Rescue family

Little Rescue on the Prairie

"Hometown Values & Vision" coverage is made possible by the Kurt Pearson Social Concerns Fund and the Wilson Social Justice Fund of First Unitarian Foundation.

(l-r) Jaiden, Kristen, and Kaia Tillotson and Jeff Carlson with a few of the rescue animals in their care: Kylo, Harley, Echo and Wilbur. Photo Edie Barrett

I have been involved in animal rescue in various ways for over 25 years. As a child, I brought home stray cats, injured gophers, and turtles. I think it is an inherited trait — my maternal grandfather once saved a goose by giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When I moved back home to Ortonville, a town of around 2,000 on the South Dakota/Minnesota border, to raise my daughters, I started helping neighborhood strays. My first rescue was a pregnant injured cat that my daughters found at a playground. The next was a litter of chihuahuas who were living in a hoarding situation. Word of my efforts traveled quickly, and people began knocking on my front door with animals in tow. I realized the need was greater than I could manage by myself.

I placed an ad in our local paper to see if others would be interested in helping animals in the Ortonville area. Ten of us met to talk about creating a rescue organization. A local family pledged a $500 donation, and we sold T-shirts to turn that $500 into $850. From that, Big Stone County Animal Rescue was formed in August 2018.

I converted a portion of my garage to house rescues. After some growing pains, we established ourselves as 501(c)(3) nonprofit. By early 2020, we had formed a dedicated group of volunteers to help with daily animal care and fundraising.

In five years our “little rescue on the prairie” has helped close to 1,000 companion animals — mostly cats and dogs but also rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, fish, a goose, a hamster, a parakeet, and an umbrella cockatoo.

Many of the animals we rescue come to us after being dumped near farms. In our rural area, this is a big issue. People who can no longer keep their pets assume a farm is a safe place to leave them. It is not. The other animals may not accept the dumped animal, and usually it will leave the farmstead and be killed by predators. Farm owners are very against it.

Other animals are surrendered by their owners due to a move, addiction, or loss of home. Because finances are tough for so many right now, we do what we can to keep the animal in its current home by helping provide food and vet care. We can’t do this in every case, but we step in if we feel it is in the best interest of the pet.

We believe in the saying “If you know better, you do better.”

As an organization, we are committed to bringing change and education to our rural community in order to stop the dumping of animals on farms and help fight overpopulation. We try to raise awareness about why spaying and neutering is important, and the plight of feral cats. Owning a pet should be a commitment for the lifetime of the animal — they are not toys.

A United Village

Life is hectic — there is always something to do and it can feel frustrating, but rescue work keeps us grounded.

My twin daughters just turned 16 and have been helping Mom rescue animals since they were two years old. They sometimes get grumpy that I am busy or “in the garage again,” but I hope teaching compassion through example and living a life with purpose will stick with them as they grow into adults.

My relationship with my significant other of 11 years is successful because he is an animal advocate and supports our mission. We make sacrifices like living separately to help more dogs (Ortonville has a two-dog-per-household law). Date nights are often sitting out in the garage with the animals and drinking a glass of wine, or spending a day on the road picking up an animal in need. It is a joint passion.

Most of the organization’s interaction with the public is done via our Big Stone County Animal Rescue Facebook page or our website. Once we get a message about a stray or surrender application on our website, we evaluate our foster homes and the space we have available in the garage. We are always full or close to full, so we sometimes place an animal on a waitlist. We triage the waitlist based on the condition of the animal and its safety — a sick outside kitten will be brought in before an owner-surrendered adult cat.

We have basic medical supplies, food, and litter in stock so we are prepared for any animal that comes in. We bring the animal to the vet to ensure it is disease free, treat anything that needs treating, and get them vaccinated. We see a lot of animals with GI issues and upper respiratory infections and have seen several injuries that have needed a leg amputation or eye removal.

Once an animal receives proper medical care, we post them on our Facebook page. As a small rural community, our adoption numbers are low. We rely on our larger rescue partners in the Twin Cities area to help us — without them, we could not rescue the numbers that we do. For the majority of the animals we rescue there is no money coming in. It is our donors who keep us successful.

Our greatest expense is our veterinary bills. We try to do a monthly fundraiser and participate in Give to the Max Day. We write some grants as we find the time, but often aren’t successful. In June we held our first silent auction and burger feed in the park. It was a big success, and we hope to make it an annual event. One day we hope to raise enough funds to purchase our own building.

I try to keep my day job as a radiologic technologist separate from the rescue — but it has a way of working itself into my days. My coworkers are supportive and know, if someone calls the clinic looking for me, to send them to the Facebook page. I am often found making veterinary appointments on my breaks. Some days I come to work to find that a patient has left a donation or an item they made to sell for a fundraiser during one of their radiology visits — it is a joy of small-town living.

Even with the support of my family and coworkers, I would not be able to manage it all without the dedicated group of 10 women who provide twice-daily care for the cats in our care. These women are essential to our success — not only in the caretaking of animals, but in the emotional aspects of rescue: we celebrate successes and mourn losses together. These ladies have become a united village; their bond is why we are successful.

Kristen Tillotson (she/her) was born and raised in Ortonville and spent the majority of her adult life in the Twin Cities metro area. Kirsten works as a sonographer and radiologic technologist, and in her free time loves to be on the lake or home with her family and their little zoo of a dozen rescued creatures.