets from Lily’s Legacy, a nonprofit group that for more than a decade has focused on accepting, tending to and finding new homes for canines not only getting on in years but weighing more than 50 pounds – and which have been abandoned or displaced from their homes.
The sanctuary dates to November 2007, when its founder Alice Mayn, an animal rescue advocate for more than 20 years, went to a Sonoma County animal shelter to adopt a golden retriever in failing health. Naming the dog Lily, Mayn took her home and cared for her through the health crises and veterinarian’s visits that marked the final four months of the animal’s life, she recalled Sunday.
“She came with a message,” Mayn said of Lily. “There are very few senior dog rescue (centers) in the country and even fewer large dog rescues. The idea popped in my head because of her, and here we are, 10 years later.”
What emerged from the experience was a rarity in animal welfare: one of fewer than 40 out of some 14,000 animal rescue agencies that caters to older dogs from large breeds, according to Lily’s Legacy spokesperson Clara Franco.
Rehabilitation takes place on a rural 5-acre property outside Petaluma where abandoned or surrendered canines, about 70 to 80 per year, are housed and receive medical treatment before being offered to new hosts. In addition to check-ups, blood work and X-rays, dogs with more acute medical needs may receive more advanced procedures such as knee replacements or cataract removal, according to Mayn.
Animals at the Lily’s Legacy sanctuary are housed either with volunteer foster hosts or in a converted barn with a front area furnished with couches and chairs, and a back area with kennels that open into a dog park. The nonprofit checks the references of those seeking to adopt dogs and conducts home visits to ensure that host and home are appropriate to a particular animal.
As of last week, a dozen canines were staying at the Petaluma center, Mayn said. Four of the pets are permanent residents because of behavioral or health problems or due to attachment to the staff; while the remaining eight, ranging in age from 7 to 15, were listed as adoption candidates on the Lily’s Legacy website.
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“These are highly adoptable and make incredible pets,” said Mayn. “It’s an education thing, one of the things that I want to get the word out about: the plight of senior dogs and the joy of adopting senior dogs.”
Offering a home to grizzled canines seemed a natural turn of events to Joan Caselli, a longtime dog owner who has herself built a new family life over the past decade. She and John had both lost their spouses before they met at a Christmas Eve party in 2010, married five years later and bought a house together in Napa.
“When I first met John, I had four dogs and two cats – I took two dogs that were old and blind, dogs nobody else wanted to take in,” she recalled.
Soon after settling in Napa, the new couple reached out to Lily’s Legacy and returned home with a chocolate Labrador they named Chloe. After Chloe succumbed to cancer, Molly, a mastiff-mix believed to be at least 10 years old, took residence with the Casellis until her passing last December – barely a month before Ozzie, whose previous owner was unable to take him with her after moving to a retirement home, took the same path from Petaluma to Napa.
“We’re only good without a dog for two or three weeks!” Joan Caselli quipped, kneeling to gently stroke and calm her latest four-footed friend after a mail carrier outside the front door triggered another protective barking fit.
Even with the uncertainty of how much time she and her husband can share with their furry friends, Joan Caselli described the adoption of a pet in a similar stage of life as her own a comfortable fit.
“I did not want a puppy – I’ll be 70 next year, and I had one puppy in my life and that was enough!” she said, smiling. “I always went for the middle-aged ones (before), and you heart goes out to the senior dogs.”
“I cannot go to a shelter and look at a dog through a fence – I just get very emotional,” said Caselli.
Fifteen minutes later, she guided her dog – still gimpy from his knee injury – into the courtyard behind the house for some afternoon sunshine. Before stepping outside, she picked up from a side table of the living room a written note with words seemingly meant to comfort her, whether Ozzie would be with her for a few more months or a few more years.
The slip of lined paper read in a neat longhand: “If you are brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello.”