“I blame my mother,” says Danielle Mills Blake, laughing. “When I was a kid, we were never allowed dogs, because she was a neat freak. I’m making up for it now.”
She is indeed. Danielle runs Maine Coast Animal Rescue in Northport, saving injured and disabled animals from around the country and finding them new homes. It’s a family affair: Danielle’s husband, Justin, is a veterinarian with his own practice who also provides medical care to the animals she rescues; her 21-year-old daughter, Taylor, works with Justin as a veterinary assistant; and the couple’s three little daughters—fraternal twins Kennedy and Olivia, age 7, and Alexis, 4—all pitch in, bottle-feeding kittens, walking dogs, soothing animals in pain.
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The shelter Danielle runs is a few miles from the family’s home, which is perpetually filled with creatures at various stages of healing. Most come from areas of the country with many high-kill shelters, which means the Blakes are their last chance. It can be hard to find homes for permanently disabled or neurologically damaged animals, and Danielle has a soft heart, so the Blakes’ personal menagerie can get pretty big. At the moment, the family lives with four dogs, a cat, a bearded dragon, a corn snake, two turtles, and 15 fish.
Zeus, one of the dogs in the Blake home, has a history that tells a lot about Danielle. A border collie mix, Zeus was found on a rural road in Mississippi. He had been shot in the spine and left for dead, and he’d escaped into the woods, dragging his back legs behind him. Weeks later, two Good Samaritans found and rescued him, and one of Maine Coast Animal Rescue’s many Facebook followers paid to have him sent to Maine. By then, his paralyzed back legs had been worn down to the bone. At first the dog was terrified, but with a great deal of veterinary care and love, he’s now a fixture in the Blakes’ lives. “He loves everybody,” says Danielle. “I take him to visit elderly people who have in-home care, because he’s so sweet. We hope to get him certified to go into hospitals for kids with disabilities.” Danielle puts cloth diapers on Zeus every day. She even got him a doggie wheelchair. “He hates it,” she notes ruefully. “So we use harnesses [to hoist up his back legs], and he does wonderfully.”
Danielle has rescued several litters of puppies that were left by their mothers; she hand-feeds them from birth, making baby food from egg yolk and boiled calf’s liver. Among many other animals in need, she’s taken in elderly dogs abandoned by families who had decided they’d prefer puppies; rabbits dumped after Easter; and pit bull mixes, which are particularly hard to find homes for.
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The Blakes’ life spans three towns and 11 miles in Midcoast Maine: Lincolnville Beach, where the family lives in a lovely clapboard house with gray-painted floors and a widow’s walk; Northport, where the rescue facility, which is applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, shares space with Justin’s business; and Camden, where Justin has a dog-oriented gift shop called the Maine Dog.
The converted post-and-beam barn that houses the rescue facility has corrugated steel walls, rich wood floors, and carved bear statues. But it’s not merely beautiful, says Justin: The lodgelike space is designed to make the animals feel less anxious. The family also owns a small, uninhabited island in Penobscot Bay (pictured opposite), where Danielle takes dogs to be safely socialized and to see how they interact with other animals.
The Midcoast area looks exactly as you’d imagine from children’s picture books (think Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine) and countless Stephen King movies (except not creepy): squat lighthouses, a navy blue sea, pebbled beaches, great blue herons, bobbing fishing boats, and spiky pines. There are lobster shacks, blueberry farms, white-tailed deer, and chugging ferries. Justin, who is from Malibu, California, but spent many childhood summers in Maine, says that while doing his externship, “I thought about this place I’d loved as a kid, and I wanted to go back.”
Must Love Dogs
Danielle and Justin were introduced in 2004 by a mutual friend who knew of their shared love of animals. They lived three hours apart, and Danielle was wary. “I had a 7-year-old daughter and a small day-care business,” she says. “But I trusted our friend, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll talk to him on the phone.’ ”
For three months, she and Justin spoke almost every day. “We’d spend three or four hours talking and laughing,” she says. “I’d send him pictures of Taylor, and I’d get back 500 pictures of dogs. ‘Here’s Parker on the beach! Here’s Parker walking home! Here’s Parker at home!’ ”
Finally Danielle drove from her home in Fryeburg, Maine, to meet Justin in person.
