Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography Courtesy of Emilee Spear and Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile working as a veterinary technician at a Phoenix-based no-kill animal shelter 11 years ago, Emilee Spear encountered a 16-year old schnauzer named Rusty who had been pulled from the euthanasia list at the local county pound. She took the dog home as a medical foster — as she did with a number of senior and special needs canines — to nurse him back to health so that he could then be put up for adoption.
“He was deaf, going blind and already had quite a bit of dementia,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nobody is going to want this dog. He is just going to sit at the shelter and die alone.’ So, after two and a half months, he and I just decided to adopt each other. I had him for another two and a half years and, in that time, he changed my life.”
Through Rusty, Spear discovered her true calling as founding president of a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a safe and caring environment for senior and special needs canines. Since Feb. 20, 2014, Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary has been creating secure, nurturing homes for dogs to live out their twilight years through rescue, foster, adoption, education and hospice.
“I still have to pinch myself because I cannot believe that it has been so successful,” Spear says. “When you open something with such a specific niche, you never know if people are actually going to support you and it has been mind-blowing. There are so many people who are just as crazy as me and love senior dogs.”
The 10-acre Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary — which is located at the end of a long, gravel road in New River — has taken in more than 263 senior dogs to date.
“We focus on very old seniors,” says Spear, noting that Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary usually takes in dogs that are at least 10 years old and truly have nowhere to go. “It is typically an elderly owner who has either passed away or moved into a nursing home. They come to us and we get all of their medical needs taking care of. Then, based on their age, behavior and medical [condition], we decide whether or not they are adoptable.”
Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary then works to find suitable homes for those that are deemed adoptable, aspiring to ensure that wherever dogs end up will indeed be their last home. Over the past seven years, 140 senior dogs have been adopted out. The rest retire, living out whatever time they have left — be it two weeks, two months or two years — at the sanctuary.
“When we commit to a senior, we commit to the life of the dog,” Spear says. “Our motto is, ‘Providing unconditional love until the very end,’ and we take that very seriously.”
When the end inevitably arrives, Spear is one who takes each dog to the vet and remains with them until their very last breath.
“We will go months without any losses and then we will have three or four in a row,” she says. “People always ask me, ‘How do you do this over and over again?’ I believe people are born with skills or talents. Some people can sing, some people can dance and some people can act. I feel like the gift that I was given was to be able to handle this.”
Last year, Spear experienced a few personal things that led her to realize the significance that closure has in her life. And that is something that she is able to get with each and every one of the dogs that come through Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary.
“I commit to each dog 100%,” Spear says. “When I am there till the very end — loving them, giving them the best of the best and being with them when they take their last breath — I get closure. I feel like this is my life’s purpose. This is what I was supposed to do.”
Spear advises Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary’s staff and volunteers to try to put their personal feelings about loss and death aside and instead focus on the gift that they are giving each animal at the end of its life.
“This is what he or she is going to remember when they pass,” Spear explains. “When they can focus on that, it becomes a life-changing experience for them and makes their role here more purposeful. Whether a dog has been through a lifetime of neglect and horrible care or been loved its entire life and has suddenly lost everything, it is our responsibility to give that dog everything we can.”
Heaven on Earth
Over the past seven years, there have been a few exceptions to Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary’s age requirement — particularly for younger canines with special needs. Spear’s chihuahua Cricket is an example of one of them.
“Cricket has short spine syndrome, which is a very rare condition where the spine is completely twisted and compressed so it appears as though they are almost like half a dog,” says Spear, noting that there are only 30 recorded cases in the entire world.
Cricket has her own Instagram account with almost 7,000 followers and draws attention to the senior dogs during adoption events. However, she serves an even greater purpose at Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary.
“We saw early on that she makes our seniors feel young,” Spear says. “She will pick one out of the crowd and get it to play with her. They then become best friends until that dog either gets adopted or passes away. She has a way with them and that is why I adopted her. This is her purpose.”
Cricket is not the only addition to the Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary family, though.
Last year, someone tagged Spear on a social media post about a pair of Peking ducks that had been dumped at the pond in Anthem Community Park. She and some friends were able to catch them and bring them back to the sanctuary. One week later, four more ducks had been dumped in the same place so Spear caught them as well.
“We held a fundraiser and the community donated $1,600 toward an enclosure for the ducks,” Spear says. “Once that happened, I was able to adopt eight chickens. Then I adopted a burro from the Bureau of Land Management as well as two goats and now we have a full-on farm.”
The farm further supplements the healing atmosphere of Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary, not only bringing joy to staff and volunteers who get to visit with the various animals — many of which are named after the characters in the classic sitcom “Friends” — but benefitting the dogs themselves as well.
“I did my research on duck eggs and, as it turns out, they are full of nutrients that are good for dogs,” Spear says. “We collect the duck eggs and, once a week, we boil them and sprinkle them into the food of our oldest seniors we well as the ones that need to put some weight on.”
Meanwhile, Spear collaborated with her friend Brenda VanTussenbroek to open Rusty’s Resale Boutique — a thrift store from which all revenue directly benefits the care of the senior dogs at Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary.
The store — which opened in October 2019 in Anthem and offers a wide variety of donated items for both humans and canines — has been a tremendous success, enabling Spear to continue her life’s calling, saving and enriching the lives of dogs during their twilight years at Rusty’s Angels Sanctuary.
“The nickname it has taken on is, ‘Heaven on Earth,’” Spear says. “The dogs realize that it is a safe place and that all of the dogs here are just like them — just as old, just as blind, just as deaf and just as slow-moving with old joints. And it is like therapy to our staff and volunteers who get to sit with these dogs and feel relaxed. It is a very peaceful place where all of your stress just melts away.”