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‘The Joy of Pets’ topic of virtual women’s forum

Three Sonoma County women whose lives have been enriched by animals and the happiness and comfort they bring were panelists Thursday at the second virtual “Women in Conversation At Home” this year.

The three-part Press Democrat series, sponsored by Summit State Bank, was hosted by broadcast journalist Amy Gutierrez of Petaluma, who has covered the San Francisco Giants since 2008. This is the second year the newspaper’s “Women In Conversation” series has been held virtually as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There has been a substantial increase in pet adoption and fostering during the pandemic,” Gutierrez, known to Giants fans as “Amy G,” pointed out. ”We have all found ourselves with more time at home.“

The women were first spotlighted in individual interviews by Gutierrez, then participated in a panel discussion. Those featured were Shirley Zindler, founder of the Dogwood Animal Rescue Project in Santa Rosa, Lynette Lyon, outreach coordinator for Lyon Ranch in Sonoma, and Patricia Ruotolo, a Sonoma Valley High School special education teacher who was born with hearing loss in both ears and was matched with a dog from Canine Companions of Santa Rosa.

“Animals are such a gift,” said Zindler at one point, adding that they are “our company, our friends and our entertainment.”

Things got started with a fun “backyard mixology” session by Duskie Estes, executive director of Farm to Pantry and owner of Black Pig Meat Co. First she mixed a grapefruit, lime and tequila drink named after her dog, Archie, for humans, followed by a mocktail concoction of watermelon and strawberries named for her dog, Blackie. The two dogs lapped up their portions.

“It’s all about the dogs today!” pronounced a cheerful Estes as she shook and stirred poolside.

Both Zindler and Lyon rescue animals — Zindler mostly takes in dogs and cats while Lyon takes care of exotic pets, including a camel, a zebra and a skunk.

Zindler, a retired animal control officer, found she couldn’t fully address “the needs of the community” as part of her job. She found herself bottle-feeding animals at home and helping with vet bills. Now, with Dogwood, which she founded in 2015, she cares for dozens of dogs and cats of all ages. The program has a network of homes fostering 60-100 animals. She thrives bringing injured animals back to health.

The project not only takes in animals who are in pain and need surgery or pets whose owners have died or are mismatched with adopters, it offers an affordable spay and neuter program, Zindler said.

“We can’t rescue our way out of this animal overpopulation problem,” she said.

Lyon, who grew up on the ranch, is an exotic pet trainer. The ranch has been taking in neglected and abused animals for more than 20 years. About 65 animals from among 25 species live there.

Normally, Lyon’s job is to take some of the friendlier beasts, including a mini-horse named Muppet, for therapy visits to nursing homes, hospitals and schools. The pandemic put a stop to that, so she pivoted to Zoom sessions for corporate clients. She hopes to keep that component, but also go back to outside visits once it is safe and things are back on track.

Therapy helps stimulate groups of people with dementia, with sometimes “miraculous” results, Lyon said. One man said his mother hadn’t spoken to him during his visits until Lyon and her 1,800-pound camel showed up. An hour after the animal therapy, he told her, his mom greeted him and they had a half-hour conversation.

Ruotolo, of Sonoma, who wears a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other and can’t hear when she takes them out at night, had never owned a pet before. She first started thinking of getting a service dog after feeling vulnerable during the 2017 wildfires.

“I didn’t know if I’d hear a fire alarm or know when to evacuate,” she said.

She felt a bit nervous about bringing a dog home. But after being matched with her dog, a yellow Lab named Sierra, and completing the Canine Companions program, she said she felt “completely comfortable.”

Now she brings Sierra to her classes. The dog saves Ruotolo daily, for example, by alerting her when she doesn’t react to a school bell or drops her keys. They get to snuggle and play, but Ruotolo said Sierra “is always working.”

Sometimes people get excited when they see Ruotolo out and about with her dog. It’s a good idea to ask first whether you can pet a service dog, and Ruotolo says she sometimes asks dog enthusiasts to hold off because Sierra needs to concentrate on her work.

Her advice to others thinking about getting a service dog like Sierra: “Don’t wait.”

“My heart is full. She makes me laugh and smile every day and she does the same for others,” Ruotolo said. “She’s just a joy.”

The next Women in Conversation At Home is slated for May 20 at 7 p.m. Register at socowomenevents.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

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