When Lauren Schwerdfeger, 25, arrives home from class each evening, she can always count on a jubilant welcome. “Nothing brightens your day like a couple dozen wet-nosed animals running to greet you,” says Lauren, a fourth-year veterinary student at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
Lauren lives with three other vet-student residents at the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, a one-of-a-kind college-affiliated retirement home for pets of all shapes and sizes whose owners either have died or are no longer able to care for them. In lieu of paying rent, the students live with the animals, many of whom are in their golden years; some suffer from ailments like diabetes and arthritis and other medical conditions.
Staff members help feed and manage medications for the 19 dogs and 17 cats on weekdays, while the students handle evening, weekend and holiday shifts. “We’re able to apply what we learn in the classroom to a real-world environment,” says Lauren. “Plus, it’s cool to invite my friends over to my apartment to meet my 36 pets.”
Opened in 1993, the now 11,000-sq.-ft. privately funded center sits on two acres on the Texas A&M campus and can accommodate 100 dogs, cats and birds at a time. People who want to enroll their pets in the program can pay in advance or earmark money in their wills to cover care. Nearly 600 pets, including six miniature donkeys and two rabbits, are on the endowment list and will eventually call the Stevenson Center home if they outlive their owners.
“The average enrollees are pet owners who love their pets but don’t have anyone to care for them or feel like this is a better option,” says Henry “Sonny” Presnal, DVM, director of the center.
Currently, a mix of unique personalities populates the center. Angie, an 11-year-old “greeter cat,” is known to come running whenever the doorbell rings, and Happy, a 16-year-old Chihuahua, is “arm candy”: Weighing only five pounds, she insists on being carried most of the day. Local celebrity Reveille VIII, Texas A&M’s retired mascot, is also spending her sunset years there.
“The center can be a lot of work for us humans,” says Lauren, “but every animal who lives here becomes part of the family. We love and care for them as we would our own pets, and cry for them when their time comes.”