The Thulani Program for providing hospice care and sanctuary for German Shepherd dogs with limited life expectancy was founded in mid-2009 as a German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California response to a need identified by our shelter evaluators. The evaluators were finding German Shepherd dogs in shelters that were wonderful dogs, but because of terminal medical conditions or extreme age, were not dogs that could successfully be adopted out to the public as part of regular adoption program. Yet these wonderful dogs have some quality life left for them, even though it might be short. The evaluators realized that, if they turned their backs on these dogs, they very likely would die alone and afraid in the shelter almost immediately. As every evaluator knew, this just was not right, but there was little they could do about it.
“There was nothing we could do. So we checked him out of the shelter, took him on a long leisurely walk, bought him a Big Mac, and then took him to the vet where we stayed with him as he was euthanized. This tragedy left us with deep emotional scars.”
The critical turning point came at the end of 2008 when we evaluated a three-month-old puppy who had been badly abused, mistreated, and neglected. Yet he was a happy, loving, affectionate puppy that just wanted to please, so we decided to bring him into GSRNC. We lined up a foster home for him, and planned out his stay with us before he would be put up for adoption, and then the lightening-bolt struck.
The puppy had a level 5 heart murmur that further analysis indicated would be fatal in just a few months. We called the prospective fosterer to inform her of his condition and that we would not be bringing him into the program after all. She was devastated as were we, but she called back in a few hours to tell us that she and her daughter would take him and would give him the best life she could for whatever time he had left! That dog was Thulani.
Over the next six months we digested what we had seen with Thulani, and did some preliminary canvassing of other fosterers, and realized that there are a significant number of people out there who are incredible animal advocates and animal lovers, and who are emotionally strong enough to take in a dog with a limited life expectancy knowing full well that heartbreak will follow in a short time.
“It is one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I loved the experience of living with the dog (Blanca) and I will always love her. It was very hard to say goodbye to her, and I don’t regret one moment.”
These are people who can enjoy the dogs ‘for the moment’ and bear the grief that they will shortly feel in order to give the dog a quality life for whatever time it has left.
The Thulani Program was born. We launched it on its maiden voyage in mid-2009, and took stock of where we were and how it was working in late 2011. During that period, we had helped 20 dogs from the greater San Francisco Bay region, with medical conditions ranging from terminal heart disease, severe degenerative myelopathy, advanced cancer, and simple old age. Each dog,, with the exception of Reo, lived out its quality life in its foster home. Reo had a huge growth (tumor) over his left eye, and no one would consider adopting him. We took him in, had the growth removed, and when it turned out to be benign, we kicked him out of the Thulani program and he was adopted within a week.
During this trial period, the public contributed enough monetary support that we realized we could make the program work. And finally, we have a number of veterinarians who have ‘bought into the program’ at a level such that we are confident we can obtain the best medical advice available regarding Thulani Program dogs.
We now (Dec 2011) realized that not only is the Thulani Program viable, but that there is a real and widespread need. During the trial period we helped more than 20 dogs in need of a hospice sanctuary. Until now, we have focused on German Shepherds in the greater San Francisco Bay region, but also have taken in a few from outlying areas.
Today we have set ourselves a goal of expanding our geographic coverage to include all potential Thulani Program Dogs throughout California and Nevada by the end of 2012 (see map in Our Area section). Our further goal is to bring in 20 new Thulani Program Dogs this year, but because in the first month we already have brought in five new dogs, we may be underestimating the need (a bit intimidating, but we will deal with it).
So stay tuned. This is an exciting, necessary, and vibrant program that we hope will serve well this most vulnerable population of the rescue community.
Wow, the expansion we launched in January 2012 was a real eye-opener, both in terms of what we could accomplish, and in terms of the external response to what we planned to do.
First, the accomplishments:
- We established contacts throughout California and Nevada that we regularly communicate with about Thulani Program services
- We now take in dogs from that entire area
- We brought in 31 new dogs compared to the 20 we had anticipated
- We completed all the internal framework activities that we needed to accomplish in order to move forward—built a website which you are now viewing, built a logo, established a facebook page and presence, recruited a steering committee, built a foster network that can accommodate a number of future dogs, produced a professional video about the program “Saving Holly: A Thulani Story”, and many more things.
- We now have a senior Rescue volunteer with Westside German Shepherd Rescue in the LA basin acting as our agent in the southland, on the lookout for Thulani dogs. She regularly covers 25 shelters, and has extensive contacts with many more shelters. Nearly half our new dogs came from southern California.
Second, the public response:
- people are responding with messages of encouragement and support from all over
- potential fosterers are now contacting us asking to help
- generous donations keep coming in
- public reaction tends to be amazement and enthusiasm that we are doing what we do
Third, the future
- The Thulani Program is not only expanding, but the expansion continues to accelerate. Based on the first three months, we anticipate 40-50 new dogs in the program in 2013.
- We continue to build our organizational foundation such that we can accommodate the increased influx of dogs.
- We are exploring new ways to publicize our operations and successes, in the hope that other rescues will establish similar programs
- We are tentatively exploring the possibility that we can extract some fundamental information from our incredible volunteer base that will shed light on the basic companion animal-human bond, especially in terms of interactions with this most vulnerable subset of the rescue community. We are hopeful that in addition to providing these wonderful dogs with a warm, loving final chapter, we will be able to contribute substantially to the conversation about end-of-life decisions about companion animals in general.
- We are working closely (as we have in the past) with the Grey Muzzle Organization to promote and encourage practical ways of helping senior dogs.
These continue to be exciting times, and stay tuned for the next update. Coming soon.