Editor’s note: The Daily Item will recognize people who have Made a Difference in the Valley in 2019 this week. This is the fifth part of a series that will continue until New Year’s Day.
HERNDON — Anne Gibbs gave up her 25-year career as a nurse to devote her life to the non-profit organization she started five years ago for rescuing retired military and police dogs.
Since 2015, K9 Hero Haven has placed 264 retired service, police and military dogs into new homes, 11 of which have been reunited with their original handlers. Gibbs, who frequently appears with the dogs at local events and has been featured in numerous media stories, is looking to expand the organization in 2020.
The 56-year-old Herndon woman took a leave of absence from her job two years ago and never went back. This is a seven-day-a-week job for her; she’s up at 5 a.m. and in bed by midnight, she said.
“This is where my heart is, this is where I belong,” said Gibbs. “This is where I feel in my heart I’m meant to be. This is what I’m meant to do.”
Service and military dogs have recently been a subject on the national scale. President Donald Trump on Nov. 25 recognized Conan, a Belgian Malinois military dog who was injured during a raid which led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
K9 Hero Haven, based in Hernon on 5.5 acres of land that overlooks Mahanoy Creek in Northumberland County, is a state-licensed and inspected kennel that rescues retired service dogs, rehabilitates them and places them with combat veterans or retired police officers. Gibbs started the organization in 2015 with Michael Gibbs, who is no longer involved.
As of this week, Gibbs has 23 dogs in the two dog kennels and 23 dogs living in retirement in her own home next to the kennels. Many of the dogs have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or aggression issues from their time serving, so Gibbs works to rehabilitate them before the animals are available to adopt.
Sheera was the first
The first service dog Gibbs rescued was Sheera, a retired customs and border protection dog on the California/Mexican border. Sheera, a 15-year-old Belgian Malinois, was adopted by Gibbs seven years ago and had many issues from her service.
“I saw there were so many other dogs who needed help,” she said. “These dogs are phenomenal. They’re so amazing. They’re out there every day and protecting us. They just deserve the best retirement they can get after years of working. When I realized how many dogs need help and are looking for homes, I wanted to help as many as I can.”
One of Gibbs’ newest dogs is Norus, a retired explosive detection dog that served in Afghanistan with aggression issues. Norus is a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois that retired in 2017.
There are at least 2,800 active-duty service dogs in all branches of the military, police and border control, and approximately 300 of those canines retire each year to be adopted by their handlers or the public. At least 65 dogs have been killed in action in the past decade compared with 300 killed in the Vietnam War era, according to Ron Aiello, president of the U.S. War Dogs Association Inc.
The dogs have an informal rank of one step above their handler as a reminder to treat the animals with respect, Aiello said.
Gibbs doesn’t do it all herself though, she said. Bill Cossari is a full-time volunteer who helps with the kennel and she has other volunteers who help out with events and administrative responsibilities.
One of those volunteers is Karen Blackway, who nominated Gibbs for The Daily Item’s People Who Made a Difference in 2019.
“After working canines are retired from their military, police, or other services, there is no retirement home waiting for them,” Blackway said. “Anne established a rescue that takes in retired working canines, rehabilitates them, and attempts to adopt them out as pets. She and her volunteers work hard first to reunite these canines with their handlers.”
Blackway said it is “truly heartwarming” to witness a reunion with the handlers.
“Because of Anne and her volunteers there are happy endings for some of these canines who have been put in service to mankind,” she said.