Vici Menzel’s backyard is one hopping dog sanctuary. Sookie, an Olde English bulldogge, is next to me panting and periodically licking my knee. While pitbull Starry is chilling in the shade, Bugs, a deaf French bulldog, is trying to get into some mischief just inside the screen door. From experience, he’s learned that if he can lift himself onto a chair, he can hop up on the kitchen table, which from his vantage point is a doggy playground chock full of all kinds of delectable things to chew on, especially Vici’s eyeglasses.
It’s a beautiful Saturday evening at the end of May with temperatures still thankfully mild. In Vici’s backyard, we’re sitting under a free-standing awning lined with hanging plants and wind chimes sounding their soft music as a gentle breeze wafts through them. To my side, a little Chihuahua tries its hardest to look ferocious, growling and yapping at everything around. I later learn that would be Digby, who’s had head trauma, is missing one eye, and probably because of those afflictions is a bit on the ill-tempered side. Bless his heart.
This motley crew is Vici Menzel’s foster dogs. Mainly they come from two sources, Apollo Support & Rescue or from the organization she manages, PHAST (Project Homeless: Apollo Street Team), which provides food and care for homeless people’s dogs. Some of her dogs will be adopted, mostly by older people, while others she’ll hospice until their last days.
I ask her how did she ever end up running a hospice for elderly dogs? Vici explains that after she retired, she started out doing rescue for pitbulls, but an older Corgi-mix named Angel changed her plans.
“She just grabbed me,” Vici explained. “After her, I started thinking I’d start my own rescue. I got a name and everything. And just do older dogs, and, finally, it dawned on me that they don’t need more rescues but fosters. I’ve always been more attracted to the older dogs because people just dump them at the shelter just to leave them to die.”
Then Vici describes how Angel was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, but that wasn’t all. The dog ate a stick that perforated her bowels, which caused her to need major surgery. “So Angel stayed with me,” Vici says, “and it was considered hospice because of her heart” and her other conditions.
“Then I got another one,” Vici says. “His name was Andy. He was a miniature poodle that somebody found in their garage. And nobody would claim him, so he came to stay with me. And then I get the dogs” from “old people when they go into nursing homes and the families don’t want” the dogs anymore “because they’re old. Then several of them ended up in hospice because they get cancer, congestive heart failure, or diabetes.”
While we talk, Vici plays with and carries on multiple conversations with her four-legged charges. I shake my head in full realization that I don’t have anywhere near the energy level needed to take care of a handful of mostly aging canines, some with special needs, plus have the grit to be beside them when they’re taking their final breaths. So already in awe at Vici’s patience and stamina, I ask her how she got interested in helping dogs.
She explains that while she grew up as a military brat –– living all over the United States, plus Japan –– her family always had dogs. In fact, not just dogs. She had a regular menagerie: rats, mice, rabbits, and, once, even possums. And though she is a confirmed dog lover, she says, “I like cats, too, but I got bit a few years ago and ended up in the hospital for almost a week, so I’m kinda gun-shy. Also, I have a food chain right now. … Bulldogs have real strong prey drive, and, yeah, Bugs is cute, but …”
She smiles and shrugs her shoulders, letting me imagine the rest.
During her working days as a medical lab tech, Vici always found time to volunteer with the Humane Society or foster. After her job was off-shored, she went back to school and received a vet tech degree, but she found the job itself disappointing. “I decided I would just devote what I had learned to work with a rescue.”
On a personal level, “I like to foster the older dogs, like her,” she says, pointing at Sookie, still busy licking my knee, her eyes swollen because her eyelids rub against her eyes. She’s “11 and was dumped at the shelter by the people who adopted her when she was a baby because she was too old and all she did was sleep. I’ll show you how she plays ball. She does more than sleep.”
Vici shakes her head at all the specious reasons people give when they abandon their dogs. When she was volunteering at the Lancaster Animal Shelter, she met a woman who brought in “a Japanese chin, and they’re not cheap dogs. And cute as all get-out … because she found the perfect dog. And, evidently, this one was no longer perfect, so me being the mean person that I am … I told her husband, ‘I hope she doesn’t trade you in for another model, huh?’ And after that, I could no longer talk to the public.”
As one of her neighbors in Riverside, I recognize this is pure Vici Menzel –– honest to a fault and hilarious, but with a heart as big as her backyard. Then we’re interrupted by Bugs, the special-needs deaf bulldog, in the kitchen butting his head against a propped-up chair, trying to knock it back on the floor, so he can hop on it to engage in some doggy mayhem. After Vici goes into her kitchen to investigate, she pointedly says, “And these puppies and adolescent dogs, I don’t like quite so much” because they’re so much trouble.
When Vici settles back in her chair, I ask her which of the foster dogs she’s had has affected her the most. “With happiness,” she says, “was when Layla was adopted. She’s a Maltese. She’s 12 years old, and an 82-year-old adopted her. And they sent me pictures of them on the couch watching TV, and they’re both smiling. And Noel broke my heart.”
Vici recounts how instead of bringing her to Apollo, Noel’s owner called and told Vici that a stray dog was under a bridge. After someone picked up the dog, Vici spent hours dematting her and discovered to her horror that more was wrong with the dog than neglect.
“She had two broken legs,” Vici says, her voice breaking. “She couldn’t even stand up. Her eyes had holes in them because she had dry eye, and he didn’t put the drops in them. He forgot he had her chipped. It was the same guy. It was the owner” who had called.
“And he had cruelty charges pressed against him, but that’s the only dog owner I’ve been able to get cruelty charges pressed against. It’s impossible. Animal Control just sucks. Once a judge finds out that they surrender the animal, the judge won’t do anything. ‘Well, they finally did good,’ the judge says, or, ‘but people were doing the best they could.’ … That cocker spaniel was named Noel. She was a pretty little cocker spaniel.”
