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Caring Hearts animal adoption kicks off

Marie Nitke/FOCUS Nancy Stokes, left, and Jackie Buchta take time to play with a few cats that Nancy is fostering.1 / 2
Marie Nitke/FOCUS Jackie Buchta gives 'Big Boy' a big hug.2 / 2

There's a new group in the area dedicated to caring for animals and finding them loving, permanent homes.

The Caring Hearts Pet Goods Pantry provides foster homes for all sorts of animals, from kittens to dogs, horses to lizards - even llamas won't get turned away (one is currently being fostered now). But the group's end goal is to find a good family for every creature it takes in.

Caring Hearts is an unincorporated association newly created by five local women: Nancy Stokes and Bernice Niemela of Perham, Judy Gunderson and Jackie Buchta of the Frazee area, and Judy Shackleford, a summer resident who is currently living in Deephaven, Minn.

The group plans to hold a Pet Goods Pantry event on the last Saturday of every month, from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. at All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Perham. The Pantry will be an opportunity for community members to share their surplus pet foods and supplies with each other and with Caring Hearts.

The idea of the monthly Pantry is two-fold: to generate donations for Caring Hearts, and to provide animal owners in need with the food, vet care and supplies required to properly care for their animals.

It's all about ensuring every animal in the area is cared for humanely - something that, unfortunately, isn't always happening right now.

In an interview with Stokes, Gunderson and Buchta, the women described some of the dark things they've seen in their volunteer work. The horror stories range from finding boxes of sick and abandoned kittens to kids shooting firecrackers off in a dog's mouth.

Stokes said she's heard of newborn kittens being used as live bait for musky fishing, and has known people to drill holes into the shells of live turtles. Gunderson, who 'specializes' in fostering farm animals, has taken in horses that people have left alone to starve. And Buchta, who fosters a lot of puppies and dogs, has had many owners tell her that the animals would have been put down, or shot, had she not taken them in.

Every new example of animal neglect, abuse and cruelty, they say, only gives them renewed energy to keep doing what they do.

"There are times when we're so tired and so overwhelmed with grief and compassion, that we're willing to do this, because nobody else will," said Stokes, with tears in her eyes. "I think it's a drive. I'm driven."

Added Buchta: "It's a passion."

Thanks to the work of Caring Hearts, there are happy endings for many of these horror stories. For all of the cruelty the women have seen, they've also witnessed, time and time again, the joy and affection in people's eyes as they take their newly adopted pets home.

It also warms their hearts to know that, "the animals are going to a better place," said Stokes.

The three women met while working and volunteering at Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center in Detroit Lakes. They decided to go their own way a couple of years ago, and have been fostering animals ever since. When they decided to make a formal group out of it, Niemela and Schackleford came on board.

It keeps them plenty busy. At any given time, they're each fostering anywhere from a few to more than a dozen animals (with especially high numbers of cats). There's a constant 'revolving door' of animals - they're found, fostered and then adopted out to good homes, as quickly as possible. Then there are supplies to pick up, and animals to be delivered to their new homes - sometimes as far away as Fargo, ND.

Caring Hearts finds the animals in various ways - through inquiries to ads and bulletin board flyers, from local vets, and through word of mouth. Sometimes, the animals are dropped off at their doorsteps.

The group also works with area humane societies and a group out of Pelican Rapids called Friends of the Feral Cat. One of the reasons Caring Hearts is so needed in the Perham area, the women said, is due to the lack of animal shelters nearby.

Often, the animals Caring Hearts takes in are sick and/or need to be spayed or neutered. The women see to it that the animals are well taken care of - and they usually pay for it out of their own pockets.

"We have very, very understanding and very good husbands, to put up with us," laughed Buchta.

Once an animal is in good health, Caring Hearts seeks out permanent homes through word of mouth and the internet. Those looking to adopt must pass a full application and questioning process. A $50 free will donation is requested, but not required, from anyone who is approved and takes home an animal.

The group is looking for committed volunteers to foster animals, transport animals and haul supplies. They're also accepting donations - of money, pet food and supplies. There's a specific need right now for something that could be used to store food, such as an old garden shed, fish house or covered trailer.

"We want to let people know that there's a huge problem out there," said Stokes. "And the community needs to come together to stop it from getting worse."

To get involved or make a donation, call 218-346-4883 or email