No human likes to think about what'll happen to their pets if the human dies first.
Except perhaps Vicki Cooper. She's just opened a sanctuary where dogs can stay for the rest of their lives, should they outlive their owners. The same is true for donkeys, cows, llamas, pigs, goats, mules and horses.
"I was so worried about what might happen to my pets, and I knew in my heart that there are many people that feel the same way, so this is a huge relief for all of us," says Cooper.
The Circle Star Pet Haven is located on Cooper's 100-acre ranch in East Texas, about an hour and a half from Dallas. The property -- which features rivers, lakes and a heated dog swimming pool -- is where she lives with her half-dozen dogs, two horses and a mini donkey.
For about a decade, Cooper's been boarding horses, running a luxury pet resort, training dogs and sheltering a handful of adoptable, homeless pets.
The Haven is a newer venture; its first resident arrived in January. He's a pit bull named Partner, whose owner, Californian Dana Collins, died in December, leaving the dog's fate uncertain.
“The biggest fear Dana had was for the animals more than his own life,” Collins' sister DeDe Roat told the Riverside, California Press Enterprise.
And for good reason: often, when someone dies, their pets wind up homeless. One estimate suggests as many as 500,000 pets go into shelters every year due to their owners' death or incapacitation.
Cooper heard about Partner's predicament through a friend of a business associate, and offered to take him in, she says, as "our 'poster dog,' to shed light on the scary situation faced by so many pets."
Partner's new life in Texas is rather as if he's at a very fancy camp. He has a custom-made bed in a private room, which also features a framed photo of Collins, some outdoor space, and a personal television that's often set to Animal Planet.
Partner is treated to a couple of activities a day, which could include massages, going for drives around the ranch in an open-air vehicle, swimming in the heated dog pool or perhaps a little agility training. He even gets special meals, made of fresh ground meats and vegetables with a touch of kibble, and Cooper has plans to teach him to be her paddle boarding buddy.
"Sometimes he listens to music," says Cooper. "I often go up and just lay on the couch or his bed with him and read."
Partner watches TV in the dog lodge with a Circle Star staffer. Photo courtesy Circle Star
Partner's at Circle Star for free; others who want to secure their pets' future spots will pay a one-time registration fee of $1,000 for the first pet, or $500 each for more than one.
But that's just to secure a spot. The rest of the pet's care is pricier, as estimated by Circle Star's online calculator that factors in a pet's species and age to determine the cost. A 2-year-old donkey, for example, is estimated to cost almost $400,000 for lifelong care. The quote for a 10-year-old dog is $118,625.
Given these fees, Cooper recommends that pet-lovers buy a life insurance policy for which Circle Star Haven would be the designated beneficiary.
Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, told HuffPost that this payment method strikes him as unusual, but kosher.
Texas Tech University School of Law professor Gerry W. Beyer, who's written about estate planning and pets, is even more bullish.
"Using life insurance to fund after-death animal care is actually a great idea," he says.
The part of the ranch dedicated to Circle Star Haven can now accommodate up to 12 dogs and 32 larger animals. Thus far, in addition to Partner, about a half-dozen dogs have been registered, Cooper says, and several cat owners have been turned away due to lack of facilities for felines.
Cooper has big plans to build more dog quarters, as well as space for cats and birds. She has ambitions of expanding across the country, of opening new sanctuaries in new locations -- and even of bringing down euthanasia rates, with the hope that the Haven's existence will make more people comfortable adopting pets once they realize their animals can be well cared for after they're no longer around to do it.
"Pets that are covered by this program are not left to take up room in shelters and likely euthanized, so shelters can devote their resources to pets who don’t aren’t covered by a plan like this," Cooper explains.
She says she's set up the ranch and its businesses to be run by a board of directors in the event of her own death, leaving the animals secure.
"I hope to give people the same relief I now feel to know I can have pets up through the end of my life, and know they will be taken care of after I'm gone," she says. "One lady laughingly commented after she signed up, 'Wow, this is so cool, I can’t wait to die!'"
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