- October 18, 2017
When she was 7 years old, growing up near Chicago, Marsha Panuce looked forward to 30-minute Saturday morning train trips with her father, James, to Hinsdale, Ill.
He was an oral surgeon whose hectic schedule controlled most of his workweek. But Saturdays, when they snuck away to a nearby animal shelter, were Panuce's special times with her father.
"I'll never forget those rides and playing with the dogs," said Panuce, now 66. "Those were some of my favorite parts of my life."
Panuce's mother, Mildred, was afraid of dogs, so she and her father would play with dogs at the shelter to get their animal fix. Twice, her father couldn't resist bringing a dog home, hidden under his coat during the train ride. Her mother soon warmed up to Bozzo, a dachshund mix, and Rusty, a cocker spaniel.
As an adult, Panuce hosted television programs on local networks, such as "Dog Days," during which she would visit local shelters and showcase different dogs to generate adoptions. As she visited various rescue facilities, she wondered if she could open a better one, she said.
June 30, 2014, she broke ground on Donte's Den — a nearly $4.5 million 501(c)(3)-certified animal shelter she funded with money from a foundation she and her late husband, Donald, set aside specifically to build a rescue. The shelter, which will acquire dogs from Desoto County Animal Services, in Arcadia, Manatee County Animal Services, in Palmetto, and possibly other local shelters, will open to the public July 1.
Although Panuce's foundation funded the facility, it was costly to construct, because of the state-of-the-art equipment in the hospital and materials used to build the dog haven. So, Donte's Den will rely on fundraisers and donations to maintain it, she said.
"Donte's Den is a community for happy dogs," said Panuce, a Bird Key resident who travels 45 minutes to and from the rescue most days of the week. "We create a stressless life for them. They've had enough stress in their short lives."
The facility, located at 6801 283rd St. E., on a 50-acre property in Myakka City, can hold 100 dogs, and features an adoption center, two grooming areas and a space for quarantined dogs that are sick or just entered the community. Six dogs are currently onsite.
Dogs live in dens made of hurricane-proof glass with doggy doors so residents can go back and forth between the front and back of their den or to their "back porch area" outside. The only cages are in the onsite animal hospital.
Full-time veterinary technician Carol Hinson, and local veterinarians, who will schedule days to visit the hospital on an as-needed basis, will provide basic services, such as X-rays and ultrasounds, and more advanced procedures, such as spaying and neutering or other surgeries that require anesthesia.
"The full-service clinic allows us to do everything here, so dogs don't have to go through the stress of traveling to another site," Hinson said. "Shelter dogs associate car rides with negative experiences. We're avoiding that."
Donte's also offers a Forever Home unit, designed for dogs that are given to the shelter as part of a will or trust.
Don and Donte
The idea for Donte's Den stemmed from repeated conversations between the Panuces during buisiness trips.
The couple co-owned Advanced Controls Inc., a Bradenton-based manufacturer of industrial control products, and often traveled out of town. Although they brought their schnauzers with them around town, they didn't bring them on plane rides.
"I'd always ask Don, 'If something happens to us, what will happen to our boys?'" Panuce said.
After Don Panuce died from pancreatic cancer in 2011, the plan to build a rescue accelerated.
She would open a rescue that offered the level of care Panuce provided for her dogs at home.
Panuce cooks a medley of chicken, penne pasta noodles and vegetables for her three dogs: Lucci, Santo and Noah. Rescue volunteers and employees also provide homemade meals for dogs who have special needs, such as dental issues.
So, who is Donte?
Before Don Panuce died, the couple had a charismatic, 5-year-old black, gray and white schnauzer named Donte.
"He was so bright — my PhD with fur," Panuce said. "And, he actually smiled."
Donte laid on the living room floor beside Don Panuce during his last days.
A few months after Panuce's husband died, Donte died unexpectedly. She suspects it was due to the stress and broken heart of losing her husband.
Panuce named one of the community's first dogs Donte.
"I always told Donte I was going to make him famous," Panuce said. "I wasn't sure how then, but his brand of heart was going to go around somehow. (This) is it. He is Donte's Den."
Contact Amanda Sebastiano at [email protected]