MYAKKA CITY -- At Donte's Den, dogs will find heaven on earth.
They'll spend hot afternoons swimming in a sparkling 15,000-gallon pool. They'll bask in the sun on private porches connected to clean air-conditioned (and, in the winter, heated) rooms equipped with toys and televisions. They'll be coddled by volunteers. There will be veterinary care and plenty of treats.
Best of all, they'll be guaranteed all that love even if their owners pass away.
When it's finished, Donte's Den will be a nine-acre community dedicated to housing dogs whose owners have died or are incapacitated. The home will also welcome dogs whose owners have been deployed with the military.
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Donte's Den will operate as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, and dog owners will be required to make a "contribution," but an exact amount has yet to be determined.
Donte's Den will also operate a shelter that will take owner surrenders and help with natural disasters like hurricanes. Through the shelter, owners will have the option of allowing their dogs to be adopted out to good homes.
Construction is expected to begin in January, with an estimated completion date of October 2014.
Founder Marsha Panuce (pronounced Pah-new-chi) calls the "community of joyful dogs" a longtime dream shared with her late husband, Donald ("Don" for short).
The Panuces, originally from Chicago, never had children. They raised nine schnauzers instead. Together they owned ACI Advance Controls Inc., a Bradenton company that manufactures electrical devices. And together they came up with the concept of Donte's Den.
"You have the journey of life, and you take along the way," said Panuce, 65. "You take education, you take experiences. But somewhere along the line, you've got to give back. This is how we wanted to give back."
Don Panuce died from pancreatic cancer in March 2011 at age 76. Two months later, one of their dogs, Kelly, died. Two months after that, Donte, Marsha's favorite, died unexpectedly at age 5.
"Donte was an exceptional schnauzer. I always said he was a little Ph.D. with fur," said Panuce, who lives in Sarasota. "He was a caring dog, and when my husband became ill, I watched him go to my husband and comfort him."
And that's how the doggie digs got their name.
Shortly after her husband died, Panuce started searching for properties. More than 100 parcels later, she found the perfect place: a 50-acre cattle farm in Myakka City. She began negotiating without even setting foot on it.
Panuce could tell by the pictures it would be perfect: the little winding road, the peaceful pine forest, the open space, the lush green landscape. She bought seven miniature Holstein cows (she calls them mini Oreo cookies) that will stay on property.
"They will always be on property so that when people come to Donte's Den, it'll be a destination point. They'll be able to walk the gardens, play with the shelter dogs, play with their own dogs and they can go feed the cows," she said. "They're just here to enjoy a good life and live out their days."
Panuce bought the property at 6801 283rd St. E. in April 2012 for nearly $500,000. She then hired Animal Arts, a veterinary architecture firm based in Boulder, Colo., to draw up the plans for Donte's Den.
"The plan should be approved within a month," said Barney Salmon, the Manatee County planner assigned to the project. "It's a very nice facility."
The $5 million project will include an entrance court, hospital, utility building, the forever dog dens, the military dog dens, a courtyard pool and lounge and adoption dens.
"We have all of the permits necessary to commence land clearing and site work, and we expect our building permits from Manatee County for the six structures in early December," said Mike Carter, president of Mike Carter Construction.
The facility, which will house up to 100 dogs at a time, will feature individual dens that are more like spacious 8x10 rooms, a real luxury for the pups who may be used to tight quarters found in most kennels.
"With real life rooms, dogs are less stressed out, so they bark less," Animal Arts designer Josh Young wrote in an email. "Each of the long-term boarding dens has their own screened-in porch with access to huge, open exercise yards."
Owners who pre-arrange for their dogs to live at Donte's Den are required to set up a pet trust, a document under Florida statute 736.0408 that allows the owner to designate an alternate trustee who follows requests made by the owner after death or incapacitation.
"In Donte's Den's case, the alternate trustee is going to deliver the animal to the (facility)," said Dawn Marie Bates-Buchanan, a Bradenton attorney who handles animal law and trusts. "Usually we tell the settler to contribute to the animal's care to the best of their ability. For example, if you have a life insurance policy, then you could contribute 1 or 2 percent of that policy."
Setting up a pet trust is ideal, Bates-Buchanan said, because a will could take 90 days to six months to probate. But a pet trust gives the alternate trustee immediate access, which is essential for the well-being of a living animal.
Sometimes an owner doesn't think a pet trust is necessary, opting to trust family members who may drop the ball later on.
"We've seen awful situations where families can't do anything, so they literally open the door and let the animal go," she said. "We had a situation with a horse where they just left the horse to starve."
Bates-Buchanan is so passionate about the importance of pet trusts that she does them all pro bono.
Terri Gance's 14-year-old terrier and her partially paralyzed Yorkie/Maltese are not ideal candidates for adoption. Gance and her husband, John, can't even think of what would happen if they died and their dogs were left behind.
Panuce was buying some party favors from Ganz, a wholesale gift company that Gance works for, when Donte's Den came up during the course of their conversation.
"I told her I loved what she was doing. I loved everything about it. I thought it was a great idea," said Gance, 54.
After seeing a presentation on Panuce's concept, the Gances, who live in Port Charlotte, were on board.
"My husband said to me we need to get involved, and we need to put it in our will that our dogs would go to Donte's Den, and we would supply funds from our estate that would go to taking care of our dog," Gance said. "This way we wouldn't have to worry about someone putting our dogs down or not taking care of them."
The Gances say they will set up their pet trust before the year is over.
Donte's Den will hire about five salaried employees, including a caretaker who will live in a house on the property 24/7. The organization will depend on volunteers to play with the dogs.
"Volunteers won't be cleaning up poop," Panuce said. "They're going to come to walk, to cuddle, to feed, to hug."
After the first nine acres are built, Panuce is already planning to expand -- she's calling this part "Phase One." In the next 10 years, Donte's Den will become a bustling little town just for dogs. Panuce is looking forward to building a cottage for herself on the property -- a true measure of her passion for pups.
"We're giving back. And we're giving back the best way we can to the voiceless," she said. "The dogs are the voiceless.
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.