Erin Miller starts her evenings at home with a “Good evening, ladies and gentleman” greeting to her four rabbits.
The Evansville resident and development communications coordinator for Easterseals Rehabilitation Center has owned rabbits for more than 20 years. Her first bunny was a family pet named Peanut, an extra-large reddish-brown male, who Miller bonded with immediately when she was in elementary school.
“He was such a happy part of my life that I’ve continued to welcome pet rabbits into my life ever since,” she says.
Her current furry family consists of Tobey, a male black and white Dutch; Michiko, a female grey and white Dutch and Netherland Dwarf mix; Bonnie, a female white Blanc de Hotot; and Thelma, a female brown French Lop. Each has their own personality, much like dogs and cats act differently from one another she explains, and discovering those traits is one of the most rewarding aspects of owning rabbits.
“I think a lot of people see rabbits as shy because they have innate prey characteristics,” says Miller. “It takes time to build trust with a rabbit but the reward is an adorable furry friend with a great personality.”
Miller’s rabbit family all are adopted, and she is a huge “Adopt Don’t Shop” advocate, recommending those who are looking for a bunny of their own to check out local shelters — locally, the Vanderburgh Humane Society and animal control have adoptable rabbits. After the Easter holiday, shelters will see an influx of rabbits, Miller adds.
“A lot of people assume they can let a pet rabbit ‘go free’ and put them outside. That’s not true at all,” she says. “Domestic rabbits have lost a lot of their survival skills, so it’s always better to contact VHS or animal control about rehoming.”
Miller says what makes her rabbits so special for her is just being a part of their lives. With each being a rescue, she says there is an extra special bond she shares with them.
“It sounds simple, but maybe that’s another reason why it’s so special? It doesn’t feel like I picked them; it feels like they chose me,” she says. “Each one of their personalities shows me a different side of my own, and I get so much joy from that experience.”
Fixing the Pet Crisis
In January, the Vanderburgh Humane Society released its statistics for 2018, citing many impressive achievements. Last year, 2,903 animals were sheltered at the VHS and 2,111 were adopted. The most notable figure, however, was that for the first time in the VHS’ history, no animals were euthanized due to lack of space.
The shelter did have to euthanize 282 animals last year — 163 for aggression, lack of socialization, or behavior problems and 119 for severe health issues compromising quality of life — and 21 animals died of natural causes, either from unforeseen medical issues or old age. However, last year was the first time in its 62 years the VHS didn’t have to euthanize a healthy, adoptable animal because there wasn’t space for it.
“No animal shelter or rescue wants to have to euthanize healthy, adoptable animals,” says Amanda Coburn, development coordinator for the VHS. “Reaching this point is every agency’s dream. Last year still was difficult and sometimes very emotionally draining for our staff, figuring out where we were going to put all these incoming animals and how we would care for them.”
Most of the credit for the milestone goes to the shelter’s Davidson-Rausch Low-Cost Spay and Neuter Clinic that opened in 2007 and is available to anyone regardless of income or where they live. In 2008, the first full year after the clinic opened, the VHS had to euthanize 1,804 animals. Since then, the euthanasia rates have steadily decreased down to last year’s number of 282, an 85 percent decrease since the clinic opened.
The VHS stresses that spaying and neutering pets is the only permanent solution to pet overpopulation. For decades, many owners got pets through neighbors and never had them fixed. When those pets had a litter, they would give them away to more neighbors.
“That is how we got into this predicament in the first place,” says Coburn. “It’s imperative people get their pets fixed. It’s better for the animal’s long-term health, for the owner’s sanity, and helps relieve the burden on our national shelter system. We cannot adopt our way out of this crisis.”
One picture of two furry puppies curled together and the deal was done — Christine and Jim Keck decided to adopt the brother and sister pair into their home.
Shared with the couple by their friend John Pickens, who is a fellow realtor with Jim, the two rescue puppies were being fostered by a client of Pickens for PAAWS No-Kill Animal Rescue. Seeing the photo prompted the Kecks to visit the young dogs.
“We go in and they were all bundled with each other. They were just little babies curled up and loving each other,” says Christine, the managing director of federal government affairs for CenterPoint Energy, which recently acquired Vectren. “That just started the journey.”
