When a White
Oak resident found a dog with seven newborn puppies in a wooded area, he knew exactly what to do: Call Mayor Ina Marton, a passionate lover of animals.
“The puppies were warm because their mother hovered over them. The mother dog was shivering,” Mrs. Marton recalled.
Years ago, the canines would have been picked up by animal control, and probably all of them would have been euthanized.
But the black cocker spaniel mix, which Mrs. Marton named Angel Baby, and the pups were found not long after White Oak Animal Safe Haven Inc. opened in September 2003.
So the dogs were taken there, and ultimately all eight went home with carefully screened adopters.
The White Oak shelter is one of a growing number of nonprofit organizations that take in, care for and find homes for thousands of strays and pets whose owners are unwilling or unable to care for them.
How many of these shelters exist? More than most people realize. About 15 shelters are located in Allegheny and surrounding counties in addition to many “rescue” organizations whose volunteers care for dogs, cats and other pets in their homes until permanent placements can be made.
The biggest and most visible operate with a paid staff that includes public relations and marketing personnel who organize dozens of fundraisers each year — Animal Friends in Ohio Township, Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania
in Larimer and Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Side.
The Internet has enabled small shelters, too, to have growing public profiles with websites that post pictures and bios of adoptable animals. The sites also alert animal lovers to fundraising events and wish lists of items that can be donated to the organizations, such as newspapers, kitty litter, old towels and pet food.
Mrs. Marton is founder and president of the small no-kill shelter
that was built in White Oak after three years of fundraising collected $125,000 in cash donations. Many donated building supplies. Others, including union carpenters, donated time and construction skills. The site is owned by Allegheny County, which has a low-cost lease with the shelter.
The White Oak shelter is run solely by volunteers, with no paid staff, so costs and needs are never ending. Veterinarian bills alone run $3,000 to $4,000 a month. The shelter has kennels for 10 dogs and cages for 40 to 100 cats. As is typical of shelters that never kill animals, the Safe Haven is almost always full and has a waiting list.
Since it opened in 2003, the White Oak shelter has cared for and found homes for more than 8,000 dogs and cats. In comparison, the Animal Rescue League and Western Pennsylvania Humane Society each have adopted out more than 5,000 animals a year in recent years.
Shelters in neighboring counties also are busy.
The Beaver County
Humane Society in Center is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It’s been next to the Beaver Valley Mall
since 1968. In addition to the usual fundraising for its day-to-day operations, the shelter has had to raise more than $2 million for a new facility.
While the shelter owns the building, St. Joe Minerals
, which went bankrupt in 2004, owned the property. Lawyers issued an eviction notice with a 2005 deadline. The new owner, Castlebrook Development, issued a reprieve, and the shelter bought seven acres on Brodhead Road, about a mile from its present location.
Despite a brutal economic recession, the Beaver County Humane Society has raised $1.75 million in its Gimme Shelter campaign and needs about $200,000 more, said Delbert Lemmon, associate director at the shelter. Plans call for a spring groundbreaking.
The shelter generally houses 75 animals — about a quarter of them are dogs and the rest are cats. In recent weeks, the census has included a 150-pound pig that is friendly, enjoys attention and loves playing with balls. Mr. Piggy, as the staff dubbed him, got too big for his former home, but several people with rural residences have expressed an interest in adopting him.
Each year, 1,000 to 2,000 pets are adopted out into new homes, said Janet Bergiel, executive director. Incoming animals include those picked up by animal control, and many of those are reunited with owners.
The shelter has 19 full- and part-time employees, including three humane officers who each year investigate 350 to 400 cases of abuse, cruelty and neglect. Volunteers fill in the gaps.
“It’s a tough situation and the economy isn’t helping,” said Ms. Bergiel, who has worked at the shelter since 1975. “Places like us, we struggle.” All shelters have reported increases in the number of “owner surrenders” due to job losses and other economic factors.
The Beaver County shelter is neither a no-kill nor an open-door shelter like the Humane Society and the Animal Rescue League shelters in Pittsburgh, where no animal is turned away. Beaver staff take in as many animals as they can and “we euthanize very few animals because of lack of space,” Ms. Bergiel said.
Shelter employees and volunteers do not like to say — or even think — they are in competition with other shelters and rescues for resources and homes. But in a way, they are. The supply of pets that need homes always outnumbers the supply of people who are looking to adopt pets.
No-kill shelters have an easier time attracting volunteers, donations and adopters, most agree. However, because they do not euthanize animals, no-kill shelters turn away animals when they run out of space. So, as more no-kill shelters open and as other shelters switch to no-kill status, the remaining open-door shelters — the ones that do not turn animals away — get swamped with incoming animals and must euthanize more of them.
The website of the Washington Area Humane Society is up front about some of these issues.
When people learn that the North Strabane facility is a no-kill shelter, “they sigh with relief,” according to the site. “The reality is that what makes this a feel-good public policy is also what makes it even more difficult to maintain.”
Like all shelters, the Washington County shelter depends on donations, but with one difference: It’s in North Strabane, home to The Meadows Racetrack and Casino
. By law, Pennsylvania gaming establishments give money back to the community. The Washington Area Humane Society received a total of $75,000 in 2010 and $25,000 in 2009.
The Washington County shelter has room for 36 dogs and 75 cats. At times, the cat census has swelled to more than 100, and overflow dogs have been housed in offices, the supply room and employee restrooms.
And then when absolutely no more room can be found, the doors are closed and no more animals are admitted until others are adopted.
“Ours is not a haven for pets. It’s a humane prison,” the website says. “Please understand that without your help in adopting these pets, and in donating money and supplies … the consequences for many other animals are grim.”