Prior to joining the Humane Society for Hamilton County, I had spent 14 years in corporate America. While I always loved marketing and the financial rewards that came with having a successful career, I was never spiritually fulfilled. I never woke up in the morning and thought, “man I can’t wait to go to work today.” My checking account was full, but my soul was on empty.
In September 2004, a fateful meeting with our PR firm lead to a conversation about the Humane Society for Hamilton County. He had been asked to join their board in light of challenges they faced after losing their Executive Director a year prior and some serious PR issues that followed. Unfortunately, he was too busy to join the board, so he asked if I would be interested. I have always loved animals. I had 2 dogs, Maggie & Jake, and a cat named Sebastian that were my world. So without hesitation, I jumped at the chance.
The Humane Society was located by the Hamilton County jail in Noblesville. I had never been there, and when I walked in, I thought, “I will never be able to do this.” All of those faces, the smell, the barking and meows you knew were cries for someone to love them. But I was already there and thought I’ll go through with meeting these folks, but anything I do for the organization will have to be from afar.
A relatively short meeting with the most welcoming group of people ended with them asking me to step out of the room for a moment. I figured they were deciding if I should be voted onto the board, but when I returned, they asked me if I would be interested in being the Executive Director. To say I was taken aback would not do that moment justice. I told them I’d think about it knowing darn well there was no way I would take the job. For starters, I knew nothing about running an animal shelter. I was making pretty good money with great benefits and a bright future—and taking this job at the amount they could afford to offer would mean I couldn’t even cover my mortgage payment. As much as I wanted to help the shelter and the animals, I just couldn’t take that kind of leap. I declined the position but joined the board. By December it was clear the shelter was in a do or die situation. The board president approached me about taking the position, and again, I said no. Even though the situation was dire, I didn’t have the guts to make the jump.
It was about the 3rd week of January 2005 when my life would change forever. My 90lb American Bulldog, Maggie, was snoozing on the couch. She woke up and very gingerly got down, nothing remarkable. I heard a yelp, and then she was on her side unable to move. An MRI revealed a disk had slipped and damaged her spinal cord. Her only chance to survive, or walk again, meant spine surgery. I was told only time would tell if she would regain her ability to walk but it was critical that she start hydrotherapy multiple times a week. There was no way my current job would allow me the flexibility I’d need to get her to these appointments.
My heart was broken at the idea I couldn’t give her this chance. I couldn’t imagine my life without her—she was only 3 years old. I prayed for God to tell me what I should do. Most of the vets I spoke with suggested letting her go. They explained if she didn’t regain her ability to walk, she would need a cart and be incontinent (which meant manually expressing her bladder) and well, she wasn’t a small dog. She was a 90lb beast I’d need to sling walk and lift multiple times daily. I remember thinking if she didn’t regain her ability to walk after all that, I would have no choice to but to euthanize her. I mean seriously, choosing to care for a 90lb paraplegic dog would be sheer insanity. But if I was going to save her, I needed to be all in. Committed to the weekly therapy sessions and centering my life around her needs. I knew absolutely nothing about caring for a disabled pet, let alone how to manually express a dog’s bladder. I was so overwhelmed yet never so focused on accomplishing a goal in my life.
My prayer for guidance led me to the conclusion that my path needed to change. Perhaps the timing of all of this wasn’t just chance. Learning about the board position the way I did. The compelling need to do something more meaningful that tugged at me for so long. Perhaps Maggie was the catalyst. So over dinner at the Nickel Plate a couple weeks later, the board president and I came up with a plan that would allow me to cover my mortgage payment and necessities. And in May 2005, I joined HSHC as its Executive Director.
Even with hydrotherapy, acupuncture and physical therapy, Maggie never regained her ability to walk; however, she overcame her disability with a level of tenacity and resilience you would have to see to believe. This remarkable creature spent all but the last year of her life pulling herself around the house with wonder woman strength and two-wheeling in her cart taking out more dry wall than I care to mention. Maggie remained, until her last breath, the “alpha” of my pack of as many as 10 dogs at any given time. She ruled with a quiet force that backed my other dogs into a sit and stay with one glance. She initiated every foster dog by gently putting her mouth around their heads as if to say, “They call me Magzilla. This is MY house, YOU are a guest…and never forget your head fits in my mouth.” Enough said.
Maggie never let her disability slow her down. She loved life. Maggie taught me that pets with disabilities and imperfections have just as much value and love to offer as any other animal. Maggie taught me that on my worst day, I needed to dig down deep and make it happen. Maggie inspired me every day of her 14 years on this planet. She changed my heart and taught me what really mattered.
I need you to know that Maggie is the reason I left my career and the life I knew before HSHC. Her legacy reaches far beyond me. The ripples she left in her wake have indirectly impacted thousands of lives. As of 2014, 27,720 animals had been adopted or were reunited with their families. So many of those animals were those with disabilities, special needs or bully breeds that wouldn’t have had a chance anywhere else. Maggie has been a driving force in our continued philosophy that pets with disabilities or special medical needs can flourish…that they have worth and can give as much as they require, if not more.
It was certainly not just me, nor Maggie, who saved all those lives—as our staff and volunteers are unwavering in their commitment to these animals. I do believe Maggie’s life and influence helped move HSHC in the right direction. I guess we’ll never really know what might have been had her spinal cord injury not occurred. But what I do know is this: A dog is the reason I’m a better person today. A dog is the reason I had the courage to leave what was safe and take on the challenge of running an animal shelter I wasn’t even able to walk in to prior to her accident. A dog is the reason I got out of bed on so many days I was overwhelmed by life. A dog is what led me to understand my reason for being. That dog was Maggie, and I am forever grateful to you sweet girl.
Please consider rescuing an animal. They just might rescue you back.
– Rebecca Stevens
Maggie passed away in 2014 at the age of 14. HSHC celebrated her life that year at our Tinsel & Tails event that marked 10 years since my adventure with HSHC had begun. This image of Maggie is comprised of thumbnails of hundreds of animals, mostly seniors and those with special needs, who had been saved in that time.