At 8 a.m., a crowd gathers in Sher Polvinale’s Gaithersburg kitchen, awaiting breakfast.
Aside from a few overeager yips, they’re a patient bunch. There’s 12-year-old Rudy, a neurologically challenged dachshund/Jack Russell mix who lists and walks with a wobble. There’s Candyman, a 16-year-old toy poodle who’s nearly blind and wears a blue diaper with a matching scrunchie to keep his ears out of his food. And prancing delicately on two hind paws, 10-year-old Daphne, a Chihuahua whose leg was twice broken and nearly amputated while she was in foster care.
“Let’s dance,” Polvinale urges Daphne, and they do, hands to paws.
Then Polvinale sets 25 bowls on a gleaming white center island, filling them with her special concoction: four different kinds of dog food, baby rice cereal, hot water and shredded chicken from a large pot bubbling on the stove. “Mealtimes are happy around here,” she says.
“Here” is a four-bedroom house set on a 2½-acre corner lot in a suburban neighborhood, where Polvinale lives with her two Standard Poodles, 25 resident dogs and up to 25 paying boarders (though only seven are around today).
She calls it House With A Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary, a nonprofit hospice for elderly and ailing pets whose owners no longer can or will care for them.
When she started it five years ago, her husband, Joe, drew the line at 10 live-ins. But Joe died of lung cancer in 2008, after 28 years of marriage, and the number of dogs has grown.
Many bear physical and emotional scars from previously challenging circumstances. It’s something Polvinale knows too well. Born in Washington, D.C., she was raised by her grandparents in Camp Springs, Md., from the age of 9 months until she was 5, when she moved in with her father and his new wife.
At 10, she came home from school and was told by her stepmother that the family dog and its puppy had been taken to a “farm.” She was heartbroken that she wasn’t able to say goodbye, and ignorant of the fact they’d been euthanized.
Abused physically and emotionally by her stepmother, she later found herself in two abusive relationships, including a marriage, before she met “a really good guy” named Joe. He was a sheet metal estimator with his own business; she worked in payroll for a construction company. They married in 1980. He had four kids from a previous marriage, but together they had none.
A longtime animal advocate and shelter volunteer, Polvinale frequently got calls from people needing help caring for their pets. Finally, in 2006, she started her nonprofit and had kennels specially built in the basement for boarders whose fees subsidize the dogs in need. Feature stories on local television brought in donations and volunteers soon after.
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