THESE DAYS, WHEN KIDS SAY their parents spoil the baby of the family, they may well be referring to the family dog or cat instead of a younger brother or sister. Luxury pet products are all the rage, showing up in high-end gift shops all over Dallas. Specialty pet boutiques, selling nothing but pet clothing, food, toys and trinkets, are thriving. And recently, Dallas’ first-ever pet spa opened, offering the perfect getaway for that frazzled Fido needing a workout or massage.
Clearly, there are some serious (and some may say seriously crazy) pet lovers in our area. But we found several who care for animals without a single diamond-studded collar, foie gras dog biscuit or down-filled cat bed. Instead, they give them what they really need: nourishing food, medical care, a safe place to stay and some tender loving care.
Stacey Verbeek developed her heart for animals at a young age, having grown up around pet snakes, horses and guinea pigs, along with the usual dogs and cats.
“My family was constantly bringing home stray animals,” she says.
So it’s no surprise that soon after finishing college, she began looking for a way to help animals. She especially wanted to help dogs, which she says are her passion.
Verbeek found that opportunity more than six years ago, when she began volunteering at the SPCA of Texas.
“As a TLC volunteer, you get to just go in there and play with the dogs,” she says. “It’s fun, but it’s also really important to socialize them, to maintain that human-canine bond. If they’ve been abandoned, and then they’re stuck in a cage all day, it can be extremely stressful for them.”
Though she had done a bit of everything for the SPCA over the years, most of her work now involves pet adoption counseling, helping match prospective pet owners with the right animal.
“So many people fall in love with a puppy, but they don’t understand it’s like having a newborn. And lots of people with a baby want a small dog, but that’s actually not usually a good match,” she says. “So it’s important to help them get the right one. The better match you make, the less chance that dog’s gonna come back.”
Because people looking for new pets often are dealing with the loss of another, it helps that Verbeek is trained through SPCA as a grief counselor. She says helping a person deal with the loss of a pet is very similar to dealing with the loss of any family member.
“It involves a lot of listening and really anything you’d do with a human,” she says. “It’s really important that another pet owner hears them, because so many people say it’s just a dog and don’t realize how hard it can be. In some ways, it’s tougher, because dogs can’t tell you when it’s time to put them down. You have to decide that for them.”
Grief counseling, she says, also involves helping pet owners with difficult questions.
“Kids want to know if their pets went to heaven,” she says. “Parents ask what to tell their children. People will also ask how they’ll know when to put animals down. You need to be prepared to answer those questions.”
Verbeek says her volunteer work certainly has its tough moments.
“You’re definitely exposed to animal cruelty,” she says. “We’ll get pit bulls with their tails and ears cut off so they have better odds at fighting, or dogs used as bait for dog fights. And every day, you’ll see a car pull up with someone dropping off an animal. When someone turns over a 13-year-old black lab because they’ve gotten new carpeting, it’s hard.”
All in all, though, she says the good stories far outweigh the bad.
“When I help people match with a dog, they’ll often come back and tell me how much a difference it’s made to them. I hear stories all the time from people who tell us how wonderful their new pets are. It’s so rewarding.”
And it’s why she says she knows the SPCA is the right volunteer work for her.
“I get offered a lot of board positions and other volunteer work, but I can’t knowingly accept it because it’ll cut down on my work with the SPCA,” she says. “I just feel like it’s where I’m most needed.”
Jo Eklof has lived in her Preston Hollow home for 30 years. For more than 20 of those years, she has shared that home with injured and abandoned birds and small mammals.
Eklof is licensed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a bird and animal rehabilitator. For years, she did it as a full-time, non-paid job, at one point caring for almost 600 birds and more than 100 mammals.
She has since reduced her rehab work to part time, but her house is never short on animals. At last count, she had a dove, two hamsters, three snakes, several lizards and geckos, three dogs, two chickens and one giant millipede. And any time she hears of other animal with special needs, chances are she’ll add to that number.
One of her recent rehab efforts involved caring for a group of baby possums whose mother’s back was broken after being hit by a vehicle. Eklof says when she saw the mother possum, she knew she had to help.
“She had three babies with her, and I had to reach inside her pocket to get them out,” she says. “I looked into the mom’s eyes and saw her emotion. She knew she was going to die and her babies would be left without her.”
When she takes in a bird or animal, it gets safe lodging, food and anything else it needs to regain its health. And Eklof? She says she gets the rewards of knowing she’s saving a life.
“When you have to work with a baby bird, for example, as it learns to eat and fly until it’s able to be by itself, you get attached,” she says. “So it’s emotional. But it’s so wonderful knowing this little bird, who might not have made it, is able to go off on its own and live its life.”
Some might consider the life of a tiny bird insignificant, but Eklof certainly doesn’t. “Anything that was born or hatched was meant to have a happy life in this world,” she says. “If they’re injured, they can’t live healthy, happy lives. If we help them and put them back in the wild, they’re a big part of the world.”
And though Eklof doesn’t take in as many animals as she once did, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t spend plenty of time working for them.
Known as Miss Jo, she’s a popular singer, songwriter, author and speaker at children’s events around Dallas and beyond. Her stories and songs teach kids to respect animals, nature and themselves, and she always brings along a special animal for them to see. Over the years, she has written more than 45 books, which are used primarily as education sources for parents and teachers.
“My purpose in life is to make this world a better place, whether it’s through caring for animals, singing, whatever,” she says. “It’s just my way of giving back.”
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