Famed Photograher Hannah Stonehouse Hudson Vists Home for Life Animal Sanctuary and The Story of Simon

The Native American Spiritual Adviser told her that she would know when her husband Jim was close because she would see eagles near. Eagles were Jim's symbol. So we knew it would be a special day when Hannah said the eagles seemed to be accompanying her on her drive to Home for Life, especially as she approached the sanctuary, circling above as she drove up our driveway, as if to herald her arrival. Eagles have  special meaning for her, and it almost seemed as if the eagles had led her to Home for Life that chilly but sunny and clear day this mid November.

For Native Americans  as well as people of many other cultures eagles have long signified courage  and a connection to the divine because they can fly higher than any bird. They are of the earth but their powerful ability to soar so high seems spiritual as well. Little did Hannah know that she would meet a special dog at Home for Life that day, who seems to embody the spirit of the eagle, a gentle Doberman with a mighty heart named Simon.

Hannah Stonehouse Hudson is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer whose photo “John & Schoep” went viral in 2012.

In the midst of this stupendous success, Hannah suffered an unimaginable loss: the untimely death of her young husband Jim, a fishing guide, due to hypothermia. During this thrilling time counterpointed by heartbreaking tragedy, Hannah has stayed engaged and positive, practicing her art around the world and giving generously to the animal rescue community by photographing the dogs and cats in their care. She is based in Bayfield, Wisconsin but travels all over for her work. Her specialty is ”photographing objects that move fast and bark!” Hannah adores dogs! She is so busy, famous and so in demand but made time to photograph Home for Life's animals for our sponsorship program. She visited the sanctuary and spent several hours with us late morning into the afternoon on her way to catch a flight to California to photograph dogs at a rescue in Santa Monica.

Even before she came to Home for Life, Hannah said she wanted to sponsor one of our dogs and was eager to meet them all. She appreciates and loves all dogs but one of those at Home for Life really touched her heart.

Simon is a red Doberman and now about 9 years old. Since he first came to us, Simon has seemed to inspire everyone around him with his gentle and radiant spirit and eagerness to forge special relationships with all he meets.

We were asked to help Simon by a veterinarian after the former owners brought him in to be euthanized. There was no way the vet could euthanize the 9 month old puppy (then called Phoenix ironically).The vet convinced Simon's owners to sign a  a release  surrendering the puppy to his custody. Simon reportedly had physical disabilities that resulted in frequent accidents and could not be trusted in the house. The owners would leave him crated when they were at work but were fed up when they returned home to find messes in the kennel. The vet didn’t think he could be placed in a new home and asked Home for Life to take him in.

Simon has always lived in our doggy townhouses. With access to a spacious outdoor run attached to his townhouse, Simon was able to get outside for bathroom whenever nature called rather than having to wait hours in a crate for the chance to be taken for a walk, or if not in the crate, to hope someone noticed when he needed to be let out.

With Simon's young age we wanted to get him involved in dog training to help him learn his obedience skills and  provide him  with a challenge for his obvious intelligence. We hoped that with his gentle nature he would become a therapy dog. We enrolled him in our Renaissance Program, and Simon developed a special bond with Ron, his student trainer at Totem Town. Like Simon, Ron was long legged and active. And like Simon, underneath a tough exterior Ron was gentle hearted and caring.

Ron put his heart into training Simon, who was still an ungainly pup, barely one year old, and successfully taught him the basics of obedience like walking on a leash without pulling, sitting when asked, staying for petting and lying down. Ron was so motivated by the fact that he was helping Simon and the many people Simon would go on to help through his work as a therapy dog. It was very inspiring to see Ron walk proudly with Simon on leash in the final classes where it was obvious they had achieved so much.

Ron was not able to finish the Totem Town class unfortunately, but shortly thereafter, Simon met Cesar Milan when he was in town and promotional photos were taken for our 2007 gala, a landmark event for Home for Life. Because of Ron's hard work to train Simon, Simon was chosen to represent Home for Life and our gala, posing for the pictures with Cesar, and the photos by Mark Luinenburg turned out great.
Simon with Cesar Milan 

Because of Ron's diligent work with Simon, he was able to become certified as a therapy dog. Simon became a well-loved and well recognized therapy dog with the VA Poly Trauma Unit in Minneapolis at the VA Medical Center. This Poly Trauma Unit is one of only four such facilities in the entire country. They are provided for veterans returning from the wars with multiple traumatic injuries: head injuries, amputations and other conditions that will require long term rehabilitation and care. As a Doberman, Simon was a “manly” breed who appealed to the soldiers, especially the young men recovering from injuries. The physical therapists incorporated the Home for Life's dog visits into the exercises for the patients,for example, throwing balls for the dogs to retrieve to work arm muscles. Simon's calm and loving presence even motivated one young soldier's recovery from devastating war wounds, and the relationship was documented in a St. Paul Pioneer Press article about Home for Life's work with patients in the VA Poly Trauma Unit. See the article here.

