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Ferret Shelter Operators Get Respite When Rescuer’s Relief Arrives

Rescuer’s Relief is more than just a traveling ferret-sitting service for shelter operators, Lisa Watson and her husband do so much more.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: February 18, 2015, 5:45 p.m. EST

Don and Lisa Watson
© Courtesy Tillie Morse
Don and Lisa Watson travel in an old RV to bring Rescuer's Relief to ferret shelters who need help.

Sleeping in, taking a day off, having a night out — these are just a few things many of us take for granted. Most ferret shelter operators can only dream of such things. Imagine day in and day out, year after year having to wake up before dawn to a long list of chores, such as cleaning dozens of cages, administering medications, and feeding and watering animals. Then spending hours a day caring for sick and compromised ferrets who need to be hand-fed, washed, bladders expressed and so on. 

It is a full-time job, and many ferret rescuers also work a full-time job outside of the shelter to support themselves and the shelter itself. They do all of this every day of every year, year after year. What happens if a ferret shelter operator gets sick, has to take a few days off to care for a sick relative, or go to a funeral far away? Many ferret shelter operators can’t do these things. Reliable volunteers with advanced skills in caring for ferrets are few and far between. And some ferret shelter operators simply don’t have access to any. This is the heroic life of a ferret shelter "mom” or "dad” who do it all, only for the reward of some fuzzy lip kisses, weasel war dances and joyous dooks. They put their needs aside to save the lives of tiny, beautiful souls who cannot help themselves.

Meeting A Dire Need
Enter Lisa Watson and Rescuer’s Relief Inc. A rescuer for the rescuers, Lisa Watson travels North America to meet, network and provide respite for ferret rescuers for free. Especially unique about Rescuer’s Relief is that they offer their services no matter if a rescue is "official” or not.

"Most ferret rescues are mom and pop operations run out of homes and on tight budgets,” Watson said. "In fact, most receive no community funds and can't apply for aid. They manage on personal finances and perhaps help from friends. They dedicate themselves 24/7 because they love ferrets and know someone has to be there when no one else is.” 

Changing Her Life And The Lives Of Others
Watson was once a ferret shelter mom herself. She founded and then ran the Wind & Willows Ferret Rescue in Fallon, Nevada, for eight years. By 2012 she was working more than 45 hours a week at a high-stress government job at night, while running the ferret shelter during the day and fitting in some schooling on top of it all. There was little time left for herself, let alone for family and friends. Everything caught up to her despite the help of shelter volunteers, and she suffered the first of six heart attacks. Subsequently, the doctors broke the news to her that her heart issues were not curable.

After some deep thought from a hospital bed, she made some life-changing decisions. 

"I stopped just being alive and began to live,” Watson said.

From there she planned how to live out a dream while at the same time giving something unique and valuable to the ferret world. She decided to combine travel with giving much-needed relief to ferret shelter moms and dads who need it so desperately, and Rescuer’s Relief was born. 

"I realize just about every other rescuer is burning their candles at both ends and in the middle as well,” she said. "I hope in some small way my visits and the short break we offer can help them step back and recharge. Perhaps our mission can help stave off caregiver burnout, keep a rescue open and a rescuer out of the sick bed or worse. That is my hope anyway.” 

One could say Watson is more than qualified in that she is not just an experienced shelter mom of the past. She is also a member of Pet Sitters International Inc., a certified RedRover First Response Volunteer, FEMA 101-121 certified, and Red Cross Pet/Small Animal CPR certified. Bottom line? She loves ferrets with all of her heart. And that is the most important qualification. 

ferrets eating
© Courtesy Tillie Morse 
Lisa Watson makes great "soup" for ferrets and shares the recipe with ferret shelter operators.

Making A Dream Come True
The decision to become a ferret shelter sitter was not an easy one, and the journey of bringing it into reality was even more difficult. Meticulous planning and a great deal of patience helped it be a success. First, the organization purchased a fixer-upper RV. The 1995, 31-foot Sea Breeze was a great start. Then the fundraising began, and it is an exhausting process that never ends. Plans were made regarding the house, possessions and the departure of she and her husband from their jobs. Perhaps one of the hardest things Watson had to do was give up living with a small zoo of animal companions. She left most of the pets in the care of her daughter, but some were rehomed to friends. The process was very complex. You can read about that and more at the blog on the Rescuer’s Relief website and follow their travels on the Rescuer’s Relief Facebook page.

