Hope at The Haven

Lubbock's animal Haven rescues, rehabilitates and re-homes pets in need

By Natalie Underwood
Photos by David Vaughn

Hope at The Haven

When Joe and Brenda Wilbanks started building their house in 1977, they encountered the usual surprises that come with any construction project, as well as one very unexpected surprise: a small white dog that took up residence exactly where the front porch eventually would stand. The Wilbanks did not know at that time that the furry Lhasa Apso mix they eventually named Snootie was the start of their future. "She knew we were coming," Dr. Brenda Wilbanks said with a smile. "I suppose I should've seen it as a sign of things to come." Wilbanks continued rescuing stray and injured animals, and the Haven Animal Care Shelter was born.

Dog at a shelter The Wilbanks never planned to start a shelter, they just wanted to give a good home to as many animals in need as they could handle. But as people discovered what they were doing, more and more animals were brought in. As the number of animals grew, the Wilbanks began to add on buildings to house the animals. The facility slowly grew over the years until, in 1990, the Haven finally had the resources to officially begin adopting out pets.

The shelter is always full because as soon as an animal is adopted out, another animal is rescued. The Wilbanks screen all the animals before taking them and limits the intake. In the past there was no limit, but the owners had more animals than they could care for so it became necessary to establish a maximum capacity.

Most of the animals are abandoned and brought to the shelter by caring residents and Haven staff. Recently, someone brought in four puppies that were left to die in a ditch. All four puppies were sick with parvovirus, a highly contagious, deadly virus that attacks the digestive system. The puppies are now healthy and available for adoption, but a situation such as this puts a financial burden on the shelter. "When you have a situation like that, you might spend $1,000 on a dog and adopt it out for $75," Wilbanks said. "We're just glad the puppies are OK, though, and I know they'll all find good homes soon."

The Haven also takes animals under special circumstances, such as when an owner dies or becomes severely ill. The shelter does not, however, take regular owner release animals because Wilbanks does not condone owner release. "Our philosophy is, if you take one, you keep it for life; yours or the animal's," Wilbanks said. "We don't promote that at all, and I feel really strongly about that. If you adopt an animal or it comes to you, you take care of it forever. If you move, it moves with you." Instead, Wilbanks encourages the owner to find a way to either keep the animal or find it a good home.

Lubbock Animal Services, on the other hand, is an open-door shelter that takes all animals, regardless of the circumstances. The city shelter houses more than 30,000 animals each year, and 50 percent of those animals are brought in by their owners. Because of the large number of animals needing care, the shelter humanely euthanizes animals to make more room at the shelter. The Haven, however, is a no-kill shelter that is committed to caring for each animal until the animal is adopted out or its life ends naturally. Some animals have been at the Haven for 10 years or more.

Cat at a shelter Many families come to the Haven looking for a playful puppy or kitten, but Wilbanks encourages people to consider adopting an elderly animal also. She said elderly pets can make great companions and need a loving home just like younger ones, and her heart is always warmed when someone comes in and wants to give a good life to an older animal. A special program, Senior Critters for Senior Citizens, places older animals with senior citizens. The Haven will reduce or waive the adoption fee and will assist with food purchases and veterinary bills if needed. Wilbanks said many senior citizens are concerned with the welfare of their pet should they become unable to care for the animal, so the Haven guarantees that the senior pets always will have a home available at the shelter.

Another thing that differentiates the Haven from other shelters is that the Haven accepts special needs animals that are blind, deaf or have other major medical problems. Screening is thorough for all adoptions, but especially special needs adoptions because many of those animals have certain dietary and medical needs. Wilbanks personally looks at all the applications and chooses the best family for each animal. "So, if someone doesn't get that animal it doesn't mean they're not a good pet owner, they might just not have been the best owner for that animal. We try to educate ourselves about what the animals need, and after 30 years, we think we do pretty well," Wilbanks said with a smile.

Because of the large number of animals, and the financial burden of caring for the special needs cases, the Haven always welcomes donations. The shelter does not receive any government help and is mainly funded by Dr. Wilbanks' family counseling practice. Wilbanks said she works long hours during the week to provide for the Haven financially and give the animals the best care possible. Cash donations always are needed for veterinary bills, which are the largest expense by far, but supplies also are needed. Their wish-list includes items such as canned food for special needs animals, cleaning supplies, leashes and collars, litter boxes for the cats, toys, dog houses, and anything else a pet would need.

Volunteers at the Haven Because of the tight budget, the Haven would not survive without volunteers. Though Wilbanks does have a staff, it consists of only five members who are all part-time. Some court-appointed community service workers help on a regular basis, but the largest number of volunteers by far are Texas Tech University students. Three of the Haven's five staff members are Texas Tech students, and Wilbanks loves students because they are hard workers and truly care about the animals. "They are some of our most dependable volunteers and are willing to learn, and I know a lot of students can't have animals if they live in the dorm so this gives them an opportunity to come and interact with the animals," Wilbanks said.

Volunteers can do all kinds of jobs, including cleaning the pens, brushing and bathing the animals, and picking up food or transporting animals to the vet in a truck. Wilbanks is always looking for creative volunteers as well to help design flyers, make newsletters, organize fundraisers, make scrapbooks, and even do public relations work. The main thing volunteers do, though, is walk or play with the animals to help socialize them for adoption. The Haven even has a virtual adoption program that allows people to take dogs on an outing or to their house overnight.

