Column: Love welcomes special-needs animals into Columbus homes

Two out of every three U.S. households include a pet, according to a new survey. But for special-needs animals, joining the majority can result in a long wait. Here are two stories that improved the odds.


Heartbreak left an abrupt void in the lives of newlyweds Alli and Nate Gootee of Columbus. Alli’s cat, named after the title character from the 2003 film “Finding Nemo,” succumbed to kidney failure about three weeks after the North Vernon natives wed on Feb. 2.

Losing their cat was devastating. Then the couple lost their jobs as well due to COVID-19.

Alli had worked for an in-school child care facility that closed in March. She found a part-time retail job, but got caught up again — furloughed until June 11. Meanwhile, the Franklin College sophomore biology major is working to complete her online spring courses, which end May 21.

Nate graduated in December from IUPUC with a degree in business management, and plans to enroll in the university’s MBA program. Besides his classes, Nate was working full time as a cost estimator for Martinrea International, a North Vernon automotive supplier. However, Nate and hundreds of co-workers were laid off March 30 due to production stoppages at manufacturing plants for the company’s biggest customers. He is waiting for a call-back.

Before experiencing their own challenges due to the pandemic, the couple had come to the rescue of a gray tuxedo cat battling a virus of her own. LuLu, who lived at the Bartholomew County Humane Society most of her three years, had Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).

But with her Feb. 24 adoption, three days after Nemo died, the long-haired cat got a change of address and a new name.

Nemo also was an alias used by Odysseus in Homer’s classic, “The Odyssey.” The character’s wife, Penelope, maintained Odysseus’ kingdom when he was away on a journey. Based on these literary references, LuLu became Penelope.

“We hoped she could carry on the legacy of (our) Nemo, too,” Alli said.

To compensate for her virus, the Gootees feed Penelope cat food that is high in nutrients. They also add lysine, a powdered immunity booster, to her food.

Penelope shares her new home with Gus, a 5-year-old Miniature Parti Poodle that was also a rescue.

“I knew I really wanted to get our next cat through rescue. There’s so many of them that need a home,” she said.

After the newlyweds brought home a new couch, their new cat pealed off the Velcro lining and made herself a hammock. She did that with the bottom of their box spring, too.

But by her fifth week, they could tell Penelope was becoming more comfortable in her new surroundings.

“Now that she’s happy, she always wants to be around us,” Alli said.


Another special-needs animal housed at the Columbus-based humane society was Ryder, a 2-year-old Beagle-Labrador mix with neurological problems including epilepsy.

His original owner had to give Ryder up and a first shelter adoption fell through. But the third would be the charm when a Columbus couple, Zach and Bex McNair, welcomed Ryder into their home March 23.

Zach works from home as a self-employed E-sport professional, playing and coaching online streaming competitive games using Twitch, the world’s leading platform for gamers.

Bex works in teen services at the Bartholomew County Public Library and operates its Cleo’s Seed Share. When library buildings temporarily closed due to the pandemic, Bex began working from home — staying in touch with and engaged with local teens.

As a special-needs animal, Ryder takes an anti-seizure medication twice a day. Zach suspects the dog had a chronic-infection disease when younger, which left some neurological issues.

He has minor balance issues, for example. He leans to one side or the other when he gets excited.

The McNairs’ first dog, a year-old German Shepherd Malinois mix named Gadget, really needed a friend to play with.

“We adopted another dog just a few days before we adopted Ryder, but those two didn’t get along,” Zach explained.

Shepard, a 2-year-old Boxer-Husky mix, had also come from the Columbus shelter.

Given Ryder’s need for medication and a little bit of extra care, Zach and Bex decided to step forward — especially since they previously had experience with a special-needs dog.

They had lost Seraph, a 16-year-old American Eskimo dog who also was epileptic, at the end of last year.

“We had the ability to give him a good home, and to take care of him,” Zach said.

Besides, Ryder was used to being around cats — and the McNairs have three American Shorthairs — Josie, Sophie and Cleo.

In Ryder, Bex has found a Netflix buddy and lays claim to a favorite spot on their couch.

With both of them home, at least for now, Zach and Bex have had more time to interact with all of their pets.

However, the biggest adjustment has been in sleeping arrangements.

“Three dogs is a lot and they don’t all fit in the bed,” Zach said, with the dogs’ weight ranging from 55 to 65 pounds.

The McNairs encourage everyone to adopt from a shelter, and share a lesson learned from their experiences.

“The dog that you meet at the shelter is not the dog you take home,” Zach said. “Ryder seemed scared at the shelter. He’s now playful. He’s excited to meet other dogs and other people. A dog will really come out of his shell once he’s home.”