Greg Tilghman & David Starlin - AARP Iowa Hidden Gem

Posted on 12/20/21 by Diane Graham

Greg Tilghman was working his usual restaurant shift when the text arrived from husband David Starlin: “I’m going to go to Kansas City. I’ll see you when I get home.”

That cryptic 2014 message allowed six puppies to live to see another day.  It also marked the start of the couple’s animal rescue odyssey that, by their own estimate, has saved more than 700 animals, primarily dogs, and found them new forever homes. 

“When you rescue a dog, I feel like that dog gives you unconditional love,” says Greg, 63, the self-confessed spoiler of the two.  He proves his claim to the title as he carries in a box of puppies rescued the day before. He’s not even inside the room before he’s nuzzling the wiggling pups.  Next, he’s on the floor chattering and welcoming the puppy kisses.

Two men in front of a standing poster for Rescue Rehab Rehome

At first, the two Urbandale men’s love for dogs meant volunteering for an existing area rescue. By the next year, David had another idea for Greg: Starting their own. “He slid a sheet paper across the table and asked, ‘What do you think is the best name for a rescue?’  I said, ‘What rescue?’ and he said, ‘I’ve applied for a 501c3 and the license. We’re going to have our own rescue because we want everything to go to the dogs,’ ” recalls Greg.

Theirs would put an emphasis on more challenging dogs. That could mean less popular breeds, or older animals, or those with behavior issues. David, 57, and with a background in dog obedience training, says the rehabilitation work sets them apart from other agencies. In fact, rehab would be a part of the rescue’s name: RescueRehabRehome.

Greg and David, who both grew up in smaller Iowa towns, remember always having pets and animals around. They had known each other for almost 25 years before they went out for coffee. “The next thing you know, we’re dating, and I was getting flowers,” remembers Greg. The following year, David asked Greg’s mother for permission to marry her son. That was almost 12 years ago.

At a stage in life when many people start slowing down, these two offer compelling yet distinctive answers to the question, “Why start a rescue?” David had worked primarily in the insurance business until he found he was in position to take early retirement. Then, he realized, “I needed to reinvent my worth. What could I do to give back to the community? And for me, that was animals. You get to start over with them, and you get to give them their best chance for life.”

man hugging a dog

Greg, meanwhile, had a successful restaurant management career and had survived a series of heart attacks plus bypass surgery. He’d also been a giver of kindness his whole life. He was his mother’s caregiver for two decades. At one point, his restaurant even gave him the official title, “Director of Kindness,” complete with name badge. The rescue turned out to be a good match for his caring ways. “I feel like there’s not enough out there to help all the animals,” he says.

RescueRehabRehome began literally as a homegrown project.  “For about two or three years, it was just us,” recalls Greg. 

And the dogs. “We had them in our bedroom, we had them in our living room, and in our dining room,” he says, up to six at a time. They converted part of a tandem garage to a kennel. Then, their three-season porch became a four-season playroom where dogs, Greg and David hang out. They didn’t take a vacation for the first six or seven years. And when they finally did get away, they spent more on hiring dog care than they did on the trip.

Slowly, though, they added volunteers and now have about 35 who help with everything from providing foster homes, to staffing pop-up pet store adoption events, to maintaining the organization’s Facebook page, to making the drives to retrieve rescues from a network of sources, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma. Recently, they also welcomed a volunteer who added a “feline division.” She oversees a dedicated group rescuing and bottle-feeding kittens. Then, RescueRehabRehome handles the adoption process.

David puts more of his focus on training and administration. Greg, who still works at a local pet store so the two have health benefits, is more the marketer or what David calls “the face of the organization. You know, everyone loves Greg.”

man holding a small dog

But when it’s time to rehome a rescue, both agree it’s about finding the best match. “I want to see that sparkle in both their eyes,” David says about animals and potential owners. Meet-and-greets are required, followed by a 24-hour waiting period to ensure adoptees are serious. Both men have favorite adoption stories: turning a bite-risk into a loving pet or nursing a critically ill dog through intense heartworm treatment. One of Greg’s favorites involves a senior-citizen friend living in a downtown high-rise who wanted a new dog after losing his beloved pet. Soon, three more senior neighbors had adopted dogs, too. And because they all live on fixed incomes and aren’t as mobile, Greg and David come to them each month to offer nail trims and routine vet medications. It’s like a lifetime service contract. And yet, Greg says it’s worth it when these seniors tell him their new companions have literally saved their lives.

This homegrown rescue is on the verge of a big expansion now. Thanks to an anonymous donor Greg calls their “angel who dropped from the sky,” a new Grimes facility will offer the accommodations the two have dreamed of including play space inside and out, larger kennels, a vet exam room and adoption visiting rooms. Their donor has just two stipulations: never identify her and never turn away a dog.

The pair believe pets are a great way to stay active and engaged as people age. The ones walking their dogs and socializing with other pet owners “seem so much more alive, and that’s the person I want to be,” says Greg.  David, meanwhile, advocates tackling new interests, even later in life. “Don’t box yourself in to a belief that it's not attainable without even trying,” he says.

Yellow sign with red hearts and text "rescuing dogs is how we roll"

Asked how long they envision running a rescue, David, more the homebody, says he doesn’t have a timetable. Greg, who has saved and planned for true retirement in a few more years, thinks five years sounds about right. He’s eager to travel.  

But for now, there are more dogs and cats to be rescued, rehabilitated and rehomed. “We start by feeling we’re doing the animals a big favor,” says David. “And really, in the end, we’re the ones that feel like we’re getting the payback.”

This story is provided by AARP Iowa. Visit the AARP Iowa page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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