For years, whenever I must leave my dear doggie friends behind, I entrust them to Heidi LaForge. Her devotion to animals is unsurpassed, and her thoroughness is a sure thing. The other sure thing about Heidi is that every encounter with her leaves one slightly shell-shocked. Between the playful sparkle in her brown eyes, her rapid-fire delivery, her no-nonsense demeanor, and a fierce dedication to her canine charges, Heidi leaves an indelible impression.
Heidi has been the owner of Maine Animal Keeper in Hermon for more than 14 years. I am sorry to learn that the kennel-owning chapter of her life is nearing its end, but I am happy to have learned a bit more about this remarkable woman before she moves on.
When I walked into the kennel for our meeting, Heidi was blow drying a slightly tremulous Golden Retriever on a steel table. As usual, she launched into conversation without preamble.
“This is Logan, he’s a sweet old guy,” she said, patting the dog. She told me about grooming — how you have to change the blower for small dogs or they’ll get blown off the table. Then she shared her philosophy about dog grooming.
“If they have fleas, they’re gonna get groomed. If they’re matted, they’re gonna get groomed, even if the owners didn’t ask for it. We want to have respect for owners and dogs, and that means doing what’s right for the dog,” she said.
Heidi fervently wants people to understand about dogs’ behavior and well-being.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, patting Logan, “this is a wolf in dog’s clothing. Every dog is a descendant of wolves. They’re cute to us, but it’s all just survival and instinct to them.”
After finishing up with Logan, Heidi took a quick cell phone call from her husband, Mike, before we found a quiet place to sit down.
When Heidi speaks about her husband, whose arrival into her life was as unexpected as it was welcome, her face softens almost imperceptibly and a smile plays around her face.
“I-gotta-get-off-the-phone-I-love-you-bye,” she said abruptly to end the call. The words shot out like gunfire, but the sentiment was unmistakable.
“I’d been divorced 17 years and moved across the country,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for men. Mike’s dog was all matted when he brought him in. I told him he had to take better care of his dog,” she said, laughing. “Then a week later he called and asked me out!” She smiled and added, “I needed someone I couldn’t boss around.”
Behind her force-of-nature presentation, Heidi is a deeply sincere and caring woman. The more we spoke, the more clear it became.
Heidi grew up in California where she cultivated a lifetime love for the outdoors and for animals. She had rabbits, horses, and a feisty dachshund named “Fritzie Cheese Hamburger Warden.” They also kept a small cage in the garage for found creatures.
“There was one rule — nothing could stay more than 24 hours. So I had tarantulas, a snake, grasshoppers. Mom drew the line at a rattler. I got one of those one time …”
Not surprisingly, Heidi ended up working for the regional animal control department, which included 140 employees and more than 600 animals in its shelters. She is both compassionate and unsentimental about the work.
“Listen, euthanasia is good. It is wrong for an animal to live out life in a shelter. If they’re unadoptable, it’s more compassionate to euthanize, especially for old and sick dogs.”
After 20 years in animal control, Heidi was ready for a change and started looking around the country for a kennel to buy. She settled on the one in Hermon, a diamond in the rough that she turned into a gem by adding a cat building, a recreation room, lots of outdoor play space and many more amenities. Now she is ready for the next adventure which she and Mike will take on together. It will involve their hobby of buying and selling antiques, painting, repurposing and renovating. It also means leaving the kennel behind.
“Some people pay someone to manage their kennel, but I’m just not put together like that,” says Heidi. “I have a problem with delegation.”
In 14 years, Heidi’s vacations have been few. Even though she has great confidence in her staff, she doesn’t like leaving the kennel with anyone else.
No matter when that day arrives and Heidi leaves the kennel business, I imagine that her advocacy days for animals will not be over. She’s the kind of pet owner who spends the night on the sofa with her dog when he’s unwell, and the kind of person who will never keep quiet in the face of a wrong, which is a good thing.
“If I start harping on something, tell me to shut up,” she said, “but listen, older dogs and cats need even more care than young ones. They need regular vet checks, and you have to take a daily look at behavior, coat, teeth, ears, and nails. Every day you need to look over your pet!”
I never asked her to shut up. I prefer to pass it on.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.