January-February 2022

Local woman has turned her home into a sanctuary for senior pets

The Rockville resident's goal is simple: She wants older cats and dogs to enjoy the time they have left.

share this
Risa Simon is pictured at home in Rockville, where she runs a pet sanctuary and rescue. Bronx, who’s next to Simon, died in September, a little more than a week after this photo was taken. Photo by Liz Lynch

“Let’s go for a walk!” says Risa Simon, clapping her hands and prompting seven dogs, including
Buddha, a 20-year-old Chihuahua mix, and Olive, a one-eyed Shih Tzu, to perk up and follow her out the front door. The yard is fenced, so there’s no need for leashes.

“Everybody goes at their own pace,” Simon explains as she circles her 3-acre property with the pack of misfits ambling behind. The 49-year-old U.S. naval intelligence officer has run Leashes End, a nonprofit pet sanctuary and rescue for senior dogs and cats, out of her Rockville home since 2016. Many of the animals have been neglected, abused or abandoned and come to Simon through shelters or from owners who can no longer care for them. In December, she had 16 dogs and 11 cats. Amid the contemporary decor and hardwood floors in the house, pet gear—dog beds, kitty condos, blankets, litter boxes—fills the rooms.

“It doesn’t matter where they came from. Once they get here, they just love it and they blossom,” says Simon, who does not adopt out the animals. “They are here to live their final chapter.”

The younger cats at Leashes End can venture outside and explore the yard. Photo by Liz Lynch

From the outside, Simon’s manicured lawn and 5,000-square-foot brick colonial blend right into her Avery Village neighborhood. The first clues to the operation inside are the signs on the front door that read: “I was normal three cats ago” and “Dogs are like potato chips. You can’t have just one.”

It’s pandemonium when Simon gets home from work, she says. Sometimes an 18-year-old puggle named Molly is the scout at the gate, barking when her car pulls into the driveway. Once Molly sounds the alarm, the others rush to the call. As Simon comes in, the animals trail after her and jump on her, and she picks them up for hugs. Some follow her to the powder room after her long commute, she says, often wildly protesting if she tries to close the door. Among the brood is Blue, a 16-year-old schnoodle (poodle-schnauzer mix) described by Simon as a little neurotic. “He’s the most vocal of all the dogs, and he just about wails when I come home about how long I’ve been gone,” she says.

After what has been a rough life for many of the animals, Simon says they deserve all the attention she can provide, along with that of the two live-in staffers and regular volunteers who help her out. She always dreamed of starting a rescue in retirement, she says, but she proceeded ahead of schedule when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough room in her Silver Spring townhouse for all the older pets she had re-homed or adopted. Simon is separated from her husband, who shares her soft spot for animals in need and volunteers at Leashes End on weekends. She bought the Rockville house with money left to her by an aunt, who also gave Simon two of her beloved Maltese dogs when she could no longer care for them.

The yard on Simon’s 3-acre property in Rockville is fenced, so the dogs don’t need leashes. Photo by Liz Lynch

The animals at Leashes End range in age from 8 to 22, though most tend to be on the older side (Simon calls them “super seniors”) and have medical conditions that made it harder to find a home for them. There are cats-only spaces on all three floors, with gates to keep out the dogs. The oldest cats live inside and stay upstairs; the younger ones can venture out and often enjoy exploring the creek in the back of the yard. Kiva, a 20-year-old blind cat who has been at Leashes End for five years, gets a spacious room all to herself in the basement.

While the animals generally get along, they sometimes get protective over food. Kelley Carpenter, who lives in the house and prepares meals twice a day according to each animal’s dietary needs, says she separates certain dogs and puts others in their crates while they’re eating to minimize problems. But it’s rare that a dog is too aggressive for group living—the rescue has only returned two poodles to a shelter because they didn’t fit in, but both found homes with families that didn’t have other pets.

With the chaos of the day behind her, Simon relishes the peace and snuggles that come at night. She shares her room with 11 dogs and a cat—some sleep on the floor in their own beds, a few climb the small set of pet stairs and end up with her. “When they all settle in and it’s quiet, that’s the most precious time for me,” says Simon, adding that she even welcomes Olive, the Shih Tzu who came to her as a stray and “snores like a freight train.”

