Doing the Impossible: Afghanistan Dog Rescue

The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.” -Billie Holiday

We didn’t know how we were going to manage it. And yet, we didn’t know how we could refuse. The Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR) in Afghanistan was desperate for help. This animal welfare organization, directed by American Dr. Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, sheltered many stray dogs and cats, brought to them by U.S. soldiers, contractors, and kind-hearted Afghan children and adults who had rescued the animals from injury, illness, starvation, and even abuse.

In the U.S. we see every dog as a pet needing a home, a potential family member who deserves to be known and cared for as an individual.

In Afghanistan, and many other countries, street dogs are just animals living among people. It is easy to disregard the sufferings of a random, stray dog, especially amid the upheaval that war brings. To care is to feel another’s pain, and people may not risk caring if they feel helpless to fix the situation.

In Afghanistan, KSAR was an oasis for the street dogs and for the people who saw their suffering and let themselves care. Here was a place animals could go to heal and be sheltered. Amid the impersonal, blunt chaos of war, KSAR had taken a stand for kindness, for the willingness to step up and help, to risk caring. They were slowly changing the norm of indifference and helplessness. But now, events on a larger stage threatened everything they had accomplished.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban was imminent, and with the pull-out of American troops this summer, it was likely that the shelter would be forced to close. The dogs and cats who had been rescued would be released back to the streets or be put down. The staff, many of whom were women, knew they would have to quit work or flee.

While the world’s attention was riveted to the news from Afghanistan last summer, the media reports were not the whole story. Running parallel to these unfolding events, the lifesaving evacuation of the KSAR dogs was under way.

This summer, through a rescue contact here in Minnesota, KSAR reached out to Home for Life® Animal Sanctuary for help saving the lives of their dogs. Their plea was part of an appeal to shelters and rescues across the United States. Of their 50 dogs and puppies they were hoping to move before Kabul fell, KSAR was most concerned for several special needs dogs—some disabled, some very shy, some with harrowing histories of abuse, and some simply overlooked by other organizations focused on adoption. These were dogs they knew would never survive on the streets. When Kabul fell, the shelter would be forced to close, and these dogs had nowhere to go if they could not come to Home for Life.

Home for Life Animal Sanctuary accepted 7 dogs from KSAR—more than any other organization! Who were these dogs we could not turn away?

Seven dogs in all. Seven precious lives who found a Home for Life® at our sanctuary!

Above Kara: Kara, an Anatolian Shepherd mix, was rescued at Camp Eagle by an American contractor who saw her trying to protect and care for her seven puppies while living on a garbage heap. Kara is very shy and because of her color (black) was overlooked by the other rescues contacted to help the Afghan dogs. She was one of the leftover adult dogs who would have been turned back out on the street once Kabul fell, and a dog that Charlotte and her shelter team believed would not survive on her own. We weren’t PLANNING on helping seven dogs, but could not leave Kara behind.

Above ZsaZsa: Beautiful, timid Zsa Zsa came into KSAR from a not ideal home, where she was left tied out to be attacked by other dogs. She was surrendered with a litter of puppies who found homes, but the shelter was protective of Zsa Zsa who had already suffered so much. At her age of 6 years and with her timid personality, they didn’t want to see her bounce from home to home, so asked Home for Life® to give her a safe setting for her senior years where she would not experience the terror and upheaval of her prior life.

Above Robbie: Robbie is a large, female Anatolian shepherd mix. She was found by KSAR’s staff suffering from mange and malnutrition on the streets of Kabul. After all the work they put into restoring her health, they didn’t want to see her released back to the streets to sink or swim, especially because she is very shy. Robbie was overlooked by other rescues and shelters during the nationwide appeal on behalf of the Afghan dogs to bring them to safety before the fall of Kabul, so Home for Life® offered to help her.

Above Salty: Salty is the personal dog of KSAR founder Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, and her favorite living being in the world! It is a measure of how desperate the situation was before Kabul fell that Charlotte decided to send Salty to the United States, to let her go rather than risk not being able to care for her or to be forced to let her go back to the streets. Salty lost her nose, parts of her lips, and eye lids due to a sand fly infection. She is timid of other dogs, but loves cats!

Above Lilly: Our beautiful girl Lilly from the Kabul Small Animal Rescue, was born with Etrodactyly, a severe and rare genetic disorder causing splitting of the bones in the front paw. She was rescued by American GIs at Camp Scorpion. She gets around, but likely will need more significant medical attention than the shelter could give her there. As the Taliban advanced on Kabul, the shelter was facing the real possibility of having to close and put the rescued street dogs at the shelter back on the streets. They knew a dog like Lilly would never survive and were very concerned for her welfare, so they asked us to help her.

Above Ollie (in the blue collar and yellow tag) and Roxanne (also shown in top photo of this article}: are both from KSAR. Ollie was near catatonic when he first arrived at Home for Life® and survived abuse in his home country including the amputation of part of ear and a long, serious, now healed wound on his side, probably caused by someone using a knife. He was rescued by a sweet Afghan boy who drove off a pack of dogs mauling Ollie. The boy then loaded up Ollie in a taxi and brought him to KSAR’s shelter. Roxanne, one of the director Charlotte’s own dogs, was found being kicked around by Afghan police like a soccer ball. Charlotte drove them off and took Roxanne home with her to nurse back to health.