Simon with Shane, our black and tan Doberman, who is Simon's protégé and now visits the soldiers at the VA Polytrauma Unit. For many years the two boys did the visits together.

When Simon was approximately 7 years old, he developed a spinal problem that is common in Dobermans: Wobbler's Disease.  There is no cure and the impact on the quality of life of affected dogs is profound. They become very disabled, and the disease is progressive, rendering these large breed dogs unable to walk. As his disease progressed, Simon became nearly quadriplegic. Yet he had such a palpable will to live, and to give. He was not ready to give up and we couldn't give up on Simon either.

We tried various approaches to try to help Simon: chiropractic which was unsuccessful in helping him, and surgery. Surgery represented a huge risk since a procedure might have left him unable to breathe independently, requiring him to be on a respirator. At the University, Simon underwent an MRI; after evaluating the MRI results, while Simon was still under anesthesia, the veterinary surgeons and neurologists determined that they could not offer a solution for him via surgical intervention. In a way it was a relief because the risk was so great had the procedure failed.

At this point some staff thought it might be better to put Simon down. He was so hard to care for they complained. I vetoed this option, clearly recognizing that Simon wasn't ready to die. Then, they thought it would be easier to care for Simon and that he might do better in the main dog building rather than his longtime townhouse and lobbied to move him there.  We gave it a try. But, it was apparent that this move was more for their convenience than Simon's. Dogs may not be able to talk but Simon made it abundantly clear he wanted nothing to do with a new location. He wanted to stay with his long time roommates and friends. He sat at the window of the front door of our main dog building, wistfully looking out, searching for his friends and crying. In the end it was decided that if we could give Simon some comfort by letting him be with his friends in his townhouse, that needed to be the place he should be, even if it made a bit more extra work for the staff. Thankfully, our current staff accommodates Simon and puts his welfare first before their convenience. Simon was reunited with his longtime friends and roommates Stella the sheepdog cross, Buster Brown the blind lab, and Ruby the walker coonhound.
Simon with Ruby,summer 2013

Simon with Stella and Buster Brown, taken last summer after Simon began walking on his own following his surgery

Searching for a solution for him we learned about a new surgery for Wobbler's Disease that had had a high rate of success. In early February 2013, we arranged for the pioneering surgeon Dr. Fillipo Adamo, to fly to Chicago from his practice in San Francisco to help Simon. Simon was driven there by some of our wonderful volunteers and underwent the new, but promising procedure for Wobbler’s where a special device was implantedWe sent photos of Simon to Dr. Adamao before his surgery - the photos of him with Cesar Millan and those that had appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. With great insight Dr. Adamo commented that from the photos, it was clear Cesar wasn't the only celebrity - Simon was a star in his own right!

The surgery was a success but Simon had a long and slow recovery. For the first few months we performed range of motion exercises to keep his muscles supple and preserve his flexibility. He was turned every 2-3 hours to prevent the development of pressure sores. He received medication to help with pain and promote muscle relaxation.  Four months into the rehabilitation, when we had nearly concluded that the surgery must have failed, Simon started to walk on his own! In the mornings, there he was - waiting for the staff at the gate of his run- he had risen to his feet on his own and walked out the dog door and to the front of his run. It was incredible and miraculous to see him finally be able to stand up  and walk on his own, and we were so grateful!

Simon still has a good deal of stiffness on his right side and doesn't walk “normally” but loves doing everything his roommates and our “normal” dogs do including making his way to the meadow for exercise with his roommates and best friends. After his surgery, Simon received several months of acupuncture therapy which gave his muscles some relief. When Hannah visited in November to take the sponsor photos Simon was there to greet her, and walked from his townhouse to the lower meadow with the other dogs from his group. He wasn't going to miss the chance to meet a new friend!
HFL staff Kaitlin takes Hannah's photo with Simon using Hannah's own camera!

This hard winter has been a challenge to Simon's recovery. He seemed to lose ground with his rehabilitation, losing his mobility as the weather grew colder. This winter has been the coldest and snowiest we have had in 15 years at Home for Life. By the end of 2013,Simon  was not walking at all. Our dedicated staff continued to take care of him faithfully, making sure his bedding was thick and comfortable, holding a water bowl for him so he could drink, helping him to his feet and getting him outside on warmer, sunny days. Even though our employees never complained about caring for Simon, as heavy as he was to handle, leaving him like this was not a good long term solution for him. If Simon had ever let us know that he'd had enough, as difficult as it would have been, we would have let him go, knowing that we had done everything we could to help him.

