Pulling into Annie’s Orphans, an off-the-beaten-path animal shelter and rescue about 10 miles south of Durango off U.S. Highway 550, one is met with a cacophony of excitable dogs, each given a second chance at life.
“We have a great doorbell system,” jokes Annie Anderson as she walks about the property with each dog’s backstory committed to memory.
Annie and her husband, Bill Anderson, now in their 70s, started offering their home as a rescue for dogs in need more than three decades ago, and now they can claim the oldest no-kill dog shelter in the Four Corners.
The happy couple has not taken a vacation since.
“The last time we went on vacation was a fishing trip in 1985 outside of Pagosa Springs, and when we came home, there were nine animals left on our property,” Annie said. “That was the end of it for us. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not for anything.”
Annie and Bill purchased and moved onto their property at 1630 County Road 214 in 1971. At the time, the pair housed a few horses, not knowing that one day their 15-acre home would house an average of 60 dogs and a few wandering cats.
But in the late 1970s, Annie picked up dog sledding, and she soon realized how manipulated sled dogs were once they became too old to keep up with the younger dogs.
“People just use ’em up and throw ’em away,” Annie said.
“They are the most exploited breed next to greyhounds. So I quit sledding and just started rescuing. I just saw the need, and we had the property.”
All at once, Annie’s Orphans became a full-fledge, all-breed rescue. Along with the La Plata County Humane Society, Anderson’s dog rescue is the only other shelter in the county.
“She focuses on dogs we would have a hard time adopting here because we don’t have those long-term solutions some of them need,” said Chris Nelson, director of animal services for the Humane Society.
“There’s definitely a need for all of us, unfortunately.”
Annie said because animals that come to her are not euthanized, about 30 percent of the dogs at the shelter are lifelong residents. It’s a tough trade-off but one she holds dear.
“Of course, it keeps kennels occupied that I would be able to put adoptable dogs in,” she said. “But when they come in wild, it’s not their fault. I’m not going to kill them for it. So I take the dogs that no one else wants.”
Annie’s Orphans has capacity for as many as 80 dogs, but the Andersons try to keep the number at a manageable level for the pair and a handful of volunteers to take care of – about 60 dogs.
The dogs come from all over, Annie said. Many arrive as abandoned dogs on the Navajo reservation, and she receives at least three solicitors a day from out of state asking if she’d take troublesome dogs.
Aside from the resident dogs, Annie estimated the shelter rescues and finds good homes for anywhere from 80 to 100 dogs a year.
But the costs and energy for the aging couple are adding up.
“It’s getting harder,” Annie said. “I do see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Annie’s Orphans became a nonprofit in 1997 and operates on a budget of about $80,000 to $100,000 a year, mostly through public donations and a few fundraising events.
Winter is especially hard, Annie said, because each dog has a heated home outside, driving the electricity bill up to $1,600 a month.
And the lone staffer was cut earlier this year because of financial constraints, and now, only a handful of volunteers help the rag-tag operation.
Annie is quick to list off the needs of the shelter: volunteers, a possible solar energy investor, someone who can better manage the shelter’s social media accounts, and, of course, donations.
But she’s quicker to list the things she’s grateful for, chief among them her husband, whom she calls the backbone to Annie’s Orphans.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” Bill said.