At Happy Tails Rescue Retirement Home in Bucks County, the senior residents get raw-food diets, reiki treatments, and cold-laser therapy. There are even margaritas on site 24/7.
OK, there’s just one Margarita, and she’s one of the residents, along with Phatsy Cline, Flick Jagger, and 16 other dogs, all between the ages of 11 and 17.
Based out of Stacey Herrick’s Morrisville house, Happy Tails is Herrick’s one-woman mission to give senior dogs without a home the chance to live out their golden years in comfort.
Some dogs have only lasted a day in Herrick’s care before they crossed over the rainbow bridge, others have lasted years, but each one — for however long they’re at Happy Tails — leaves this earth with a family by their side in a place of love.
“Everybody says I do a great thing, but they give me so much more than I give them,” Herrick, 55, said. “They’re a reason to get up. They’re a reason to enjoy life. They’re a reason to be present. It’s just a pleasure and an honor to be able to care for them.”
Herrick, a graduate of The Art Institute of Philadelphia who previously worked in the insurance industry, never set out to create a retirement home for dogs. For 12 years she ran Happy Tails Rescue, which took thousands of dogs from area shelters and found them forever homes. But adopters only wanted younger dogs and Herrick had to pass over all the older dogs to get to them.
“It was heartbreaking. You could see them looking for their owners and you could see they didn’t feel well,” she said. “I would come home and look in the eyes of my own old dogs and think ‘What am I doing?’”
When she phased out the rescue in 2016 after her rescue partner moved away, Herrick followed her heart and adopted an older dog. Then another and another.
“And then I was like ‘What am I doing?’” she said. “I think to need to think about this.”
She applied for nonprofit status and was granted it in 2019. Happy Tails now has a five-member board and relies solely on grants and donations to fund Herrick’s work. During COVID-19, the organization’s fund-raising not only took a hit but Herrick also hasn’t been able to allow volunteers on site, which means she’s caring for 19 dogs herself, not an easy task given many of the residents have chronic health issues.
One dog is blind, one has a brain tumor, one has a neurological condition, two have lung disease, a few have cancer, and several have congestive heart failure and require regular trips to a cardiologist.
And then there’s Hoover, whose main condition is being a total weirdo.
“He’s the ugliest cutest dog you’ll ever see,” Herrick said.
A 13-year-old Chinese crested with his own Instagram account, Hoover requires attention at all times, including from visiting reporters and photographers (”Oh, you don’t think you like hairless dogs? Well you’re about to”). He pushes around the other dogs (even Grayson the pit bull mix), screams for his food, and sings for attention.
Hoover came from a breeder who had 25 Chinese crested dogs, three of whom Herrick took in and adopted out, including Hoover. But he was returned. Twice.
“He can be a jerk sometimes,” Herrick said. “So I’m stuck with Hoovie, but I love him.”
Some Happy Tails residents have been surrendered by their owners, including one whose owner was deployed overseas and could not take his dog with him, and some come from people who left the earth before their pets, like Phatsy Cline and Flick Jagger, 12-year-old Chihuahuas whose owner died of COVID-19 last year.
But most of the senior dogs at Happy Tails come from area shelters where they were set to be euthanized.
Margarita, a 12-year-old Chihuahua mix, was just such a case. Herrick said she was adopted out by ACCT Philly but brought back by her owners who said Margarita was sick and requested she be put to sleep.
Herrick saw Margarita’s photo online 90 minutes before she was set to be euthanized and jumped in the car to save her.
Margarita was skinny with some missing fur and fleas and she required dental and bloodwork, but otherwise was fine, Herrick said.
“These fixes were pretty easy and the light came back in her eyes,” Herrick said. “She’s super sweet and amazing.”
To keep the animals as healthy as possible, Herrick feeds them balanced raw food — going through about 42 pounds a week at a cost of $189 — and she provides them with their required medications, as well as herbal supplements like fish oil, coconut oil, turmeric, and mushroom powder.
And what’s it like cleaning up the poop of 19 senior dogs?
“Believe it or not, there isn’t a lot of poop because of the fact that they’re fed raw so there’s not a lot of waste,” she said. “When they do poop, it’s tiny.”
Herrick also uses alternative therapy on the dogs, like reiki, to help ease their pain and their transitions to the other side.
The dogs that aren’t healthy enough or able to walk long distances get rides in a doggy stroller. Sometimes Herrick will take a resident out kayaking with her or on a bicycle ride strapped into a doggy backpack.
In addition to the 19 dogs, Herrick also has a fish pond, three rescue pigeons, and a rescue mouse whom she met while eating dinner outside with friends last year.
“My friend walked away to have a cigarette and there was a little white mouse outside the restaurant. She’s freaking out and I go and grab it because I’m weird,” Herrick said. “It came home in my purse so now I have a mouse, Churro, because we went to a Peruvian restaurant and had churros.”
Just like at retirement homes for humans, sometimes love blossoms at Happy Tails. Chihuahuas Feliz, 16, and Machu Pichu, 14, have bonded so much that last year Herrick decided to hold a wedding for them, with the bride in a stunning white gown and her groom in a tiny tuxedo. They sealed the deal with a photo shoot and doggy cake.
“Everything was so awful with COVID I wanted to do something sweet,” Herrick said. “There’s love at all ages and theirs is never ending.”
While Herrick does accommodate forever fosters for some residents, in which a dog is a placed in another home and she covers the food and vet costs, most of the residents at Happy Tails are permanent.
Resident deaths are not uncommon — six dogs have died since Herrick started the retirement home, four during last year alone. Each time a senior dog dies, Herrick adds their name to one of the feathers on a large set of rainbow angel wings her niece painted on the wooden fence in the backyard.
Each death is painful, but Herrick said she realizes her residents’ bodies are just vessels to carry around their pawfect souls.
“Once their body is broken, the kindest thing I can do is let them free from it,” she said. “It’s sad but I look at it as a kind and selfless act because, obviously, what I want is more time but that’s not the right thing for them.”
For more information on Happy Tails visit https://www.happytailsrescueretirementhome.com/.