By Watson’s side is her husband, Don. Obviously, in order for the endeavor to be as successful as possible, she needed him on board to help, which he did so happily. 

"My husband and I have been married over 30 years and in all those years we have lived largely separate lives working different schedules and having different interests,” Watson said. "And now we are traveling 24/7 in a 10-by-31 foot RV with two dogs and a ferret. Close quarters can be very hard on any relationship. It’s been rough going without the addition of road stresses ... add in mechanical troubles, roof leaks, suspension problems, torrential rains, tornados, mold etc. I am honestly surprised we have managed as well as we have.”

Also on board, metaphorically, is the board of directors: Barbara Mathews, Dawna Hernandez and Carolyn Riise. They advise, help with a research grant and sponsorship opportunities so that Rescuer’s Relief may continue beyond the present year. Also working on the Rescuer’s Relief team is Brian Church, who is the volunteer accountant, and Nancy Greenlee, who has recently signed on as a volunteer grant and sponsorship researcher. All are highly experienced with ferrets and bring different skills to the table. 

Lisa Watson with Tillie and Ron Morse
© Courtesy Don Watson 
When Rescuer's Relief visited Tillie and Ron Morse (pictured above with Lisa Watson) of Morse's Fuzzy Haven Rescue, the couple were able to go on their first vacation together in more than seven years.

Visiting Ferret Shelters Nationwide
The team can make many things possible for ferret shelters whether they stay for a few days or a few weeks. But Watson also benefits. She says she has gained the priceless experience of meeting some of the most dedicated and loving of people. One of Watson’s favorite stops was at Ann Church’s ferret shelter, which is named Ann's Ferret Shelter & Adoption Inc. in Manchester, Ohio. 

"She does an amazing job, is such a strong woman and yet has the softest and warmest heart of any person I have ever met,” Watson said. She added that Church always puts the needs of the ferrets above her own and she has a killer sense of humor.

When Watson first arrived at the shelter she walked into a very unexpected and sad situation — a ferret had taken a turn for the worse and had to be put to sleep. Church says Watson stayed by her side. 

"She gave me my space and cried with me though she didn't even get to know the ferret at all,” Church said. "She made me feel at ease when I am a very emotional person when it comes to my ferrets.” 

Watson soon rolled up her sleeves to begin working after learning the routine of the shelter. Meanwhile, her husband had a little fun and took a spin on a riding lawnmower for the first time. He enjoyed it so much that he cut the grass! Church felt at such ease with the situation, she and her husband were able to leave and go to Virginia Beach overnight. 

"The best part is she did [things] my way,” Church said.

Church adds that she was left with the most unexpected gift she will always treasure — a forever friend. 

Some ferret shelter moms and dads have been able to take longer vacations, such as Tillie Morse of Morse's Fuzzy Haven Rescue in Springfield, Missouri. She and her husband typically spend eight hours a day working in the ferret shelter, which leaves them very little time to spend together. In fact, she and her husband had not been able to go on a vacation together in more than seven years because they had not been able to find anyone reliable enough to care for the 18 ferrets in the ferret shelter. Morse says they used the services of Rescuer’s Relief for more than just help in the shelter. 

"We had a seven-day vacation in California visiting with family we have not seen for seven years,” she said. "It was wonderful! I knew without a doubt that our furkids would be in very capable hands while we were gone.”

Sometimes, ferret shelter operators cannot always take vacations despite the opportunity. However, they can take advantage of Rescuer’s Relief in other ways. Kim Kelly at Stinky Pete's Ferret Retreat in Orlando, Florida, did.

"I didn't leave as I also have two elderly parents I take care of,” she said, "but with her help I was actually able to get to bed around midnight instead of 2 or 3 in the morning. I actually got some sleep.”  

In addition, ferret shelters can take advantage of the great wealth of experience and knowledge that Rescuer’s Relief carries with it. 

"I asked Lisa a few questions on her feedback about how other shelters did certain things about procedures, protocol etc.,” Kelly said. "What I could do to maintain a healthy, safe environment for the shelter kids here. If she had any suggestions that I could use. Basically she shared a few good tips that she's seen at other shelters which made me feel good that I was doing a great job.” 

In the end, Kelly states that one of the best parts of the visit were the warm memories she gained, such as watching Watson make soup with a friend one night.

