Every year, thousands of healthy senior dogs are put down in France due to overcrowding in shelters. When Mike and Leeanne Whitley from Britain retired to the country for an easier life, they found that fact impossible to accept, and in the last 10 years they have adopted more than 100 senior dogs.
Leeanne, a former Great Britain athlete, and Mike, an English and drama teacher, both suffered from ill health and believed that the tranquillity of the Dordogne countryside in southwest France, where they had bought a barn, would be perfect for them to rest and relax. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
When the couple’s beloved dog Kizzy died, Teg, their retriever, was clearly lonely without his companion. Leeanne and Mike decided to get another elderly dog and visited their local refuge.
What they found shocked them. France, like many other countries, has more stray dogs than it knows what to do with. Although some shelters make a great effort to rehome stray animals, older dogs fare less well. Says the couple, “It became evident, searching the pounds and refuges, that if you were an old dog, life was not always good, and your ending might be premature and without dignity.”
From that first visit Mike and Leeanne adopted “a few” senior dogs, who would all have been put down otherwise. By the time they had adopted seven more dogs, it was clear to them both that they felt a calling.
It was the start of a completely different life from the one the couple had planned. They set up the Twilight Retirement Home for Dogs. “It’s not a formal refuge,” says Mike. “We’re just mere volunteers with the time, space, and love to share our calm home with dogs.” At any one time they have up to 35 senior dogs living in their home. Their lives revolve around the “sad and seemingly endless needs of these lovable best friends,” or as Leeanne refers to them, “the puddings.”
Leeanne confesses, “Our life is the dogs now. We have to make moments just to chat sometimes about life outside of Twilight — did we send my mum a card lately, that kind of thing. We make ourselves pop out for lunch once a month if we can, often just to have a ‘meeting’ about how the dogs are, what we can improve on, etc.” Leeanne says that while it may sound a bit sad and overwhelming, they are very happy and love it.
Their work has attracted plenty of admiration, and they now have several volunteers who help out with the grooming, bathing, and general care of the dogs, as well as administration and social media updates. Their local vet has played a key role, visiting regularly to save them constant journeys to his office. With so many seniors to care for, there is always a medical issue; sadly, sometimes dogs have to be euthanized when they become ill and are in pain.
Reading the daily updates on their Facebook page is both uplifting and heartbreaking. For example:
Sally’s need to cross the Bridge was a little sooner than we had all hoped. A tummy tumor pressing on her nerves, the pain had arrived, so a big kiss and she is now I pray rested and at peace. Now we look to Bianka (fused joints), Douglas (fluid on the lung), and Sabre (those GS hips), who have a seven-day package of potions to hopefully help, but it is just a matter of time for all three. Gladys (dehydrated from the months of starving and likely organ failing) and Naomi (likely tumor in intestine) are also on the watch list, with Nana, Paddy, Gormless, and Quito all on new meds. A few last Christmases ahead, but we will celebrate in style with warmth and love.
It takes special people to be able to deal with the constant loss of beloved pets as Mike and Leeanne do. So many of the dogs who have come to them have little time left, sometimes just days. Leeanne talks about Woolfy, “a severe neglect case at death’s door when he arrived.”
“He was so weak,” she says. “He lay in his bed, in his own mess. Justine, a Beagle, got into the bed with him to make him warm. We tried to clean him, feed him, let him feel the love and healing. If they come in this state, we try to help them regain their dignity before they pass over the Bridge.”
Leeanne says they were only couple of years into Twilight at the time, and still on a mighty learning curve. But Woolfy came around; despite the huge mouth tumor, growing so quickly, he felt the love of humans and canines alike.
“He stole our hearts,” she says. “On his 19th day, he managed to walk around the garden, take in the sun. On his 21st day here, he died in my arms. We loved him so much. He regained the light in his eyes; he had no pain at the end.”
Some of the dogs come from homes where their owners have died. Some have been abandoned, abused, starved, and beaten. Leeanne and Mike work closely with refuges and animal charities in France, and they work hard to rehome the younger dogs who have plenty of life left in them.
They have no favorites and love every dog as if they had bought him up from a puppy. When the dogs pass over the Bridge, it is of course distressing, but what keeps the pair going is the knowledge that however hard this path is, the dogs in their care will have a better ending to their lives by spending time at the Twilight Home.
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About the author: Janine Marsh is the editor of The Good Life France and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. When not writing, she is pandering to the whims of six cats, three dogs, and 38 chickens, ducks and geese.