Katherine Heigl: Actress, Mom… and Animal Rescuer


Reviewed by Will Draper, DVM on March 15, 2013 From the WebMD Archives

Katherine Heigl still remembers her first love. He was older, dark-haired, infinitely patient, and known by the Southern-gentlemanly moniker “Ben Davis.”

For years, he was Heigl’s best friend. He even tolerated it when “Katie” stole his food and chewed on his ears.

Ben Davis was a black Labrador retriever. “He was really more my brother Jason’s dog than anything,” she says. “But I would lie on him and teethe on his ears, and he would just put up with anything. I’d even go into his dog bowl and eat his kibble because it tasted salty and I liked it!”

Over the years, Heigl’s childhood home in Connecticut was filled with all kinds of animals — dogs, cats, rabbits. “One day Jason decided we needed a companion for Ben, so we went to a pet store,” she remembers. “That’s how we got Pippin, because my brother wanted the dog in the back of the crate peeing on herself, and so that’s the dog we got. I can’t even fathom that my parents paid for her, but they did. She and Ben Davis used to always get out of the yard and get skunked every single time. I think they liked it.”

So when Heigl and her mom, Nancy, moved to Los Angeles to pursue Heigl’s acting career after her early success as a model and in films like My Father the Hero, there was no question that they’d have pets. At 18, Heigl bought the first dog that was fully hers, a miniature schnauzer named Romeo, from a breeder. Some time later, Stella, another mini schnauzer, joined Romeo.

How Heigl Began Rescuing Dogs

They might have gone on that way, buying pampered purebreds from breeders as many celebrities do, but for a couple of chance encounters. “I was walking down the street in my neighborhood and there was a woman with these two beautiful, black, fluffy puppies, and I stopped,” says Heigl, who costars with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton in Heigl’s latest film, The Big Wedding, released in April. “They’d been pulled from somebody’s backyard, where they’d been tied up without food or water for several days. I couldn’t even fathom someone doing that. I immediately rescued Piper, and I wanted her brother, too — but someone else had already adopted him. That was the beginning of my rescuing dogs.”

The Jason Debus Heigl Foundation

Heigl soon had a houseful: Oscar, the potcake; shepherd mixes Tamber and Flora May, and another schnauzer, Wheezer. While shooting 27 Dresses in 2007 in Rhode Island, instead of coming home with a few costumes from the set, she brought a 116-pound shepherd-collie mix named Mojo, whose owner wouldn’t be able to keep him after she moved and feared he’d be euthanized in a shelter. (Mojo died in 2011. Heigl still chokes up when she talks about how he’d move from door to door each night, “guarding” each one in turn.)

But Heigl and her mom knew they couldn’t adopt every homeless dog out there. After writing a series of increasingly large checks to local rescue groups, they decided, with characteristic ambition, that it was time to take on the massive problem of homeless animals and animal cruelty with their own organization.

“There are more than 10,000 adoptable dogs and cats killed in this country every single day,” says Heigl. “Those aren’t vicious dogs, or sick cats, or animals with behavior problems. Those are animals that would make great family pets. A lot of them are purebred, and a lot of them are puppies and kittens.”

So in 2008, at the height of Heigl’s Emmy-winning 5-year turn as Izzie Stevens on ABC’s medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, the mom/daughter duo founded the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation. Named in honor of Katherine’s brother, who died after a car accident at the age of 15, the charity funds local animal rescue groups, helps transport animals from high-kill shelters to communities where they have waiting homes, and — its most important long-term strategy — holds free spay/neuter clinics in designated ZIP codes and low-income areas.

Free Spay/Neuter Clinics

“Some programs require you to prove that you’re low income or that you qualify in some other way for free spay and neuter services,” says Heigl. “We don’t. We don’t need to see your tax stub. Just come, and if you come, we’ll pay for it.”

The foundation holds a couple of free spay/neuter days in various Southern California communities every month. “At first we weren’t sure if people would bother,” says Heigl. “But on the first day, there was a line around the block. One man walked a couple of miles with three small dachshunds and waited for hours holding those three dogs, waiting to get them spayed and neutered. People really do want what’s best for their animals, but surgery is expensive, and they can’t always put their needs before their family’s.”

The spay/neuter effort seems to be working. In the three communities the foundation has targeted because of their high proportions of euthanasia in animal shelters, the rate of dogs and cats being left at shelters decreased by an average of 19% in the second half of 2012. (The Heigls’ program was the only one targeting these communities at the time.)

Now the foundation has launched its Just One line of pet products — collars, leads, and food bowls, along with human apparel and accessories, available at — to help pay for more spaying and neutering. The product line gets its name from its mission of saving “just one” pet at a time. “We do our best to get the animals out of the shelters and find them homes,” says Nancy Heigl. “But we can really only get so many out. If we can limit the breeding, our shelters can really be shelters and not places where animals go to die.”

Katherine Heigl’s Family

As if seven dogs weren’t enough, Heigl — who also owns and rides horses — and her husband, country musician Josh Kelley, now have two daughters at home: Naleigh, 4, adopted from South Korea at 9 months, and Adalaide Marie Hope, 13 months, adopted in the United States at birth in April 2012. It’s a level of chaos that she’s said she wouldn’t recommend to everyone, but Heigl handles it by keeping her expectations low-key.

