Carol Lee Hoskins of Rosemont is 65, lives alone, and used to worry about what would happen to her beloved cats, Samson and Daisy, if something happened to her. Hoskins did not have anyone to take care of them, and she did not want them to be separated, end up in a shelter or be euthanized.

"Every night I prayed that God wouldn't take me before I could find out what would happen to my cats," she said.

Recently Hoskins' neighbor gave her a newsletter of the nonprofit Home for Life, a western Wisconsin animal sanctuary. Hoskins read about its Angel Care program that provides pets with a permanent place to live if their owner is unable to care for them or has died. "When I saw this I said, 'Wow. This is the answer,'" she said.

More than 500,000 pets nationwide are euthanized in shelters every year as a result of the death or disability of their owners, according to the nonprofit organization 2nd Chance 4 Pets. Home for Life's executive director and founder, Lisa LaVerdiere, started Angel Care in 1999 after receiving frantic phone calls from dying pet owners or their family members.

"It was their last wish to know that their animal was all right," LaVerdiere said.

Many people assume their friends or relatives will take care of their pets, but that doesn't always happen, LaVerdiere said. It can be hard to find homes for these pets because they are often older and have illnesses, such as diabetes, and they often end up in shelters, where they might be euthanized. Even if people put their pets in a will, LaVerdiere said, a pet can go through a "limbo period" while the estate is being resolved.

"There are a lot of problems, and the traditional way of taking care of animals wasn't working," she said. "These were a whole set of animals falling through the cracks."

Besides the pets in the Angel Care program, Home for Life takes in hard-to-place pets with special needs. LaVerdiere houses 95 dogs, 125 cats, a pony, a tortoise, 10 rabbits and 10 parrots on her 40-acre sanctuary near Star Prairie, Wis. They spend their days in the companionship of other animals and with 20 full-time and part-time staff members.

The cats live together in catteries, and most of the dogs live together in doggie apartments and townhouses -- all furnished with futons and hammocks. The dogs and cats have outdoor runs, and the dogs also have a meadow to run and play in. They are kept busy with grooming and vet appointments, as well as community outreach programs. LaVerdiere calls Home for Life the "third door," because it is a third option for such pets besides euthanasia or adoption.

Many programs will care for a pet after its owner has died, but Angel Care is the only program LaVerdiere knows of that will care for a pet if its owner is still alive but unable to care for the animal. People often have lingering illnesses that make it hard for them to care for their pets, such as one cancer patient whose cat is in the care of Home for Life.

People can enroll their pets in Angel Care by making a one-time tax-deductible donation in their pet's name. The cost of the donation is determined by the owner's age, with the donation increasing with age. If the owner is able to take care of the pet all its life, the donation will be used to support the other animals at Home for Life.

Once a pet is enrolled, the owner receives a certificate of enrollment. Then, if the time arises, the executor of the estate just has to contact Home for Life, LaVerdiere said. She recommends enrolling a pet rather than leaving a bequest in the will for the pet to go to Home for Life.

LaVerdiere said Angel Care is meant to be a safety net for people. Many animals are enrolled, but relatively few have been taken in. People from all over, including Canada, Europe and Singapore, enroll their pets in Angel Care, LaVerdiere said. In fact, about half of those enrolling their pets are not local.

Gerald Galus, 59, of New Hampshire, was living in Singapore with his wife when he decided to look into a permanent home for his five cats. "It was just the two of us and five cats, and we had no one to whom they could go in case of a disaster," Galus said. "We were looking for some way to secure a pleasant future for our kids, as we call them."

Galus and his wife were once on a plane to Frankfurt when there was a bomb scare. At that time his cats were enrolled in Angel Care, and he was relieved. "It was quite comforting to know that they would be taken care of," he said.

Pets from elsewhere are usually flown to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where a staff member picks them up. If an owner would prefer the pet not to be flown, Home for Life will make arrangements to pick up the pet by car, LaVerdiere said. The extra fees for transporting the pet are negotiable, and people can pay those fees upfront, leave the money in their estate or arrange for their lawyer to release the funds, she said.

LaVerdiere said people of all ages enroll, but usually it is people in their 40s and 50s. "A lot of people don't like to think about their mortality," she said. "It's a decision people come to on their own."

Hoskins said that about a year ago she realized anything can happen unexpectedly and became more aware of the possibility of death or becoming disabled. Just as people plan for what would happen to their children, she said, she wanted to plan for what would happen to her cats.

"I know I did the right thing because there's a peace of mind," Hoskins said. "I feel really peaceful that if something happens to me they'll be taken care of."

Hilary Dickinson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.