Kristie Wilder, Executive Director
Born and raised in the small agricultural town of Westport, Massachusetts, I grew up helping my grandparents tend to the animals on their farm. From helping my grandfather milk cows to helping my grandmother feed the chickens, I have always had compassion and care for the welfare of animals. And like most rescuers, I spent my childhood bringing home every variety of animal in need: cats, dogs, birds, salamanders… Whatever needed rescuing I brought it home, usually to stay.
And, of course, we always had a family dog or two.
As I grew up, not much changed. I once found a stray beagle and took it to the local shelter. Before you panic, the area I’m from did not (and still does not) have the same issues we have here in the South. BUT, with that said, I left the dog there in tears and went back to get him later the same day. I then brought him to a local rescue group where he later found a home.
In college, I was working at a local pet store that sold puppies (gasp again, but it was many years ago! If only I knew what I know now). We received a boxer puppy at the store. He had kennel cough and a heart murmur. He could not be put for sale. So I brought him home and hid him in the garage, where my parents found him the next morning because they woke up before I did. As I tearfully picked him up to bring him back to the store, my mom said we could keep him on a “trial run” and he never left. It was with Rocky that I got my start training dogs. I took him to all kinds of classes, rollerbladed with him, went everywhere with him. He was the first dog that was all mine, although the whole family loved him.
I finished my M.B.A. and shortly thereafter, I found my way to the South working with Coke on a contract at the 1996 Olympics. I met my husband, Joie, “Nicholas Sparks” style – it’s too long of a story for here, but it’s a good one! And I stayed in the South. Joie was a bilateral amputee that had trained his own amazing service dog, Austin. I assisted with Austin’s training under Joie’s direction. And we learned a lot of dog training together. We had Labrador Retrievers and went on to breed (gasp!) and train them as working dogs. We bred the 2007 National Amateur Field Champion as well as many national finalists and other titled dogs. Around 1996, we started training professionally as we opened a boarding and training facility at our home. We also offered obedience training and boarding.
I had a career in Sports and Event Marketing, which I left in 1999 to pursue our business full-time.
As our business grew, we took in an average of 4-6 homeless dogs at a time and found them homes. I had no idea what the homeless pet situation was in the area. After all, I grew up in an area where there were no stray dogs, where dogs were licensed and where people generally took great care of their pets.
In 2003, Joie headed out of the country to vet school, which he completed in early 2007. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly in November of the same year. I simply remember being completely numb, trying to figure out what had happened, thinking of everything we both had worked so hard for, trying to figure out what was next.
Joie and I had learned and built so much together. And he had taught me so much between his schooling and the work he did at several local vet clinics any time he was home.
At the time of his passing, I had 5 or 6 of our “homeless” (I hate that word because WE are their home!) dogs in our care. When I ran the math, it was costing me about $600 per month (one bag of food, flea, tick and heartworm prevention, annual care, dentals, etc.) to take care of these dogs. This was at the same time that the economy was in a tailspin and I no longer had free vet care. I began asking clients for donations to help support these dogs. They willingly gave.
In 2008, Drew and I met. He was in transition after serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard. It wasn’t long before he moved in and started helping with the dogs. Together, we came up with the idea for “Life is labs.” and started selling t-shirts under that name to help support our homeless dogs.
In 2010, we rescued our first shelter dog. I just remember being in tears seeing all the dogs. To this day, it’s very difficult for me to hold back tears in a shelter. Coming from an area where this just doesn’t happen, it was very overwhelming. I expected to see a bunch of aggressive, unadoptable dogs. But it was exactly the opposite. I saw cage after cage and kennel after kennel with sweet adoptable dogs. It was then that we decided to start rescuing Labs, since that was our background. Tonya, a sweet yellow lab mix, was our first rescue. We placed her as a trained service dog with her amazing owner, Chris, a paraplegic.
My vision for our rescue has always been to serve dogs and people using our extensive background in behavior and training. When we started rescuing dogs, I wanted all of our dogs and adopters to experience the awesome life you can have with an off-leash trained dog. Our adoption programs include training for all of our healthy, adoptable dogs. I want our adopters to have peace of mind and I want our dogs to be safe and enjoyable in any situation — as well as to enjoy life with their families because they are so well-behaved!
I hope and pray every day that the tools we have developed, the services we provide and our level of care and compassion can help contribute to ending the homeless pet crisis. I am excited about the opportunities that await us as we grow!