“It’s a lot. I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot,” she says. (Heigl and Kelley split their clan’s time between Los Angeles and a home in Utah.) “My goal is that everybody gets attention every day. Naleigh’s at that really talkative age, so she talks to you all day long, and Josh built her this step-stool box for the kitchen so she can help. She washes dishes with me while I cook and bake. And the baby will just sit with us in her bouncy, doing her own thing.”

With Naleigh now in preschool several days a week, Heigl has a little downtime to focus on the baby and the dogs — and occasionally squeeze in some time for herself. She confesses to struggling with the discipline needed to commit to regular exercise, but before starting filming on a new project, she cranks it into high gear. “I work with two different trainers, one in Utah and one in L.A., and they both use circuit training to keep the workout interesting and me in serious pain!”

Heigl on Holly in “Life As We Know It”

Heigl got a lot of flack for criticizing the character she played in Knocked Up as “humorless and uptight” in an interview with Vanity Fair, but says all the roles she’s played in the past 10 years have reflected some aspect of her personality. Most like her, she thinks, was Holly in Life as We Know It. Holly winds up sharing guardianship of a toddler with a seemingly incompatible dude (played by Josh Duhamel) when the girl’s parents, their respective best friends, die in a car crash.

“She’s the closest to who I am when I’m at my best,” Heigl muses. “She was strong, independent, but had a lot of compassion and heart. She could be controlling and uptight when things got stressful, but she was honest about herself and able to change.”

Would Heigl want her two daughters to follow in their parents’ footsteps and pursue a career in acting or music? She’s torn. “Both are tough industries to break into and can be full of rejection and criticism, but if they have passion for it like Josh and I do, I would never deny them taking their shot,” she says. “I might try encouraging law school or med school first, though, and see if it takes!”

Heigl’s favorite bonding time with her human and furry family is in the evening, stretched out on the sofa in the media room that was Heigl’s dream for their Utah house, watching animated movies. “The dogs are sofa dogs, so they’re all up in my grill,” she laughs. “Part of me wishes I hadn’t allowed that, but it’s too late now. Everyone gets kissed and petted and loved.”

Adjusting to Adoption

Heigl and Kelley were among more than 1,000 U.S. families who adopted children from South Korea in 2009. Just two years later, there were only 736 such adoptions — and the number will continue to drop as South Korea phases out international adoptions.

Many other countries have also slowed adoptions to the United States. Now, many children adopted from overseas have medical needs, and even those who don’t are at least toddler age, says Abbie Smith, LCSW, director of clinical social services at Holt International Children’s Services. “Almost all the kids coming home now are at least 18 months, and that changes the whole ball game,” she says. “They’ve left everything they know: the smells, the sounds, the food of their culture, all the people in their lives.”

To help a newly adopted child adjust:

Put him in charge of play for at least 15 minutes each day. Ask him what he wants to play (you may need to use gestures), and follow his lead.

Understand the trauma your child may have suffered and how that affects his behavior now. Authoritarian-style parenting is usually counterproductive with a child who’s been adopted past infancy, Smith says.

Let him set the pace, especially for physical affection. “One dad told me that his elementary-age daughter didn’t want to be near any of them. She’d sit on one end of the sofa watching TV, and he’d sit at the other end,” says Smith. “Eventually, he’d sit a little closer. Gradually over time it worked up to being able to sit next to her, and then to putting his arm around her. If he’d tried to force hugging and affection on her, it would have driven her away.”

Introducing Pets to Kids

Heigl says it never would have occurred to her to give up any of her dogs when she adopted her daughters. But in any shelter, you’ll find pets that arrived because their families were expecting a baby. That’s a tragedy, says Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, a professor of behavior and anatomy at The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, because animals given up at most shelters will likely be euthanized. The key, says Crowell-Davis, is to prepare the pet, especially if it’s a dog, before the child arrives.

Finish the child’s room well ahead of time. Give your dog a chance to sniff around. Then stop letting him in there a couple of weeks before the child arrives, so he won’t consider that room his “territory.”

If your dog is really attached to one of you — especially if it’s the parent who’ll be spending more time with the baby — have other family members spend time walking and feeding the dog.

Carry a baby-sized doll around the house in the weeks before you bring baby home. “The dog will learn that his humans will sometimes be carrying this little thing around, and it’s normal,” Crowell-Davis says.

When you bring the child home for the first time, put someone in charge of controlling the dog. (That someone shouldn’t be the parent watching the child.) Make introductions slowly, and give treats generously. “Don’t force the interaction,” Crowell-Davis says. “Recognize that it may take time.”

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Show Sources


Katherine Heigl, actress.

Nancy Heigl, manager for Katherine Heigl.

Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, professor of behavior and anatomy, University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

Abbie Smith, LCSW, director of clinical social services, Holt International Children’s Services.

US Department of State: “International Adoption Statistics.”  

Adoptive Families Magazine: “The Adoption Guide: Adoption from South Korea.”

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