Story By: Susan Lee
Photography By : Shelia Scott
According to Jackie Tatum, “You have that one car and that one dog in your life.” For Jackie, that dog was her German Shepherd, Nicko. “It was right after I got divorced and I was a young mom,” she said. “He was very protective of us, like he was the man of the house. He would get upset if I even danced with someone. When my daughter stepped on a nail one day and was crying, he wouldn’t let anyone near her. He died at the age of 14 and it took me a really long time to deal with it.
“He was the one, the dog of my life.”
It was Jackie’s love of dogs that gave her the idea to start her daycare for dogs, Critter Sit. Located in Garden City, she describes her business as “a place where a dog can be a dog, running around, playing and socializing with other dogs.” The facility features seven play yards, agility courses and a covered pavilion for individual and group activities.
When she’s not at Critter Sit, Jackie devotes her free time to the care and welfare of animals. For the last several years, she has volunteered with Hospice Savannah’s Pet Peace of Mind. “The program was created to relieve some of the burden from the caregiver while the patient is in the final stages of life,” she explained. “We do anything we can to help the family take care of the patient’s pets, which they usually consider a member of the family. That includes taking pets to the vet, getting them groomed, taking them for walks and keeping them stocked with food. Hospice patients want to know that their family is taken care of and that includes their pets.”
Jackie remembers a case a few years ago of a woman and her two beloved dogs. “She had been in hospice care as an outpatient for a couple of months and her family said they were going to take care of her dogs,” she recalled. “But when the patient was moved to Hospice House, the family said they didn’t want the dogs. Jackie stepped in and took the dogs to foster them at her Critter Sit facility until they could be placed in suitable homes. After a few months, she found a home for one of the dogs but it was another six weeks before they placed the other one. “The patient had been so worried about her dogs,” said Jackie. “The day after we told her the second dog had a home, she passed away. It was like she had been holding on until she knew they were both okay.”
Jackie’s currently fostering a one-year-old male terrier mix for a Hospice Savannah patient and is hoping to find the sweet pup, “Copper,” the right owners who can give him a loving new home. “Dogs love unconditionally and do grieve when they lose their owner,” she said. “But if they are given the opportunity to love again and build a new relationship, they will. That’s why it’s important to give animals from shelters or rescue groups a chance at a new life.”
Hospice Savannah volunteer coordinator Christy Fulcher has known Jackie for many years. “She is the most animal-loving person I know,” she said. “She volunteers with her certified therapy dog for us, and is also the face of our Pet Peace of Mind program – she helps get the word out at community events.”
According to Beth Logan, Director of Marketing and Volunteer Services for Hospice Savannah, the Pet Peace of Mind program began in 2013. “Christy and I went to a presentation by the veterinarian who started the program nationally for not-for-profit hospices,” said Beth. “We were so impressed by the idea, we knew immediately that we wanted to implement it for our patients. For many of them, their pets are more beloved to them, and more loving to them, than their own family members are. It just felt like the right thing to do that we extend the compassion we offer to our patients to their pets too.”
Beth added that while Hospice Savannah received a small start-up grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust, Pet Peace of Mind now depends on the generosity of donors in the community to sustain the program.
Jackie knows firsthand all about the valuable services offered by Hospice Savannah. Her younger brother, Rick (Sowell) passed away a year ago from cancer. “He lived in Atlanta but came to visit me and told me he really wanted to live the rest of his life here in Savannah, where we grew up,” she said. “I told him we’ll do whatever we have to do to make it work. Hospice brought a hospital bed to my home along with everything I needed to take care of him and be there for him until he passed.”
In addition to her volunteer work with Hospice Savannah, Jackie is also director of Therapy Dog International’s Savannah chapter. She and her therapy dog, Vanilla, a Great Pyrenees, are regular visitors to Hospice Savannah. “Patients love the pet therapy,” said Jackie. “They love to tell you stories about their dogs and all about the dogs they had growing up. Even if the patient doesn’t like dogs, the family members often want to see and pet the dog. I just know that if I’m ever in the position these patients are in and I’m not able to have my own dogs, I would really want someone to bring in a dog to see me.”
Every month, she holds TDI sessions for prospective therapy dogs at her Critter Sit facility. Her clinics are for dogs and their owners who need a bit more training or practice as therapy dogs. “We work with the dogs to make sure they’re prepared for all situations they might face as a therapy dog,” said Jackie. “For example, I have wheelchairs, hospital beds and crutches here, which we use to get the dogs comfortable around the equipment.” The therapy dog certification test is also held at the center, drawing people and dogs from as far away as Atlanta and Florida. Dogs who pass the TDI test are registered nationally.
Jackie has also been involved with the Savannah Kennel Club since 2009 and has served as a board member off and on for the past six years. She’s currently the club’s treasurer. The club will host their annual dog show this December at Red Gate Farms, as well as “Responsible Dog Ownership Day” at Daffin Park in September.
Her passion for animals goes back as far as she can remember. Jackie grew up in Savannah, the daughter of Charles Sowell, a railroad employee, and Aline, a medical transcriber. Her parents adopted her as an infant; she was born in July and they brought her home on Christmas Eve. She had pets throughout her childhood, but never as many as she would have wanted. Jackie laughs when she looks back on the time she asked her mom if she could have Wallabees, the suede shoes that were popular back then. Her mom responded, “I told you, no more animals!”
Jackie graduated from Beach High School, then went on to study computer science at Draughons Junior College, now South College. She moved out to Pooler and soon enough had dogs, horses, goats, sheep, ducks and chickens. “My parents used to joke that my biological parents must have been farmers,” she said. To help cover the costs of feeding and caring for her animals while she was in college, Jackie took a part time job at a vet clinic, cleaning out the kennels. Veterinary care turned out to be a perfect fit for Jackie, as she went on to work in the field for 25 years, managing an animal hospital for 16 of those years.
Jackie still lives in Pooler, on five acres of land she bought 30 years ago after her divorce. “I bought the property back when Pooler was quiet and wooded, but now I’m surrounded by subdivisions,” she said. Her two children are grown now: her daughter, Tiffany, is 30 and her son, Barrett, is 24. The rest of her family includes two parrots, some fish, two miniature horses named Cocoa Puff and Marmalade, and two therapy dogs, Vanilla and an Australian shepherd named Pants.
The memory of Nicko, that “one dog,” lives on in a young German Shepherd named Reuger who’s also very protective of her. “It had been a long time since I had a puppy,” said Jackie. “My last 4 or 5 dogs were adult dogs, all rescues. I forgot how much work it took to take care of one. It was like having another baby.”
And if you’re wondering about “that one car” of Jackie’s life, it was one she owned in the mid-80’s, a car as distinctive and spirited as Jackie. A 1976 Dodge Demon, gold with a black hood scoop.
For more information about Hospice Savannah’s Pet Peace of Mind, call (912) 629-1048. To find out how you can support the program, contact the Hospice Savannah Foundation at (912) 629-1055. For more information about dog daycare services at Critter Sit, or about Savannah’s Chapter of Therapy Dog International, call (912)238-0067 or visit www.crittersit.com.