Monkey’s House: A Dog Hospice and Sanctuary
In Southampton, NJ, there’s a place where the old, the sick and the homeless can spend their last moments surrounded by love, care, and compassion.
The place is called Monkey’s House, one of the country’s very few dog hospices and sanctuaries.
Michele D. Allen, who founded the place with her husband Jeff, offers shelter dogs in need of hospice care a chance to live and die with dignity and in the arms of people who care.
The Honest Kitchen: How exactly did Monkey’s House get started? What’s the story behind it and why establish a home for elderly dogs?
Michele Allen: I have been blessed to have had dogs all of my life but have only intentionally adopted two before 2009. Dogs just found us or ended up with us. In April of 2009, our dog Emmy passed away kind of suddenly. She was 13 and had been having frequent bouts of pancreatitis but still I wasn’t ready, if such a thing exists. We had just one dog left and while she was a handful, our home was terribly empty, so I called a dear friend, Joanne Collier—who volunteered at the Animal Orphanage of Voorhees—and asked her to find us a dog. She eventually brought two out to meet my dog and I left with both of them. The first one was a goofy looking little guy named Poncho who was seven-ish, had teeth going in every direction, the worst breath imaginable and the biggest smile. And then there was McKenzie, a 13 and a half-year-old Shih Tzu who was skinny and frightened but so sweet. At our initial vet appointment we found out that McKenzie was the healthy one. Poncho had a serious heart murmur and really bad dental disease.
The adoption of these two dogs was a very healing and rewarding experience for me, so after Poncho and McKenzie were gone, I wanted to learn more about how I could help shelter dogs without actually going into a shelter. So we started fostering. I preferred sick dogs as I had been a nurse for many years and always felt that the best healing was done in a home.
As time passed, I was astounded by the number of really old, sick dogs in shelters everywhere and how little help there is for them. As we fostered these seniors, I often preferred to take them to my own vet where I could ask questions and have a better understanding of what was going on and have a more active role in their treatment. Being a nurse, I was taught to ask questions, to constantly evaluate what was helping and what wasn’t. Shelters and rescues didn’t cover that level of veterinary care. This was becoming an extremely expensive undertaking.
With each foster dog came experience, knowledge, joy and tears, as well as a gratifying sense of a job well done. Taking a foster dog for end-of-life care doesn’t mean we love them any less than our own dogs, but we have the luxury of knowing the clock is ticking and I needed to come up with a plan of managing their illness, helping them to feel as well as possible and making decisions about how and when the end would happen.
It’s not like having a reasonably healthy dog for 15 years and then ending up in an emergency room with a vet you never met telling you your best friend was dying. The dogs came to us dying. It was up to us to help them have the best possible life until that final moment came and to make sure that final moment was filled with love and peace. With each dog, our job became clearer and more focused. While fostering dogs that weren’t going to die was very rewarding, it seemed that hospice care was our forte. Health care for dogs can be more expensive in their final year. It’s their families’ responsibility to do right by them. However, we kept adopting these “most expensive last year of their life” dogs. We couldn’t keep spending like this but there were always dogs that needed end of life care.
THK: Can you tell us the story behind the name Monkey’s House?
MA: Monkey was, at first, just another foster. He had the same story: a little stray with a cough that turned out to be a bad heart. He had horrible breath, horrible teeth and a contagious zest for life. When he came to us, his respiration was 80 breaths per minute. That is incredibly uncomfortable and, in my mind, is suffering. I knew there were two medications at Walmart that were $4/month that would help him and one that was $40/month through the vet that would make a big difference.
I spoke to the shelter vet, who was not on board with prescribing the meds. He felt nature should be allowed to take its course and that I should enjoy him for the short time he was with us. So we adopted Monkey and off we went. He got his meds, a vet who he really wanted to bite, a cardiologist and lots of wonderful adventures. We had him for 17 incredible months. Not a day went by that he didn’t bring us joy.
Monkey left us February 26, 2015. I channeled my pain into opening Monkey’s House, a dog hospice and sanctuary. I started our Facebook page as a gift to my husband. Our grief was the heaviest burden I think either of us has ever felt but neither of us would have changed a thing. Telling Monkey’s story, letting people know his short life mattered to us, kept us moving forward.
