Saving the pet who needs you the most

Saving a pet who needs you the most -- perhaps a dog or cat with special needs, a terminal illness or who's a senior -- is very rewarding.
By Nicole Hamilton

This article originally appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.

Many years ago, Susan Mallory was in the audience as comedian Lily Tomlin delivered a keynote address at an event in San Diego. Lily shared a story to illustrate how she felt about all the animals with special needs that she had adopted over the years.

The story she shared was the parable (somewhat well known, but certainly worth repeating in this context) of the boy walking the shoreline of a beach dotted with multitudes of stranded starfish. As he did his best to pick up and toss starfish, one by one, back into the sea, a man approached him and said, “One person alone can’t save all of these starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” Undaunted, the boy picked up another starfish, threw it in the ocean, and replied, “It will make a difference to this one.”

The tale (adapted from an essay titled “The Star Thrower” by science writer Loren Eiseley) made a lasting impression on Susan, who draws upon it whenever she is asked why she and her husband, Peter, adopt the animals who are seemingly the most desperate. In short, the ones who need them the most. It’s a question she gets asked often because, in the past 15 years, she and Peter have rescued approximately 20 animals who might not have found homes had it not been for the couple’s commitment to take in harder-to-adopt pets.

Susan and Peter Mallory with Frank and Faye

How to save a pet in a shelter

Before Susan and Peter adopted them, many of their pets had spent a long time in shelters or with rescue groups. Some of them seemed broken-hearted after their humans passed away. Some were passed over by potential adopters who were in the market for a younger pet. Some were ignored altogether because they needed special care — something that might require a wee bit more attention. But as far as Susan and Peter were concerned, heartbroken, old or in need were exactly the qualities they were looking for in a pet to scoop up and love.

While they have shared their lives with about two dozen of these special animals, today it’s Faye and Frank who warm the family hearth. Faye is a nearly blind senior dog who had already lived in several homes before coming to her final resting stop with Susan and Peter. Frank, a 14-year-old dog with a skin condition, is the newest addition to the family. For nearly six months, Frank had been with, an NKLA Coalition partner, and then was transferred to Best Friends’ No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA) Pet Adoption Center. When Susan saw his adoption profile online and read about Frank’s advanced age and his skin issue, which made him look a little rough around the edges, she knew Frank was the dog for them.


Fortunately for the animals, Susan and Peter — and their pattern of being drawn to the pets who need them the most — are not an anomaly. Every day, other folks just like them visit shelters ready to open their hearts and homes to a senior cat or an incontinent dog or a handicapped kitten. That’s how Sequin, an older dog diagnosed with terminal cancer, found a loving home in Atlanta, Georgia, and why a special cat named Seamus Heaney is now living the good life in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Teaching kids about kindness to animals

Susan’s desire to help pets in need started early in her life. In fact, nearly 45 years ago, her mother opened one of the country’s first animal rescue organizations in San Diego, California. As a result, Susan’s childhood home was filled with special-needs pets. “Animal welfare is in my DNA,” she says. “My husband and I feel very strongly about adopting animals who otherwise wouldn’t have a good chance of finding a home, especially at the end of their lives.”


Across the country in Atlanta, April Higdon shares Susan’s lifelong passion. Her father, she says, always rescued the shelter dogs who most needed a home. “My dad always adopted the dogs that no one else would,” April says. “It kind of rubbed off on me.” So it makes sense that it was his voice that she heard when she decided to stop at the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in Atlanta one day after work. Inspired by what she had been exposed to growing up, April asked to meet the dogs who had been there the longest or the ones who could most benefit from going home that day.

Adopting a senior dog or cat

 April and Sequin

An old dog with mammary cancer, Sequin was at the top of the list. When April saw her for the first time, she sat down on the floor. Sequin, who had been abandoned in a yard and at one point was too weak to stand, climbed right into April’s lap. There were a few tears — a wave of emotion punctuated by joy — because it was clear in that moment that Sequin was on her way home. Forever.

Those “aha” connections — delicious moments when a lifetime of love begins — come in many incarnations. And while April and Sequin’s story began with a shared moment of tenderness, Jeong Kim and Seamus Heaney had a somewhat different first encounter.

Jeong visited the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in Salt Lake City expressly looking for the cat who needed a home the most. He noticed a cat named Seamus Heaney sitting all alone in a corner, and learned that Seamus had been at the center longer than any of the other cats. That single fact drew Jeong to him. It didn’t matter to Jeong that Seamus hissed at him when he first reached out to pet him. As Jeong interprets it: “He felt rejected.” He goes on to say, “My heart went out to him because he had to watch the other cats get adopted.”

Hester the black cat

Besides the introductory hiss, another reason that Seamus may have been passed over by adopters is that he has a heart murmur and requires daily medication. It didn’t deter Jeong, however. In fact, he not only adopted Seamus that day, he also adopted Seamus’ feline friend, William Butler Yeats.

A bit of an introvert, Seamus took longer than W.B. Yeats to become comfortable in his new home. But now he’s relaxed and getting more confident daily. “Sometimes he brushes up against my leg as if to say, ‘I know who I belong to,’” Jeong says.

Jeong with his cats, Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats

Why senior pets are the best

As it was with Seamus, it took Frank time to get used to living in his new home. He was tentative at first — as if he couldn’t believe that he had finally found a family of his own. Today, Frank never wants to leave Susan’s or Peter’s side, and he sports a healthy, shiny coat of fur. “How wonderful these older animals are,” Susan says. “They know they are home, and that they are fine, and that no one is ever going to let them go again.”

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Sequin is teaching April how to stop and smell the roses. Every day, the pair takes walks around the neighborhood, and since Sequin can’t walk fast, she’s helping April to slow down and to appreciate the little things. Because of Sequin, April says that she is now better able to see the beauty that surrounds her, no matter how tough a day she’s having. “Sequin is so friendly and loving,” April says. “I can’t imagine my life without her now.”

Sequin the dog being walked on a leash

While it goes without saying that adopters like Susan and Peter, April and Jeong are pretty remarkable, so too are all the folks who open their homes to adoptable pets. After all, each gorgeous animal in need of a home is a starfish just waiting to make its way back to sea. And when the right pet finds you — whether it’s the oldest dog or the youngest puppy, the fluffiest kitten or the silliest bird, the funniest bunny or the laziest cat — only you will know just how much that animal needs you, and just how much you need him or her right back.

Save a life. Adopt a pet who needs you.