The Small Work in the Great Work

A shift in outlook leads to a change in behavior, which leads to a change in reality on the ground. These shifts and changes don’t happen under the spotlights, for all that the media strives to hold our attention fixed on the politicians and famous. No, change begins at the margins, with people who are creating the world in their own small spheres, while nobody seems to notice—people you never hear about, yet who share common ground with YOU, a person of caring and compassion.

Through your compassion, you share a connection with quiet, unknown individuals a world away—the Afghan child, the KSAR staff, the U.S. soldier and contractors—who let themselves care about a suffering street dog. Because of you, their efforts and emotional investment will not be hopeless. Because of you, the dogs they got to know and care about as individuals are now safe and happy, with a home for life!

Doing the Impossible

Kindness is a revolutionary act. Once we have seen the world as it could be, as it should be, it is impossible to remain complacent. We can no longer accept abuse, neglect, and indifference.

To shed light on the cruelty these dogs have overcome is one important tool we as animal advocates have to challenge the attitudes which led to the maltreatment. To achieve radical change, though, a revolution of kindness, takes something more: to demonstrate what’s possible by taking a stand for compassion so that those who have risked caring for these vulnerable dogs know their efforts have not been futile.

The rescue of the seven Home for Life® dogs from Afghanistan has rewarded the kindness of the people who first recognized and responded to their plight rather than turning away, hopelessly. When kindness is rewarded, it multiplies. Everyone involved in the redemption of these dogs has seen what the world could be and joined hands to make it so.

Your support has an impact that spreads far beyond the sheltering walls of our sanctuary to start a revolution of kindness in a country a world away. Be part of the kindness revolution that saved these special dogs and took a stand for a better world.

With warm wishes for your holiday and the new year,
Lisa LaVerdiere, Executive Director, and all of us at Home for Life®

Going Viral

In January 2021, we were contacted by Kindred Kitties of Kenosha, Wisconsin—a group that rescues and finds home for cats. They were hoping that Home for Life® could give Trudy and her kittens a safe landing. The little cat family looked healthy and adorable, but they had tested positive for Feline leukemia (FeLV), a viral disease that can spread to other cats through persistent contact, and is ultimately fatal. Though infected, cats with FeLV can live years without suffering or showing any symptoms of illness.

Trudy and her kittens were currently healthy. But they needed to be kept away from other cats who could catch the disease from them. At the same time, they deserved a good life and a safe home. They had the chance to enjoy many years of good health before becoming actually sick.
Kindred Kitties needed to find a safe landing for all seven cats, with people who recognized that these cats’ lives are as precious as any other cat’s life. Although they knew the cat family deserved a good life and safe home, they had no ready means to help them. And few groups are equipped to help cats like Trudy and her kittens. 

How to Mismanage an Epidemic

Alfred and sisters Andrea (center) and Audrey
Alfred and his sisters Andrea (center) and Audrey

For many years, rescues and shelters would euthanize cats who received a positive blood screening for FeLV.  These groups rationalized their policy, saying so many cats and kittens needed homes that there were just no opportunities for FeLV+ cats—an unacceptable rationale, especially because the blood screening often returns a false positive!

Even though many groups hastened to euthanize cats who tested positive, the disease continued to spread.   A reservoir of infection persisted in feral cat colonies, caused in part by some of the groups managing the colonies through TNR (trap-neuter-release) programs.  These groups would too often release cats back to their colonies even when they were known to be positive
for the virus. Their misguided practice exposed non-infected cats to the virus, and subjected many cats to unnecessary suffering.   

In short, both practices (automatic euthanasia and allowing infected cats to spread the disease) have shown a callous disregard for life that is inconsistent with the spirit of animal welfare.  

Feline leukemia, first discovered in 1964, is a contagious virus that spreads among cats through close persistent contact over a long period of time, through shared grooming, food dishes, nursing, and bites. FeLV is not an airborne virus but can be transmitted from a mother who is positive to her kittens. And that is what happened with Trudy and her six tiger striped kittens.

Nine Lives—The Special Role of a Sanctuary

Home for Life® has always taken a different approach to addressing problems in animal welfare. We believe that it is impossible to benefit animals as a whole without caring about each individual animal. While we are mindful of the broad factors affecting animal populations, our focus and service have always been directed toward individual animals. And by serving individual animals, we have been able to exert widespread influence on the direction of animal welfare practice.


As a care-for-life sanctuary, we can do things other groups cannot
. And we recognized long ago that we could really make a difference for cats by offering a life-saving refuge to FeLV+ cats. Almost 15 years ago, Home for Life® constructed a building dedicated to the care of these special cats and kittens—a space where they can feel cozy and safe, with comfortable furniture, climbing trees, toys, with heated floors in the winter, cooled in the summer, huge windows with ledges to sit in and watch the world, with huge, protected cat runs accessible by cat doors—all tended by a full-time staff who provides loving attentive care.

We always have felt that if people could see our FeLV+ cats,  we could change the perception of them among rescues, shelters, and the general public who would  realize these cats and kittens didn’t need to be killed based on a screening test. That’s how a sanctuary can show what’s possible and start a movement that saves the lives of cats and dogs previously boxed out of the animal welfare discussion. 

Infected cats do not need to be killed out of hand. As long as they are kept quarantined, they can live out their lives safely and comfortably, like any cat. At Home for Life,® we have had several FeLV+ cats enjoy years of good health with no apparent symptoms in spite of being positive for leukemia. Like any cat with nine lives, our FeLV+ cats and kittens often defy the odds, and embody the truth of the sentiment:  “Life is short, but it is wide.” Whether they live months or years, these special kittens and cats seem to relish every day of their lives, making the most of every moment, glad to be alive.

