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Love Connections Strengthen Animal-To-Human Bonds

In 2015, Jessica Sempek was working at a hospital in Penfield, Ill. when her friend, a hospice nurse, noticed how anxious his patients were about the future of their pets. He told Sempek they were less concerned about their families than their pets.

Despite having never worked or volunteered with animals, Sempek took action and founded Hospice Hearts, an all-volunteer animal foster group in Central Illinois. The organization provides foster care to elderly cats and dogs whose owners can no longer take care of them due to nursing home admission, serious illness or death.

When Hospice Hearts is contacted about a pet in need, the animal undergoes a full veterinary examination to see if it's in condition to change environments — they won't force an animal into foster care if it can't adjust. Once a pet has medical clearance, Hospice Hearts works to find a suitable foster home. On average, their dogs are adopted within two weeks; cats can take upwards of six weeks or more to find a home.

"We want to focus on the older pets who wouldn't do well in the shelter environment," Sempek said.

Hospice Hearts showcases its fosters through marketing, social media and targeted outreach. They take their dogs and cats to movie theaters and the mall for staged events such as "Cinco de Meow," "March Meowness" and "Harry Pawter."

At the onset, Sempek was told Hospice Hearts wouldn't work because people generally don't care about older animals, but that hasn't been the case. Hospice Hearts has about 30 foster animals placed in homes at a time, with approximately 300 people on its foster home list service. In fact, there's been so much demand for her service, Sempek had to scale back her operation recently.

"If I wasn't doing this myself, I wouldn't believe how well it works," Sempek said.

In 2009, Diane McGill was working at an animal welfare organization in Portland, Ore. when she received an important phone call. A woman needed a group or organization to provide care for her ailing friend's pet. McGill assumed such an agency would be easy to find, but her search turned up empty. Just like Sempek, when McGill became aware of a need, she sprang into action.

She teamed up with a group of professionals, and together, they formed Pet Peace of Mind. The organization, now active in 42 states, assists local hospices in providing care for their patients’ pets. Pet Peace of Mind provides the training and program model to the healthcare organization, which then operates the services on their own. Pet care referrals are triggered by social workers in direct contact with patients. Their requests are sent to the hospice volunteer coordinator, who assigns it to a specially trained volunteer. The hospice is also responsible for re-homing the pet if the patient dies.

Pet Peace of Mind has a strategic partnership with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. NHPCO, the largest hospice organization in the country, keeps Pet Peace of Mind front and center with their members, which allows for a special co-marketing partnership.

All hospices partnered with Pet Peace of Mind provide care for cats and dogs. The individual hospices determine what additional types of animals it will take on. Birds, fish, reptiles and horses are some of the animals for which the program has provided care.

"The strangest pet we've cared for is a tarantula," McGill said. "The bond is the bond…we're here to help the patients as well as the animals."

Shanon "Z" Zeisloft, a lieutenant in the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department in Columbus, Ga., has been a Pet Peace of Mind volunteer for three years. Her work with animals began when the sheriff's department implemented a therapy dog program in their jail. Zeisloft agreed to come aboard as the dog's handler, and found a sweet, bear-of-a-dog named Beethoven (pictured left) at a local shelter. She worked with Beethoven as he became a therapy dog for inmates with mental health needs, and was so moved by the positive impact, Zeisloft decided to use him in the community. One of the first places she contacted was Columbus hospice, which is partnered with Pet Peace of Mind, and she instantly connected with the program.

"I'm the lucky one…to be involved in the Pet Peace of Mind project," Zeisloft said.

Eventually, Zeisloft started taking Beethoven to visit patients. After witnessing powerful animal-to-human connections, she began journaling her experiences. Zeisloft had never worked with animals prior to her partnership with Beethoven, and since then, has found an additional call of duty.

"My life has been completely changed by having Beethoven as a therapy dog and volunteering in our community," Zeisloft said. “I’m just in it for the ride. I will forever be a volunteer with Columbus Hospice because they are amazing.”

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