ELKO NEW MARKET, Minn. (KMSP) - At Windmill Feed and Pet Supplies, Toni Maat may be the boss, but the animals rule the roost.
“They move in and you have to accommodate them,” said Toni.
They move in because Windmill is more than pet supply store. It’s also a safe haven for animals. Toni points to a cat on a scratching post, "She is looking for a home. She's a real sweetie. She's quite the talker."
What started 26 years ago as a small pet store with a couple of stray cats is now a full-fledged animal shelter. At any given time it’s home to between 40 and 80 cats, and other random critters like hedgehogs and rabbits.
"We do roll call twice a day," said Toni.
Every day, Toni brings her three Irish wolfhounds to work. But, everyone else here is patiently waiting for a home -- and we mean patiently. Lydia, a cat, was at Windmill for six years before she was adopted. For Mittens, it took 10 years. In the meantime, they’re completely dependent on Toni and her volunteers. Leela, now an adult cat, has been at Windmill since birth.
"Leela was an orphan," Toni said. "Her mom was a stray cat that had kittens in the upstairs part of the store. Mom died after they were about 3 days old."
But for animal lovers like Toni, there’s always more work to be done and more animals to save. Which is why a few years ago Toni took animal rescue to the next level. She became certified by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife.
In that time, Toni and her volunteers have saved countless wild animals. They mostly see fawns and raccoons, like one little guy who showed up with a compound fracture. He's now back on his feet. Or a raccoon that needed help with a toy lodged on its foot. Toni even helped nurse an orphaned mouse through infancy. Yes, a mouse. Extreme? Not to Toni.
"Not a single creature on earth has more or less right to be here," she said.
A right to be here and, Toni believes, a right to good care. Nonprofit or not, that involves everything from shots to surgery. The only way she can do it is with the generous help of her local veterinarian, who works with her on scheduling payments. Right now, that bill is running about $5,000. She spends another thousand dollars every month for everything else. It’s a heavy burden for her small non-profit to carry.
Recently, she says she had to float expenses on credit cards to keep things going. She’s also blown through a chunk of insurance money she got a couple years ago when the house she was living in burned down. Now, she’s really concerned. Resources are at an all-time low. She says she and the animals are in trouble.
"If we don't have some major influx of capital, we're going have to figure some other options out," Toni said. "And we really don't want to. This is probably getting to be one of the worst times."
For now, Toni takes in sporadic donations and holds small fundraisers like a garage sale and a wine tasting. It’s never easy to ask for help, but she says this isn’t about her.
But, facing such hardships, it can be a wonder why she keeps going.
"Sometimes I ask myself that," Toni said. "And then a day like yesterday happens and I had people on Facebook -- this is going to make me cry -- who were telling me how great it was what I do and they're so glad we're here."
Windmill is here for the animals, providing creature comforts at any and all costs. Here for them as long as it takes to find a roost of their own to rule.
"I would do this forever. I would just keep doing this forever," she said.