Pets with a purpose

Laurel Wambeke of rural Marshall has found a way to contribute to her community while taking care of pets that others might not want

Photo by Jenny Kirk Residents Edith Jeremiason, left, and Mary Westphal take time to pet a goat, one of three animals Laurel Wambeke, center, brought in for a visit on Sunday at Minneota Manor.

Sometimes the best medicine is the companionship of a furry friend.

Laurel Wambeke knows that to be true.

“I’ve been training therapy animals,” said Wambeke, who lives with her husband, Vincent, in the rural Marshall area. “It’s going great so far. I’ve gone to assisted living and nursing homes as well as private homes. I’m free and love making people and animals happy.”

Recently, Laurel Wambeke brought three of those friends — a miniature pony named Ladybug, a Great Dane named Nina and a tri-colored goat named Basil — to visit with residents at Minneota Manor Nursing Home.

“This was fun,” resident Edith Jeremiason said.

Resident Harvey Myhre was surprised at how large 10-month-old Nina was.

“That’s a pretty big dog,” Myhre said.

Wambeke moved the animals around between the wheelchairs, giving each of the residents an opportunity to reach out and pet the animals.

“I enjoyed that,” resident Marian Sarbaum said before she went back inside.

Residents Mary Westphal and Ruth Anderson said they couldn’t really pick a favorite.

“I like them all,” Westphal said. “The dog is really nice. I like that little horse, too. We used to have a couple of those when my kids were really little. I have a picture of them petting the horse.”

Wambeke said she loves getting to share stories back and forth with the people who connect with her animals.

“You get to hear all these wonderful stories,” she said.

Myhre shared that he had a pet turkey for awhile when he was growing up.

“I didn’t name him but he followed me around,” Myhre said.

Westphal said her daughter, Cindy, and her family had a variety of pets.

“She has a big German shepherd, a little chihuahua, a cat and then of all things, an iguana,” Westphal said. “The cat usually stands by the iguana’s cage and they stare at each other. But that thing is so tame. It sits on Jeff’s lap and will kiss him. She showed me pictures.”

Westphal said her daughter wasn’t too fond of the iguana at first.

“For a long time, Cindy wouldn’t touch it,” she said. “Now she’ll touch its belly, but that’s as far as she’ll go. I knew it would grow on her.”

Anderson said she had a few pets growing up in the small town of Swift Falls. Her favorite are dogs, she said. While she liked and petted all three of the visiting animals, she seemed to have a special connection with Basil.

“I like that one there,” Anderson said, pointing to the goat.

Basil is 4 years old.

“She’s in 4-H,” Wambeke said. “We have 26 little goats at home. I also have two teacup piglets, a corgi and a registered black lab — a therapy dog that knows when my blood sugar drops. We’re hoping to get alpacas in the future.”

While some might argue that Wambeke was always meant to do what she’s doing now, it took a perfect storm of uncontrollable forces to lead her in that direction.

“I broke my back about four years ago,” Wambeke said. “The doctors never did figure it out. I think God was trying to slow me down or I was going the wrong way or something.”

Wambeke worked with special needs children and drove a school bus when she suffered the back injury.

“I’ve work with handicapped children in school for 20-plus years,” she said. “I had this little 4-year-old between my legs and we were doing sit-ups. We did that every day and ran around the gym every day. I was pretty fit — I used to drive a cement truck and I lifted weights — but I had two vertebrae just disintegrate.”

Wambeke said doctors, including ones in Rochester, tried to figure out why the debilitation occurred.

“I kept going to different doctors until one of them was willing to get me out of the wheelchair,” Wambeke said. “Dr. Snow found me a surgeon who fixed my back and got me out of the wheelchair. But then depression hit from not being able to go back and do my job working with the children.”

When she was feeling better, Wambeke was encouraged to volunteer through a program at Boulder Estates.

“I played cards with people in their homes or I’d come to nursing homes,” she said. “It was a year ago that I brought the pony to see my favorite lady (Pauline Oster). She was 105. Pauline and Margaret kind of grabbed me by the heart. We’d play cards a lot, even past my allotted time. And they wanted to see my menagerie of animals.”

Wambeke said she got the go-ahead from the director at Boulder to bring in baby goats.

“They were a week old, and I put diapers on them and then a onesie to hold the diaper on better,” Wambeke said. “I brought four of them and they just loved it. I must have spent four hours in there. Everybody came down from their apartments to play with the goats.”

