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Angels at the gate
More than 150 animals call this one-of-a-kind residential hospice in Fort Salonga, New York, home. Dogs, cats, squirrels, parrots, ducks and opossums are among the creatures that share the 2,500-foot ranch house that Marino owns with her husband, Victor La Bruna.
"Here, both humans and animals must respect the others’ space. Everybody commingles," Marino says.
A paddock on one side of the 1-1/3-acre property houses ponies, pigeons, chickens and a swan. The tennis court serves as a dog run, and the heated in-ground pool is used for canine hydrotherapy. Marino sometimes spends five hours a day in the 92-degree water, doing gentle isometric movements, Tellington Touch (TTouch) and massage with more than 20 dogs.
The animals come from shelters or from animal-rescue groups. Abandoned by their owners, dying or too ill for reasonable medical care, more than 90 percent were to be euthanized.
The staff at Angel’s Gate consists of one paid employee, Marino, La Bruna, their 14-year-old daughter and a handful of volunteers who feed, exercise, nurse and nurture the animals in their final days.
Elizabeth Kirkland, D.C., has volunteered her services to Angel’s Gate once a week for almost two years. "A lot of people think of a hospice as sad, with all of the animals [being] terminally ill, but it isn’t," she says. "Even though I’m giving them care, I feel that I’m receiving almost as much as them."
Marino, a 50-year-old mother of eight, left a career in nursing three years ago to devote herself to the hospice. "I feel I have been chosen to do this," she says.
That faith has kept her going despite the odds. She and her husband have depleted their savings paying for the animals’ food, vitamins and veterinary bills, and now rely almost solely on donations. (There is no charge for the hospice care.)
Last year, it cost "well over $100,000" to keep Angel’s Gate running.
"Do we struggle? You betcha," Marino says. "But my commitment is to making this work. My only job when I get up is to make this a special place and make this place comfortable until the animals’ last breath."
Animals at Angel’s Gate suffer from a range of maladies, including cancer, paralysis, colitis, neurological disorders, kidney problems and AIDS. There are blind cats, ponies with calcified ankles and dogs that can’t walk.
A raw-food diet based on steroid-free turkey meat, nutritional supplements, Chinese herbs, homeopathic remedies and aromatherapy takes the place of canned pet food, steroid shots and traditional medications.
Kirkland does chiropractic adjustments on the animals once a week, and acupuncture treatments are administered by a veterinarian who works at a discounted rate.
Marino is also trained in animal communication, which she believes helps her to understand what each animal needs.
She admits that her holistic approach to animal care is controversial. "Either vets love us or they hate us," she says. But she firmly believes in the innate power of the body to heal, given the proper support.
She mentions examples like Humphrey, a Shih Tzu that came to Angel’s Gate eight years ago. Paralyzed after his owner accidentally stepped on him, he was considered a lost cause. Surgery to replace cracked cervical discs was followed by hydrotherapy and acupuncture, among other things. Today Humphrey, the longest-staying "guest" at Angel’s Gate, is able to walk and run short distances.
"We always get a year-and-a-half prognosis, and a year-and-a-half later they are still running around here," Marino says.
"If I can give an animal an extra month, an extra year, it does become a blessing. If the body is no longer serving the spirit, being there when that separation occurs is beautiful," she adds.
Three years ago, Angel’s Gate opened its doors to animals that needed rehabilitation, including native wildlife.
Most rehab animals are referred by animal-rescue groups, or by owners who can’t afford the cost or the physical commitment to rehabilitate their animals themselves. These animals live among the others and undergo their own routine of physical therapy.
"How many other people would give up their life for this? There are no holidays, no vacations, no sleeping in," Marino reflects. "But when you put your shoes on in the morning, you have to love where you’re going."