When Jessie McDonald found herself without a dog for the first time in decades, she felt so alone she could hardly sleep at night.
‘The house was empty, the silence was deafening,’ she says. ‘But I’m on crutches and couldn’t walk a dog any more, so getting one didn’t feel fair.’
Dogs had always been a lifeline for Jessie, 67, who survived a brutal attack in her own home by her estranged husband 30 years ago. She was discharged from hospital after three months, unable to work, with life-changing injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From then on, dogs had provided love, companionship and safety. They were her reason to get up in the morning and the reason she could go to bed, knowing they’d bark at the sound of an intruder.
Caring for a pet during illness
However, her last dog had died when Jessie was in her early sixties, and with her mobility declining, she hesitated about taking in another. But in 2019, Jessie heard about Wolfie’s Legacy, a charity that rescues and rehabilitates specialneeds dogs – the kind that everyone else has given up on. They might have all four legs, three legs or only two. They may be blind, diseased or deformed. While some are more than capable of keeping up with able-bodied canines, others are much less mobile. Some need wheels to get around.
Jessie got in touch and soon took in Rosie and Rocky, two special-needs dogs from Romania who don’t need walking. ‘Rosie had been dumped in the mountains,’ she says. ‘She has lost a back leg and part of the toe of her other paw. We assume she got frostbite. Rocky was a street dog that caught the virus distemper as a puppy. It left him with a limp and a twitch.’
Both get ample exercise in Jessie’s large garden in rural Yorkshire. They sleep on a quilt on the floor by her bed.
Gill Daghistani formed the charity almost by accident. Gill, who lives in North Wales, was volunteering as a dog fosterer when she was asked to take in Wolfie, who had arrived from Hungary and was en route to a new home in Aberdeen. When she went to collect him from the back of a van in a supermarket car park, she found a beautiful dog that could barely stand. It was soon discovered that he had degenerative myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spinal cord. Immediately, his new home fell through, but Gill held on to him for two happy years until his peaceful death in 2015.
‘I was besotted with Wolfie, I put all my time into looking after him and because he needed me to do everything for him, he became everything to me,’ says Gill. ‘When he died, I sat around feeling depressed – and then I thought, “He won’t be the only one”. What about all the other Wolfies? And what about all the people who would love to give them a home?’
After putting the word out to her network of dog rescue contacts, Gill was quickly inundated. The first dogs she took were puppies from UK breeders – a Cocker Spaniel born blind and a King CharlesSpaniel with a very deformed front paw.
Then Gill took Troy, her first paralysed dog. ‘He’d been used to guard an orchard in Romania but after the harvest he was abandoned and had been hit by a car,’ says Gill. ‘Very soon, I was getting calls from rescue centres everywhere. Sometimes I almost felt frightened to pick up the phone.
‘We get dogs from Cairo, where cutting off the leg of a street dog is a gangland initiation. We have taken dogs from Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Macedonia. Resources are limited, so I have to cherry-pick, but I’m not looking for small and cute. I’m picking the most disabled, the ones where there’s no hope.’
Inheriting a pet
What would happen to these dogs without her intervention? In the UK, vets often recommend euthanasia, especially when two legs are missing. (Having now seen hundreds of dogs racing around joyfully in canine wheelchairs, Gill believes this attitude to be ‘Dickensian’.)
In foreign shelters, disabled dogs are left with able-bodied ones, and the fights for food and dominance mean they rarely live long. When dogs arrive at Wolfie’s, they often require operations, medical attention, and fitting with mobility aids. In the charity’s first year alone, vets’ fees topped £30,000. Having rehomed more than 500 dogs, Gill is now frantically fundraising to build a rehab and adoption centre and her target is £250,000.
Matching dogs with potential owners is a careful business. ‘I had a call from one man who asked if I had a dog for his 82-year-old dad,’ says Gill. ‘No one would give him a rescue dog because he only had a 4ft fence in his garden. I found him a dog that couldn’t jump a 4ft fence. That dog also has eyesight problems, so she never tries to run away.’
She has matched Hannah, a three-legged dog from Bosnia, with a former soldier who once served there. A married couple of former Paralympians are delighted with their two-legged Labrador cross, Lokijo. Each dog brings something special – their joy, enthusiasm and zest for life in spite of everything is daily inspiration.
‘They can also be a bridge,’ says Gill. ‘Older people who are lonely go for a short walk with a Wolfie’s dog and people will ask them what happened to their pet. It brings people into your life.’
Jessie is certain that Rosie and Rocky have given her far more than she could ever give them. ‘If I’m upset, they’ll run to me. If I’m in pain, they know. I limp; they both limp. We all have scars. We all fought to survive. We’re a perfect match.’
This article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Saga Magazine. To read more inspiring stories and fascinating interviews, subscribe today
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