The Wags & Whiskers Wedding raised funds for Wilmington-based Senior Dog Haven and Hospice.

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WILMINGTON, Del. -- Taffy looked lovely in her white satin wedding gown and demur, billowing veil as she limped down the aisle to Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" Saturday to meet her groom, Bear.

The arthritic 16-year-old chow mix and 10- or 11-year-old shepherd mix were the centerpiece for the second Wags & Whiskers Wedding, a celebration of second chances and a fundraiser for Wilmington-based Senior Dog Haven and Hospice, complete with bridesmaids, groomsmen, live music, a Champagne toast and gourmet food and wedding cakes for both canines and humans.

The nonprofit was founded 18 months ago to find elderly dogs abandoned to the streets or left at shelters and provide them with loving foster homes, veterinary care and, hopefully, permanent homes.

In attendance were many of the other 143 dogs saved by the all-volunteer rescue. Missing was last year's groom, Duke. He was 15 when his elderly owner went into the hospital for surgery and never came home. No one in her family would take Duke, but he got lucky. Instead of being euthanized, he became the first dog rescued by Senior Dog Haven and Hospice.

Although Duke didn't live to see this year's wedding, he was there in spirit, represented by Eleanor Garrett, of Paoli, Pa., who with her husband, Matt, adopted him. She brought along groomsman "toothless" Teddy, the white poodle, and one of the two dogs the young couple has adopted from the rescue since Duke. They foster three more.

"Duke was the first older dog I ever adopted," she said. "He made me fall in love with older dogs. Then we got Teddy and the others."

Teddy's tale is typical of the other dogs rescued. He was living outdoors at his owner's home when neighbors, who had been feeding him and were no longer able to stand his obvious illness and mistreatment, decided to liberate him. In addition to health issues, he had trench mouth, a painful form of gingivitis.

"He's happy now," Garrett said. "He's had three surgeries on his mouth. We just had a fundraiser to help pay for the last one."

One of the bridesmaids, Ivy, a deaf and blind Shih Tzu, is owned by Jennifer Karakul, co-founder of Senior Dog Haven and Hospice. Karakul found Ivy at a local shelter a month ago. She had pneumonia, and for a while it was touch and go as to whether she'd live.

Just days before the wedding, Karakul rescued Macy, an older white poodle found wandering the streets. Her toenails were embedded so badly she could hardly walk, and her eyes were so crusted shut she couldn't see.

"The groomer said it had probably been a year since she had been able to see," Karakul said. "It took three and a half hours to groom her. That's how bad she was."

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Whether people leave their older pets at a shelter because they can't deal emotionally or financially with the aging pet, it's an unfortunate fact that senior dogs left at shelters are less likely to be adopted and are usually euthanized. Many are sick, have been abused or suffered neglect. Few have been spayed or neutered. Dog Haven received a $5,000 grant from the Doris Day Foundation last year and more recently a $3,000 grant from the Grey Muzzle Organization to help provide spaying and neutering. Area veterinarians help out with discounted services.

Some people think that a dog won't make a good pet, especially if they have small children. Charlie, a 13-year-old Yorkie who had lived with his family since he was a puppy, was left at a shelter when his owners had a baby.

Garrett, who has a 15-month-old daughter, Emily, and is expecting the couple's second child in March, disagrees.

"I don't want to hear about those people who say they had to give up their dogs because they had a baby," she said. "We have taught our daughter how to pet the dogs, and we've taught the dogs how to behave with her. We would never leave her alone at her age anyway, but we never leave her alone with the dogs. And we have protocols in place when we bring a new dog into our home.

"Duke could be a crotchety old man, but Emily loved him, and he was a wonderful dog. He's the reason we have adopted others and foster now. He brought that into our lives. That was Duke's gift to us."

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