An Ellicott City couple has started a pet-sitting network of more than 200 volunteers for servicemen and women in the Persian Gulf who need homes for their pets while overseas.
Jon and Betsy Collins, whorun Collinswood Kennels, joined forces with the American Legion Department of Maryland and the Animal Welfare Society of Howard County tocreate the network, which so far has placed approximately 100 pets in Baltimore-Washington area homes.
"In addition to domestic pets like cats and dogs, we have found homes for horses, exotic birds and even a boa constrictor," said Collins, a professor of health and physical education at Catonsville Community College.
"With all the stresses our soldiers are experiencingwhile serving our country, one of the last things they should have to worry about is if their pets are OK," he said. "Pets are like family members. You'd want the best for them."
Last fall, Collins, 43, called the American Legion's toll-free volunteer hot line to offer his help to families with relatives in Saudi Arabia. When state Adjutant Robert Ford learned that Collins ran a kennel, the two discussed setting up the pet-placement program.
"People sometimes see their problems as monumental, as unsolvable," said Jack McLaughlin, Ford's assistant. "But if you have the right resources within your reach, the problems really aren't that big. Jon is providing a wonderful service."
In November, Collins took in three dogs as his first free boarders. Over the last few months, dozens more have found shelter in his kennels. An even greater number have been temporarily adopted by the hundreds of volunteers Collins has on his list of reserves.
Collins says that many of the people he talked to from Howard County are farmers, offering to take care of horses, cattle and other farm animalsas well as domestic pets.
"I've seen a strong sense of volunteerism among the public. People want to help out any way they can," said Collins, who breeds and trains German shepherds and Rottweilers.
Although most of the volunteers are in the Baltimore area, Collins' volunteer network has branched out from the Mid-Atlantic into other parts of the nation. "I've talked to kennel owners and animal-control workers from all over the country," he said.
Army 1st Lt. Kelly Kyburz, 24, of Fort Bragg, N.C., said it was a great relief to know that her dogs were safe and being looked after. "It really took a load offmy mind," she said.
Kyburz and her husband, Jeff, a second lieutenant in the Army, were both deployed to Saudi Arabia -- Jeff in August and Kelly in early October.
"I had friends from Illinois take inmy two cats, but my three dogs were a little harder to find homes for. They each weigh more than 50 pounds. It was getting expensive paying $350 a month to have them boarded in a kennel."
Kyburz learned of Collins' free service through her father in Baltimore. While she was in the gulf, he drove south to pick up the canines and transportedthem to Ellicott City.
Kyburz, who is pregnant, returned to Fort Bragg a few weeks ago.
"I was surprised to see how well-taken careof my dogs were," said Kyburz, who has worked at a kennel herself. "They had very good dispositions."
Virginia Estep, manager of the county Animal Welfare Society, says the animals she has boarded for soldiers are much easier to find homes for than the usual strays her center takes in.
"These animals are in excellent health and well-behaved. A lot of times, the adoptive owners got the chance to talk to the soldiers before they shipped out and learned more about the animal's temperament and personalities."
Collins, who still has two dogshe is trying to find homes for, says the need for volunteers is never-ending.
"In addition to pet-sitting, people can visit and run errands for the elderly widowed parent with a son or daughter in the gulf. Or mow the lawn for the pregnant wife with three kids whose husband is away. You'd be amazed how good it makes you feel. And it reallydoesn't take much time."
Collins said that most of the soldiers he talked to expressed the same sentiments when dropping off their pets:
"When I do come home, I want to know that my pets are healthy and have been taken care of.
"On the other hand, if I don't make itback. I need to know the same thing."