ELK RAPIDS, Mich. -- It's a place in Elk Rapids that's giving animals a second chance at life, taking in senior dogs and finding them new homes. For some, it's about making them comfortable in the time they have left.
There are more than 900 senior dogs within 500 miles of Traverse City. Kim Skarritt, the founder and president of Silver Muzzle Cottage, says families abandoning their senior dogs is a problem that no one wants to talk about.
Once she saw the number of elderly canines ending up in shelters, she decided to start the rescue to let the dogs know they've been loved by someone before they pass on.
They move a little bit slower, their naps are a little bit longer, but their love remains the same.
"They're the sweetest, gentlest souls and they don't ask for anything," said Skarritt.
Skarritt started Silver Muzzle Cottage in 2015 and has rescued more than 100 dogs since then. On average, two dogs come in each week, but Silver Muzzle is different than other rescues.
"Our rescue takes very specifically dogs with three years or less to live based on their breed standards," said Skarritt.
The cottage provides a hospice-like atmosphere for some dogs. Here, the walls and cages come down and instead are replaced with an environment that feels like home.
"I wanted something a little more special for the dogs, so I personally rescue and adopt the dogs myself," said Skarritt. "When they come in here, they are my dogs. This is my home. I live here and I have a little room off to the back, so this is where we sleep. This is the dogs' home."
108 dogs have come to the cottage and 85 of them have found new homes. Some of the dogs have become permanent residents, while others needed to be put down.
"For me, it's a mission and I really stay focused on that mission," said Skarritt. "The mission is just to make sure that they leave this world knowing that they've been loved by somebody."
It's a part of the job Skarritt and volunteers alike say comes with the territory.
"It's not always sad," said volunteer Christine Varner. "It's sad for us to say goodbye, but it's such a gift to give those dogs and know that they're not suffering anymore."
Volunteer Christine Varner says she had an immediate connection with one dog.
"Her name was Penny," said Varner. "What drew us to her were her eyes. She had these beautiful golden eyes and they were very sad. There's just a connection that happens and for me it's with the eyes."
They said goodbye to Penny six weeks later, but Varner hasn't stopped fighting for senior dogs without a home.
"It's not about us," said Varner. "It's about the dogs."
It's giving the dogs a second chance at life, no matter how long it is.
"It could be two days," said Varner. "It could be two years. We don't know."
"I think the shortest we ever had a dog was two hours," said Skarritt. "They came in, they should've been euthanized before they came to us, but by the time we got them to the vet two hours after they arrived here they were in pretty horrific shape. The decision was just made that there was not even enough time for a ceremony for that dog. We needed to end their suffering. It was pretty bad."
Before a dog is put to sleep, there's a ceremony.
"We gather and surround the dog," said Skarritt. "We gather around the dog, the vet comes here and we surround the dog with love and positive energy. Animals work off of energy and we send them all the positive energy we can muster at the time. The tears are for our own loss, they're not for the dog. We just let them know that they are surrounded by love as they cross over."
"Their life matters," said Varner. "If they are going to pass, and they're all going to pass at some point, it shouldn't be in a shelter environment. It shouldn't be in concrete. It shouldn't be with a fence around them and it shouldn't be with people that don't care about them."
It's a cycle that's never-ending for Silver Muzzle Cottage: owners giving up their pets for whatever reason, for many it's because the dog is old or sick.
"Most oftentimes they are found as strays," said Skarritt. "People find it very difficult to own the act of dropping their senior dog at a shelter, so they set them free and somebody finds them and then they take them to the shelter."
Silver Muzzle Cottage started with one man dropping off his dog.
"He threatened to shoot the dog if we didn't take it, so we took it," said Skarritt. "That was our first rescue."
For some of the dogs it's hospice care, giving them comfort and security in their final moments.
"If you can't love your animal, if you can't care for your animal, I thank you," said Skarritt. "Thank you for letting somebody else have the opportunity to do it because the animal deserves that. Sometimes it's not about their journey, but their landing and where they're supposed to be when their time comes."
Until then, the animals enjoy their remaining years, also known as the golden ones.
"You get the best of the best," said Varner.
Soon, more animals will get to enjoy the 'best of the best.' Silver Muzzle is moving to a new location that'll be able to accommodate their growth.
"We are expanding and moving to a new location which is bigger," said Skarritt. "The list of dogs that are 12 and older needing homes is never-ending."
The new home sits on 15 acres of land, has a sanctuary and lots of space for much-needed naps. It also won't look like a typical shelter.
"We wanted it to be a home for everybody involved, dogs included," said Skarritt.
For whatever reason the dogs have been surrendered to Silver Muzzle Cottage, Skarritt and her crew do their best to make their time left the best it can be.
"This is a happy place, "said Varner. "How can you not smile with that? You love on them and you let them know that their life matters."
Currently, there are seven dogs at Silver Muzzle Cottage, less than usual because they want to move to their new location before taking in new dogs. Some of the dogs are permanent residents, but the others are all available for adoption. For every dog that comes in, they average about $320 in vet bills to start, which doesn't include ongoing medical costs. In addition to volunteers, they're always looking for financial support.
If you'd like to get involved with the mission of Silver Muzzle Cottage, visit their website.