Andrew and his brother Arnold
Andrew & his brother Arnold

It is so meaningful that this family of cats got to stay together, which is something special that sanctuaries can do, unlike organizations with a strong emphasis on adoption—where animals who are devoted friends or family members are often split up to be placed more easily.
We were able to keep these close-knit family members together, which helped them transition to their new lives.

The “A” Team

Our new family of feline leukemia kittens are shy but sweet and all variations on a theme of brown tabby and white and all with names beginning with the letter A:  Aaron, Alfred Arnold, Andrew, Andrea, and Audrey. To help us distinguish them, we have given each a different colored glitter collar and put together a key, posted in the cattery. It is helping them to transition, to have the support of each other, but we want to get to know them as individuals and not a litter or group. As they became more confident and used to our staff, we have given them the run of the cattery and the outdoor cat runs which they love, and especially now that it’s summer and warm.

Going Viral


Home for Life® has long been known for our care and advocacy on behalf of cats who are positive for leukemia. Quality of life matters even in the face of a virus and the fear it causes. Now we are experiencing this as human beings with Covid. In the animal welfare world, there has been widespread fear and misunderstanding about leukemia that resulted in most cats who tested positive being euthanized based on a screening test. At Home for Life,® we are helping to change that misguided treatment of these cats.

Those who visit us marvel at the beautiful condition and happiness of our cats and kittens. People who meet them in “purrson” can never again dismiss these special kittens and cats as unworthy of life because they are leukemia positive. By showing what’s possible, Home for Life® has created a movement, a lifesaving life-affirming stake in the ground that has gone viral, changing the status quo of these special cats in animal welfare.

The Heartbeat of Home for Life®

The millions of suffering, lonely and unwanted animals are made up of individuals like Trudy and her kittens. Whenever we disregard or devalue one of them, we place all animals in jeopardy, since any dog or cat can lose their home, become old, injured or ill and unwanted. What keeps animals safe and cherished is our attitude towards them, and our capacity to care. For animals who are vulnerable, everywhere, we can’t turn away from tough cases like feline leukemia positive cats or consider their fate of negligible consequence. Saving an animal is more than a metaphor. It matters! Whenever you step up for one animal, you are taking a stand for all animals in similar situations. You are demonstrating what is possible. 

In a system designed to handle problems on a mass scale, individuals can be overlooked. Yet behind every data point and every number is an individual, with a story and the need for someone to recognize all that makes them special.

Home for Life’s® focus on overlooked individuals has enabled us to spot gaps in the animal welfare system where cats or dogs are underserved and vulnerable, to identify where change needs to happen, and where there is opportunity for widespread improvement. No other group of animals we help at Home for Life® represents this focus of our organization more than our feline leukemia cats.

Trudy enjoys summer at Home for Life® in the outdoor cat run for our feline leukemia cats!

When you help Trudy and her family of tiger kittens, you do so much more than save the lives of 7 cats. You show what is possible. You change the status quo for vulnerable cats and dogs everywhere. You become an essential part of the lifesaving, life-affirming movement that is Home for Life®!

Thank you for your support which will change the lives of so many animals in need!

P.S. See some action shots of our feline leukemia kittens in this video at:

Home for Life Animal Sanctuary featured in Forbes Magazine!

photos: Mark Luinenburg
author: Robin Raven, Contributor


Above: A scene from the Home for Life® sanctuary.

If you are dreaming of traveling to volunteer once the pandemic is over, you may plan to visit this midwestern sanctuary where you can play and even swim with rescued cats and dogs who will delight in your company. Home for Life® is an internationally recognized animal sanctuary that provides care for the life of each animal it takes in. When an animal is rescued by this organization, it will have its happily ever after. No animal is ever given less than fully loving care for the rest of their life at Home for Life®. It was founded by Lisa LaVerdiere in 1997, and its sanctuary facility is situated on 40 acres in Star Prairie, Wisconsin, near the Apple River.

Above: Home for Life® often welcomes animals who may not otherwise find a home.

The idea behind the organization is simple and sweet. LaVerdiere explains that they offer “a life-saving and life-affirming alternative for dogs and cats who have not been able to find a home or keep the home they had and for animals who have lifelong special care needs.” Since most adopters are unable to take on the expensive care for animals with a lot of medical care needs, this sanctuary can give these animals that crucial care along with the happy home they need.

Above: A happy, rescued feline companion.

 “We call our idea the Third Door® in animal welfare which gives at-risk dogs and cats, animals who might have been passed over for adoption, an alternative to an undeserved death. The dream of a home should be an opportunity that is available for all dogs and cats, and now with Home for Life® and the innovative model we have created at our prototype sanctuary in Star Prairie, Wisconsin, we think it
can be.”

Lisa LaVerdiere is still heavily involved in the organization she started, serving as its executive director and being hands-on with the animals it cares for. She spoke with us about this special sanctuary and what she is doing for animals in need.

Above: Swimming helps many of the canine residents.

What kind of animals do you take in?

We take all kinds of dogs and cats: they mostly fall into one of four categories and often overlap categories: the elderly, the disabled, those with medical conditions – such as diabetes and epilepsy – and those with behavior issues. We have animals from all over the United States and other countries that include China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Mexico.

