Chili the Chihuahua, curled on her padded dog bed in front of her home’s fireplace, does not stir when two visitors enter. Chili’s age is a best-guess 16. She is partially deaf and blind, with severe respiratory and thyroid problems. She must be carried down stairs several times a day to go outside.
Yet, in the twilight of her life, Chili — 5 pounds, 8 ounces of furry defiance — is living large thanks to Old Dog Haven, a Lake Stevens-based small nonprofit with a growing national reputation. Featured in a Today Show segment in December that prompted a coo-fest from Hoda and Kathie Lee, Old Dog Haven manages a large network of “forever” foster homes in western Washington for dogs age 8 and older who are sick, dying or abandoned. Founded in 2004, ODH also finds temporary foster homes for later adoption, but 90 percent of ODH dogs are “final refuge” or hospice pets. Their goal is to keep as many old dogs as possible from living out their final days in a shelter, ownerless.
Fostering a dog who won’t be around for long takes a person with a special combination of compassion and pragmatism. Bellingham’s Lorraine Barnes is one. Heartbroken two years ago after her own two dogs, Charlie, 8, and Jack, 6, disappeared in the woods pursuing a deer, she couldn’t bear to raise dogs again. So she cares for them instead — Chili needs regular medications, gets shampooed twice monthly for a skin condition and has to use an inhaler fitted with a special, expensive tube to work on her tiny mouth. Sometimes she wears a green diaper.
“I just have a live-for-the-day philosophy with her,” said Barnes, a retired flight attendant who has had Chili for nearly two years, longer than most. ODH dogs “haven’t had a great life. That’s the reward — to give them the life they never had, that they missed.”
As of late May, ODH had 310 dogs in its care, all but two in forever foster homes. It pays for dogs’ veterinary care and medications and provides a support network. Host families pay for food and other expenses. Generous donors and fundraisers help with costs, which average a staggering $80,000 monthly. They are always looking for forever foster homes, said Judith Piper, who founded ODH with her husband Lee.
“She can’t hear. She has an eye condition,” Barnes said of Chili, whose eyes remain soulful. “All are very expensive services and Old Dog Haven just steps up. They’re not extravagant, but they’re responsible.”
These days, Chili moves cautiously, sharing a home with slightly larger Calvin, whom Barnes adopted in August, and Chai, a rescue dog. Chili likes to be where the action is, says Barnes, even if she has to be carried there. Her fur is smooth. Most nights, Chili sleeps in Barnes’ bed, a cozy coda to a troubled life. She has earned her place by the fire, and in Barnes’ heart, for the rest of her days.
“What I see in her is the understanding that I’m here,” said Barnes, “and I’m going to take care of her.”