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Safe at (new) home 

Zelda's stubby tail wags, and her brown eyes are trusting as she meets new people. You'd swear she's even smiling, white teeth gleaming.

The 6-year-old German shorthaired pointer faced an uncertain future in summer 2010, but she's among the lucky ones helped by Safe Place for Pets. The organization was founded in 1996, when a hospice nurse decided she had to help terminally ill people find homes for their critter companions.

Zelda's human died in July 2010. His daughter, Melody, dearly loved the dog but was allergic to her. Cathy Woods, Safe Place's placement coordinator, worked with Melody to guarantee Zelda would have a soft place to land.

"She had so much to deal with when her dad died, it was a hard situation for her," Woods says. "He was fairly young and she had small kids of her own, trying to deal with his home and the dog and everything. I think she was really grateful."

Woods shared a testimonial that Melody e-mailed to her. An excerpt: "I love everything you do, and everything you stand for. Thank you so much for being a light source at such a dark time for myself."

Rising numbers

Melody learned about Safe Place through the hospice that cared for her father. In the 15 years since Pikes Peak Hospice donated the seed money, the organization has built a network of contacts to help animals and people who love them.

"We work with all the hospices and oncology units or cancer centers, anyone who deals with end-of-life issues," Woods says. "The hospices often will hear from someone who has to relinquish a pet. So we'll often get a phone call on intake and then we'll handle it from then on."

In 2010, Safe Place found new homes for 69 pets. According to Woods, that's its highest one-year total ever. She started working for Safe Place in 2001 and estimates the organization placed 15 to 20 animals that year.

"We know these pets are just so grateful," Woods says. "It's not like when they go to a shelter because they've been abused; it's more they're just wanting someone to love them. They adjust pretty quickly, but things will pop up, strange behavior issues, so we really need to address that with the adopters and make sure that they're keeping an eye on the whole picture."

Safe Place can call on local trainers, who offer the first session free and discount future sessions to ensure the pets adapt. Several local veterinarians discount fees for Safe Place pets; the organization helps with those expenses when needed.

Woods points out that 90 percent of funds raised go to the animals. Safe Place's staff is all-volunteer; everyone on the 10-member board has a designated role, and more than 100 other volunteers help out.

Their assignments include distributing a monthly newsletter featuring available pets to veterinary offices and anywhere animal lovers go. Some volunteers are trained specifically to work with dying people and their families.

This season, volunteers will help raise funds through book-wrapping events at Barnes & Noble. They'll be at the Citadel branch from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, and at the location near Chapel Hills Mall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dec. 20.

All applicants to adopt pets must pass background checks. If it takes a while to identify a new home, Safe Place has about 12 foster homes for cats and up to 15 for dogs. Woods recently found a new coop for a flock of pheasants.

Now, the team is formalizing a program to help people with terminal illnesses who are still at home and want to keep their companion animals as long as they can.

"Some people want to know before they die, and they want to meet the people," she says. "Others really would rather just keep them until the end and have their family handle it."

Zelda's story

That brings us back to Zelda.

Two summers ago, Amy del Rio rushed her aging dog to the emergency veterinary office, where she was told her pet was brain-dead. She was in the waiting area, filling out paperwork after the euthanasia, when she picked up a binder that included Safe Place's monthly newsletter.

"Zelda was one of the first animals I saw," del Rio says. "She had this chocolate head with her mouth open and tongue hanging out like she was smiling. I fell in love with her."

She went home and told her daughter about the dog. They decided that, when they were ready, they'd try to adopt Zelda.

"We waited just a few weeks, and my daughter went on the website and said, 'Mom, Zelda's still there!' So I feel like our old dog kind of led us to her."

When Zelda isn't sleeping on the couch or enjoying her family, she's in the backyard patrolling for squirrels. Del Rio and her daughter have befriended the Safe Place volunteer who fostered Zelda for three months, so Zelda still sees her "foster mom" occasionally.

It's all about creating a circle of caring people, surrounding animals so ready to love and be loved.

"The most important thing for me about Safe Place: My dad died of cancer, Zelda's owner died of cancer," del Rio says. "So I felt like I was not only helping a pet, I was helping a person."

newsroom@csindy.com

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