The Kecks brought the puppies — Sister and Boss — home Feb. 17, 2018, joining their 14-year-old Australian Shepard mix Brother Bear. Affectionately called Brother, the older dog is the couple’s first, which Jim gifted to Christine for their 15th wedding anniversary to start their furry family. Brother also was a rescue, given to Jim by a client at just 12 weeks old. A few years later, the Keck family would grow again with the addition of a border collie mix, Miss Indiana (Indy for short), in 2008. Indy passed away in February 2017, a loss that deeply affected Jim and Christine.
“She was a very beautiful dog,” says Jim. “We adopted her from an older family — she was just too rambunctious for them.”
Though the loss of Indy was difficult, the Kecks knew they still wished to be a family with a few dogs, which promoted them to begin thinking of adding a new dog in 2018.
“For us, it’s always been very serendipitous how these dogs come into our lives,” says Christine.
Two brand-new puppies brought a lot of changes into the Keck household. The first year was tough with the rambunctious pair, but obedience classes and bonding helped the couple work toward acclimating Sister and Boss to other dogs and people (they credit the crews at All Breed Grooming, Boarding, and Daycare and Evansville Obedience Club for their help). Christine and Jim are quick to tell humorous stories about the siblings — from bringing uprooted plants into the house to fighting over a rock from the backyard. Sister is inquisitive and much more bossy than her brother. Boss may not live up to his name (Christine calls him a “love bunny”), but he is very possessive and loves attention.
The two young pups’ presence also gives Brother Bear a “spark in his step,” says Christine. They may wear him out a bit, but Brother is quick to get out and join in on the fun. While the family enjoys walks through the Historic Riverside District in Downtown Evansville, near their home, the best play times are when the Kecks head to the park, where Sister and Boss can run free off leash, chasing each other and tennis balls, and wrestle about in the grass.
“They are crazily bonded with us and to each other, more so than anything,” adds Jim. “They just add a bunch of joy into the house.”
One enjoyable part of their furry family is watching the puppies grow and find their place in the “pack” and the world around them.
“Every day throughout the day, there are new discoveries for them,” says Christine. “It’s just a constant learning environment.”
Brian Buxton and Missy Mosby take different approaches, but they have the same objective
— to speak for abused and neglected animals and to support organizations that share their passion.
Both Buxton and Mosby are busy enough without being animal welfare advocates. Buxton is a food writer and entrepreneur with multiple businesses. Mosby is an Evansville City Council member and realtor.
Yet, Buxton is never too busy to promote a fundraiser on social media or to drive to the Rescue Bank in Louisville, Kentucky, for donated pet food that will end up at area shelters and animal rescues. Mosby is more “hands on.” She can’t turn away an animal in need of a “furever” home. Mosby has fostered 90 dogs, two kittens, and one cat in the past four years; she has adopted 12 dogs (three boxers and nine Yorkies), plus four birds — two cockatiels and two parakeets.
“It is very time consuming, but for me, it’s heartwarming,” says Mosby. “With so many bad things happening, this warms my heart and makes me think there is some good in the world.”
For Buxton, it’s a matter of repaying the companionship of animals he’s enjoyed throughout his life.
“I want to be one of those people who makes a difference, who makes up for all the mistreatment and abuse that some animals receive,” he says.
Mosby and Buxton are dog people at heart, and both are partial to Yorkies. Buxton’s Yorkie, Brando, is nearly 14 years old and accompanies him nearly everywhere. It was a Yorkie named Buddy who inspired Mosby to start her own rescue/adoption program in November 2018 called Buddy’s Promise — Furever Home.
Mosby says when her beloved Yorkie died in 2014, she resolved to honor his memory by rescuing dogs and raising awareness of animal rights issues. Working with local shelters and rescue groups, Mosby posts a weekly video on Buddy’s Facebook page and regularly appears on WEHT-TV’s noontime pet segment.
A passion for animals also influences Mosby’s work as an elected official. She pushed to establish a database of convicted animal abusers that can be accessed through the Evansville Police Department website. She also supported efforts this legislative session by state representatives Ryan Hatfield and Wendy McNamara to enhance state penalties for animal cruelty.
Both Mosby and Buxton are quick to praise their fellow advocates who give of themselves for the sole benefit of animals who have been mistreated by humans.
“Animals are not like people,” says Buxton. “People can get up and leave a situation. A dog can’t unchain himself.”
At Your Service
Dr. Darbi Haynes-Lawrence stands in front of a first-grade class at Newburgh Elementary. By her side stands a dog, named Jaeger, which she asks the kids to ignore.
“He is not a unicorn shooting rainbows out his nose,” she jokes, getting lots of giggles from the students.
