Veterinarian Honors Her Family by Building Shelter, Saving Pets

Monday, July 13, 2015

Our Everyday Heroes series highlights the work of pet lovers who are dedicated to saving lives.

veterinarian poses with dogsLike many of us, loss sparked a calling for Dr. Gail Counts. A veterinarian, she ran the Shawnee Animal Clinic in rural Portsmouth, Ohio. In 2000, tragedy rocked her family when her younger brother Bernie died of a heart attack at age 42.

She wasn’t alone in her grief. Bernie’s cat, Sierra, had stayed by his side during the attack until someone arrived to help. He was Sierra’s only family.

Dr. Counts’ nephew adopted 14-year-old Sierra, who spent the rest of her days in a warm, loving home. But Dr. Counts recognized that a similar cat’s fate could be different.

With that, she began what she calls “my pet project.”

Determination built on loss

Dr. Counts is truly connected to the community where she works — she grew up there. She also understood the problems homeless pets faced in the low-income, high-unemployment area back in 2001. “Everywhere you looked there were strays running around,” she said.

The local animal control agency was often forced to euthanize pets to cope with the volume. “They put down 3,000 dogs a year. There was no place for cats at all, because they didn’t take cats and there were no shelters around here,” she recalled.

The conditions tore at her business sense and at her heart. “I was always taking in strays, fixing them, doing stuff for people for free,” she said. Dr. Counts knew the solution: build a shelter.

Dr. Counts, a dedicated board of directors comprised of volunteers, and the community raised $500,000 in 5 years. In honor of Bernie and his beloved cat, Sierra’s Haven opened in 2006.

Spay/neuter services improve community and pets’ lives

Simply having a shelter in the community wouldn’t solve the problems, though. Homeless cats were in real trouble, with litters adding to the population every year. “If I didn’t do something about controlling the pet population, then building a shelter wouldn’t do anything,” she explained. “We started a really aggressive spay/neuter program right away.”

Low-income residents qualify for low-cost spay/neuter services — $20 for cats, $25 for dogs of any size. Dr. Counts was dedicated from the start, spending even her single day off each week at the shelter. “I’ve done that since it opened,” she said.  

Between Dr. Counts and Dr. Angie Sherman, a clinic veterinarian who helps at the shelter, they have spayed or neutered 13,000 pets at Sierra’s Haven since 2006.

veterinarian poses with colleaguesRescue Waggin’ program supports puppy love

Soon, Dr. Counts spotted another problem: not enough adopters for dogs. Even when the shelter was full of dogs, more kept arriving, especially puppies. “We knew we’d have an issue with puppies [coming in]. We just don’t move dogs out of here fast enough,” Dr. Counts said.

When Sierra’s Haven applied for the PetSmart Charities Rescue Waggin’ program, Dr. Counts had to explain that the shelter would have enough pets to transport. “The numbers looked limited because we turned a lot of animals away when we were full,” she said.

Instead of low numbers, the shelter “sent 40 to 50 puppies a month, sometimes twice a month, through the Rescue Waggin’ program — huge numbers of puppies,” she recalled.

How was Sierra’s Haven able to send so many puppies on lifesaving rides? Once the staff knew the puppies could find homes, they didn’t turn anyone away. Dr. Counts said, “We’d take all puppies in as long as the [owners] agreed to get the female spayed.”

The shelter didn’t charge for the surgery, but Dr. Counts did ask owners to foster the puppies for 2 weeks after their first shot. It kept them safe for their recovery and prevented staff from having to house vulnerable puppies in the crowded shelter. If owners didn’t agree to the foster arrangement, they weren’t allowed to surrender their puppy.

The shelter still sends 20 to 30 dogs and puppies on the Rescue Waggin’ transport every 2 weeks. In all, they’ve boarded nearly 2,500 dogs and puppies on Rescue Waggin’ vehicles. Shelters from Wisconsin to Maine request puppies from Sierra’s Haven.

The local animal control agency has gone from euthanizing 3,000 dogs a year to fewer than 100. Rescue groups have helped save dogs, too. Dr. Counts said, “Our program has really helped with the number of stray dogs running around.”

Success story creates a legacy

The numbers alone prove that Dr. Counts’ commitment has saved thousands of pets. 13,000 pets have been spayed or neutered at Sierra’s Haven since 2006. The shelter has found homes for nearly 8,400 pets. Its programs have contributed to a 97% reduction in euthanasia at animal control.

Sadly, doing so much good for the community didn’t protect Dr. Counts from further tragedy. In 2013, she lost another younger brother, David, who was 46 and worked at the clinic. The new loss drove her to work even harder to save pets’ lives as a tribute to her family.

Moreover, grief over her brothers’ passings helped her realize that people “go through life putting things off,” and she just wasn’t willing to do that any longer. “They had so much still to do in their lives. You never know how much longer you’ve got,” she said. “This keeps me going because it’s in their honor — that’s why I work so hard. My heart is in it and I love what I do for a living.”

Dr. Gail Counts is one of PetSmart Charities Everyday Heroes, improving her community and making her family proud every day.


Karen M Song

Dr Gail Counts, I would love to chat with you concerning a product I am launching that could enhance the lives of animals everywhere. "Li'l Orphan Nanniess" "RESCUE ME" An adorable, collectible, neonatal plush with it's 3 part DVD. Animated and narrated diary cartoons, lullabies that have been written and composed for each orphan toy replica (of real life rescues) and an educational section that will cover topics such as Responsible pet ownership, Micro-chipping and ID tags, Annual vaccinations and why, Spay and Neuter The solution to homeless among animals and many, many more topics. With the DVD's on track to be made available in different languages could mean positive change in the lives of animals everywhere. I need your help to possibly be the veterinarian on our DVD's educational section. "Li'l Orphan Nannies" bottle boots are a nursing apparatus for orphaned infant animals and "Li'l RESCUE ME" is a spin off of the original invention. Replicas of real life orphaned infant animals raised and nurtured on our "Li'l Orphan Nannies" bottle boots. Profits from our "Li'l RESCUE ME" toy line will create perpetual funding for our "Li'l Orphan Nannies" Company Shelter. Offering free medical care for animals in need as well as a fully staffed neonatal animal care facility where we will be saving lives everyday. This toy line is ready to launch. However, I'm looking for the perfect person (a veterinarian) that is committed to making a difference in the lives of animals. You are that person. Please call me at 806-236-2934 that's my cell phone.


Dr Gail Counts, you are mine and thousands of other foster moms hero!!!
Thank God for you, and believe me there's a very special place in God's kingdom for you and your tireless staff!

Cathy Armato

What an incredible success story, and a beautiful way to turn grief into action to give back to the community in such a big way. Bless you for doing this Dr. Counts. This is a great achievement and an inspiration!

Pat Hall

congratulations, cousin. Your life has truly made a difference.


* = required fields

Related Stories

October 15, 2013
Soothing music provides dogs with a comforting effect that mimics their mothers’ heartbeat
February 25, 2015
Everyone can make a difference
July 20, 2015
Passion propels shelter and clinic toward lifesaving success
August 13, 2015
Project drives change for community cats