Her colleagues call her place “Mama Jill’s Home for Lost Souls” because she won’t turn any animals away, no matter what they’ve been through.

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Jill Elston, winner of the 2021 American Humane Hero Veterinary Nurse Award, with her dogs
Credit: Courtesy of American Humane

Of the 17 animals veterinary nurse Jill Elston of Milan, Penn., fostered in 2020, one was a terrified, lonely pup named Kevin. Rescued from a South Korean dog meat farm, Elston tells Daily Paws that he didn't know how to live. 

"He spent his days huddled in the corner of his cage. He wouldn't move out of that corner even to eat," she says. "It was painfully obvious that he needed a quiet place to come to terms with being around humans."

With the help of her three rescue dogs, Ava, Newt, and Simza, Elston took baby steps to coax Kevin past his fear and confusion to become a more socialized pooch. However, with such a traumatized dog, this isn't as easy as it sounds. It took two days at her house before this sweetheart would even leave his crate to potty outside or respond to Elston's pack introductions.

"Ava, my oldest and most confident, gave him a quick once over and walked away. Newt, my youngest and only male, gave him a more thorough check," she says. "Simza the clown sniffed him and proceeded to 'boop' him with her nose and offer a few play-bows." In the following weeks, she adds, it would be interactions like these that would most help Kevin learn what it meant to be a companion dog.

Then, a breakthrough on day nine: Kevin stepped toward Elston, sniffed her, and let her gently touch him. By his second week, 14 days after he'd arrived at her house, Kevin left his crate to sit beside her on the floor. On day 17, the duo established trust. Kevin became Elston's shadow and lap dog. By day 40, Elston says she watched him get into a car with no fear, eager to go home with his equally-delighted adoptive parents.

"My job was to teach him to trust humans, not just myself. I taught him the skills to be someone's most loyal friend," she says. "When he so willingly jumped into their car, I knew my job was done. Kevin had learned what he needed to find these people to love him forever. I was the bridge that led him there."

Elston says the countdown by days is important. "I find many people think you can just love a dog into forgetting their past traumas. While love plays a part, time and patience play much bigger roles," Elston says. "If you foster or adopt a frightened dog, don't expect them to be your best friend by day two. Give them time to adjust and learn that things are okay." 

Abandoned litters of bottle-fed kittens. Senior cats living their last days with dignity. Dogs with cancer. All find a place with Elston. In addition to her work on the veterinary team of Animal Care Sanctuary in Milan, the doors to what her colleagues call "Mama Jill's Home for Lost Souls" are always open, as well as her heart. Her unwavering devotion to shelter animals is why thousands of public voters ushered her win for this year's American Humane Hero Veterinary Nurse Award.

Even with all her responsibilities, she's never without a personal rescue project. Currently, it's Casper, a deaf dog who's been at the sanctuary for several months. "I have a deaf dog myself, so I love to advocate for deaf dog awareness." 

Elston believes the narrative of shelter and rescue animals has to be more clear. "I like to remind people that most animals end up in shelters through no fault of their own," she says. "Humans fall on hard times and sometimes all they need is one person to offer a helping hand. Cats and dogs are no different. One person can make all the difference in the world."

A true animal hero, Elston and other tireless professionals like her show us the meaning of selflessness.