Wendy Derhak has the most reliable alarm system on her block—a canine chorus that treats any new visitor with the urgency of a four-alarm fire. Seven dogs, spanning a spectrum of sizes and breeds and personalities, live on her property in Jupiter, all with hearty voices, and all with hard-luck backstories who are today living happy, transformed lives.
Elvis, a 4-year-old shepherd mix, was, in Derhak’s words, a “nutter” when she adopted him from a high-kill shelter in Louisiana. She tamed his aggression, and now he’s a “total lovebug” who brightens the days of local seniors and schoolchildren.
A Teddy Roosevelt Terrier named 2-2 came to Derhak after an inquiry from the West Palm Beach Police Department. The dog was living with a homeless man who could no longer care for him. When she first encountered 2-2, Derhak recalls, “he was half this weight, and wasn’t neutered, and he had fleas, and he smelled horrible.” These days, he’s a model pooch.
Derhak has stories like these about all of the animals in her nonprofit, the Pet Cottage, which she started in 2012 after the death of a friend, a senior woman who had owned two beloved 17-year-old cats. Derhak adopted the felines; in the process, she recognized the need for a nonprofit that re-homed pets after the deaths of their owners. She has since expanded the Pet Cottage’s mission to find new homes for pets whose owners suffer from a disability or have been deployed in the military.
Derhak sees herself as a matchmaker who works diligently to link these pets with the guardians—often single or widowed seniors in need of companionship—that will provide their new forever homes. “No one does exactly what we do,” she says. “We check on them regularly. We go to the vet with them. We take them to the groomers, bring them food. The person’s getting checked on the same as the pet, so it’s a win-win-win.”
Derhak, who runs the operation out of her Jupiter home with the help of volunteers and a board, is currently responsible for 29 dogs and cats in 16 homes. Sometimes, because Derhak’s vetting process is so rigorous, it can take six months to rehome a pet.
Derhak has always been a caretaker. She earned her degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of New Hampshire, where she ran a childcare center and, later, started a fitness center for seniors. “I worked with young children, then with senior people, then with pets,” she says. “The one thing they have in common: You need to have a lot of patience.”
Derhak has ambitious plans for its future, should an angel investor arise—namely a 3-acre sanctuary complete with residences, guest house, groomer, veterinary technician, play areas and memorial garden, which could be established, she says, with $500,000.
Derhak herself is used to sacrificing much—like vacations—for the greater good of her beloved animals. “This is a lifestyle,” she says. “You live and breathe this. It’s 24/7.
“I really feel like it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like everything I’ve done has led me to this. And I truly love it. It’s so rewarding.”
To learn more, visit https://www.thepetcottage.org/