Julie Nowicki had never been a dog person. Sure, she’d had family dogs when she was a kid. However, the big ones would jump all over her and scare her. Plus, dogs just seemed like so much work! Never in a million years would this career-minded woman have thought she’d be using her education, business knowledge, and even some of her personal funds to care for at-risk, elderly dogs. Yet, that is just what she is doing.
Growing up the child of a veterinarian, Julie always had animals in her life. Her home was filled with dogs, cats, ponies, guinea pigs, and all sorts of critters. Although she considered herself an animal lover, with entering the workforce in the 1980s Julie fell victim to the self-centered ways of the me generation. Any notion of having a pet or caring for animals was lost in the shuffle. “I was super career-centric, starting a career in computer science in the 1980s. Then I went back and got a graduate degree and was working as a consultant. It was all about how many hours you’re working, how much money you’re making … animals sort of fell out of my life.”
In 1999, just after she had entered her 40s, Julie started her own consulting company. Working with about 13 employees, she took a major hit in the Dot-com bust. It was not the best time to start any business having to do with computers, to say the least! “It was a long, hard road. Eventually, I had to shut down my business. I got a job offer from Microsoft in Seattle. So, I moved across the country.” Leaving her friends and family behind, Julie began carving out a new life for herself in Seattle. But, she was incredibly lonely. She’d always been secretly fascinated with greyhound dogs. Now, with no friends to hang out with and no family around, Julie decided the time was finally right to get a pet. She wanted to rescue a greyhound. “I decided to adopt one (a greyhound). It changed my life. I finally got it! I finally understood what it was to be a dog lover. Dogs have been bred for years and years to love people. That’s it. That’s their job. Being loved by Smitty changed my life.” The only problem was that Smitty was lonely. So, Julie decided to get him a friend. Enter Ash. Ash was a 10-year old, female greyhound. She’d been a racer for the first five years of life and a brood mom for the five years after that. “She’d never had a toy. She didn’t know about being housebroken. But, she was just the neatest dog. She learned about toys and everything and was just awesome!” Sadly, several years later, both Smitty and Ash died of cancer within months of each other. Julie was devastated.
Through her experience with Smitty and Ash, Julie realized that she had a special place in her heart for older dogs. She began learning more about the plight of older racing greyhounds and rescue dogs in general. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll foster dogs.’ We had one two-year-old for a while and then I found an organization, Old Dog Haven, and that was it.” For the next few years, Julie worked closely with Old Dog Haven, coordinating fund-raising efforts and helping them set up technology solutions for their fast-growing organization. And, she began fostering older dogs through them. “We must have fostered over a dozen dogs! It is one of those things that are super-rewarding, but if you let it get to you it can be super-depressing. For every dog you save, there are many that die in a shelter.”
As time passed, Julie found herself reexamining her life. She and her boyfriend Barry started thinking more about what they wanted out of life, and what they wanted had very little to do with working their tails off to get ahead in the corporate world. “We wanted to buy a house. We took a trip and visited four or five areas in the country.”
“Julie realized that she had a special place in her heart for older dogs. She began learning more about the plight of older racing greyhounds and rescue dogs in general.”
Eventually, the couple decided to move to the Raleigh area of North Carolina. Around this same time, Julie sold a farm in Wisconsin that she had inherited. “I loved the land and wanted to keep it. But, I realized I was never going back to Wisconsin. So, I made a huge emotional decision to sell the farm. And, I thought, ‘I have a chance to do something I’m really passionate about.’” So, she took a portion of the sale and decided to start her own organization to help senior dogs. “I took some of the money to pay myself for a year, and that’s what I did. I quit the whole career thing and started the Grey Muzzle Organization (http://www.greymuzzle.org/).”
Julie decided that her organization would be a little bit different from what was already out there. Instead of taking in senior dogs herself, Julie would dedicate her organization’s resources to helping fund those who did. “I looked at the lives of people running a sanctuary and they’ve got probably fifteen to twenty dogs. It totally consumes you. All you can do is focus on those dogs! I totally admire those people, but Barry and I looked at each other and realized that is not the kind of life we want to have. In thinking about my business background, I realized I have a lot of fundraising experience, web design experience, and the like. If we had a sanctuary, all we could do is help older animals in our area. If we fund organizations all over, we can have a hand in helping animals nationally! Grey Muzzle is basically a financial organization and I like running a business.”