One shelter mom was able to fully take advantage of Rescuer’s Relief and took the mother of all vacations — to the Grand Canyon. Brenda Johnson of Lakeroad Ferret Farm Rescue/Shelter in Naples, New York, originally planned to use the time Rescuer’s Relief was there to just sleep and recharge. But a wonderful opportunity came up.

"I got a call from friends in New Mexico with an offer of all-expense-paid vacation to New Mexico,” Johnson said. "They [Watson of Rescuer’s Relief] came in Tuesday, Sept 9th, she got a crash course on shelter duties, and they ran me to the Rochester airport Wednesday morning.” 

Brenda Johnson
© Courtesy Lisa Watson 
Brenda Johnson of Lakeroad Ferret Farm Rescue/Shelter is at the airport heading on vacation, thanks to Rescuer's Relief.

Keeping The Dream Alive
All of this has come at a very heavy price to Watson. Literally. 

"I wiped out my retirement fund, and have been fundraising for fuel and road expenses,” she said.

Despite that and using a whole array of other financial resources that were available to her, it has still been difficult to raise enough money to finance Rescuer’s Relief long-term. 

"So far we have stuck to our budget pretty well,” she said. "Monthly auctions and fundraising campaigns have covered these last nine months. However, our savings is dwindling and without sponsors we will not be able to continue past March.” 

Those who are interested can help Rescuer’s Relief in many ways, not just financially. 

"They can Friend and Like us on Facebook, follow our travels, offer words of encouragement when we have rough times, donate money when possible, donate time to a local rescue when money is not possible,” Watson said. "Tell others about what we are doing; tell others about ferret rescues and why they are so very important. Help us find small businesses or corporations to sponsor our mission.” 

Barbara Mathews, the current assistant director of Rescuer’s Relief, says finding corporate sponsors is very important so there doesn’t have to be a need for constant fundraising. Also needed are words of encouragement.

"They are good people and they need to hear it,” she said.

Why is Rescuer’s Relief so valuable?

"It brings respite, happiness, joy and relief,” Mathews said. "A one-of-the kind, quality care to your doorstep.”

She adds that by helping Rescuer’s Relief, you are also helping a great many ferret shelter operators in this country and therefore the hundreds and hundreds of animals in their care.

Carolyn Riise is the current treasurer of Rescuer’s Relief. Her husband has also helped by working on the RV. She says another way people can help is by donating to the GoFundMe campaign that’s in place to raise money to buy a better used RV for 2015. 

"I will continue on with the work if Lisa is able to do it again next year,” Riise said. "I believe in the goals of Rescuer's Relief and Lisa's objectives. Applications are being received for rescue visits starting in mid-summer 2015.”

What about the future?

"I would like to see the organization financially secure,” Riise said. "Lisa and Don bought the 20-year-old RV with personal funds. Lisa and Don refinanced their home to fund Rescuer's Relief. I would like to see RR be able to reimburse them for their overwhelming belief in the success of Rescuer's Relief. There is no other business like this in the United States.”

As of now, Watson has visited 27 rescues, four ferret groups, six individual ferret owners and two events (the Buckeye Bash in Ohio and Rocky's Oktoberfest in Maryland). The ferret-specific visits/events have included the following 20 states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. 

For Lisa Watson, the past year was full of wonderful experiences and meeting incredible people who sacrifice so much to save ferrets. And there is still more to come, as Rescuer’s Relief is now traveling to the West where they will begin to wind up the year’s adventure and return home. Home, to recharge and hopefully be able to keep the dream going by doing it all over again. No matter what the future holds for Rescuer’s Relief, Lisa Watson will hold true to her promise to herself. 

"I want to live not just exist.” 

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Posted: February 18, 2015, 5:45 p.m. EST

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Ferret Shelter Operators Get Respite When Rescuer’s Relief Arrives

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Reader Comments
Thank you for all you do! Perhaps next year we will have you stop at our shelter to help us out at The Educated Ferret Association, Inc.
Dianna, Springfield, MA
Posted: 2/19/2015 9:33:09 AM
Thank you SO MUCH for this wonderful article. Well done Rebecca!

Lisa and Don are both wonderful people and have sacrificed so much to provide this much needed service for shelter operators. I so wish they could get enough supportive sponsors to relieve their burden and allow them to continue.
Tillie, Springfield, MO
Posted: 2/19/2015 9:01:24 AM
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