Butch Ireland  /  AP
Baby, a 10-year old Catahoula herding dog, relaxes in the living room at the Stevenson Companion-Life Care Center on Sept. 29. The Center, run by a top veterinary school, provides a comfortable, spacious home for pets once their owners die.
updated 10/1/2004 11:53:55 AM ET 2004-10-01T15:53:55

Fifteen cats, 11 dogs, a pony and a llama live here, but this is no shelter, kennel or hobby farm.

The 8,300-square-foot ranch on the sprawling campus of Texas A&M University is an orphanage of sorts, a place for pets whose owners have died. Its caretaker, one of the country’s top veterinary medicine schools, runs the place like a home, just what the pets’ owners wanted.

Its success has been so great in its 11-year history — primarily from word-of-mouth by veterinarians — that the university on Friday will dedicate a 3,500-square-foot expansion financed by $600,000 in contributions.

So far, 94 owners from 18 states have made arrangements for 250 animals to live at the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center after they’re gone. Among them is Elise Lee Wear, a retired University of Wisconsin nursing professor who has enrolled her two dogs.

“It’s very hard to say to a friend or somebody: ’Will you take my dog?”’ Wear said. “My dogs are extraordinarily important to me, and I want to be sure they are really well taken care of, both medically and psychologically.”

Each owner pays an endowment that begins at $10,000 and varies based on his or her age and the pet’s size. It can be paid up front or as a bequest through a will or trust. The total amount collected to date is $4 million.

Keeping them happy
The center is 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.

Butch Ireland  /  AP
Registered veterinary technician Janet Broadhead is surrounded by dogs as she prepares to let them outside to play.
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 and its 11 acres.

Retired veterinarian Henry Presnal and his staff have duplicated a comfortable modern household — a living room with couch and TV, a formal dining room that doubles as a conference room and a spacious backyard. 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 get along 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 their own barn and pasture area.

“I like to keep them happy, interacting with the others,” said Janet Broadhead, a registered veterinary technician who’s 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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