THK: How do you decide which dogs to take in? And where do most of the dogs you take in come from?
MA: Dr. Judy Morgan [who originally treated Monkey] brought the first two official Monkey House’s dogs in. She has helped us find volunteers, design rooms, assemble cribs (for dog beds) and get donations, as well as help us define guidelines and criteria for what kind of dogs we would take. She’s our secret weapon against chronic illness. She sees all of the dogs when they arrive for a comprehensive exam, necessary blood work and X-rays. Often, as the dogs improve, she sees them for dentals or anything else needed.
The dogs come primarily from shelters. Currently, there are 19 living at our home. Five of them are our personal dogs; all were adopted and have special needs. Since inception, we have helped 25 dogs, adopted out five that were not terminal, and had seven leave us for the rainbow bridge. We are thrilled with the way things are progressing.
Fifteen of the dogs live inside the house, they sleep in bed with us, lay on the sofa with us and join us in everything we do.
THK: What is life like at Monkey’s House for the dogs?
MA: Every day is filled with random moments that are just too precious to walk by without acknowledging. Each dog receives everything they need to reach, maximize and maintain their optimal wellness: meds, eye drops, massages, medicated baths, whatever is needed.
I mentioned 15 dogs live in the main part of the house. We have two Beagles that lived outside their entire lives. They stay in a luxury barn suite complete with their own play yard and a toddler bed inside. They are brought into the house when it’s cold and are starting to become comfortable with inside life. The last two dogs just don’t do well with lots of dogs; it really stresses them and isn’t safe. They live in a sunroom and spare bedroom off of the side of the house. They have their own stereo and day bed and fully furnished living area. They have volunteers snuggling them all of the time.
There are a few dogs that are crated for meals because we don’t have that many rooms. We make sure everyone has their own special private space to eat. We have volunteers that come during the day to walk them, although some dogs prefer lap time on the couch. We have a list of each dog’s needs posted for volunteers. PLT is a Monkey’s House abbreviation for priority lap time. The dogs go for car rides and visit Dr. Morgan or our groomer, Aunt Floss.
Because of our amazing volunteers, all of our dogs receive loads of individual attention. They are all extremely social, loved and happy.
THK: Any particular case/story that has stayed with you? Or any dog that particularly touched you?
MA: All of the dogs that have come through have been special in their own way. Some have taught me more then others. One example is Daisy. I joke that she has been factory reassembled. All of her parts that were sticking outside her body were put back in. She has morphed into a sweet, loving dog and is very loved. Her heart condition has worsened and she has seen a cardiologist. She now takes eight pills a day and is a happy camper.
Another case was a black Lab named Jake. He was a very sweet but frightened dog filled with cancer everywhere. He also suffered from a heart arrhythmia called A-fib. He passed out once while I was giving him a bath and was weak when he came around. Until we got his arrhythmia stabilized, I pulled him around on a sleeping bag. He loved being hand fed chicken I had fried in coconut oil. He was with us for three weeks, just long enough to feel safe, loved and to have a little fun.
THK: How challenging is it to care for dogs with terminal illnesses? Do you have vets who regularly visit the place or do you do much of the care in-house?
MA: Taking care of terminal dogs is no different than any other dog, with the single exception that we do their favorite activity every day. We don’t know when we are going to lose them and we don’t want any regrets. I communicate with Dr. Morgan regularly and can perform basic vet tech tasks at home once I’ve been shown how. For example, I remove sutures, check blood sugars and give insulin, I trim some nails. For everything else, we go for a “bye-bye car” ride to see Dr. Morgan.
Wellness is a word I learned in nursing school. It means life is pretty good even though there is a lot wrong. We always strive for wellness. A dog may come with a severe heart murmur, big abdominal masses and blood work that isn’t stellar. Is the dog dying? No, not at the moment. We do everything to restore wellness within reason. Then comes the best part: enjoying every day and finding ways to make it special. The volunteers say that Monkey’s House is peaceful, uplifting and a great place to destress. I think the dogs heal us as much as we heal them.