During Adopt-a-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week from September 19-25, we’ll be featuring stories we previously published about special dogs, like this story from May 2010.
Some people take to something like, as the cliché says, a fish to water. In some cases, that’s rescue work. There may not be any fish at the Fur Angels Animal Sanctuary in Illinois, but if one needed help founder Amber Kay would probably step in and find it a home.
Looking out for others has always been second nature for Kay, it seems. Growing up, she knew that one day she would open an animal rescue.
“But it seemed like a very far-fetched dream because of the money involved to get the property and the building to do so,” she says.
In the meantime, as an adult Kay worked as a child welfare caseworker and, now, at a therapeutic school for children with emotional and behavioral problems.
“I’ve always said it was interesting to work during the day with foster children and work with foster animals nights and weekends,” she says.
As Kay worked on her daytime career, she never gave up her dream of rescuing animals. Her concerns over raising funds for an actual brick-and-mortar shelter were alleviated after adopting a deaf American Pit Bull Terrier-Boxer mix and involving herself with deaf dog groups. Through them, she learned that many rescues utilized foster homes instead of housing animals at an actual shelter.
“After getting involved in the rescue network and helping deaf animals, I realized that I could open a rescue instead of a shelter, and this would enable me to start helping animals sooner than later,” she says. “What gave me the big push was when I got more involved in transporting deaf animals—and non-deaf animals—from kill shelters to safe rescues or fosters homes. I was getting fed up hearing about hundreds and hundreds of deaf animals being among the first to be put down because they were deaf and hearing the myths surrounding them, including them being highly unadoptable because they are not trainable. I knew this was not true.”
When Kay founded the no-kill Fur Angels Animal Sanctuary in 2004, she knew that she wanted to specialize in deaf animals and to change the public’s perception about them. There was good reason for her determination.
“The reason the primary focus of Fur Angels is with deaf animals is because I am deaf myself,” says Kay. “I became deaf at the age of 3 and suffered further hearing loss at 12. I have always worn hearing aids and four years ago, I underwent a cochlear implant. My parents are profoundly deaf and my younger sister also has a severe hearing loss.”
Her deafness has never gotten in her way. Although she grew up in a deaf community, Kay attended public school and involved herself in sports, clubs and was elected class president in her junior year of high school. Still, she sympathizes with the misconceptions deaf dogs face.
“It was very offensive to me to hear that people think deaf animals are not trainable, that they are of lower intelligence, and many other myths surrounding them because I compared that to the misconceptions that people have toward deaf people,” she said. “Deaf animals were often put down without being given a chance. I decided I was going to change that, and do my part in helping them as much as I could.”
Kay and the foster parents who volunteer for Fur Animals work with their deaf charges to teach them sign language. Dogs who cannot literally hear use their eyes to “hear” what is going on around them, Kay says. When the dogs realize people are trying to communicate with them, they’re receptive. And because all dogs are pack animals, they’re eager to please and be family members. Training a deaf dog is like training any other dog, Kay says, but with subtle adjustments for more effective learning.
“You cannot use verbal commands, but hand signals,” says Kay. “You use treats or praise to show they’ve done something correctly. They are more attuned to your body language. In fact, for all deaf and non-deaf dogs 90 percent of communication is non-verbal anyway.”
Dogs learn hand signals for such commands as sit, eat, potty, no, come and others.
“People really rely on being verbal rather than use other means of communication that are non-verbal. It’s just a communication barrier to be able to communicate with a deaf pet just like with a deaf person if you did not know any sign language,” she says. “It does not impact the quality of life. It does not impact your intelligence. It does not impact what you can or cannot do. You’re still a whole being, except you cannot hear.”
“We’re committed to [the dogs] for the rest of their lives so our adopters know that they can contact us any time for assistance or questions they need with our adopted foster pets,” says Kay. “It could be the next day, next week, next month, next year or even a couple of years later. We’re always there for them.”
Their dedication has paid off. An adoptive family has never returned a dog because of its deafness. It helps, too, that animals get such individual care and attention in their foster homes.
“I think this benefits them the best because we take them in, treat them as part of our family, work on housebreaking issues and work on any issues they may have,” she says. Some pets that come to Fur Angels have only minor things to work on, like puppies learning to potty outside.