“She knocked on my door, and that was it,” says Justin.
Room for Everyone
Danielle started Maine Coast Animal Rescue in 2007, when Taylor was 11. Kennedy and Olivia came along two years later, and Alexis three years after the twins. “With all the kids and all the animals, it can be chaos,” she says. “But it’s nice chaos—all one pleasant smush.”
She began telling animals’ stories on Facebook in 2010. And though Justin rolls his eyes theatrically at Danielle’s desire to rescue every animal in need, he’s clearly proud: “She brings in animals that nobody wants—dogs with neurologic and genetic abnormalities and trauma and abuse victims—and turns their lives around. She’s really developed a niche, using social media to get the stories of dogs with special needs out there. They go viral, and suddenly there’s competition for animals that would otherwise be considered undesirable.”
Launching the rescue was challenging. “Everything was out of pocket at first,” says Justin, “and I didn’t have very full pockets!” But over time, local newspapers began helping by showing the animals’ sweet, yearning faces; then Danielle’s Facebook page took off. Now the rescue has a handful of reliable donors.
Danielle would much rather talk about her rescues than about herself. There was Sydney, an 8-year-old English bulldog whose owners had neglected her. “Females of this breed are usually around 50 pounds, and she was 22 pounds,” says Danielle. “She was kept chained outside, bred for puppies, then put back outside. She needed food and antibiotics for her abused skin. Now she has a family, and she’s getting chunky, and she’s so happy.” There was Ryder, a mixed-breed brindle dog whose owner beat her with a bat and left her to die in a crate. “She has severe brain damage—she tilts her head and circles a lot—but she’s a wonderful dog, and she can totally function,” says Danielle.
There was Cassie, a purebred border collie whose pregnant mother was given medicine that probably caused neurological problems. Two other puppies in the litter died. “Cassie walks like a little drunk lady!” says Danielle. “But she’s learning to go up and down stairs, and her new owner sends me wonderful pictures.” So far, Danielle has kept all her adoptions in state, so she’s able to stay in touch and do home visits.
She spends a lot of time working with older dogs as well as damaged ones. “Some people would rather dump old dogs than try medications,” she says. “But they’re beautiful. Unlike puppies, they know they’re being rescued, and they’re so grateful.”
It might seem remarkable that abused or neglected animals can turn around and trust humans again. Danielle has witnessed this over and over. In one Facebook post about Zeus, she wrote, “Dogs, for a reason that can only be described as divine, have the ability to forgive, let go of the past, and live each day joyously. It’s something the rest of us can strive for.”
Like Mother, Like Daughters
Danielle and Justin are committed to cultivating compassion in their children, and they don’t shield them from the hard, sorrowful parts of taking care of living creatures. “The kids help out, and they see how much responsibility is involved in owning and caring for a pet,” says Danielle. “They see the sad stuff and the great stuff. If we get a dog who’s been hit by a car, Kennedy lies with the dog and sobs while Olivia says, ‘Dad, what can we do to fix this?’ She’s just as compassionate as her sister, but she’s practical: How do we resolve the issue?” Meanwhile, Taylor is taking college courses in veterinary medicine and learning from Justin. “She adores what she does,” says Danielle. “Justin will retire in 20 years, and it would be awfully nice to keep [the practice] in the family…” Her voice trails off.
Danielle appreciates the impact this experience has had on her children. “Sometimes I forget that not all kids are raised like mine. One little girl who came over was so scared of our friendly Lab that she stood on a chair! My kids aren’t afraid.” Not by a long shot. The Blake girls love not only furry creatures but also scaly ones. Danielle’s brother, Dana, rescues and rehabilitates reptiles in Florida, “where a lot of people dump large things when they get too large,” says Danielle. “He has these huge pythons and boa constrictors. My daughters are all, ‘Let’s visit Uncle Dana!’ I’m not a reptile girl myself. I’m glad he’s the one doing that.” And she’s glad her kids are into creatures great and small, slimy and cuddly.
“They get it,” she says. “They’re just in tune with the wider world.”
To find out more and to support Danielle’s work, visit the Facebook page for Maine Coast Animal Rescue.