Like many who survive a life-threatening illness, Loretta Wagler came back stronger and more determined than ever to serve the less fortunate.

At age 40, she was diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer. Not only did she beat the disease, but she has made it her mission to “live for somebody other than myself.”

Now, 30 years later, this retired accountant volunteers through ARK Oregon Animal Services to shelter pets when their owners — most who are living on the streets, disabled or impoverished — must be hospitalized. She cares for the pets, anywhere from one to to five weeks on her property in Happy Valley.

“Ninety percent of these people have no family members living locally or no children,” Wagler says. “I care for the pets as long as it takes people to get well.”

While most are cats and dogs, she’s also cared for a variety of other animals — rabbits, mice, birds, hamsters, and even snakes.

She prefers to let the some of the animals, such as dogs and cats, roam on the property, if they are socialized. She provides behavioral training and pays for their medical care when necessary.

Raised to rescue

A desire to save animals likely came from her father, a wildlife officer for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Astoria.

“From the time I was a baby, I was in a backpack going with him,” Wagler says. “He had a huge, huge garage and saved cougars, bobcats, fur seals on the coast, and porcupines. He would fill that garage with animals needing care and then release them into the wild.”

As an adult, Wagler volunteered for her local humane society assisting with animal rescue and, at one point, was director of the Oregon Humane Society in Astoria.

She later spent three years working with My Father’s House, distributing supplies to the homeless.

“It prepared me for what I’m doing now,” she says. “It took away my fear of being hurt by them. The only ones I steer away from are meth addicts because they can be very dangerous. Their brains have been damaged and they have no conscience. They are not good to animals and children.”

Her work with the homeless who have been hospitalized began with a call from two Multnomah County judges who “asked me to help with people living on the streets who had animals and needed to get medical attention,” Wagler says. “The judges were hoping to get donations to rent a facility in which animals could be cared for by volunteers. The need is so great with the homeless. So many need medical care.”

They had heard about her 40 years of animal rescue work, her efforts as a trained hospice worker and caring for her 86-year-old mother-in-law, who suffering the effects of a stroke. “They were trying to figure out what to do with this problem,” she says.

Instead of just finding volunteers, Wagler took on the responsibility herself and began sheltering the animals. She is joined by her second husband Don.

“We live in simplicity,” she says of their home with few “super nice, decorator things. We’re both country people and both have lived the simple life.”

At the time she received the call from Multnomah County, Wagler met with nurses at Milwaukie Providence Hospital, where they discussed animal rescue. She learned that many homeless people refuse to be hospitalized because they have no one to care for their pets.

Through this process, she has been able to meet and speak with many of them. She finds they have lost jobs due to injuries or, in many cases, drug and alcohol addictions. She will care for their pets while these individuals participate in rehab programs at the Cooper Detox or Salvation Army, and feels she has became an extended family member to many so they don’t feel so alone.

‘My heart gets really heavy’

Now, she receives regular referrals from staff at Providence, Good Samaritan and Willamette Falls.

She recalls the sad story of a man who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and hospitalized at Willamette Falls.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people I meet never make a provision in their wills for the care of their pets when they die,” Wagler says. “John had 15 cats.”

She visited his home and found open windows where cats were coming and going, eating what they could find on the kitchen counters.

“It could curl your hair,” she says of the scene in front of her. “I have to look past things like this and not say ‘no.’ John was taking chemo, so I cared for the cats for three months. When it was determined he would not live, the nurses got him to sign off and gift me the cats.”

Despite living on a very low income, John had had his cats spayed and neutered, and had taken care of their shots. Wagler was able to find homes for all of the cats — including keeping one for herself.

“I always feel like God never gives me more than I can handle,” she says. “It is very sad sometimes, though. My heart gets really heavy.”

She applauds the efforts of Central City Concern, which “does the best job in Portland for people. Two years ago, they got funding to create a living space for homeless with one pet and they provide nice, clean, tiny studio apartments. Those who move in, most stay clean and there is real structure.”

She believes that without these apartments, these individuals would likely be living in tents.

“I hope, before I die, we can find a commercial building where pets can be placed before people go to the hospital and to recuperate when they are released,” Wagler says.

Taking care of the animals feels like a calling for her. “This is like a ministry to me that is Christian-based,” she says.

Living a life of purpose keeps Wagler looking and feeling younger than her 71 years. She says she inherited her grandmother’s disposition, waking up happy every morning, making her to-do lists and helping others.

“My grandmother taught me at a very young age that serving others is what we are supposed to do, and she walked the talk,” Wagler says. “She would cook more than she needed and take it to people in need. She made a big impression on me.”

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