What inspired you to start Home for Life?

When I was about age 8, I was the typical animal-loving kid and volunteered at a local humane society, where I witnessed many animals who were euthanized, only because they were unable to find new homes when they had been given up by former owners. I witnessed many heartbreaking situations that were seared into my memory and which continued to haunt me as I grew older, went to college and graduate school, and started my career as a lawyer. Despite many distractions and obligations, I never forgot those first animals I encountered at the shelter who had no one to care about them. Later, as a young professional, I volunteered at a no-kill shelter and was even on their board. I thought the no-kill philosophy would be the antidote and the answer to what I had witnessed as a child. However, what I learned was that many animals are overlooked for adoption when they fail to appeal to potential pet owners. Old animals, those with medical conditions, and animals with behavior issues or disabilities are often left behind. The first animals that came to live at a Home for Life® came from this no-kill shelter where the dogs and cats had previously gone months or even years with no adoption prospects.

What sets Home for Life® apart from other organizations?

We believed that a new approach to help animals was needed if an animal was not getting adopted. Was there any other alternative for them but premature euthanasia? We thought an innovative option was possible and would save the lives of many animals in need: we call our option the Third Door® in animal welfare which gives animals who are overlooked for adoption an alternative to euthanasia and a quality life. The Third Door® is actually a trademark we obtained to describe the work of Home for Life® Sanctuary!

What is your favorite thing about Home for Life®?

The happiness of our animals and that we can share that with the public. Also, although things are on hold right now due to Covid-19, our Peace Creatures® programs.

Our Peace Creatures® programs are innovative, cost-effective model programs that bring solace and joy to at-risk kids and adults in our community through healing pet therapy. This year our sanctuary animals, staff and volunteers will reach over 7,000 vulnerable children and adults through the Peace Creatures® programs and provide nearly $900,000 worth of pet therapy benefits to those vulnerable people, many who are populations who often don't receive this service.

These accomplishments would not be possible without our sanctuary. All that we accomplish starts with the belief that led to the founding of Home for Life® 22 years ago. Animals who need us are not a problem to be solved but an untapped treasure. We believe in the significance of every life we care for, and that the life of each cat and dog counts.

That perspective is transformative, a premise that creates miracles. As we like to say, “Each animal matters. One sanctuary can change the direction of animal welfare, and one person can make a difference. Let that one person be you!”

Once the pandemic is over, will you be conducting tours? When they are available?

Yes, we love to have people visit Home for Life® because seeing is believing and we love to have people meet our animals, see our facility and learn more about the unique role we fulfill in animal welfare. Tours are by appointment and guided, keeping in mind that we are welcoming visitors to what is the animals' home. We are not open to the public as with a municipal shelter but before the pandemic and when it is over, we welcome visitors year round - most prefer to visit us in the summer and fall but all seasons are beautiful at Home for Life®. Generally, we ask that visitors arrive early afternoon so the majority of the heavy work which is done in the morning is completed- feeding, medicating the animals and taking care of the paraplegics, and so our staff can spend time with our guests and answer any questions   

During the pandemic, we are in the process of instituting video or virtual tours oriented for school groups, scouts and other organizations, or even for families doing home schooling.

How do people reserve a tour in advance?

Please call our toll-free number at 1-800-252-5918 or send us an email at

Do you have any etiquette tips for visitors?

You will do a lot of walking, so comfortable shoes and also since the facility is spread out on 40 acres we encourage people to watch the weather forecast to choose a day to visit when they can walk outside and enjoy a beautiful day and the natural beautify of the sanctuary. Our property features prairie land, hardwood forest, a wetland and river frontage so much natural beauty as well as the wonderful animals of the sanctuary.

How can your supporters best help you?

Sponsoring an animal! Sponsorship gives our supporters an opportunity to witness the transformative power that their generosity can have on an individual animal living at Home for Life® sanctuary. As a sponsor, your monthly or annual donation will help us to continue providing a secure, healthy environment where animals who were formerly abused, neglected, and rejected can thrive and begin again to participate in the joy of being that is the right of all living things. All of the animals at our sanctuary receive the same high-quality care, whether they have sponsors or not.

You can sponsor an individual cat or dog for $25 a month, or $300 a year. (For pet owners wishing to surrender a pet, different sponsorship rates may apply).

You will receive regular written updates about your sponsored animal's well-being and experiences, along with photos taken by professional photographers who donate their time in support of our sponsorship program. You may even wish to visit the sanctuary and meet your cat or dog "in person". During the pandemic, we are offering our sponsors, virtual visits using Google Meet and Zoom, in addition to the photos and updates.

What’s your favorite compliment that Home for Life® has received so far?

As a supporter said to me in an email message this year. "Home for Lif®e is a sanctuary for us too because you show that there is still kindness and compassion in the world.” That message made 22 years of hard work, trials, and tribulations, worth it.

Visit the Home for Life® website to learn more about their work or sponsor an animal.

Above: Special needs dogs have a forever home at Home for Life®.


Fire at Home for Life!!!