Haynes-Lawrence is visiting the class to teach service dog safety and disability awareness, a role she never imagined for herself when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008. In the summer of 2015, Haynes-Lawrence had a relapse during a vacation in Florida. A few months later, it was solidified she couldn’t walk without assistance and was in a wheelchair.
Three years ago the director of child studies for Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, discovered the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN), which helps pair people with disabilities to service dogs. The process was intensive and lengthy, requiring written essays from Haynes-Lawrence, letters of recommendation, and an hours-long interview with her family members. She tested with eight different dogs and matched perfectly with Jaeger.
Jaeger is a mobility service dog and keeps Haynes-Lawrence upright while walking and helps with tasks like laundry, shopping, picking items up off the floor, and even passing papers and pencils out to students.
“I do what’s called a proprioceptor response for my brain,” she says. “If I tap (on the harness he wears), my balance stays better. If I start to fall, I hold on to his harness, he feels it, and he’ll counter pull forward and to the left because I fall backward to the right.”
When the Newburgh, Indiana, resident began going out with Jaeger, instead of allowing the dog to focus on Haynes-Lawrence and his job, some adults would fall to their knees and bear hug him. She has been cursed at for asking people to refrain from petting Jaeger, and one time she says a woman even pushed her over.
This sparked the idea to design a program for elementary school kids to teach them how to behave around a service dog. There are three basic principles — don’t touch the service dog, don’t talk to the service dog, and, if you have questions, ask the handler directly and politely.
“The idea is our dogs provide a service that without which we would be harmed,” says Haynes-Lawrence. “He helps me to keep my job, be mobile, and live my life.”
Heart of Gold
It’s hard not to be attracted to Hoover when he enters a room.
At almost 3 years old, the wired-haired pointing Griffin with amber eyes and a curly coat is very much a teddy bear in nature and a little in looks as well.
Hoover and his owner Ray Hubbard live in Princeton, Indiana, and once a week the two make the trip to Evansville to help those in need. For the past year and a half, Hoover has been licensed as a therapy dog and is a member of Pet Partners of the Tri-State.
“Each therapy animal is different and has their own personality,” says Ray. “Hoover wants to be with people. You might say he’s a leaner or a lap dog.”
Ray and Hoover work with Deaconess every Tuesday, visiting the Linda White Hospice Center and VNA Home Care and Hospice — the two are a part of a group that includes other therapy animals and their handlers (Ray speaks fondly of Kris Meckert, Gloria Brennan, and Cindy Goodwin). They also make visits to the Arc of Evansville and Access Academy in Newburgh, Indiana, every other week. During finals week, the pair have special visits to the campuses of the University of Southern Indiana and Ivy Tech.
“The reason I have a therapy dog is because I can bring a little comfort, joy, or happiness to people with Hoover,” says Ray. “I enjoy the simple reward of bringing a little joy to people.”
Hoover was trained through classes at Doggie Do Right in Fort Branch, Indiana, completing five different courses at the school. Though the pup learned all his good manners from the classes, Ray is quick to point out his personality is a big reason why Hoover makes such a great therapy dog and companion.
“You can’t do all of it in the training. This is nature,” he says. “This is Hoover, it’s just how he is.”
Free As a Bird
If you’ve been to Haynie’s Corner during First Fridays or other community events, you’ve probably seen Ronald Sisk and his scarlet macaw Barron.
Sisk found Barron four years ago, and the two have become inseparable ever since. While Sisk is a native of Evansville, the two migrate south to St. Petersburg, Florida, during winter.
“We just got back from the laundromat, and I take her down to the fishing pier,” says Sisk. “She likes going. She does not like to be left behind.”
Barron also loves dancing, especially to blues. Sisk says she wakes up every day and listens to blues music and, when she is really feeling it, is known to sing. She also has an extensive vocabulary that includes phrases like “I love you,” “pretty bird,” “hello,” and “come here.”
There are many people who would love to care for 22-year-old Barron (macaws can live up to 75 years in captivity) says Sisk, but he eventually will pass her on to someone in his family. Over the past few years, he says the best part about Barron is having the company.
“I’ve not needed for somebody to complain to, brag about, or talk to,” says Sisk.
Lovers Not Fighters
Crystal Kelsoe’s home is full of personalities. And though most of her pets are various snakes, none of them have slimy attitudes.
