By Judy Carmack Bross
Classic Chicago salutes the bravery of pets who have faced grave physical challenges often from abuse, their empathic owners, and Wild Hearts, a Chicago organization devoted to their comprehensive care.
Their mission is simple, their delivery mighty, and their touch tender for the four-legged creatures lucky to be in their care.
Brialy, Erin Kowalski’s first paralyzed pup.
It was Brialy, a terrier mix with paralyzed back legs and “much animation” that inspired Erin Kowalski to start the foundation and service business that serves pets with special needs, challenging health concerns, and often old age issues. Although she had fostered many dogs, it was this dog, whose abusive owner had caused the paralysis, which pointed her down the path and is her inspiration today.
Erin Kowalski and Brialy
“Wild Hearts Pet Care provides a continuum of care to pets with mobility impairments through a full roster of services including pet visits and overnight care, therapeutic modalities including veterinary rehabilitation and small mammal massage therapy, pre and post-operative care for orthopedic and neurologic conditions, educational consultations and demonstrations. Profits from these services are donated to Wild Hearts NFP, a nonprofit providing financial assistance, equipment, supplies, and resources to the rescue and pet-owning community. Wild Hearts, once called the Brialy Wellness Foundation, was founded in her honor.
“I knew that Brialy relied on me, and I relied on her. We needed each other. At that time I was unsure about my next career step. When Brialy passed I wanted to start a service to help other pets and rescue organizations improve quality of life. I felt Brialy had taught me how to give back,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski works out with Atticus, a pit bull mix, a previous foster pup. He was born with a congenital disorder affecting his ability to use his back legs. He is sponsored by Wild Hearts NFP.
Ten years ago when Brialy came into her life Kowalski researched how these pets were cared for and decided there had to be a better way. She has continued to adopt and foster animals with mobility issues as well as share the knowledge she has acquired with owners. Dogs, cats, rabbits, and even a ferret once have come into her tender and informed care. “Rabbits really enjoy human touch, once you have gotten their trust,” Kowalski commented.
“I have discovered that animals are very attuned to life. For example, if they want a drink of water they go and get it, not putting it off the way humans often do when they think they are too busy. Do they know when the end of their lives is approaching? Perhaps, since they do experience their bodies so well. I have had the honor sometimes of being there to give a final massage before a pet passes.”
Here are two of her dogs and what she told us about them.
“Josh, American Staffordshire Terrier mix, is my current pup. He had a spinal injury resulting in hind-limb paralysis and incontinence, requiring a complexity of care. He is living proof that dogs don’t feel sorry for themselves, they just keep going.”
“PokyMan, an English Bulldog mix, is my current foster pup. He was born with a congenital condition affecting his front limbs and causing him to walk on his antebrachium. An assistive device was custom 3d printed to help improve mobility. He is sponsored by Wild Hearts NFP.”
In addition to her work with the foundation, Kowalski herself provides a continuum of care for animals needing specialized care. She often uses massage therapy,
–something she recommends for owners.
“It is a way to communicate that I know what the animal are going through and I wait until trust is there. I want them to see that there is a safe space around me. Once they are accepting, they will come to me. It is a way to communicate care and to let them know that you understand what they are going through at that moment. And the pet lets you know if it wants an hour and a half of massage, or just something brief, deep tissue or superficial touch.”
Kowalski told us about a Catahoula leopard dog, age five at the time, who was totally afraid of touch possibly due to abuse before she was adopted.
“She just couldn’t stand having anyone in her space. She could tolerate being with her owners but if anyone else came she would get up and move. It took at least six to eight visits for her to build trust in me and allow me to sit beside her and pet her. She became a very accepting part of the family and seemed to no longer be uncomfortable. It is often about treats and trust.”
“One of the things I do is to validate a pet owner’s feelings and let them know that they are not alone. It is ok to feel overwhelmed, sad, and mad when your pet is ill. It is all so new to us.”
A family whose beloved dog recently experienced a rapid-onset neurological disease-related that Kowalski immediately established trust with both pet and owner, that the constant touch, kind words for all concerned, and skilled care made all the difference in their dog’s last days. “I don’t think she ever stopped massaging him when she was there and it was just what he needed. Her expertise and rapport with people and pets made all the difference,” a family member said.
Wild Hearts is all about a team approach. “Your vet, Wild Hearts, a friend who maybe had a similar experience can all be part of your team. I set goals for each animal based on capabilities. I keep a journal to track each goal and see if anything has changed.”
We asked Kowalski how many clients she had at any given time. The answer was an example of her dedication: “As many as I can fit into a 24-hour day.”
For further information on Wild Hearts–how to contact, donate, volunteer, and learn more–go to: gowildhearts.org