Above: Sandy's townhouse engulfed in flames.
Early Monday morning, February 8th, at about 1 am, Tammy, one of our overnight staff discovered "Sandy's Townhouse" was on fire. Thank God we have always had on-call night staff who monitor any sick animals overnight plus ensure the facility is secure; and thank goodness Tammy, who was on duty Sunday night, was on her toes. She smelled smoke and went to investigate the source, found smoke coming from Sandy's townhouse, and upon going inside saw that the wall was on fire. Tammy called Lisa, the Executive Director, and then both Tammy and Lisa called the fire department. Tammy located a fire extinguisher and got the three dogs out to safety, but the fire was beyond an extinguisher. Lisa also called one of our staff, Grace, who lives the closest to the sanctuary, and even though she had already worked a long day, she came in to help and support Tammy. Together they got the dogs moved so they were indoors and warm as it was well below zero.

The fire department responded with 8 trucks and it was soon a complete madhouse out there with dogs barking and the firemen trying to get the fire under control and prevent it from spreading.  We had some frightening moments as they couldn't get the hoses working at first because it was so cold.

Above: the heartbreaking aftermath: the townhouse is a total loss.
In the end, we were very lucky. None of the three dogs who lived in the townhouse were hurt or killed or even had smoke inhalation-they were just grumpy at having been woken up in the middle of the night. Sandy's townhouse is a total loss, but we have insurance and will rebuild on the site. Now, we are waiting for the adjuster to come out and assess the damage before we demolish it and build it anew. It was our oldest townhouse and the cause of the fire was electrical. We are extremely lucky the fire didn't spread to any of the other buildings where other animals live. The biggest hassle is that the dogs are displaced now and especially when so cold, but it's a minor issue compared to the heartbreak had we lost any of our precious animals.

Above: Our overnight staff person, Tammy, who saved the lives of the three dogs,
Sandy, Yasmin and Tina.
We can't thank Tammy and Grace enough for being there, handling the situation, and getting the dogs to safety. We are also grateful to the members of the fire department who responded so quickly in the middle of the night when it was so cold and made sure the facility was safe and that the fire was out.  It was a harrowing experience but could have been so much worse ... So that was how our Monday started-we hope your winter going a bit better!

Above: Tammy with Tina the boxer whose life was saved from the fire.
Some have asked how they can help Home for Life®. We have insurance that will cover the rebuild of Sandy's townhouse, yet we are concerned now for the welfare of all our dogs who reside in the other 15 dog townhouses. All the townhouses were wired by master electricians and use electric heat which has been safe, but it seems we have been given a second chance to reconsider a better option. Our heating contractor and director of facilities maintenance are strongly recommending we go to a ductless system that would provide both heat and cooling, and which are units used often in residential housing so safe and code compliant.
Above: Home for Life® animal care specialist Grace, with Sandy.
Grace came in to help
Tammy even after a long day working.
Each unit costs $898 and we have 16 dog townhouses to outfit. The total needed is $13,500.  Sandy's new unit will be covered by insurance.  Your tax-deductible gift will ensure the safety of the Home for Life® dogs. We take Paypal or you can give via credit or debit card or by EFT via your savings or checking account. Click here to donate.

We know a heating unit is not the "sexiest" ask but it's one of those support structures for the care of the animals that can make a life or death difference as was emphasized all too clearly Monday morning when Sandy's townhouse nearly burned to the ground. Click here for more information about the recommended heating units.


Fire Recovery
We want to give heartfelt thanks to all of our donors who so generously provided support to Home for Life® in the aftermath of the tragic fire in February. Although the townhouse which burned is a total loss, we are so thankful that all 3 dogs who lived there were saved and that the fire didn't spread--this was due to the heroic efforts of our courageous overnight staff person Tammy and the extraordinary effort of the volunteer fire department who responded within minutes of receiving the call for help--8 trucks strong--and in the middle of the night in subzero weather. We had many harrowing moments that night including when the firemen couldn't get the hoses to work because it was so cold--minus 23 below! But in the end, everyone was safe despite the frightening, close call.
Above: The fire was so hot and destructive that it burned the blades off the overhead fan
Insurance coverage will pay for the cost of rebuilding "Sandy's" townhouse and your gifts will help us provide safer heating systems for our other townhouses.This incident gave us the opportunity to reevaluate the heating source for all of the townhouses and consider safer alternatives.
Above: the dumpster in front of the burned townhouse as demolition proceeds.
After all the inspections, evaluations and visits from insurance adjusters, we are ready to rebuild. Demolition has begun and Sandy's new townhouse will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the burned building. By the time winter rolls around again, we will have safer heating systems installed in all the other dog townhouses.      
To get a first person account of that harrowing night, check out this article below from the Inter-County Leader  which interviewed our employee Tammy, who was there that night and saved the dogs' lives.

reprint of article
 from the Inter-County Leader
Thu, February 25, 2021  |  By Greg Marsten | Staff writer
Local woman saves disabled dogs from fire ... several times  
Above: Overnight staff person,
Tammy, who saved the lives
of the three dogs,
Sandy, Yasmin, and Tina.

STAR PRAIRIE - Recent subzero temperature taxed quite a few local heating systems, leaving many to rely on woodstoves, extra layers and electric space heaters to keep warm, which appears to be behind a fire that nearly rolled through the Home For Life Animal Sanctuary in southern Polk County on Monday, Feb. 8.

The shelter has been at that location for over 20 years, housing approximately 200 animals, fairly evenly split between cats and dogs. Many of the animals are special needs - disabled, elderly or stricken with other health or mental issues.

According to the report, it was minus 23 degrees and headed for a low of minus 26 at around 1 a.m. at the vast array of buildings that make up the animal sanctuary, when the smell crept in.  

