Noses and eyes are trained toward the kitchen of a Rockville home, where food is being prepared. Impatient diners pace or whine a little, with a persistent one perched on the kitchen counter, but most others wait to be served on this November day.
It is dinnertime: Risa Simon is feeding her brood: 16 dogs and 12 cats.
Her home is their retirement home.
The 50-year-old Navy captain and director of intelligence in the Office of Naval Intelligence, located in Suitland, has made it her mission to give elderly, ailing pets TLC for the remainder of their years. During her years deployed overseas, Simon was a Jewish lay leader for other Jews. Now she streams Shabbat services of a Miami-area Reform temple where she and her family once attended in person.
The mailbox in front of Simon’s brick home and 2.7-acre property says Leashes End, her nonprofit all-volunteer rescue-sanctuary for animals. She founded it six years ago, moving here to accommodate it.
Dog beds, cat condos, covered cushions, water bowls, pee pads, spray disinfectant, toys, and stacks of clean, white towels abound, with animals resting and wandering. “There’s a roll of paper towels in every room,” says Simon.
“We are a rescue in the sense that we rescue them from bad situations and shelters,” she says. Others are homeless — strays and animals whose owners died or cannot care for them.
“We are a sanctuary because we don’t adopt out. This is a haven to live out the rest of their lives. They are fed, they are cared for,” Simon says. That includes substantial veterinary care.
Earlier, she’d called the dogs — in English, though she speaks or is proficient in five other languages — for a pre-dinner walk in the big backyard that drew her to the house. It’s fenced. “We don’t do leashes.” Some responding canines trotted ahead or with her, and a couple brought up the rear.
“They go at their own pace. They walk where they want,” Simon says before darting back to pick up Walter, an arthritic, nearly blind, 17-year-old Yorkie that had enough walk. No dog left behind.
For years, Simon envisioned creating a rescue for older, small dogs and cats in her retirement. She had taken care of an aunt’s three Maltese dogs — small, fluffy dogs — including one with health issues.
“Then I realized there was a niche for senior dogs, dogs with special needs.” Older then meant 10 or 11. “Now I have what I call super-seniors, 12 to 15. Molly will be 20,” she says, and just became the oldest dog; there are cats in their 20s.
Her original plan morphed into starting the rescue when her last overseas deployment to Iraq ended in 2016 and she returned to a Silver Spring townhouse where she and her husband had taken in needy cats and dogs. With 11 cats and no dogs, the search began for a larger place.
Though she and her husband have separated, he helps out. Two housemates trade volunteering for living rent-free, with one dealing with food and cooking for the animals. Friends, neighbors and others also volunteer.
Animals come to her through friends, shelters, rescues and word of mouth. “They blossom here,” Simon says, noting that good nutrition, veterinary care, medications, love and a lack of stress are why. They are groomed monthly. Many sleep in her room, and most of the rest with her housemates. All but one dog is under 25 lbs. The cats are as expected in size, though Matzah — which arrived with Motzi at Passover — ate her way into becoming Matzah Ball.
Leashes End’s operation costs $6,000 to $9,000 a month. Donations and grant pay some; Simon makes up the rest, rough two-thirds of the bill.
There is a Jewish aspect at work.
“The layers of Judaism — I’m Jewish and that underlies my whole value system,” she explains. “Tikkun olam, repairing the world,” she nods, “It’s caring for animals, the stewardship of the environment …” she trails off. Jewish youths are among the volunteers. “All of these kids are coming to earn their student hours, and we teach them to respect the animals’ life, and I think we are passing on compassion.”
She streams Shabbat services of a Miami-area Reform temple that her family used to be affiliated with.
“I’m old and I’m tired. The thought of putting on different clothes and going to synagogue,” she shakes her head. “I stream the Torah service, and I’m still doing stuff here.”
Leashes End occupies most of her nonwork waking hours. Her day begins at 4 a.m. Before leaving around 6:30 a.m., she has cleans her pee-pad and towel-covered bedroom, turns on the radio tuned to classical music for the animals, does a load or two of laundry, tends to the cats and more. Her housemates and volunteers take over. When she returns from work, at least one dog guards the front steps, alerts the others, and dogs chorus barks.
Wherever Simon heads, bathroom included, she has furry groupies. The rest of her evening is devoted to more animal-related tasks.
It’s not only animals and family she’s helped.
During overseas deployments she was a lay leader for other Jews; organizing seders, Chanukah parties and Shabbat services; ordering MREs, and hosting visiting rabbis, including her brother.
A Miami-area native, Simon grew up the ninth of 10 children in a yours-mine-and-ours blended family in Florida and Israel (her family made aliyah) before returning stateside.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in modern European studies from Vanderbilt University and a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Michigan, she joined the Navy in 1998, specializing in naval intelligence. Foreign deployments have included Afghanistan and Japan; she was awarded the meritorious Bronze Star Medal for service in harm’s way in Iraq.
After dinner, surveying the sea of occupied animal cushions and beds, Simon says, “They’ve taken over my house.”
She adds, “They’ve taken over my heart, for sure.”