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Cat finds guardian angel in Hampden shop

Jean-Pierre, a Maine coon cat, had a whirlwind of a December, but has, to say the least, landed on his feet.

That's thanks to Robin McDonald, owner of the Howl natural pet food and supply store in Hampden, who's become something of a guardian angel to area pets in need.

Left on the front porch of Howl in a carrier with a note, Jean-Pierre was found by an UPS driver who alerted McDonald about the involuntary visitor. McDonald took the feline inside, ferried him to a veterinarian for a once-over and flea treatment, and posted his photo on Facebook.

Within two hours, a longtime customer called and said he'd cover all the medical bills for Jean-Pierre — who was rechristened Hobo — until he found a home. Within a few hours of that, another customer came in, called his wife, and took the kitty home while potential adopters were vetted.

"He's going to his permanent home next month," says McDonald. "It's a 20-acre estate outside of Philadelphia. He's going to live like a king."

The rescue made the news, but for McDonald, it's all in a day's work. She grew up in Towson always wanting pets. Finally she got a puppy for her 12th birthday, and has been surrounded by furry creatures ever since. She shares a farmette with two dogs, a cat, 10 chickens and five goats. While she's perfectly happy there, McDonald is even more delighted to be at work.

Her store, which she started in 2003 with $30,000 she saved after selling a nearby rental property, has become a bit of a mecca for those looking for all-natural pet foods.

"I had a dog who I got in 1995 who always had digestive issues," says McDonald. "That started my research into what was going on and what was in her food. It was kind of shocking." A temporary move to California took her to a world where natural pet food stores were common. When she returned to Baltimore, she set about finding a place to open such a shop.

"I got by with a lot of displays made out of things that had other intended uses," she laughs. "I found stuff on the street. It worked out, and that's how I knew I was doing what I was supposed to do. Things kept falling in my lap."

The shop opened and it wasn't long before area pet rescues started popping by. These days , she's partners with several to hold regular adoption days, when dogs and cats looking for homes spend the day with Howl staff and, sometimes find forever families.

McDonald also donates returned or opened food to the rescue operations and to pet owners in the community who find themselves in need after job losses or other unplanned circumstances.

"Sometimes food doesn't agree with a dog or a bag gets ripped," she says. "We can get credit from the distributors for that, but it's a lot of trouble. So we put them in a big pile and give them to whichever rescue group comes first."

She also helps customers with discounts and donations, either from her rescue pile or from her shelves. Those who lose jobs or face personal and medical crises know they can ask for assistance for their furry family members.

"It's so gratifying to make a living and help these organizations," she says. "It's wonderful."

While McDonald says she's considered opening a second location, high rents and the thought of starting over have so far dissuaded her from taking the leap.

"If the right location fell in my lap, I might do it," she says. "But for now, I'm enjoying keeping the store fresh and doing what we're doing. I have time to volunteer and help with the rescue community."

That does not, however, include regular runs to the porch to see who's been dropped off. While Jean-Pierre did just fine, McDonald says that particular service isn't being added to her store's menu.

"I hope that never happens again," she says.

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