Animal Helpers: Saving Unwanted Pets of all Sizes

Author Jennifer Keats Curtis is an incredible Animal Helper, and today she writes about a family of very special animal helpers that she has met while visiting Joppa View Elementary in Maryland.

It’s not every day that you see a grown woman lugging two enormous turtles into school by way of a kids’ pull-along wagon but Melanie Neuhauser isn’t just any woman.

Sashimi and sushimi at JVE 1Over the past several years, Melanie and her children have fostered and adopted at least 25 animals, including kittens, puppies, birds, and turtles of all sizes. Those turtles—Sulcata tortoises weighing 27 and 35 pounds respectively—were both unwanted pets. Sushi, the smaller and sassier of the two, had been turned into a reptile rescue group. Melanie’s intent was simply to foster her; but, the turtle is so terrible—she rams furniture and the refrigerator when she’s hungry; gnaws on shoes; and even goes after wiring like it’s a tantalizing piece of cake—that Melanie and the kids completely fell in love with her. Sashimi, who is a bit better behaved, was found wandering a neighborhood. Melanie, well known as the resident rescuer, received a call about a big turtle meandering nearby lawns. And, she’s kept her ever since.

Melanie, with help from her twin sons, fifth graders Donovan and Marcus, hauled the massive tortoises into Joppa View Elementary School in Baltimore because they wanted author Jennifer Keats Curtis to meet the tortoises in person…or, er, is that in reptile?with donovan and turtles

Jennifer is a regular visitor to Joppa View Elementary School, where she waxes poetic about her books and her passion for the right way to treat critters, wild and domestic. Ever the animal lover, Jennifer was enamored with the Neuhausers’ passion for helping pets in need. (In fact, Donovan was featured as a future animal helper in a blog last year,

Taking care of so many pets, especially those really huge ones, is time-consuming and can be draining. Melanie knows that only too well; she works full-time as a vet tech. But, with the help of her kids, orphaned kittens get bottles; dogs are walked; bird cages are changed; and tortoises get fed. The food preparation for the turtles is considerable as those beastly critters love to eat—mostly orchard grass, but once a day they also get steamed sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, zucchini, and even cactus. On occasion, they get strawberries and bananas, too.

sushi eatsThe Neuhausers, however, love it. They know what it takes to run a household full of growing animals and have decided they are in for the long haul.

If you are considering adopting, fostering, or buying a pet, please remember that caring for an animal in your home is a big responsibility. You may wish to carefully consider some important factors before you take on this commitment:

  • How large will the animal become as an adult? (Even those tremendous tortoises, who will one day weigh over 100 pounds and become the size of coffee tables, were once tiny hatchlings.)
  • Do you have room in your home for this animal?
  • How long will the animal live? (Sulcata tortoises can live to be 100.)
  • Do you have time for this pet?
  • What does this pet eat and can you provide that food? (Are you willing to steam sweet potatoes as food?)
  • Do you have someone who can help take care of the animals if you will be away?
  • Are you able to take the animal to a veterinarian if he or she gets sick? Vet visits are important and they can be costly if your pet becomes ill.

Learn more about the Animal Helpers series and Jennifer Keats Curtis at Arbordale Publishing.

Happy National Dog Day

IMG_0704It’s only fitting that National Dog Day falls within August and the “dog days of summer.”  So as your pooch is panting to stay cool, here are some interesting facts about how dogs became human companions.

Scientists have done extensive research on the genetics of today’s dogs, wolves and DNA of their ancestors. Their findings show that our pooches came from one extinct species, which lived nearly 32,000-18,000 years ago.

While scientists may agree that a single ancient dog/wolf was the first domesticated dog, they don’t agree on where humans and dogs became companions. Some evidence shows that in the Ice Age dogs helped the hunters and gatherers in Europe. Other evidence shows dogs as companions in the Middle East. Archaeologists uncovered a 12,000-year-old burial site with a man cradling a puppy. Others have found evidence that dogs were domesticated in Asia as an agricultural food source.

IMG_4948So why does a Chihuahua look nothing like a Great Dane? Interbreeding between dog types and modern day wolves has occurred for thousands of years making it even harder for scientists to detect exactly where dogs came from. And over the thousands of years humans have stepped in and bred dogs based on desired characteristics creating the perfect personality for different types of jobs.

If we look at ancient history dogs have been a meaningful symbol in many cultures. From Egypt, we know that the dog was a highly regarded creature and when a dog would die a family would mummify the animal and often masters and canines were buried together. Even Roman Laws provided for dog owners and show us that humans have long valued the jobs and certain traits of dogs. A writer, Varro, says “Every family should have two types of dogs, a hunting dog and a watchdog.” He also showed an affinity for white dogs stating that you could distinguish them better in the darkness.

In Colonial America dogs served as companions and workers just as they had in England. Hounds helped out in a fox hunt, a bulldog guarded the Virginia Governor’s palace, and Pomeranians were simply companions.  Even George Washington was in search of the perfect hunting companion and his selective breeding of the most superior dogs at Mount Vernon lead to the American Fox Hound which is slightly lighter and taller than the British version.

