Meet Wendy Derhak. She is the founder & Executive Director of The Pet Cottage, a private sanctuary for pets that have lost their humans due to death, disability or military deployment. They provide a lifelong guardianship through sanctuary residency, forever foster, or re-homing. She loves the connections made through this project and the opportunity to create a pack and letting the pets feel like they belong. For her, it is a privilege to do this work.
She has a degree in Early Childhood Education. Before she moved to Florida she worked as a Childcare Center Director at the University of New Hampshire for a non-profit organization called Growing Places. She started as a work-study student, then a teacher’s aide and worked her way up to be the Executive Director over the course of 20 years.
She’s the proud mom of 2 sons who were both talented and enthusiastic baseball players when they were younger. The family moved to Florida so that the boys could play baseball year-round. This earned them college scholarships. One of her sons went on to manage a baseball team in Germany. Not only that, but she’s also a loving dog-mom to Elvis, Dash, 2-2, Grover, Tuffy, Teddy, and Charlie Brown. All of them had special needs or circumstances that prevented them from being adopted out.
She considers herself a heart-centered woman and everything she has done in her life up until this point has led her to create The Pet Cottage. Her next mission is raising the funds to create the Pet Cottage Sanctuary on 2-3 acres of land in Jupiter Farms. It will be a retirement home where pets live out the rest of their days receiving homestyle care.
Thank you, Wendy, for sharing your story with us, your love for animals and of course your love for The Palm Beaches.
Q: What inspired you or led you to your current career?
A: “I have always been a caregiver and been attracted to helping people from the time I was little. When we moved to Florida, I taught in a private school for 2 years. During that time, I realized it wasn’t the right fit for me so I started looking at doing something else. I became a certified personal trainer and started my own business teaching fitness for seniors in their homes. A lot of times it would be doing rehab or getting ready for surgery or after surgery. I worked a lot with chiropractors and physical therapists. My demographic at that time was primarily women from their 60’s to their 80’s that were mostly professional women who were retired and wanted to get fit but didn’t want the Gym atmosphere. So you get to know them and become their family. You visit them regularly in their homes and most of them have pets. As you get close to them, they become part of your family. There were two women, in particular, Joan and Elsa. Joan was never married, had no children and no siblings but she had 3 cats. She became like a second mom to me. She pretty much adopted my 2 sons and became a huge part of our life. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was devastating. I became her caregiver. Her biggest concern was what will happen to her cats. At that time she had 3, two of them being 17 and the other 21. They were her entire world, they were her babies. We started investigation the best way of transferring them to me so that they would be mine when she left. Her oldest cat, Shadow, died before she passed away. I took the other 2 when she passed. We worked with a lawyer to figure out how to do this legally and so the cats would have resources to be cared for. At the time, I knew nothing about pet trusts or the process of that or that pets were actually property. When she passed, I realized that this can’t be the only person that this is an issue for. At that point, I really became a champion for the pets. I realized, here are these senior cats that had been beloved pets and really served their purpose to their person by being there for them. If it had not been for what we had set up, they would have been put in a shelter situation. They play a huge part in our lives and our emotional well-being. It’s always amazing to me how pets participate in our lives, without question, and just love us. They need to be looked after, particularly the senior pets because they’re not going to do well in a shelter environment. These are pets that had been beloved and served their person by being there for them. Many have been spoiled and had nice lives and to be thrown away is not fair. That’s how The Pet Cottage was born. Now we work with seniors to help them create a plan for their pet’s care once they are no longer able to do it. Our initiative is community outreach and education on the importance of having a plan in place.”
Q: What is your favorite restaurant in The Palm Beaches, and what do you love there?
A: “I don’t go out to eat very much, but if I do, it’s usually for lunch. I like Italian I’d say I go to Casa Mia Trattoria and Pizzeria, they have great meatballs there. We’re really great cooks, so we do most of our cooking at home.”
Q: How long have you lived or worked in The Palm Beaches?
A: “I moved here in 1997.”
Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met here in The Palm Beaches?
A: “There’s a lot of interesting people here. There are so many people here that have something to offer and I’m grateful that they are part of my life. There’s one person, Belinda Johnson, she just recently moved here. She contacted me and said that she’s a Reiki master and she would like to come and do reiki on the animals. She came faithfully every single week and I could see the magic she did with them. She was also an intuitive and she started giving me messages of things they wanted me to know. It was an incredible gift. I was able to use her when any of my fosters were having a hard time. She introduced me to something I was open to but never really experienced.”
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would it be? And why?
A: “I would probably go to the Czech Republic, I have grandchildren there and I’ve never been there.”
Q: What is your favorite movie OR what is the first movie you remember seeing in a theatre?
A: “I have to say one of my favorite movies is The Neverending Story. I love the message of how we are all connected and how everything you believe ripples and affects everybody else. It’s a powerful story. I also like The Dragon that looks like a dog that flies. It’s really cool and a good movie.”
Q: What advice would you give a crowd of people?
A: “I would say be kind and start with yourself. Be kind to all living things around you.”
Q: What is something on your bucket list?
A: “I really would like to see the sanctuary property come to fruition. I want a sanctuary that reflects the beauty in my soul and the beauty in these animals.”
Q: What is your favorite music/ 3 bands you would like to see (dead or alive)?
A: “I like a lot of different music. My younger son is a musician and he does country music. It’s a different version of country, called country flow. I’m his biggest fan. I like to play music for the dogs like instrumental, soft and have that soothing vibration.”
Q: What current/former local business makes you the most nostalgic about The Palm Beaches?
A: “I have lunch at Bradley’s once a month with two Palm Beach ladies that were born and raised in Palm Beach. They have had lunch together at Bradley’s, Saturdays at 12 noon for 48 years.”
Q: Choosing anyone alive and a non-relative with whom would you love to have lunch? Why and where would you have lunch?
A: “I probably have lunch with Ellen and Michelle Obama. We will go to Square Grouper Tiki Bar.”
Q: What is your favorite thing or something unique about The Palm Beaches?
A: “I think it’s nice that we have dog beaches. That’s unique that everyone allows dogs on Beaches and it’s a nice thing to offer. I love the weather here and River Walk. We have a walking club and it’s beautiful there. People from all over come there and do the walk with their dogs.”
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
A: “I see myself living at the sanctuary.”
Q: (Even for friends or family), what is something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
A: “I would say that most people don’t know, I’m actually pretty introverted. It’s been a big push outside my comfort zone to go out and do the promotion and networking to make this work. I’m very comfortable with the pets and with one on ones. I’m a person that needs time away to recharge. I also have huge things for trees and I get very sad when they’re cut down for any reason.”
Q: What 3 words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word HOME?
A: “Pack, Pets and People, Comfort, Safety, Love and Al, who’s my fairy tale.”
Q: If you had a full-time staff member that was fully paid for, who would you choose?
Chef, Housekeeper, Driver, Coach, Physical Fitness Trainer, or Nanny?
A: “I want a co-pack leader, another me! I really need a partner in this project.”
Q: If you were cast into a major motion picture and had your choice of anyone to be your co-star, who would you choose?
A: “Susan Sarandon. I like her a lot. I think she’s smart, wise and really gutsy.”
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The Faces of The Palm Beaches is a project to showcase the amazing people that live or work in our community. Who do you know that should be nominated?