When you get right down to it, a term like “rescue dog” doesn’t necessarily specify who’s doing the actual rescuing. In the case of Vicky Neville and her rescue dog, Macy, for instance, it could be argued that the rescuing goes both ways. But when it comes to their story — and a growing number of others with striking similarities — perhaps the biggest heroes of all are Chris and Mariesa Hughes, along with their dedicated support community at the Mr. Mo Project.
Vicky was still recovering from a difficult divorce when she was forced to endure the passing of her sister and soulmate. She found herself spiraling into chronic depression, which eventually required admission to an inpatient treatment program. While she was there, one of her friends told her about a New York-based nonprofit organization that finds loving foster homes for senior dogs all over the country.
On Easter Sunday, Mr. Mo Project founders Chris and Mariesa showed up at Vicky’s house with Macy, a senior Pit Bull. They’d read about Vicky’s three previous Bulldogs on her application and – after determining that she’d make a loving, responsible foster parent – had decided to personally drive Macy all the way from New York to Rhode Island so the pair could be united. There was an immediate connection, and before Vicky knew it, life began to seem a whole lot sweeter. Judging from Macy’s enthusiastic reaction, the sentiment definitely goes both ways.
“It’s pretty amazing what a dog can do for someone,” reflects Chris. “And senior dogs, in particular, have so much love to give. They just need the right person who’s willing to share it.”
Sometimes, that “right person” may have an enormous heart but not necessarily the finances to match. This can interfere with — or in some cases completely prevent — the special type of bond that Vicky and Macy now enjoy.
Chris and Mariesa became aware of this problematic issue while they were running nonprofit animal rescue organization Rowdy to the Rescue. Started by Chris in 2011, this organization pulled dogs from shelters and placed them in caring foster homes to prevent euthanasia. One of the canines Chris and Mariesa happened to save was a senior dog named Moses, with whom they instantly fell in love.
“He was like a child to us,” recalls Mariesa. “He would actually talk, trying his best to communicate in these sweet, expressive grunts and grumbles.”
It turns out Moses — affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Mo”— ended up needing specialized veterinary care that grew increasingly more expensive. Sadly, this sweet senior pup passed away shortly after being diagnosed with an inoperable spinal tumor. Chris and Mariesa turned their overwhelming sense of loss and grief into a mission to save other senior dogs and optimize their canine quality of life. Thus, the Mr. Mo Project was born.
True to the aforementioned “rescue dog” moniker, the project — which was officially started in June 2014 — “rescues” in two directions. First, it helps surrendered senior dogs find loving foster homes before those dogs are euthanized at the shelter. Secondly, it helps owners who already care for a senior dog, but may be struggling financially due to the dog’s medical expenses.
“Removing that financial hurdle allows care and compassion to take center stage,” explains Mariesa. “Plus, if we’re able to help a senior dog remain in a familiar home environment before an owner resorts to surrender, all the better. We keep yet another dog out of a shelter system that’s already overflowing.”
“Our experience with Mo gave me a whole new awareness of senior dogs that wind up in shelters,” says Chris. “They have such a hard time finding homes. Many people have the perception that a difficult health issue exists or may arise, and that they won’t have the disposable income to address it.”
In the case of certain dogs, this may be true. But according to Dr. Andrew Hagner at VCA Animal Health Center in Clifton Park, New York, it’s far from a foregone conclusion. “In many instances,” explains Dr. Hagner, “a senior dog’s health issues are fairly easy to diagnose and straightforward to treat.” He cites some of the most common senior ailments he sees: disorders that include arthritis, dry eye, allergies, and underactive thyroid.
“In all of these cases,” he says, “therapy might involve the simple administration of a pill or daily drop to give these dogs a new, more energetic lease on life. Hypothyroidism, in particular, is a disorder that’s frequently overlooked yet easy to treat — and it can be the root cause of everything from thinning fur to low energy.”
Dr. Hagner is certainly qualified to speak on the issue, because he and his medical staff at Animal Health Center are the go-to veterinary resource for the senior dogs Chris and Mariesa rescue through the Mr. Mo Project. Most of these pets are eventually placed in caring foster homes; but the organization pays for each dog’s medical care for the remainder of the dog’s life. In fact, to date, Chris estimates that the Mr. Mo Project has covered nearly $90,000 in veterinary bills for its rescued canines.
This kind of assistance would not be possible without dedicated help from the large and growing network of Mr. Mo Project supporters. Described by Chris and Mariesa as a true “family,” this like-minded group includes healthcare allies like Dr. Hagner’s team; rescue transport services such as Kindred Hearts, which help to relocate many of the dogs nationwide; corporate sponsors such as BarkBox, which help to defray costs for needed pet supplies; and of course, the foster homes themselves.
These pre-screened fosters include everyone from single pet parents like Vicky to the Connecticut-based family of 15-year-old Dakota — saved from a high-kill North Carolina shelter, yet given only a short time to live because of his cancer. Dakota’s entire family has chosen to make his remaining days as amazing as possible. Their efforts include helping Dakota work his way down a fun-filled “bucket list” that has fast become a trending Facebook topic.
“Our foster network, like our vets and our sponsors, are big believers in this cause,” notes Chris. “In fact, thanks to our large and growing social media presence – which includes 130,000 very engaged followers on our Facebook page alone – many people mistakenly believe we’re much bigger than we are. In reality, we’re just two people who work full-time, backed by an amazing support network that helps these rescued senior dogs get what they vitally need.”
So what would it take to advance the Mr. Mo Project to the next level, allowing the organization to rescue more senior dogs in even more states? Chris highlights three critical elements:
Even though veterinary expenses are covered by the nonprofit organization, foster parents provide irreplaceable love and nurturing on a daily basis – for the remainder of a rescued senior dog’s life. You can apply online.
“Our nonprofit organization makes no financial gain from any donation,” explains Mariesa. “Everything goes toward saving and supporting these loving senior dogs.”
Chris and Mariesa hope that eventually, at least one reputable, well-regarded food sponsor might be willing to help furnish a supply of nutritious, good-quality food designed to address the specific dietary needs of senior dogs.
“The entire Mr. Mo Project family is an amazingly committed, caring group of people,” reflects Dr. Hagner, “and the Mr. Mo dogs we treat here at Animal Health Center will absolutely melt your heart. As I always remind adoptive pet parents: Don’t be afraid to consider a senior dog. They’re calm and loving … and age itself is not a disease.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Mr. Mo Project or make a tax-deductible donation, visit its Facebook page or the Mr. Mo Project website. There, you can also get your paws on tasty fundraising items, including a Chef Mo Cookbook plus Mr. Mo Senior Series wines.
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.