Gabbie Kalra of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, sits with dogs in the “lounge” of Marty’s Place Senior Dog Sanctuary in Upper Freehold Township. Retired from a career in business, Kalra has been volunteering her time at the sanctuary since its opening in 2016. Lois Rogers photo

Gabbie Kalra of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, sits with dogs in the “lounge” of Marty’s Place Senior Dog Sanctuary in Upper Freehold Township. Retired from a career in business, Kalra has been volunteering her time at the sanctuary since its opening in 2016. Lois Rogers photo



By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

The Internet is full of stories about gratifying relationships between senior citizens and older animals, and as someone who specializes in geriatric and integrative medicine for pets, Dr. Laurel C. Himes reads a lot of them.

Himes, who opened Beach Animal Hospital in Point Pleasant Beach in 1995, said such articles are simply examples of how that companionship can benefit both species, bringing comfort to all – be they two- or four-legged.

Multiple studies have been done, she said, that indicate pets can have an impact on longevity. Citing instances from her own experiences, Himes said the “unconditional acceptance” between seniors and pets helps reduce depression and stress in humans and animals, increase social interaction and physical activity, lower blood pressure and even boost mental acuity.

“I am totally on board with it,” said Himes, who noted that one of her own dogs became a regular visitor at a local senior center once a week. The visits were so beneficial, she said, that after a year, the senior center brought in a dog to live at the residence.

Spend some quality time at sanctuaries around the Diocese where elderly dogs and aging cats receive regular attention from senior volunteers, and it’s impossible to determine who benefits most.

Must Love Dogs

A recent sunny Sunday afternoon found volunteer Gabbie Kalra in a “lounge” at Marty’s Place Senior Dog Sanctuary in Upper Freehold Township, snuggling with Cocoa, Cosmo and Callie.

Retired from a career in business, Kalra of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, has been volunteering with canine organizations for many years. While working for Goldman Sachs in Princeton, she spent many a lunch hour as a volunteer dog-walker in town. She was also a member of the crew that got the sanctuary ready for its opening in 2016.

Kalra’s love for animals began in childhood. “Growing up in Ireland, there were always dogs and cats in the house, and they offered an unconditional love that is hard to beat,” she said.

Looking around the lounge where other volunteers were also companioning dogs, she expressed joy in the welcome she receives every time she enters the sanctuary.

“You just want to show them love and affection,” she said. “Some are not as fortunate as others. Some have been through very rough times. They don’t have a voice for themselves, and it’s important to advocate for them. Since the doors opened, it’s been a priceless experience.”

Situated on 25 acres of rolling, rural land, the 800-square-foot facility has living and lounging quarters for up to 28 senior dogs. There are exercise paths and trails and a dog swim center for the four-legged residents that could benefit from time in the water. There is also a non-resident swim program for dogs.

Among the volunteers’ responsibilities, depending on their own abilities, is light housekeeping, dog walking and feeding, and reading to the senior canines.

Angelina Ruggiero, also a St. Gregory the Great parishioner, runs the nonprofit’s swim program and extols the contributions of the seniors who volunteer at the sanctuary.

“So many people as seniors want to offer kindness. They want to feel needed. And when they retire, they are looking for something to do,” Ruggiero said.

“These dogs look for the volunteers to come in; they know who they are. They are family,” she added.

Helpful Fur Sure

At Calling All Cats Rescues farm in Jackson, more than 25 volunteers, including many seniors, contribute their compassion and assistance to felines that are, for one reason or another, mostly unadoptable.

Sara Cameron, founder and president of the Toms River-based nonprofit organization, speaks highly of the retired helpers who turn up regularly at the 10-acre farm. The organization depends on the help of volunteers, and seniors are a mainstay of this effort, she said.

“They like to come, and it’s been a good thing,” she said, adding that in return, the animals offer affection and impart a sense of well-being to the seniors who are able to contribute in a meaningful way.

About 40 cats live in an enclosure, Cameron said, and about 80 that are feral are able to roam within the confines of the property. The felines include 74 from a colony in Seaside Heights that once called the space under the boardwalk home. Relocated to the farm when the municipality moved to end its trap-neuter-release program, most have adapted well, she said, noting that efforts are made to seek homes for cats that are sociable.

Volunteer Kim Williams – a retiree who recently moved to Manchester from Garwood, where she was a member of St. Ann Parish – speaks highly of the time she devotes to the rescue farm. Since moving to the area in 2016, she visits the farm two days a week for four hours each day. 

Enchanted with the cats she has met there, including a character named Mufasa, Williams said she appreciates the fact that this once-distant and feral cat “now sits and lets you rub his belly.”

“It’s moments like that you can’t quantify. They make you think about grace,” she said. “There is a beauty and harmony in it because animals are one of the ways we encounter a higher direction. I always felt that if you can help another kind of life, that is grace. That’s why all my cats have been rescues.”

Volunteering at the farm “is physical, I won’t kid you,” Williams said. “You lift cases of wet food, you tend to 12 feeding stations, you have to walk around and clean and scoop litter boxes.” It’s busy work, she said, “but for me, that’s part of the attraction.”