By Alexis Balinski
The signs along the drive read: Because Their Spirits Aren’t Broken. The truth of this statement is immediately evident to anyone who visits the several-acre property of Joyce Darrel and her husband Michael Dickerson. Strangers—canine or otherwise— are met first by Megan, a sweet, innocent mutt who is quick to share a happy lick and lopsided grin. Megan is blind, a fact that can easily be overlooked by an outsider because of her flawless navigation around the property. In fact, all of the animals here are disabled in some way. For many of them, Joyce and Michael’s rescue, appropriately named Pets with Disabilities, has provided a second chance at life that they would not have received otherwise.
Joyce and Michael had never planned on starting a rescue, let alone a rescue for disabled animals. It all began after their newly adopted German Shepard mix, Duke, broke his back playing with some other pups. Euthanasia was out of the question, so they found him a doggy wheelchair. Soon after that the couple rushed to New York to rescue Misty, another mutt with hind leg problems. And thus Pets with Disabilities began to form. At first just a part time commitment, it soon turned into much more. Weekends began to fill up with trips to expos and events. Then a few years ago, Joyce made a brave decision and quit her full time job. She now volunteers 24/7 at the rescue, which has expanded into a new barn facility and several annex buildings surrounding a large yard. Now dogs come from all over the United States, and even as far away as the Caribbean and Russia.
The number of dogs in the program at one time can range from 20 to 25. Needless to say, the work demanded of Joyce to care for and feed all of these animals is constant. “There aren’t any days off. Ever. We even take some of the dogs with us in the camper when we have to go out of town because caring for so many dogs with special needs is too much to ask, even for a trained sitter,” admitted Joyce. Most of the dogs have been abandoned; it is therefore up to Joyce and Michael to secure the correct treatments for them. This could mean anything from amputations to medications. Luckily Joyce has developed good relationships with many of the local vets; “by now, they have learned what to expect when we call them,” she said. “We couldn’t give the animals the care they need without the cooperation of the local clinics.”
Some dogs, like Megan, are clearly meant to be life-long members of the PWD family, while others are adopted into families. Joyce and Mike put much effort into ensuring that their wards are adopted into the right families. Each potential adoptive family is put through an extensive vetting process to ensure that the match will stick. The first step is the interactive phase; the person or people hoping to adopt come to the property and visit with the animal. If they have other pets, this step is mandatory, as is the presence of the other animal. Joyce explained, “if the family already has a dog and that dog shows dominance over the disabled dog on unfamiliar turf, you know it is not going to work out at the new home.” This step is followed by an in-depth application, which requires references, who Joyce will later contact. Next is a home visit from Joyce during which she makes sure the grounds are accessible for the adoptee. Once the adoption is finalized and the animal is delivered, Joyce remains at the location for a few hours, just to be sure everything is working out. “It really is all about the dogs” she states simply, to explain the impressive amount of effort she puts into the each adoption.
The time and financial costs are great, but the rewards are obvious. “There are Labrador rescues and Greyhound rescues but there was never a Pets with Disabilities rescue. Handicapped animals needed us to give them a voice, and that’s what we are doing here” said Joyce. “It’s an amazing person who will walk through our gate and love an already disabled dog… finding people like that is the greatest reward.”
Joyce can afford to run such an operation because of the generosity of others. Some corporations donate funds and items for auctions at fundraising events, but the majority of her support comes from the contributions of warm-hearted individuals. Visit www.petswithdisabilities.org for more information on the dogs available for adoption, future fundraising events, and what you can do to lend a helping paw for man’s best friend.
Alexis Balinski is the editorial assistant for the Southern Maryland Woman magazine. She currently attends the University of North Carolina where she is working towards a degree in Journalism, with an focus in Graphic Design and Editing.