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Pets find home at A&M facility after owners die

By MICHAEL GRACZYK

Associated Press

Eagle photo/Butch Ireland

Baby, a 10-year old Catahoula, lounges Wednesday in the spacious new living room at the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at Texas A&M University.

Eagle photo/Butch Ireland

Registered veterinary technician Janet Broadhead is surrounded by dogs as she prepares to let them outside to play.

The term “Animal House” on a college campus brings to mind the famous John Belushi movie about a rowdy frat house. At Texas A&M University, it really means a house for animals.

The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center provides a comfortable, spacious home for pets once their owners die. Owners arrange in advance, and the pets are guaranteed care at the 8,300-square-foot center, operated by one of the country’s top veterinary medicine schools.

“It’s very hard to say to a friend or somebody: ‘Will you take my dog?’” said Elise Lee Wear, a retired University of Wisconsin nursing professor who enrolled her two dogs in the program. “My dogs are extraordinarily important to me, and I want to be sure they are really well taken care of, both medically and psychologically.”

Ninety-four pet owners from 18 states have paid more than $4 million to leave 250 animals under the care of retired veterinarian Henry Presnal and his staff.

Each person pays an endowment that begins at $10,000 and varies based on the age of the pet owner and the size of the animal. It can be paid up front or as a bequest through a will or trust.

The 11-year-old center, which has grown primarily through word-of-mouth by veterinarians, has been so successful that Texas A&M will dedicate Friday a 3,500-square-foot expansion financed by $600,000 from nearly 100 contributors.

Fifteen cats, 11 dogs, a pony and a llama currently have the run of the home, named for Madlin Stevenson, an early supporter of the project. Her family name is half of Houston-based Stewart & Stevenson, a billion-dollar, century-old corporation that grew from carriage repairs and horseshoes in the early 1900s to diesel engines and diesel-powered equipment for the automotive, defense and oilfield industries.

Stevenson, from La Porte, near Houston, died in 2000 just short of her 96th birthday, and her four cats, seven dogs, a pony and llama came to live at the home.

The one-story ranch-style house sits on 11 acres on the west side of Texas A&M’s sprawling campus, within sight of Kyle Field and about a mile from the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

This is no kennel. It certainly doesn’t smell like one. The staff and A&M students religiously keep the home and the animals clean.

They’ve duplicated a comfortable modern household — a living room with couch and TV, a formal dining room that doubles as a conference room for the center staff and a spacious back yard for the animals to come and go at leisure. The pets are free to roam until about 11 p.m., when they’re tucked away for the night in their “bedrooms,” individual aluminum enclosures that include a pillow.

Like children, cats and dogs that can’t get along are separated, as are pets that are sick. Cats and dogs that can coexist lounge on the floor, climb on furniture, listen to music playing softly throughout the house, snuggle in corners or against carpeted posts, or scoot through pet doors to wander outside. The pony and llama have a barn and pasture area separate from the house.

“I like to keep them happy, interacting with the others,” said Janet Broadhead, a registered veterinary technician who has worked at the center for about four years. “It’s a challenge. They have different personalities, come from different households. Some of them had never seen another dog.”

There’s also a room designed as an aviary, although the lone parrot is one of 21 animals that have died since the center opened. Their names — Black Jack, Mr. Jones, Bubba Kitty and Bubba Dog, among others — are inscribed on a plaque just outside a memorial garden where their ashes are distributed.

“This is not an elitist program,” Presnal said. “Most of the people who have animals here are not wealthy people. It’s just that this is where they choose to spend their money.”

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