"It was during 'quiet time,' midnight to 2 a.m. is usually the slowest time of the night," stated Tammy Doughty, the animal specialist who was midway through her 12-hour shift after cleaning, feeding and medicating some of the animals. Doughty noticed a weird, out-of-place odor in the main building.

"It smelled like a woodstove, but we don't burn wood ... and we're inside," Doughty recalled. Home for Life houses its variety of animals across 40 acres, in three main buildings and 16 "townhouses," which are a variety of small, insulated and heated sheds with individual pens for the animals, depending on each one's size and needs.

The arctic cold woke up her nose even more outside, and after getting a coat on and stumbling into the dark, with only a headlamp, she followed the acrid odor to a neighboring outbuilding for several dogs, nicknamed "Sandy's Townhouse," and she quickly saw that it was the source, with a bizarre glow coming from inside.

"It was mesmerizing ... the space heater and the (electrical) cord were glowing bright, and the color of lava," she said stoically. "The cord almost looked liquid! It was the most bizarre thing, even through the smoke."

She immediately fought through the smoke and attempted to wrangle out the three dogs who "lived" in the building. Doughty grabbed the closest dog, Sandy, who is a "resident" due to anxiety issues, but she was happy to get out of the smoke-filled cage and tiny town house.

Doughty then tracked down leashes in the smoke, and found a way to pull out "Yaz,"a large, three-legged, paraplegic dog who was trapped with the fast-swelling fire, now spread from "lava-esque" space heater into the wall insulation, which was the apparent source of the heavy smoke.

"I was able to get her out through her exercise pen," Doughty said. "There was hole in the panel of the exercise gate."

As she pulled the paraplegic dog through the gate, she was also fighting the freezing cold, and she couldn't just leave the dogs tied up outside at minus 23, so she had to take them to a spot out of the cold, across the parking lot.

One dog, Tina, was left in the building, and while the special needs dog was none too happy about being woken up, she was even more upset about being thrust into the daggers of the subzero temps after Doughty pulled her out.

"She just kept going back in through the doggie door, because it was so cold outside!" Doughty said with a sigh, noting that she had to save the dog a total of three times, getting bitten a few times along the way. "She's kind of nippy ... even when she's being saved!"

With all three dogs out, she secured the spot on a porch across the parking lot to keep them wrangled, found another leash and called 911 and the sanctuary's founder and director, Lisa LaVerdiere.

Above: This is a scene from the             
Allied Fire response to
extinguish the blaze at the
animal sanctuary in 23-below-
zero temperatures,
at 1 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 8.

Doughty said she found a fire extinguisher pretty quickly, but after looking into the now critter-free town house, she fell back on her early childhood and didn't open the door to fight the flames.
"I remembered my second-grade fire safety training!" Doughty half-joked, on why she chose not to try battle the blaze on her own, with just a small extinguisher, now that the animals were out. "When the fire department opened that door, the flames went 30 feet high!"

She also pointed out that the tiny, glowing building was directly beside one of the major buildings at the sanctuary, home to the "cattery," where many dozens of cats and other animals reside, including a 50-pound tortoise.  
Doughty said a first responder from the Allied Fire Department responded within a couple of minutes, with a bevy of fire equipment showing up moments later. Eight fire trucks and many firefighters responded, getting the blaze under control before it had a chance to jump to the neighboring building. The cold temps also tested all the equipment and firefighters who saved the sanctuary, and possibly dozens, if not hundreds of animals' lives.

"God bless them!" Doughty said of the volunteer firefighters. "That's a big ask for your neighbors, way out in the middle of nowhere ... and it was so cold!"

The quick response kept the blaze at bay, and with so many animals caged in the sanctuary buildings, it could have been much, much worse. "In the end, we were very lucky. None of the three dogs who lived in the town house were hurt or killed or even had smoke inhalation," LaVerdiere said. "They were just grumpy at having been woken up in the middle of the night!"

Above: Home for Life® animal
care specialist Grace, with Sandy
(one of the rescued dogs
from the building by Tammy),
outside his burned townhouse the
morning after the fire. Grace
came in to help Tammy even
after a long day of working.
This is the outside of the
small outbuilding that caught
fire, which nearly spread
to neighboring buildings at
the Home For Life Animal
Sanctuary near Star Prairie.

Doughty concurred, joking about how one of the firefighters was greeted by a sanctuary "resident," a very opinionated rescue bird that is adept at English.

"The firefighters were going through the building looking for the fuse box and the bird kept yelling 'Shut up! Shut up!'" Doughty said with a cough. She said she was coughing and laughing a bit after the bird's yelling, and joked that she inhaled "about a cigarette's worth" of smoke during the dog removal. 
"I'm just lucky I smelled it, and investigated, I guess. It was so out of control, I'm just happy I got all the dogs out," she added.

Keeping the fire limited was a sigh of relief for LaVerdiere, as well.
"Tammy was just a hero that night and we are so grateful. ... We are extremely lucky the fire didn't spread to any of the other buildings where other animals live," LaVerdiere stated, adding that there were plenty of frightening moments and that the firefighters had to work to limit the fire spread amid a raucous chorus of anxious dogs.

"The biggest hassle is that the dogs are displaced, and especially when it was so cold, but it's a minor issue compared to the heartbreak had we lost any of our precious animals," LaVerdiere said. "It was a harrowing experience but could have been so much worse."