Julie gave herself one year to get the organization off the ground. The idea is to raise money from the public and give it back specifically to programs that focus on older dogs. “The first thing people looking for animals at a shelter think is, ‘I want a puppy.’ They don’t really think about the benefits of an older dog. And, one of the problems is, the older dogs come into the shelter in worse shape. They may need more medical care. They can be expensive. Sometimes rescues and shelters will pass these dogs by. What we do is help provide some funding. If you want to start a program that provides for older dogs, we’ll help fund it. Monetary incentive and educational materials is what we provide. We don’t take in dogs ourselves, but we try to build those kinds of programs through other organizations.”
Grey Muzzle really got going in July 2008. While a lot of the money for the first set of grants came from Julie’s own pockets, they’re now on their second set of grants and most of the money has come from donations. They’ve funded 10 different organizations across the country and Julie’s life has changed dramatically. “I am just now coming to the end of the year and thinking, ‘Hmm … I have to get a part-time job soon.’ But, it’s ok. My priorities have changed. I’m never going back to the long workweeks and overtime! This has changed my life. I don’t see myself ever getting back into the craziness of the high-tech world. I kind of see myself as having a priority now. My organization is helping dogs and that’s important. I think I’ll be more in tune with what I need rather than what a corporation needs. I will feel better about myself if I work on my own terms. I’d rather live on a third of the salary that I lived on before.” Over the course of her year with Grey Muzzle, Julie has focused on paying off all her bills so that she will have no debt when the time comes that she needs to find another job. Barry still works full-time. And, their house is filled with loving, older dogs. “We have three of our own old dogs and typically a foster dog as well. I’ve found when I have four or five old dogs in the house, that’s pretty much a job!”
In addition to what she’s seen in herself, the people closest to Julie have also noticed changes in her. Mostly, they see how happy she is. Being a champion for senior dogs who otherwise may not have had a chance has even helped her become more relaxed. Nowadays, Julie realizes that her next challenge will be staying in this new mental space while dealing with Grey Muzzle’s continued growth. “When I was working I was so in the habit of having this head down, tense thing going. Sort of living in a constant state of stress. The challenge is not letting Grey Muzzle get me into the same kind of situation as it grows. The board is great, they are now helping me find volunteers to do some of the things I do. I try to listen to other people, like Barry and the board members. I am really motivated to not get back to who I was, but I’m going to have to find a balance between how much I am involved with Grey Muzzle and other things in my life. Are there other non-profits I want to work with? It is so easy to get into patterns, just to have a certain work mode. We have a room upstairs we call the sunroom. I have to remind myself that it’s ok to go up there and read a book for a half-hour!”
With the economy where it’s at, Julie feels like her organization is more important than ever, as some people just can’t afford the upkeep of an older dog or are unable to take on the added burden. “There is a lot of focus on getting dogs adopted in the media, and that is correct, we need to do that. But there is a portion of dogs that when you get them out of the shelter you realize they only have a couple of months, weeks, or even days. The most rewarding thing has been being able to provide the financial resources to an organization that otherwise would not have the resources to take this dog for their final days. There was a white fluffy dog turned into a shelter because she had leukemia and her owners didn’t want to—or couldn’t—pay for treatment. House of the Heart in Maryland took her in. We paid for her initial vet bills, which were expensive. But, she lived there another six months! She was pampered and cuddled and loved. Sometimes these are the harder stories, because you know these dogs aren’t getting adopted and living for another five-to-ten years. But they are the most heart-warming.”
Before she adopted Smitty and Ash, Julie truly didn’t understand the whole human-dog bond thing. Now, she sees that most dogs want to be with people more than anything in the world. And, with her organization Julie is making it happen for them. “Most dogs want to be with people so badly, that’s why it’s so hard to see them in these kinds of circumstances in a shelter. People say dogs are so much more loyal than people and you’re like, ‘yeah, yeah’ … but it’s true!”
Thank you Julie, for sharing your Story with us.
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