Jennifer Tran is a regular volunteer at the Haven. Tran, a junior public relations major from Dallas, first heard about the Haven through Women's Service Organization. The group has organized service days for its members, and Tran volunteered at a PetSmart Adoption Day that the Haven participated in. Her love of animals and her respect for the Haven's mission encouraged her to return several times on her own to volunteer at the shelter itself, where she mainly walked and played with the dogs.

Tran said with so many animals, giving each one the one-on-one attention it needs is hard, which is where volunteers come in. She remembered one particular dog named Blackie that she walked one day. "As soon as I took him out on the leash, he started doing somersaults and flying in the air," Tran said with a grin. "They had just watered his pen so he got mud all over me, but I didn't mind. He was just so excited to get out and play that I couldn't help but smile and laugh."

Each time Tran volunteered, she spent at least two hours working with the dogs. Once, Tran recalled, she spent an hour sitting in the pen of one particularly skittish dog, giving him toys and trying to coax him into trusting her. "Some of those dogs have been through terrible things, and it takes a lot to get them to trust people again," Tran said. "I really liked the idea that I could go out there and potentially really help some of those dogs who are kind of skittish around people and make them more adoptable so they can find a loving home."

Tran has three dogs herself, and they are all shelter or rescue pets. She said she always would adopt from a shelter, never a breeder, because shelters are full of animals that need good, loving homes. Another benefit of a shelter dog is that they are cheaper. "My dog Brady was only $50 at a shelter, and I would pick him every single time over any other dog. He's the sweetest thing, and he has such a personality," Tran said. "People want expensive dogs from a breeder, but you can find pure breeds in some of the shelters that just want someone to love them."

Hannah, a dog at the shelter Wilbanks said Texas Tech students are some of her best adopters. Previously, shelters would not adopt to college students, but Wilbanks encourages the adoptions if the student is responsible and has a home that is animal-friendly.

One Haven success story is Jordan, a Pit Bull/Dalmation mix that was adopted by three loving Texas Tech students. Jordan was adopted when she was a puppy, but her elderly owner could not give Jordan the care she needed and brought her to the Haven. Leah Hurst was volunteering at the shelter with her service organization when she saw the playful, black-spotted puppy and fell in love instantly. Hurst told her sister, Shannon, and her boyfriend about the puppy, and the three roommates decided to adopt Jordan.

Shannon Hurst, a junior history and biochemistry major from Flowermound, Texas, said her sister and her sister's boyfriend had to sign the adoption papers because of the 21-year-old age requirement, but Jordan belongs to all three of them. Hurst and her sister always had larger dogs at home, and Jordan had a big-dog attitude even though she was medium-sized. Jordan was the perfect size for the yard at their duplex, and Hurst could not help but fall in love with the sweet puppy.

Hurst said Jordan was at the Haven for a few months before being adopted, and, as a result, gets very nervous when someone packs their suitcase or leaves for an extended period of time. Jordan knows and loves her new family, though, and quickly developed her own personality. On her first Thanksgiving, Jordan walked straight into the pool at Hurst's parents' house, not knowing there was water there. She would not go near the pool after that, so Hurst spent two days throwing tennis balls into the water to get Jordan to go in. Now, Hurst said, the dog launches herself into the pool every chance she gets to have a wrestling match with her rubber fish toy.

Most people know that dogs do not see as many colors as humans, but Hurst swears that Jordan loves the color pink. Jordan proudly wears a pink collar on her walks around the park and picks out all the pink toys to play with at home. When Hurst takes Jordan for a walk, Jordan stops to greet everyone, man or beast, with a lick and a lopsided smile and explores everything in her path. Hurst is grateful to the Haven for giving Jordan such good care and loving attention instead of putting her in a cage and stifling her love for life and boisterous personality.

Each animal that arrives to the Haven is given a name by the staff and introduced to Wilbanks. Each animal has its own personality and needs, and Wilbanks comes to think of the animals as her children.

Some animals are left chained to signs or dumped over the fence at the Haven. It breaks Wilbanks' heart to see such cruel acts inflicted on innocent animals, so she does what she can to help every animal given to her. Sometimes the animals have endured such unspeakable acts of abuse that they can never trust people again. In those cases, Wilbanks said, the animals simply stay at the Haven for the remainder of their lives while the staff does everything they can to rehabilitate them for adoption.

"We believe here in the dignity of all life, and we believe very strongly that God put animals here for us to take care of, so we're going to spend our resources and time doing that. And we need all the help we can get."
– Wilbanks

Other dogs have too great a disability to be adopted out, so they become Haven pets. Jenny, a friendly young Shepherd mix, is the mascot of the Haven. Jenny was found paralyzed under a trailer after she was shot in her spine, and eventually her back legs had to be amputated. Even after the trauma she was put through, Jenny is extremely friendly and loves to be around people. Recently, Haven volunteers built Jenny her own house complete with long windows and a side deck where she spends her days scooting around and greeting everyone who visits the property. For special events, such as Strutt for Mutts, a fundraising dog walk at Higginbotham Park, Jenny uses a special set of wheels designed by a local veterinarian to help her walk more efficiently.

Despite all the cruelty and sadness she sees, success stories like Jenny's and Jordan's are what keep Wilbanks going. What started with one couple, a snow-white puppy with amazing foresight, and two hearts full of compassion has evolved into a place where animals know they will be cared for and have their unconditional love returned. "We believe here in the dignity of all life," Wilbanks said, "and we believe very strongly that God put animals here for us to take care of, so we're going to spend our resources and time doing that. And we need all the help we can get."