Others, though, require more work, such as dogs that were abused and need to learn trust again, have medical conditions or lived in puppy mills.
“[Foster homes] enable us to get to know them very well, their personalities, what they like, what they don’t like, what they get along with, such as other dogs and what kind: females or males, small dogs, big dogs, what they seem to bond with more. Do they get along with cats or are not safe to be in a home with cats or small animals?”
Their close relationships with the dogs also help match them to the right pet parents, further ensuring successful adoptions and lasting forever homes.
While deaf dogs are a focus of Fur Angels, they are not the only animals the organization rescues. They have rescued all sorts of animals, including cats, some of whom have also been deaf. “I do encounter more deaf dogs than deaf cats,” Kay says. “It seems that more people think deaf dogs are more difficult than deaf cats, or any other pets. We’ve helped deaf cats, we’ve had a couple of deaf ferrets, and even a deaf rat.”
Oftentimes, when shelters have deaf animals they contact Kay when they discover she has experience with hearing-impaired pets. Such a move can save a life, but Kay struggles to find room for all the animals that need a safe place while waiting for a forever home.
“I get contacted from all over the country, from Florida to California, to help rescue a deaf pet they have in their shelter,” she says. “I try to help as much as I can but, unfortunately, I also face the same problem many rescues face: lack of space to pull and put them in foster homes. It always depends on whether we have an opening to put them in a foster home.”
Consequently, Fur Angels is always on the lookout for additional foster parents, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to work with deaf animals. Although Fur Angels focuses a lot of attention on deaf animals, Kay has also rescued many other dogs from death row. She has a soft spot for puppy mill dogs, for instance, and makes an effort to save as many as possible.
“I enjoy the challenges that go with rehabilitating puppy mill dogs and it’s a beautiful thing to see the changes as they grow to trust you, grow to learn what it’s like to be a dog again, and become a beautiful smiling, happy dog when they finally learn what life is really about.”
She continues to focus on deaf animals, which, sadly, remain in foster care longer than their hearing counterparts. There is still a lot of education that needs to happen when it comes to the deaf. In addition to teaching people how to communicate with animals that cannot hear, she points out that there are varying degrees of hearing loss. Some dogs cannot hear anything at all, while others are partially deaf and can hear some sounds.
“People are still shy of the myths surrounding deaf dogs and think it would be extremely difficult to have a deaf pet,” she says. “But yet, we do find adopters for our deaf animals. Sometimes deaf people will adopt a deaf pet because, ‘They’re deaf like me.’ And sometimes we’d find people who work with deaf people and are not fazed by deafness and will be willing to adopt a deaf pet. We also have adopters who have no experience with deafness and have never been around a deaf person or a deaf pet, but are willing to learn and work with them.”
Kay and her volunteers work tirelessly to save as many animals as they possibly can. Running a rescue has its challenges. Try as they might, they cannot save every animal; Kay and her volunteers work at fulltime jobs and rescuing pets can be time consuming. And, like all rescues, there is always a need for more foster homes and financial support.
But Kay remains determined to help animals and pay them back for the unconditional love and friendship they gave her as a child. It is a debt, she says, that she will happily pay for the rest of her life.
“Being deaf, I grew up a very lonely child and dealt with a lot of discrimination that a deaf person can endure until I was lucky to have formed wonderful friendships with people who accepted me for who I am,” she says. “I really blossomed as a deaf person but I never forgot the lonely childhood because it was during that time when my family pets were my best friends. I’ve always felt a closeness with all animals because they give you unconditional love and they don’t care if you are disabled or not, they don’t care about what clothes you wear, they don’t care about any of those superficial things. They care about you as a person.”
Fur Angels Animal Sanctuary needs the community’s help to continue rescuing animals. They’re in need of funds, foster parents, extra help at adoption events, home visitors and volunteers to assist in transporting animals to foster homes and to veterinary appointments. The rescue is based in Illinios and in part of Indiana.
In the meantime, Kay will work diligently to save as many animals as she can because, as she says, “Every animal deserves a chance.”
To see Fur Angels’ adoptable dogs, click here.
If you would like to volunteer for Fur Angels, apply here.
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Amber Kay, Fur Angels Animal Sanctuary
Have you ever opened your heart to a deaf dog? Tell us about your experience in the Comments section below.