LAURA POPLE, 48
Perth Amboy, N.J.
The German shepherd leaps, tail wagging, when she sees the little boy approach. "Bella, Bella!" shouts A.J. Chesney, 5, running to his dog. His father, Kevin, grins and ruffles the dog's fur. "Ready to have fun?" he asks. And for the next four hours, they do: running, playing catch and enjoying snacks together. Then, just as they did last weekend, A.J. and Kevin leave their family pet behind.
For the last year, 3-year-old Bella has lived at Seer Farms in Jackson, N.J., a nonprofit boarding facility that cares for pets while their owners deal with job loss, foreclosure, illness or other troubles. A divorce left Chesney, 43, financially drained. He now rooms with a coworker, who wasn't willing to take in a 55-lb. dog. "I didn't want to get rid of her. The kids are going through a lot," says Chesney, a police officer, who also has a daughter, Jade, 8.
Fortunately, through an animal-control officer, Chesney learned about Seer Farms, which provides a temporary refuge so beloved pets like Bella don't have to be put up for adoption-or end up on a dog pound's death row-because the family is going through a difficult time.
"We want to provide someplace safe for the animals," says Seer Farms founder Laura Pople, 48. Just as important, she says, "we want to provide hope for their owners that they will get through this crisis and someday get their animals back."
Unlike shelters or rescue agencies, which will sometimes send animals to volunteer foster homes until their owners can get them back, Seer is differentiated by its farm setting and open visitation policy. "I've never heard of anything like this," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program at the Humane Society of the U.S.
In 2008 Pople, a textbook editor who is also an avowed animal lover with two rescue dogs of her own, took out a second mortgage to buy Seer's 3-acre property in this semi-rural part of the state, and then held fund-raisers to fix up the grounds and farmhouses for the animals. (She suggests a monthly fee of $50 per animal, but accepts whatever owners can afford.) Her guests, she notes, "are coming out of families, and they're used to people being around." So a rotating staff of 75 is always on hand to walk dogs, change litter boxes and just play.
Since opening in 2009 Seer Farms has helped 77 families from up and down the East Coast, housing 166 cats, 55 dogs and a rabbit nicknamed Monty Python. Of those, 53 have been reunited with their owners.
Pople was surprised at the range of people she was helping. Among the farm's recent residents are pit bulls Tillman and Blackey, whose owner is a petty officer first class with the U.S. Navy. He called in desperation last year when living arrangements for the dogs fell through five days before his deployment to Afghanistan. There was a cat and four kittens that escaped a house fire and whose owners needed time to rebuild. And there are two dogs belonging to a woman who had been so badly beaten by her boyfriend that she had to be hospitalized. Anne Ciemnecki, the farm's president and a domestic-violence victims' advocate, says the woman refused to leave her abuser if her pets had to stay behind. Knowing about Seer Farms gave "a way for her to escape," says Ciemnecki.
As for Pople, she loves seeing the farm populated with contented animals and is more to them than just an innkeeper. Talking about one couple's cats, she effortlessly rattles off the names: "Shane, Pepper, Odie, Boo, Munchkin and Baby. You get attached because you care, but we're not the final stop for them," says Pople. "We want them to go home."
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