Above: the heartbreaking aftermath:
the townhouse is a total loss
What is Home for Life?
While the recent incident had a happy ending, many of the animals at the unique facility have tragic stories already, and adding a fire to that would have been beyond sad.

As noted earlier, Home For Life animal sanctuary is located near Star Prairie, and is often a literal "last stop" for a variety of neglected, abused or disabled pets. Some of them have heartbreaking stories of abuse or abandonment, literally from around the world.
LaVerdiere founded Home for Life animal sanctuary in the summer of 1997, and it has been the final home for hundreds of animals since. She moved it to the 40-acre Star Prairie location in February 1999.

The sanctuary is also behind several community outreach programs, such as Pet Peace Corps. As noted, the sanctuary's residents are often the victims of past rejection and neglect, and now many of the animals have become ambassadors of sorts, "Rehabilitated to give back, working with volunteers and staff to help people who themselves may have been overlooked: children affected by domestic violence, at-risk teens and the elderly."
The animals are not offered for adoption, and often have unique, special needs, disabilities, dietary needs or paralysis, or in several awful examples, are the survivors of horrific abuse, like the dog that survived having fireworks put in its mouth.
"He's literally one of the sweetest, nicest animals there!" Doughty commented.

They currently house approximately 200 animals, with 30 of the cats testing positive for feline leukemia, which is a sort of death sentence for them.

The facility can accommodate up to 250 animals at one time, but once an animal arrives at Home for Life, it has just that: a home for life. As a nonprofit organization, they are often looking for donations for their unique cause. According to LaVerdiere, Home for Life depends on the support of sponsors, donors and foundations.

"Shortfalls are made up, out of pocket, by our own board members," LaVerdiere said. "Fundraising is always a major concern as we do not receive any government subsidization."

They also have a number of employees and volunteers, as well as other outreach programs and educational services.
The Home for Life animal sanctuary also leads an effort for people to accept animals that develop health issues later in life, to avoid "putting them down" so quickly.  

"Through our example, we hope to discourage an acceptance of euthanasia for animals who can still live a quality life. Just as apathy can become a way of life, so can empathy," the Home for Life site states.

Home for Life is a 501c(3) nonprofit, and donations are tax-deductible and can be sent to Home For Life, P.O. Box 847, Stillwater, MN 55082. Donations can also be sent online at

Read more about the February fire at Home for Life and see more photos here: Fire at Home for Life!! | Home for Life 

In Loving Memory of Matilda, a Cinderella story if there ever was one, and a promise to every dog or cat who longs for a Home for Life.

If only we had known of Matilda’s years of loneliness at the end of a chain, outside in all weather, having one litter of puppies after another... we would have intervened long ago. How could a dog suffer such maltreatment and neglect just a few miles away from Home for Life® sanctuary, a beacon of caring and kindness to animals. But we didn’t know how Matilda suffered until one of our employees found her one day on the way to work. How many dogs and cats spend lives of quiet desperation without notice or help? Animal rescue organizations don’t have to travel far to find animals in need. Often the one who needs our attention and help the most is right nearby.

Matilda's story is featured in our holiday mailing, 2020 

Matilda’s Story

About three years ago, one of our employees found a stray dog running at large not far from Home for Life.® The dog had no tags, collar, or other identification. She was filthy with matted fur, and looked frightened and starving. The Home for Life® employee coaxed the forlorn dog off the highway and into her car, and brought her to the sanctuary for, if nothing else, a meal and some water. 

Matilda upon arriving at Home for Life
Matilda the day our employee found her on her way to work

No one had ever seen this dog before. Over the years, people have thrown animals over our fence or tied them to our front gate. They’ve left their dogs or cats in boxes at our entrance or just let them loose near our property to face their fate, hoping we will find and catch them before they are struck by a car and killed. Given the lost dog’s condition, we believed someone had driven out “to the country” and abandoned her. However, some digging revealed that she had actually spent most of her life chained outside at a property just a few miles away from the sanctuary! She had had multiple litters of puppies in that time. She had reportedly gotten loose when the homeowners were raided and arrested for cockfighting a week prior. After a lot of heartache and tribulation, and even a legal battle, Home for Life® became Matilda’s official guardian. She was now part of the sanctuary family! She could finally enjoy the love, care, and companionship that she deserved.

Matilda was groomed and her filthy coat came off like a pelt

Everything we went through to protect her during this time was worth it. And it would have been no matter what happened to Matilda, whether she just became one of the happy dogs of Home for Life,® or as fate had planned for her, a new chapter that amounted to a true renaissance for this special dog. Matilda blossomed at Home for Life® sanctuary. She had friends, a clean environment, warm soft beds to rest on, and freedom of movement. She was spayed and her vaccinations updated. Matilda was so grateful to be groomed at last, and she regained her health and strength with a high-quality diet and veterinary care. All this would have been enough, but Matilda’s horizons were about to get wider. From living a lonely, hard life, chained outside, Matilda became one of Home for Life’s Peace Creatures® therapy dog team members.

 Matilda in her WonderWoman costume with  Home for Life volunteer Debra Peterfeso

Along with Home for Life® volunteer Debra, she was certified for pet therapy, helping the vulnerable, seriously ill children at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. She also worked with other Home for Life® volunteers to help the lonely and fragile elderly in nursing homes and memory care centers. In the spring of 2018, Matilda even got to walk in the Home for Life® dog parade at our gala where our special guest was Dr. Jane Goodall! Matilda was such a hit that she made an encore appearance in the dog parade in 2019 at Home for Life’s® gala with special guest Ashley Judd!