Ladybug, now a 30-year-old registered miniature horse, was the next to visit.

“Someone was already bringing the dogs and cats, so I brought the goats or the pony,” Wambeke said.

Ladybug continued to visit Oster even when she was moved to the Minneota Manor.

“We were at a horse show in Minneota, so I came up to the window and showed Pauline the pony,” Wambeke said. “The nurses said to bring her in. She was so good. She’d go from wheelchair to wheelchair, loving on everybody.”

Unfortunately, Wambeke was forced to give leave the volunteer program when her daughter began suffering from similar back problems.

“My daughter is only 30 and her back did the same thing, except she has a tumor on the base of her spine,” Wambeke said. “I ended up going down to Oklahoma to help take care of her three kids. I’d go there for three weeks, then my mom would go for three weeks — it was back and forth. I had to quit my volunteer job. It was an awesome program.”

With so many people showing appreciation for and benefiting from the animal visits, Wambeke decided to continue on her own later on.

“It used to just be sporadic every now and then, but I’ve got more and more people wanting me to bring in the animals,” she said. “So on my good days, I load up. Other days, I just take the dog.”

Besides the back issues, Wambeke suffers from a number of diseases that often wreak havoc on her body. But her passion for animals and her will to help comfort others keeps her going.

“It helps me get rid of my depression, to feel like I’m not totally worthless,” Wambeke said. “It’s hard when you work two or three jobs all your life. But I’m so much better now. The pain used to be so bad. So I have so much to be grateful for. I can breathe through the pain now. It’s not the first thing on my mind when I get up.”

Wambeke grew up around a farm and has rescued countless animals.

“Animals have always been an interest to me,” she said. “My grandma was good about rescuing animals when I was little. I’ve rescued so many animals in my life, too. My grandparents raised me, so I feel more comfortable around grandpas and grandmas. Sometimes I forget I’m one.”

When she was young, Wambeke’s grandfather got her a miniature horse.

“I’ve had horses since I was 1,” Wambeke said. “My kids did, too. We brought home my daughter’s first horse in the back of our suburban. It was only 22 inches tall. That little pony taught my 1- and 2-year-old to ride. It was the best horse.”

As Wambeke grew, so did the size of her horse.

“When I got a little older, I got a little bigger horse and I’d go out in the field and bring the calves in,” she said. “I’d throw it over the horse and bring it in.”

Nina was Wambeke’s last rescue. As a puppy, the Great Dane’s eyelids were turned completely inside out.

“I’d rescued a couple of older Great Danes, but I wanted a baby one,” Wambeke said. “So I asked (on social media) if there was anyone who had a Great Dane puppy with special needs. Within a day, this lady contacted me. She was so upset because her vet wanted to put one of her puppies down. She asked if I would take it.”

The vet had told the dog owner that the eye surgery would cost $3,000. Wambeke said she thinks the out-of-state vet was trying to take advantage of the woman.

“I called my vet and she said it was an $80 surgery,” Wambeke said. “Or maybe it was just God doing this to get me this dog.”

Nina’s eyes are completely fine now — Wambeke credits the power of prayer for helping. She’s healthy, but just needs to put on a little more weight. Despite her large stature, Nina is quite gentle and affectionate.

“They’re very quiet, mellow dogs,” Wambeke said. “She’s actually the same height as the pony — just skinnier.”

Along with Minneota Manor and Boulder Estates, Wambeke, who is working on getting her animals certified, has also taken her animals to Hill Street Place and Avera Morningside Heights Care Center.

“Morningside said if I bring the dog, it’s OK, but if I bring the horse, it has to be pre-planned,” she said. “Hill Street said with my dog, they’d be very flexible. And if they had anyone request the horse, they’d give me a call. They like to have events set around (the visits). Becca Badgett said she’d like to set something up once a month.”

Wambeke said Boulder also likes visits to be planned.

“Their kitchen is so close to the front door, so they have more rules,” Wambeke said. “To go indoors with an animal, I have to go right into their TV room and shut the door. That has to be pre-planned as well.”

It’s safe to assume that Wambeke and her comfort squad will be quite busy in the future.

“I’ve got a couple of teachers who want me to bring the pony to their kindergarten class,” Wambeke said. “I enjoy getting to meet fun people and share stories with them. It’s so fun to see the people and animals interact with each other.”