Later, Vici tells me, Noel had to be euthanized, all because of her owner’s criminal neglect.
In caring for homeless people’s dogs, Vici and occasionally a volunteer haul 50 to 100 pounds of donated dog food out to the homeless every Monday.
“I go up and down Riverside [Drive] and Beach [Street] to find the [homeless]. They’re usually along the river wherever there are woods, so they can hide in there. While we’re giving them food, we look at their dogs and ask them if they need their vaccines, and if they do, we provide them.
“I’ve met some really neat people that are homeless,” Vici continues. “I don’t know their stories. I don’t ask them, and they don’t volunteer. It’s not about that. It’s about helping them to keep their dogs healthy. We provide the shots, and there for a while I was getting several of them fixed, but I got stood up too many times. Then the [COVID-19] thing happened and put that to a halt.
“Most of the homeless take great care of their dogs,” Vici explains, “because that’s the only thing they have. They don’t have family anymore. People ignore them. They don’t want to pay attention to them because they’re homeless and they’re dirty. But they love their dogs. I’m not saying that when they’re doing drugs they’re not mean to their dogs because sometimes they are, but for the most part, they treat their dogs better than themselves.
“One of the things,” she adds, “that we’ve been able to do is help [homeless] people to take their dogs to the vet. And they get to go with” their dogs “when they euthanize them, so that they can say goodbye. … Just the thought of them having to take them to Fort Worth [Animal Care & Adoption Center] or the Humane Society and just leave their dogs there and not be there when they die makes my heart stop for the dogs and for the people. And I think that’s one of the coolest things that Apollo has been able to help me do for” the homeless.
After asking Vici to tell me about some of the homeless she’s encountered, without hesitation, she talks about one particular woman, Sabrina.
“She will go around and browbeat everyone on the days we’re going to have the vet out there,” Vici says, “so they will bring their dogs to get their rabies vaccination. I will give her extra food, so that if somebody runs out, she has that extra food to give to them … but Sabrina also takes care of everybody, medically and physically, too, because I know of several people that she’s walked with to [John] Peter Smith [Hospital] to make sure they went in and had things done. There’s this one guy who had burnt his arm … but she finally about whipped him to death to get him to go to the hospital. He ended up being admitted for about a week. It was gangrenes.”
Sabrina, Vici explains, is “like the matriarch. … She’s good at taking care of her people. Now I want you to know there are not many men who will do that. Mostly, it’s women.”
But Vici does cite one example of a homeless man who she thought was outstanding. He “went around to make sure the women felt safe and weren’t worried about something, but I think he was a vet,” and he is now no longer homeless. “One of the things I’d like to do is get pepper spray and hand it out to all the women because” if you’re homeless, “it’s guaranteed you’re going to get beat up and raped once.”
“Now I have had a few women and a couple of guys ask if I can find a place for their dogs to go” while they go “into treatment. … We’ll keep their dogs for them while they take the 30-day treatment to get clean, but that’s $365 apiece.”
Vici puts together online fundraisers usually through Facebook in response. However, “I just can’t get much money going now.”
While some fundraisers are devoted to vaccines or dewormer, emergency medical needs are the most pressing concern.
Vici’s donors are incredibly generous, she says. She points at Digby, the little neuro-dog that during our conversation has been unrelentingly yapping away. “He has head trauma. He will bite you if you look at him the wrong way. He’s just grumpy. He got poked in the eye, and I had to have his eye removed. I then just posted it for prayers, and everybody called it in. It was paid for.”
I ask her what motivates her to do so much.
Her answer is simple. “I am a doer. I’m a helper. Everybody has the things they do for people when they love them. You know the five love languages, and mine’s a doer. I like to do, and I just like animals. But I like doing for people, too. At my church, there are a couple of older ladies, not now, but before all this [pandemic] started, I’d go over to their houses a couple of afternoons and help them. I just like to help. And I think,” she says, for a moment turning philosophical, “as you go through life, and you’ve done your career, and your family’s grown, it’s time to give back. When you’re young, you’re kind of a taker, but when you’re older, you see there’s all this stuff that needs a little help.”
Having seen people burn out from doing animal rescue, I ask Vici what she does to decompress. Without hesitation, she says she spends time “in nature.” Her brother and son own property out in the country. Also, she says, she normally hikes with some friends on Tuesdays because, as she explains, “for some reason, it rains every Monday.”
Then she excitedly asks me, “Have you been out to Tandy Hills lately?”
After I answer no, she tells me they’ve redone some of the trails. “It gets my heart rate up.”
Then I ask her the question every dog owner has to ponder at some point: When is the right time to euthanize your ailing dog?
“I make that decision when it’s time,” Vici says.
She mentions an article she read that says you needed to keep a diary for two weeks, and if there are more bad days than good, it is time.
“That made a lot of sense to me,” Vici adds, “but I’ll have to tell you, it doesn’t matter when I make the decision. It’s never right. I should have given them another day, or it was too soon, or I waited too long. It’s never been right.”
Then she remembers one instance when the time was right. “I had Pepe. He was a papillon and older. He went into renal failure, and I had him put down. I didn’t regret that at all … but when it comes to another living being, you just never make the right decision, very rarely.”
What else is there to talk about?
What I do is “lifesaving,” Vici answers, “and fulfilling. And it’s not just dogs’ lives. It’s hundreds of persons’ lives. You hear stories a lot,” from people who’ve adopted these older dogs saying, “ ‘It gave me a reason to get up in the morning.’ ”