IMG_2833Today the American Kennel Club has registered over 5,000,000 and 150 different breeds. Countless dogs of all varieties are companions and workers throughout the world. From service dogs helping their owners to do daily activities to ranch dogs that continue to herd a flock humans are dependent on our four-legged friends. So celebrate this day by giving your furry friend lots of petting, cuddling and maybe an extra treat!

If you don’t have a dog read about them. Here is a few of Arbordale’s top dogs.


When – and where – did dogs first become our pets?, Los Angeles Times

Dogs Not as Close to Kin to Wolves as Thought, Discovery News:

Dogs in the Ancient World, Ancient History Encyclopedia:

The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs, Colonial Williamsburg:

American Kennel Club:

Are You Taking Care of Your Perfect Pet?



In The Perfect Pet, a young boy’s mom has finally agreed to let him have a pet! This book takes us through the many kingdoms, classes, orders, families, and genera as he tries to figure out what pet he should get. Eventually, after realizing everything that it takes to take care of a pet, he decides on simply getting a plant.

Pets are a lot of responsibility. But pets can also teach our children how to be more responsible. Although many responsibilities of owning a pet still tend to fall back on parents, there are a lot of tasks that children can take care of as well.

For example, toddlers up to age five can help to put food and water in the pet’s dishes–with supervision, of course. We don’t want too many spills! They can also assist in washing the dishes and putting away toys. And when it comes to brushing and grooming, you can hold the pet while they brush. A lot of times it’s a two person job anyways!

Children aged five to ten should be able to take on even more responsibilities, such as feeding the pet unassisted. Perhaps they can even help with bathtime or taking the pet for walks! This is also a great age to let the dirty bathroom area cleaning fall to the child and give yourself a break.

After age ten, children should be able to assume full pet responsibility.

Although taking care of a pet can seem like a lot of work, they are also wonderful additions to the household. They help to teach children about responsibility but are also great companions. Rescuing a pet from an animal shelter is also a great way to help out in your community and give an animal a loving home.

Meet Donovan, a Future Animal Helper

Arbordale Author Jennifer Keats Curtis regularly visits schools to talk about how she researches and writes her books about animals. During these visits, kids are often quite excited to share their own animal stories with her. Jennifer was particularly thrilled to hear about this 4th grader’s intriguing pastime.

Donovan Neuhaser with Sushi the sulcataAlthough he’s not quite 10, Donovan Neuhauser knows a lot about animals.

Perhaps it’s because the Joppa View Elementary School fourth grader is surrounded by them. (Literally, he’s surrounded. Look at the picture of Sushi, his Sulcata tortoise, climbing up into his lap so she can listen to the story he’s reading.)

Introduced to his first pet—a dog named Lowery—at the ripe old age of one, Donovan now shares his home with two dogs, three different kinds of turtles, a parakeet, and a hamster.

Sushi, the six-year-old Sulcata, is particularly sassy. Donovan’s mom, Melanie, was just supposed to foster the 27-pound African spurred tortoise, whom she’d received from a reptile rescue. But, the tortoise had such a bad attitude that the Neuhausers decided they had to keep her. When Sushi is hungry and apparently desperate for cherry tomatoes and broccoli, she rams the refrigerator. She’ll also push furniture…and other pets and people given the chance. The feisty reptile has also taken over the dogs’ bed, where she sleeps most of the time. At least Jake, the younger dog, shares. When he’s tired, he hops in and snuggles with her.

Because of her penchant for bright colors that may look like her favorite foods, Sushi has also been known to try to eat shoes and evensushi the six year old sulcata tortoise with jake the dogcolored toenails. Fortunately, she licks before she bites, giving her possible treats fair warning…and time to leap out of the way.

In captivity, Sushi will live about 60 years and will continue to grow. She could reach 100 pounds in her lifetime.

Unfortunately, Sushi is not a big fan of the other household tortoise, Sheldon, who is considerably smaller. At 20 years old and only a few pounds, the Russian tortoise is full-grown. To keep Sheldon safe, the Neuhausers make sure he is happy in his big box and away from Sushi.

The Neuhausers’ other turtle is aquatic; he’s a baby snapper whom Donovan rescued from a cat’s mouth last fall. Donovan carefully feeds Gimli mealworms every day, and may release him once he gets bigger.

As if the turtles don’t keep him busy enough, Donovan also cares for Ralph the hamster and Kernel the parakeet. Currently, the only phrase Kernel utters, in his high squeaky voice, is “Hi, Sushi!”

gimli the baby snapperNow, most kids might be wondering how in the world Donovan talked his mom into having so many pets. The truth is, he didn’t. Donovan’s mom, Melanie, also loves animals, and despite the hard work, especially cleaning up after them, they enjoy taking care of the animals together.

If you are considering getting a pet, or trying to talk your parents into letting you get one, Donovan offers some wonderful advice: “Research every animal before your bring it home. He visits his school library almost every week to check out a nonfiction book.”

When he grows up, Donovan would like to continue being around animals and to work in a veterinary clinic, like his mom.

sheldon the russian tortoise


Thank you Jennifer and Donovan for sharing this story with our readers. It looks like Donovan has a great head start on a career helping animals one day!