A rescue for pets with disabilities

Visit a special rescue where animals with disabilities can find a caring home — and teach people they can still love and enjoy life.

Normally, a broken back would have a tragic outcome. For Joyce Darrell and her dog, Duke, it meant the start of an amazing life journey, and hope for many disabled animals.

One day 12 years ago, when Duke was just six months old, he somehow broke his back while playing with a neighbor’s Labrador. “The vet recommended euthanizing him,” says Joyce. “But his spirit wasn’t broken even if his body was.”

Duke didn’t seem in pain, but could only move awkwardly, dragging his back legs behind him. The best option appeared to be a doggie wheelchair to support his useless limbs. Joyce and her husband, Michael Dickerson, purchased one to see if Duke could learn to use it. Soon the plucky canine was zipping around as though he’d always had wheels! Soon after, Joyce heard about a five-year-old disabled mixed breed named Misty who’d been languishing in a New York shelter for more than five years. Potential adopters quickly turned away when they found out she couldn’t walk. “We immediately went and adopted her,” says Joyce. Misty also adapted quickly to wheels. “People think the wheelchair is a big adjustment for the dog, but it’s really the people who have to get used to it.”

A growing concern

The couple’s commitment soon expanded into Pets With Disabilities, a non-profit organization in Prince Frederick, Maryland that rescues and promotes adoption of dogs and cats with special needs. Some of the dogs at the rescue are in wheelchairs, while others have birth defects or are blind, deaf or amputees. Pets With Disabilities also deals with FIV-positive cats, and has just completed a new cattery to accommodate blind and deaf felines.

Joyce sees the organization as a “bridge to a better life and forever home” for its residents. “We provide hope and change attitudes,” she says. Duke and Misty quickly became their ambassadors. Together with Joyce and Michael, they visited pet expos, schools and charity events in an attempt to change preconceived notions about euthanasia as the best option for disabled animals.

“I remember one of our first events,” Joyce laughs. “It was a pet expo, and people were scratching their heads because they never realized animals can live with disabilities. They were trying to figure out if we were a real rescue and if Duke’s wheelchair was just for show!”

totally abled rescueRising to the challenge Joyce tries very hard to “normalize” the disabilities so people will see the animals as loveable, adoptable pets. “I take them out of their shelter environment, write nice biographies for our website, and take pictures of them playing in the grass here and just enjoying themselves. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Still, many people are reluctant to take on an “imperfect” animal. “Wheelchair dogs and deaf dogs are the hardest to place,” says Joyce. “People will always take a blind dog before a deaf one. Deaf dogs don’t connect to people as easily, so are often misunderstood.”

Her charges have run the gamut from a one-eyed puppy who languished in a shelter for three months before getting his forever home through Pets With Disabilities, to senior animals abandoned by people who don’t want to deal with their infirmities.

Joyce usually restricts adoptions to the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions in case an animal ever needs to be returned. There are exceptions, like the wheelchair dog who traveled all the way to California. “I knew the lady who adopted him very well,” Joyce explains. “She had a wheelchair dog that passed away and was ready for another. I knew that dog would never be coming back.”

Making a difference

Those who want to help without actually adopting an animal can sponsor one of the organization’s residents through its Angel Network. Members pay monthly or yearly and can follow “their” dog or cat on the website and email Joyce for updates.

totally abled rescuePets With Disabilities also runs a summer camp for inner city children. The kids spend time in the country, get to meet the dogs and go walking and swimming with them. “These animals take what life handed them and make the best of it,” Joyce says. “That’s a great lesson for the kids.”

The most rewarding part of Joyce’s work is meeting the people who are willing to adopt special needs animals. “They understand these animals need homes and their spirits are not broken,” she says. “These families open up their hearts unconditionally and are willing to go the extra mile.”

The organization is funded solely through donations and sustained by Joyce’s hard work. “I am the sole full-time caretaker of the 20-plus dogs at the rescue.”

totally abled rescueJoyce is passionate about her work, but it saddens her to see animals lose once-loving homes due to illness or injury. “People abandon them after caring for them for many years. They feel they are no longer the same pet because they require a bit more care. It’s very frustrating to realize the human spirit can be so weak. It’s hard to understand how they can look into the eyes of their animal and not see that it really is the same animal.”

Sadly, Duke passed away this year (Misty died in 2008), but his legacy continues. Joyce saw proof of how many lives Duke touched when she received hundreds of cards and condolences after his death.

One of her favorite memories of Duke is the time he led a wheelchair child around a very busy pet expo. “This little girl loved him. She would hold his lead, and he gallantly pulled her around, maneuvering his own wheelchair around the crowds of people. He made being disabled very cool!”


Barb Nefer is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in travel, pets, and personal finance.