Matilda was an integral part of our Home for Life’s Peace Creatures® initiative, providing
pet therapy to at-risk people of all ages, a program that was on track to reach over
8,000 kids and adults in 2020 before Covid-19 hit.

Matilda had a special affinity for the lonely and vulnerable elderly people who are a huge part of the Peace Creatures® pet therapy outreach. With her soft coat, tall stature and gentle demeanor, the patients and residents of the hospice, memory care and nursing home facilities gravitated toward Matilda and could easily pet her from their wheelchairs or hospital beds.

What does it mean to truly save an animal?

Matilda at  the Linden Nursing Home, Stillwater, MN at a Peace Creatures visit

Matilda found love, family, and loyalty at Home for Life,® and she reflected those gifts back into the wider community through her pet therapy services. When an animal comes to our care-for-life sanctuary, our commitment is for the long haul. We take in the hard cases who have faced intense or prolonged suffering and cannot risk one more rejection or major disappointment. They’re fragile and need love and security to heal in body and spirit. But with our care they do mend. And many, like Matilda, share their renewed joy with others through our Peace Creatures® programs. A true home for an animal, and truly being saved, means more than four walls around them. It took more than good intentions and mercy to help Matilda. It required a major commitment of our resources—time, patient loving care, and money—to give her a home for life.

Loving care, a place to belong, a home for life, for all
seasons of life

This summer, our groomer found another lump on Matilda’s chest. She had a tumor in the area removed a few months before and now there was a recurrence. As frequently happens with female dogs, left
unspayed, who have one litter of puppies after another, Matilda had developed mammary cancer. Although Matilda had been spayed by Home for Life® within weeks of her rescue, she was already more susceptible to developing cancer because of the maltreatment she suffered at her previous “home.” Now, two and a half years after becoming part of Home for Life®, she was fighting for her life. After all she had survived and all she had gone on to accomplish, we felt devastated by her diagnosis. It seemed so unfair. We removed the second tumor but x-ray scans showed inoperable metastases (spread of the tumors) to the lungs. Matilda was on borrowed time.

Matilda at nursing home - the inspiration for the illustration by British watercolorist Iain Welch, above

The oncologists at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical center thought that very intensive chemotherapy would not stop the cancer and might cause her a lot of suffering. We decided on a conservative, non-invasive course of care for Matilda to maximize her quality of life and give her as much pain-free time as possible. By the time we had received this grim news and the guarded prognosis, COVID had shut down all the outreach visits that Matilda participated in.

Matilda took the opportunity of the hiatus to rest. She was on a medicine called piroxicam to help with pain and for the secondary benefits it provides as a chemotherapy. For months, she did very well, although she slept more than normal. The cancer did not seem to advance aggressively, and she continued to eat well. She was able to walk, and could breathe normally, and was comfortable, which was all we could hope for.

A true and loving home, for all seasons of life

A care-for-life sanctuary like Home for Life® is a home for all seasons of the life of our precious cats and dogs. We make a huge commitment to each animal at our sanctuary—of time, money and resources—sometimes for 10 years and more. A sanctuary is not a transition chute nor a short term holding facility for animals at risk. Instead, a sanctuary is a safe and stable base to imagine an array of new possibilities for cats and dogs like Matilda who may have been so easily dismissed, overlooked and discarded.

As a sanctuary, from the time we first took Matilda in without question, to the ordeal we went through to protect her from being returned to her chained-up life, to her days as a cherished therapy dog, to the last chapter of her life when she needed safety, comfort, understanding, and finally help to ensure a gentle passing when the tumors spread again—this time to her spine—and she could no longer walk, Home for Life® was there for Matilda. She was never forsaken when it might have been easier because of time, expense, and hassle to do exactly that.

What we did for Matilda, we do for all the animals that are part of Home for Life®

The life we were able to give Matilda in her last 3 years would not be possible without our sanctuary. All that we accomplish starts with the belief that led to the founding of Home for Life® 23 years ago: Animals who need us are not a problem to be solved but an untapped treasure.  We believe in the significance of every life we care for, and that the life of each cat and dog counts. And it counts always, no matter what twists and turns may happen, for the life of the animal.

That perspective is transformative, a premise that creates miracles—from establishing and taking new ground for the most vulnerable cats and dogs, to creating a safer world for all animals by showing what’s possible, to reaching out to the community through our animals, like Matilda, who serve as ambassadors for our mission and conviction that all life is valuable.

Matilda  at the Masonic Children's Hospital with HFL volunteer Debra during a Peace Creatures visit

From a lonely and neglected dog who had lived life to that point outside on a chain, so close yet so far from the loving embrace and protection of our sanctuary, to a beloved member of Home for Life® and of our Peace Creatures® pet therapy programs, Matilda’s journey shows how Home for Life® opens a door to animals in need who have overcome a terrible start in life and who go on to not only thrive but also to pay it forward to the community who make their new life possible.

Matilda, we love you and miss you. It never mattered to us what you had suffered before we found you, so forlorn and alone. What you grew to be will live in our hearts forever. Your story is a promise to all the animals, whether near or far, who long for a Home for Life.

Above illustration by Ian Welch Art and Design

2020 Year-end and holiday card featuring Matilda