It was nearly twenty years ago and the animal welfare system in West Michigan had a rather different look than it does today. At that time, there were no local low-cost spay/neuter clinics, adoption of homeless pets was less common and municipal shelters were often dingy and always overcrowded. The entire concept of “no kill” rescue was still in its infancy and was not always embraced by individuals in the animal welfare field who were more used to a traditional shelter system. In other words, it may not have been the best time to be a homeless pet in our area.
There were a few small groups in the area who were doing what they could to help shelter animals. By happenstance, a community member saw a news story on one of these groups and decided that she wanted to get involved. That community member was Vicky and what lay ahead proved to be nothing short of life-changing.
For a while, Vicky was content to help out by doing a bit of fundraising and marketing for the group. She was seeing first-hand the obstacles of helping shelter animals and the uphill battles these first rescue groups were facing. She eventually struck out on her own and started her own small rescue. She was working full time at a paying job and dabbling in rescue on the side. She was taking in a few dogs a month, often from the public, and using word of mouth to try to get them adopted. She would cold-call businesses to see if they would donate items and then run raffles for her friends, family and co-workers to try to raise money for veterinary care for the animals.
Around this time, Vicky met a fellow animal enthusiast, Nancy, and that friendship would prove to be a very important one. Simultaneously, a personal family tragedy would pull Vicky completely away from her burgeoning rescue. After an 8 months hiatus, her original rescue had withered on the vine and it was time to start over-this time with Nancy as a partner in the rescue work.
They started small at first. They had only a few portable dog kennels set up in a garage and were utilizing tarps and space heaters to try to provide a comfortable environment for the dogs they took in. They had very few supplies, no steady financial resources and were still relative novices in handling animals. Vicky and Nancy had no veterinary background so they were hustling to try to learn the veterinary and sanitation protocols it would take to keep their animals healthy. They were making so many visits to one local veterinarian that he finally convinced them that they needed to learn to vaccinate and worm animals themselves.
At this time, Vicky and Nancy were still relatively unknown in the community and local shelters were suspicious of their motives; often refusing to release animals to them. They were taking in animals from the public but soon discovered that this method came with risks; animals received directly from the public often came with strong emotions and strings attached and, after receiving personal threats regarding one of these animals, the ladies decided to concentrate their efforts directly on shelter animals. The women honed their diplomacy skills and their persistence and obvious commitment began to make inroads with local shelter managers as trust in their motives grew.
While the rescue work was entirely dog-focused in the beginning, the rescue of two pregnant cats soon set the hook in Nancy to begin rescuing cats as well. They converted a corner of the basement into a makeshift cat shelter and Nancy began focusing her energies there. Over the years, the addition of a specialized air filtration system, stainless steel cages and Nancy’s meticulous cleaning and veterinary protocols produced a cat rescue and adoption program that garnered great respect from those in animal welfare and the community at large.
The work was exhausting- some days it was pure adrenalin that kept them going. They were hauling adoptable animals back and forth from the shelters to their home and back to the veterinarian for spay/neuter surgeries or vetting. They were doing adoptions in any location that would allow them, including parking lots, PetSmart and private adoption events. Along the way, they were brainstorming fundraisers and utilizing a good deal of their own funds to pay for expenses the rescue couldn’t cover. They began recruiting foster homes and volunteers, all of which needed oversight and management. It soon became a 24/7 commitment and the phones were ringing, literally, day and night.
But, the work was paying off. Animals were being saved and Vicky and Nancy were gaining some prominence in the local animal welfare community. A self-sponsored trip to attend a national “no kill” conference in Chicago opened their eyes to a much wider, national movement that gave a voice to what Vicky and Nancy already believed; that all shelter animals deserve a second chance. It also emphasized the importance of collaboration in the animal welfare community and Vicky and Nancy took this particular message to heart and made it part of their mission to foster that sense of cooperation between local shelters, rescues, veterinarians and the community. These women were two dynamic forces of nature and had a gift for motivating and educating the people they came in contact with to care about shelter animals as well.
Along the way, some key volunteers arrived with skills that would help propel the organization forward. Prominent community members Pete and Tuti DeMaagd began taking an interest in what Vicky and Nancy were doing and started assisting with some fundraising and financial assistance and , in 1998, were instrumental in gaining Vicky’s Pet Connection it’s official non-profit 501(3) c status. Being a non-profit added legitimacy to the organization but also brought with it additional daily paperwork, bookeeping and tax filing requirements which all had to be learned from scatch.
While all of this was going on, Vicky and Nancy were still running the rescue out of their home. The basement had been converted to an efficient cat rescue while the garage had been taken over by the dogs. They erected a small, outdoor run to give the dogs a place where they could get some exercise but leash-walking still had to be done. The garage environment was noisy and difficult to sanitize and the barking sometimes shook the house. Their days started well before dawn and continued well into the night. Looking back now, they aren’t sure how they did it.