There’s Lucy, a 19-year-old Colombian red-tail boa who doesn’t know any boundaries. Kanani, also a Colombian red-tail boa who is just 3 years old and albino, is a snuggler. Albino corn snake Phoenix is Kelsoe’s wiggle-worm who tries to get everywhere. Oliver, a 17-year-old ball python nicknamed Ollie, is like a sack of potatoes, she says, and doesn’t do much. There also is 9-year-old Debo, a Hog Island boa who is a bit goofy and a “class clown.”
“They are all lovers,” says the 31-year-old board member of the Tri-State Herpetological Society. “Some of them are a little more snuggly than others.”
Along with her five snakes, Kelsoe also is the owner of three crested geckos, one leopard gecko, and Pink Toe and Mexican Red Knee tarantulas. All of her reptiles have come through the rescue efforts of the herpetological group, while the tarantulas she purchased from a breeder to help her overcome her own fear of spiders (education is key in overcoming fear, she says).
A lover of all animals, Kelsoe says animal advocate Steve Irwin (who passed away in 2006) inspires her in her care for her snakes and work with the herpetological society.
“He made me a hardcore reptile lover. He definitely made you pause and reconsider the animals most people define as unlovable,” she says. “His passion for education and enthusiasm and love for the animal kingdom is beyond that of anyone I’ve ever seen.”
One of the biggest misconceptions Kelsoe faces from others is the myth all snakes and reptiles are mean or violent. In reality, snakes are just like cats and dogs, she says — socialization with humans is key.
“You can’t just leave your animal in a tank and not ever mess with it,” she explains. “If a snake is aggressive, most of the time it can be fixed with handling — most can be rehabilitated that way.”
For Kelsoe, she not only enjoys being able to foster and nurture her snakes and reptiles, but she also feels blessed to be able to share with others the true nature of her snakes.
“They are sweet, they are loving, they are just another animal that needs attention, love, and care,” she says.
As part of the herpetological society, Kelsoe and others attend many local events to educate the public. They also help reptiles that have been surrendered due to an owner’s inability to care or health reasons. Board members can help new owners find a reptile that fits their lifestyle as well and set up the husbandry needed to care for a snake or other animal. The group always is looking for new volunteers, and Kelsoe encourages anyone who is curious about reptiles and helping to reach out to the group to join.
“Reptiles are awesome and a great alternative for those who don’t have time for cats or dogs. They are not slimy and gross. They are cool little guys, and they are just great pets to have,” she says.
Happily Ever After
Archer was lonely. Owner Shelley Chase adopted the almost 2-year-old tabby cat at a shelter in Indianapolis in January 2018 before moving to Evansville to take a position teaching third grade at Hebron Elementary School. With her long work hours, she decided it would be good for Archer to have a friend.
Chase decided to look at cats at the Vanderburgh Humane Society and noticed a gray, 1-year-old cat, called Grayson, following her back and forth behind the glass. When she got Grayson out, he cuddled right up onto her lap.
“He was just timid enough where I didn’t feel like we would have a turf war between him and Archer,” says Chase. “Archer is afraid of everything, so I wanted to find another cat with a similar personality, and Grayson matches him almost perfectly.”
Chase adopted Grayson in early February and began the integration process with Archer. The two cats were kept separated for a couple of days. When Grayson and Archer met for the first time, Archer let out a small distressed whine. Chase separated them for another day, and on the second attempt the two became friends instantly.
Grayson’s shy nature works well to bring timid Archer out of his shell, but shelter life didn’t mix as well with Grayson’s personality. Though he was adopted out of the Vanderburgh Humane Society, Grayson also spent time at River Kitty Cat Cafe. The café exclusively partners with the VHS to bring adoptable kitties into its cat room. A hidden stairway allows the cats to move between the cat room and the private basement area, where their food and litter boxes stay. Grayson’s shyness not only kept him in the basement but also prevented him from being seen by potential adopters. The decision was made to take him back to the VHS, where Chase met him.
“Oftentimes animals with issues get overlooked or abandoned,” says River Kitty Cat Cafe co-owner Annette Gries. “Allowing them that second or third chance at finding a new family is very rewarding. After all, we all deserve second and third chances. This is what River Kitty Cat Cafe and the VHS is all about.”
By adopting Grayson, Chase gave him a safe space and also gave Archer a new friend to bring out his personality. In the shelter, Grayson looked a little dull and had issues with shedding due to stress. Now, he has a gleaming gray coat.
“Grayson has come so far since we first got him,” says Chase. “Archer has made a lot of progress, too, since we brought Grayson in. Bringing Grayson in really opened Archer up. He’s just less lonely; he’s less afraid of things.”