Before he adopted Bear, Andy Parent never thought of himself as an animal guy.
But rescue animals can be sneaky: They have a way of rescuing you back.
Mr. Parent certainly didn't think he needed saving. He was happy and prosperous as a property manager in Ottawa. Life was hectic and stressful sometimes, but that's one reason why he bought some acres in Kemptville, Ont. - as an investment and someplace to putter around on weekends with his sons.
Then one day a neighbour called him up. "Andy, do you have a dog there?" he asked. He had rescued a formerly abused wolf-German shepherd mix and thought Mr. Parent's ranch would be the perfect place for the fierce-looking dog named Bear.
One night, Mr. Parent was walking Bear - who turned out to be a sweetheart he nicknamed Pooh Bear - by the back fence of his farm when he saw something strange in the moonlight. Maybe he was half-asleep and dreaming, but he thought he saw a bunch of animals running though his field. He shook his head and the vision faded, but the idea lingered that he was being called to something other than a life of property management.
Soon after, people started turning up at his farm, rescued animals in tow, looking for a safe haven.
"I thought, 'This is weird,' but I couldn't say no," Mr. Parent says.
"I saw how loving Bear was, and how mistreated he'd been. I thought, 'Jeez, you know, there's probably a lot of other animals like that.' "
Bear died several years ago - his ashes sit in an urn on Mr. Parent's desk. But Mr. Parent kept on saying yes. To dogs and cats at first - then came a few abused horses, pigs and goats, followed by chickens, ducks, bunnies, one Jersey cow and one buffalo named Dakota. At last count, Mr. Parent had 167 animals at his Kemptville ranch and two other Eastern Ontario locations.
"It just kept going and kept getting bigger, and all of a sudden it became a mission," says Mr. Parent, 50. He left his job in 2004 and cashed in his retirement savings to support Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary, which currently runs off donations. With his job as an animal control officer and his wife's work at Costco, they get by, but just barely.
Sometimes Mr. Parent wonders why, out of everyone, he should be the one to save animals. The answer he gets is always the same.
"It's like something deep inside of me says, 'Don't ask, just trust,' " he says.
Talking to Mr. Parent is a delightful exercise in cognitive dissonance: A husky man with a deep voice and a penchant for flannel and denim, he looks every inch the Eastern Ontario farmer he is - and then he opens his mouth and sounds like a cross between Oprah and the Dalai Lama.
"I'm not a person that goes to church every Sunday, but I do believe in a higher power," he says earnestly. "I don't even know what I'm following, but I just do it. The love this place gets, the energy this place gives, is just unbelievable."
Mr. Parent spent most of his childhood as a ward of the Crown, moving from one foster family to another. Though he resists armchair psychoanalysis - Children's Aid was a wonderful influence on him, he says, and he had great foster parents - it's hard to ignore the parallels between his life and those of the strays he rescues. He's never met a dog past saving, he says, never found a challenge that love couldn't overcome.
That attitude helps, especially now. About a month ago he went to his doctor, thinking he had overdone it at the ranch, because his legs were sore. A few blood tests later, he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia, a treatable but fatal blood cancer. Mr. Parent does not know how much time he has left - people may live with chronic leukemia for years before symptoms flare up badly - but he's trying to set his affairs in order so the Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary will continue after he's gone.
As for himself, he doesn't plan too far ahead, except for one thing: He knows he wants to be buried with Bear's ashes.
What most people don't understand, he says, is that he's the lucky one.
"People say, 'You've given so much to the animals.' But the animals have given me so much more," he says. "They've put my feet on the ground; they've brought me back to reality. I have never been as happy in my life as I am now."