In 2004, a dream of Vicky and Nancy’s was realized with the construction of a small building that would house their rescued dogs while they waited for adoption. The building had four roomy kennels with 3 large fenced yards that would separate the dogs and would allow good sanitation and convenience. There was a sink, heating and air conditioning and some storage space. From the outside, it looked like a small artists studio. But, inside, animal’s lives were being saved.
The building of this well-designed kennel allowed Vicky to begin to rescue more pregnant dogs-a mission that was close to her heart. By rescuing the dogs before giving birth, Vicky could control the environment the puppies were born into and minimize the transmission of disease-a major risk for puppies. Pregnant dogs were a huge undertaking, though, requiring many weeks of pre and post natal care and the puppies, though adorable, were very time consuming. Sometimes, she would have as many as 4-5 litters at once with dozens of puppies to attend to. In addition, volunteers in the community were also raising puppies under VPC’s umbrella and were providing much-needed assistance in this area. It seemed at times that even the Grand Rapids Press might run out of newspaper to supply the puppies unending demand for kennel floor covering!
Then, in 2006, while standing amid the chaos of a dog adoption event at PetSmart, Vicky and Nancy received the news that a community member named Judy Larson had passed away and named Vicky’s Pet Connection as the benefactor of her estate.This was life-changing information for Vicky’s Pet Connection. While they once were raising money at bake sales and spaghetti dinners, they now had a windfall of nearly $150,000. The sum was nearly unfathomable to them but that generous bequest allowed Vicky and Nancy the opportunity to begin large-scale spay/neuter programs in the community that, ultimately were responsible for providing this important surgery to thousands upon thousands of animals. It also allowed them the freedom to begin financially supporting other animal welfare groups like Carol’s Ferals and Focus on Ferals who were just getting their feet under them and, today, provide the community with critical services.
The stories that Vicky and Nancy tell of these crazy days could fill a book. At its height, Vicky’s Pet Connection was rescuing and rehoming nearly 1,300 animals a year! Vicky, Nancy and their small team of volunteers and foster homes were thrown into a myriad of strange situations that were hair-raising at the time but will be the fodder of future campfire stories: the broken arm caused by an enthusiast dog, doing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking puppy, after-dark visits by coyotes a little too interested in kennel happenings and the unending stream of quirky animals with every imaginable veterinary ailment.
Along the way, some pretty amazing volunteers moved in and out of the organization each contributing vital skills along the way. These were individuals who, like Vicky and Nancy, were willing to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to ensure that the rescue work could continue. They ran fundraisers, fostered animals, transported pets, answered emails, assisted with paperwork, cleaned kennels, photographed adoptable pets, facilitated adoptions and so much more. Without these remarkably dedicated people, none of what Vicky’s Pet Connection has accomplished would have ever been possible.
In 2007, the organization branched out again and opened the very first public space for Vicky’s Pet Connection, The Critter Cottage. The Critter Cottage provided space to open several free-roaming cat adoption rooms, one of Nancy’s dreams. It also had room for a small retail space for pet supplies and gifts and proceeds from the store could help to support VPC’s programs. Dedicated volunteers now keep the Critter Cottage open to the public nearly 40 hours a week and care for cats there 365 days a year.
From its inception, it is estimated that Vicky’s Pet Connection has rescued and re-homed nearly 14,000 animals. In all that time Nancy has been stationed firmly at the helm of the cat program and has handled much of the bookkeeping and paperwork that a non-profit organization requires. She is the detail person and continues to be highly-regarded in the community for her dedication to her work. In recent years, she has scaled back her cat program to try to achieve a more sustainable pace. She continues to rescue many adult cats but also focuses much of her energies on rescuing the labor-intensive shelter kittens whose health and well-being might be at risk without intervention.
Up until 2011, Vicky remained as the voice for all things dog at Vicky’s Pet Connection. After approximately 14 years of the all-consuming work of co-running Vicky’s Pet Connection, she decided to quietly retire from this volunteer work and focus on her paying career while relearning what it was like to enjoy the personal time that she had sacrificed entirely for so many years. Luckily, Vicky had several dedicated volunteers in the wings that were experienced and ready to step up to run the dog program.
Today, Vicky’s Pet Connection continues to work in our community to assist shelter animals in getting their second chance. The Critter Cottage continues to welcome visitors and the network of volunteers and foster homes is strong. With more community rescues up and running, VPC is able to focus more solely on cats, special needs animals and senior dogs; populations still struggling in traditional shelters. These animals require longer stays in foster care and more veterinary care but the vast experience of VPC volunteers makes them especially suited to help these animals. The focus on special-needs animals means that adoption numbers are lower but representing this underserved group is critical to ensuring that all shelter animals are given the opportunity to find families of their own.
The future of Vicky’s Pet Connection is yet to be written. Vicky and Nancy could never have dreamed where their passion and commitment could have led the organization. With no paid straff and only private funding to depend on, Vicky’s Pet Connection has made an incredible impact on the lives of West Michigan animals. With luck, and the support of the community, we can only assume that the success will continue.
Note: When Vicky was asked if there was anything she wanted to add to this written history, her only response was "Yes..don't try this at home!"