The animals’ meals are prepared twice a day and may include turkey bacon or stewed beef. Photo by Liz Lynch

Simon gets calls every day from shelters and owners looking to re-home animals—it’s tough to turn them down, she says, but she has limited space. She generally takes smaller breeds—dogs under 25 pounds—and never has more than 30 at a time. Montgomery County does not limit the number of animals a person can own if the animals receive proper care. “We give them a soft landing here, and we make sure they are absolutely cherished,” says Carpenter, who was Simon’s pet sitter for years and now is her rescue partner at Leashes End. The two confer on decisions about care for the animals and divide duties. Carpenter lives in a walk-out basement apartment and is in charge of the animals who live downstairs: three cats and five small dogs, often referred to as the “hooligans.” She orders all the food, grooms all the pets, and runs a part-time grooming business. In addition to the live-in staffers, volunteers help keep things running. Diana Domingues discovered Leashes End after her beloved Chihuahua, Bandido, died in November 2020, and she wanted to donate some of his bedding. Since then, she has spent a few hours at the rescue every Saturday doing laundry, cooking turkey bacon or stewing beef for the animals’ meals, and sometimes putting dogs on her lap when they need help eating.

“It’s all about giving love to these animals who haven’t had it. And you’re getting so much in return,” says Domingues, a part-time piano teacher who lives in Gaithersburg. “Since I haven’t gotten another dog, this is a way for me to be involved with dogs. I’ll probably do it for as long as this place is around.”

Simon shares her room with 11 dogs and a cat. Photo by Liz Lynch

Simon, whose deployments have included two years in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, where she earned the Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone, uses her military training to keep things organized—even when it comes to picking up poop. “I patrol the front yard once or twice a day. I walk a grid like we do on an aircraft carrier,” she says.

There are times that try her patience, like when multiple dogs have diarrhea, but she maintains it’s worth the effort. It costs between $6,000 and $9,000 a month to cover expenses, mainly medical bills and food, she says. Because the animals are older, Simon makes a lot of trips to the vet, often paying for medications, subcutaneous fluids and dental cleanings. Some of her animals have had physical therapy on a water treadmill; others have needed tumors removed. Simon says she ultimately makes decisions about medical care based on whether it will improve the quality of the pet’s life. The nonprofit accepts donations and applies for grants—all of which go directly to pet care, according to Simon, who covers about two-thirds of the costs herself. She has become so dedicated to animals that she says she recently turned down her dream job with the Navy, which would have required a move.

Most of the dogs Simon takes are smaller breeds. “It doesn’t matter where they came from. Once they get here, they just love it and they blossom,” she says. Photo by Liz Lynch

Some animals stay a few weeks, others much longer. Buddha, the Chihuahua mix, came to Leashes End three years ago when he was 17. He had a serious heart condition and suffered from fainting spells. The outlook wasn’t good, but he’s under the care of a cardiologist and has responded well to steroids. “He just keeps trucking along,” Simon says.

Liz Morgan, who lives across the street from Simon, says her 21-year-old daughter, Alden, and 15-year-old son, Colten, were regular volunteers at the rescue and learned lessons about compassion and death. “We’ve known a lot of the animals that have passed away, and they have had a great ending,” she says.

Recently, the Montgomery County Humane Society asked Simon to care for Bronx, a French bulldog boxer mix who had late-stage lymphoma. The staff knew he’d be more comfortable at Leashes End than he was in their building, which can get busy and loud. “They take on some of the dogs that some people just won’t take,” says Lisa Carrier Baker, director of marketing and community outreach for MCHS. “It’s a lot of work—and [it’s] heartbreaking because you know their time is limited.”

After just three weeks, X-rays showed that Bronx’s cancer had spread. It was clear that he was suffering, and Simon knew it was time. “It’s hard, but the alternative is to watch a dog laboring to breathe and in obvious pain,” she says.

There’s a memorial garden in her yard that has 25 stones painted with pawprints and the names of her animals who’ve died. “They’re obviously imprinted on my soul and my heart,” she says, “but I have to carry on because there’s so many more depending on me.”

Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda.