Charlie and Elaine Fuerniss operate an animal rescue mission on their farm in Paris. (Photo provided)
By Steve Flairty
On one of their first dates, the now-married Charlie and Elaine Fuerniss picked up a stranded kitten along a South Dakota roadside. At the time, it didn’t occur to them that their act of kindness was an omen for the future.
More than three decades later, Charlie and Elaine pick up, take in, transport and do all manner of good for animals, mostly dogs, and often cats who are stranded. These days, the couple operate their mission of mercy from their small horse farm near Paris. They each have full-time jobs, but even a casual observer would say that their rescue work is full-time, too.
Total immersion into their time-consuming passion is evident when one visit’s the farm. The friendly barking you’ll hear when approaching the Fuerniss’s house, about a quarter mile off the main road, is from 30 to 40 dogs. The diversity of sizes, shapes, colors, ages and personalities of the animals make it a sort of rural cosmopolitan setting, a canine community that works well.
“They usually get along pretty well,” said Charlie.
The St. Bernard, Beethovan, looks a dead ringer for Stephen King’s “Cujo,” but Charlie calls him sweet, and he does appear to come in peace. There are puppies of all sorts, but there are the seniors, too. There are the cute and pretty, and there are, well, the ones with needy eyes peering out of homely faces and lop-sided bodies.
“It’s quiet at night,” said Charlie. “Loudest time is the feeding, or when somebody drives up. Other times, it gets pretty mellow and everybody chills out.”
For most of these lively creatures, the Fuerniss farm is a temporary, but pleasant place to live until someone comes there to adopt, or until Elaine and Charlie get a call to send a few to another home, sometimes to far off states like New Hampshire or Maryland. Others may go to another location in Kentucky, where the animals can be “relayed” to new homes by others in a large support group called United Rescuers of Kentucky.
When people desire to adopt an animal at the Fuerniss farm, they pay to have the necessary health-related procedures, like shots and worming.
“It costs about $75 to $100 to get them ready,” said Elaine, “and the money goes back into the operation.”
Though the couple sometimes take donations to defray costs, they make no profit – only the satisfaction that the animals are being treated humanely. “We don’t worry about the money part of it,” said Charlie.
On another front, there’s Charlie and Elaine’s low-cost spay and neutering clinic in Paris that operates on Saturdays, which they opened several years ago.
“We talked to a group in Lexington that was similar, except that they made mobile visits to communities in the area,” said Elaine. “They gave us the idea and information we needed to get something going here.”
A huge part of the impetus for the Bourbon County project can be attributed to their teenage daughter, Michelle, and her untimely death in 2003 involving a horse-related accident on their farm. Michelle’s life inspired others.
“Money had been donated to the animal shelter where Michelle volunteered,” said Elaine, who is also a cancer survivor. “The shelter wanted to see the clinic get started.”
The couple believe that in many ways, they can see Michelle’s influence in their current animal-rescue work, which also was her passion.
At the clinic, several local veterinarians accept lower fees. Other help includes what Elaine called “a nice group of mature and responsible teenagers,” along with neighbors and even some volunteers from outside of Bourbon County.
Working together, they have turned the clinic into a good model for meeting a glaring need to keep the animal population to a sensible, manageable number as well as being cared for properly. “The idea with having spay and neuter clinics is to work ourselves out of a job,” said Charlie, with a smile.
In many places in the Northeast United States, the problem of neglected and mistreated dogs and cats is much less serious than in Kentucky. Their spay and neuter programs are widespread and working well—almost too well.
“Some of their shelters are empty,” Elaine said. “For those wanting to adopt, they often are on three-week waiting lists.”
For that reason, the animal transports from Kentucky are important. The Fuernisses are part of a statewide network of relaying volunteers. “Some of the relay trips are 800 to 900 miles round trip, which we often do in a weekend,” said Charlie. “We know a lot of other people who are involved in these transports, too.”
He would like to see Kentucky get state government become more involved. “I’d like to sit down with someone at the Department of Agriculture and talk to them about the benefits of a good low-cost spay and neuter program around the state, and how it would save money,” said Charlie.
A great part of the Fuerniss’s work in animal rescue is simply communication. It’s a time-sensitive endeavor requiring quick decisions and changes in plans.
“I’m always checking my e-mail, making calls about transports needed to do and adoptions,” said Elaine. “You never know when you might have to put a dog in your car and take it to someone else.”
A recent day for Elaine illustrates the frenetic pace of the couple’s life in service to animal‘s well-being:
• Off work at the hospital at 7 a.m., she checked her emails, including one that dealt with a pregnant dog to be transported to Wisconsin.
• Elaine arrived home about 9:30 a.m., then promptly delivered two dogs to Millersburg, a 30-mile round trip.
• Back to the farm, she soon departed with a kitten on board, this time to a pet shop in Lexington.
• After returning, Elaine slept until 4 pm, arose and hosed down the animal concrete-slab living area, while continuing to take rescue-related phone calls, knowing that she would soon be heading back to the hospital to work her shift.
Charlie’s schedule might focus on other points of emphasis, but he is typically just as busy. Besides his job at FedEx, he gives the animals their meds, takes care of 10 horses, prepares for a weekend animal transport, and makes time for his wife and him to talk and eat meals together, something that was always important as they raised their three girls. One likely would not be surprised at their main conversation topic.
The Fuernisses are active members of the local Annunciation Catholic Church where, “people were so supportive when we lost Michelle,” said Charlie. “Thank God for our friends who have helped us.”
And a sizeable animal population in and around Central Kentucky likely feel the same gratitude toward Charlie and Elaine Fuerniss to help and care for them.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores, and Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, Steve’s fifth book, will be released in early 2013. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
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