How do we know when one of our animals is ready to cross over, to die? How do we know when they have had enough? I am asked this question all the time. Sanctuaries take in and care for the special cases, many of them high risk animals with significant health conditions. It’s understood that part of our mission is that we will go the extra mile for our animals. Our animals need that extra mile, often, to have their best chance at a fulfilling life. The toughest question we have to ask ourselves is when our efforts are directed to saving us - from the heartbreak of losing one of our beloved animals, and from the sense of defeat that occurs with giving up hope, conceding that there was nothing more we could do to help. It's hard to give up when the entire reason for the organization's existence is to rescue, to save animals. And - it's just as difficult to honor our animals' wish to continue to fight for their life if they want to live. We've witnessed miracles often enough over the fifteen years Home for Life has existed to know that we must support our animals as long as they want to live.

Animals aren't afraid of death like most human beings are. While they don't fear death, they love their life and will fight to live if they know it's not their time to leave. As their caretakers, humility is required to be able to listen to our animals and recognize when they are done and have had enough versus when they still feel connected to life and want help to make the most of their time left. They convey their continuing connection to life thru eye contact, engagement in what's going on around them and interest in food and treats! So many of our animals who have terminal diagnoses are still alive and not only just alive - but happy, pain free, active, enjoying their animal friends, and engaged in life around them. Defying their medical prognosis, these animals live on. What if we had euthanized them; put them to death after they had been diagnosed? If there is still a spark, killing them before their time is a betrayal.

Disabled and old dogs and cats take a lot of work and creativity to care for to ensure them a quality life. It takes patience, effort, and imagination to picture the potential of the animal instead of focusing on the limitations. The prevailing idea is that if an animal cannot function or walk like a normal or young dog or cat in their prime, they must have no quality of life. That position is pretty ignorant. Most animals want to live if they can and will make the best of their situation, focusing on what they CAN do not their lack. Simon is just one of our special animals whose life at the sanctuary demonstrates that if a cat or dog can enjoy the sun, tasty food, treats and attention, the company of their dog or cat friends, the animal still has quality of life that should be preserved and cherished. In fact Simon is one of four dogs at Home for Life who were quadriplegic and later recovered fully. Their stories remind us to never give up and to honor an animal's choice to live with adversity when they have faith and want to keep trying.  

Animals like Simon who come into the world with disabilities or who become disabled as they age still find a safe haven at Home for Life® where they will be loved and cared for as long as they may live. As we get to know these special animals, their disabilities become less of a defining and identifying feature, while their courage and their indomitable spirits become what we think of when reflecting on all they mean to us.

Our goal is now to support Simon by helping him to walk again and to make sure he will be able to enjoy this coming spring and summer when it finally arrives. With this objective before us, we found a great canine rehabilitation facility where Simon now goes twice a week. There he swims in a tank, walking in an underwater treadmill. The warm water allows his tense neck muscles to relax and the water buoys him up so he can stand and work his muscles safely. Massage and physical therapy, and a change in his medication are also part of his rehabilitation program. Back at the sanctuary, our staff helps Simon with his “homework” - a number of physical therapy exercises to strengthen his muscles and improve his flexibility. This physical therapy represents a significant investment in Simon of time and money, but already there is improvement. Simon has much more flexibility of his neck muscles and can turn and  flip himself around to reach his water and get the most comfortable spot on his bedding.

Simon's case raises an important question about animal rescue and the philosophy of our sanctuary with regard to the animals we help. Why direct so many resources to helping one single animal? That amount of money it has taken to help Simon and allow him to live a pain free life and to walk again, we hope, could have been used to help several animals. Where resources are limited trying to do the most good for as many as possible is a legitimate approach to rescuing animals.

Home for Life has always believed that helping animals in need and saving lives requires a multifaceted approach. A focus on moving numbers of animals thru adoption and reducing numbers of animals thru sterilization addresses one aspect of the need. An exclusive focus on the numbers, however, will exempt many deserving animals from help. Sanctuaries like Home for Life have a vital role to play if as many animals as possible are to be saved because a true sanctuary is created to focus on the individual animal and his/her unique needs. The current focus in animal welfare is on moving animals through the system to adoption and posting high numbers of animals altered and adopted. Dogs such as Simon who fall outside the parameters of the 'adoptable' animal and who require a rescue to divert disproportionate resources to help them will not be served by the conventional current models offered by animal welfare. Sanctuaries whose focus is on the individual animal provide a depth of care and a lifesaving, life affirming alternative for these special animals.

As long as we've known this special dog, Simon, one continuing theme of his life has been his ability to connect with amazing people who have identified with his  hopeful attitude and  kindness. Had Home for Life not invested the time and effort to help Simon during his years  with us, how much we and everyone he has met would have missed! His love of life, his courage, and his resilience. We didn't direct Hannah's attention to Simon but in retrospect it was no surprise that he was the dog who most touched her heart. Like Simon, Hannah has faced adversity with grace and courage, and has stayed engaged with life in a positive way instead of letting setbacks overcome her. It was very inspiring to meet such a talented and optimistic person who still has an open heart to give back, and to see her connect with a kindred spirit, our Simon.

Here is the Facebook album of highlights from Hannah's Facebook page. And here is her blog about her day at Home for Life.

See all of Hannah's photos from her day at Home for Life here.