Animal shelters persevere through economy

By Sophia Coleman, Contributing Writer

Despite Chicago’s precarious economic status and the financial burdens businesses and people are facing, animal shelters across the city are pulling through and creating innovative ways to help pets and their owners.

The Crisis Care Program, the Guardian Angel Program and the Pet Food Bank are some of the programs Pets Are Worth Saving Chicago and The Anti-Cruelty Society are implementing into their everyday work to keep animals off the streets and find comfort in the homes of loving families.

“Our economy has turned into the No. 1 reason why people have to give up their animals,” said Nadine Walmsley, vice president of Development and Public Relations at The Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago.

According to Walmsley, there has been an increase in demand for shelters’ services because many people are losing their jobs. But unlike recent years, there are now more options than simply dropping off a pet at the shelter and hoping it finds a good home.

Large shelters like PAWS and The Anti-Cruelty Society bring in $2-6 million in donations every year, all of which goes to the animals and few paid positions at the shelters, such as vet technicians and adoption advisers.

According to Walmsley, roughly 70 percent of the workforce at shelters across Chicago is volunteer-based. She said with this funding, animal shelters were able to create multiple programs that provide security in the forms of food and shelter for pets across Chicago.

The Crisis Care Program, developed by PAWS Chicago, was developed to meet the needs of people unable to keep proper care of their pet because of job loss or other kinds of financial burdens.

“[This program] is for people who are in difficult situations, like home foreclosures or evictions,” said Susan Barrish, a PAWS volunteer. “We will take in their pets and assume responsibility for all the medical care for the time they are with us, until the original family is back on its feet and able to take them back into their own home.”

Some pets will also go into foster care, which provides them with the attention and compassion they need while their owners get their lives in order.

Barrish said people typically evicted from their homes have to go into temporary housing, which usually prohibits animals. Through this program, people are able to keep their pets and are separated from them for however long it takes them to regain financial stability.

For those who need help but feel reluctant to let others handle their pet for long periods of time, there is another option: the Pet Food Bank. Within this program, families with documented financial problems can come to shelters, such as PAWS and The Anti-Cruelty Society, and receive pet food.

“Last year, we helped some 234 individual families who had just [more than] 600 animals,” Barrish said. “We gave them supplies like food, treats, kitty litter, collars and leashes so they were able to keep their pets. In total, we gave about 46,400 pounds of food.”

Barrish mentioned larger animal shelters like PAWS have also helped out smaller ones, such as the Red Door Animal Shelter, 2410 W. Lunt Ave., in Rogers Park.

“In the last couple years, it has been pretty tough,” said Matt Gannon, manager of the Red Door Animal Shelter. “We are a smaller shelter and adoptions have been down, but this year, things are getting a little better.”

On the other side, the larger shelters have seen an increase in adoptions this year, which is a surprising trend Barrish hopes will continue.

“You wouldn’t think [of a higher adoption rate] because of the bad economy, but there truly has been a higher adoption rate,” Barrish said. “Our goal is to get people to adopt from here and other shelters rather than breeders or puppy mills because it is less expensive and helps animals in need.”

According to Barrish, people 21 and older are part of this increase in adoptions.

PAWS developed another program called Guardian Angels, which is for the elderly and sick who wish to have a pet or keep their current one but are unsure how long they will be able to take care of it. People who put PAWS Chicago into their will or make a planned gift arrangement are automatically enrolled as a Guardian Angel. Once they are a member, it is guaranteed that their pet will have a secure future if the owner dies unexpectedly. PAWS will be notified and take full responsibility of the pet.

“Through this program they are able to relinquish their animal to us in preparation for when they pass,” Barrish said. “They are able to find comfort in knowing their animal will have a safe place to stay.”

Marcia Smith, 58, a resident of the Gold Coast, became a Guardian Angel. This guaranteed a home for her 6-year-old dog, Sophie, if she were to pass before her pet.

“I decided to enroll in the program because I feel very strongly about no-kill animal shelters,” Smith said. “It’s very important that we have them, so they were put in my will.”

By making a bequest to PAWS, with the help of her financial adviser, Smith was able to feel comfort in knowing if she were to pass, a portion of her assets and her pet would be secure with the shelter.

“Before [the program], I had decided my one friend would take care of my dog if something ever happened to me, but it turns out her circumstances have changed,” Smith said. “So you never know what’s going to happen.”

She used an example of her friend who inherited a dog from another friend who died. She didn’t have enough money to take care of the pet, and it ultimately suffered.

“She works all day, and [she] can’t afford a dog-walker when she’s gone, which would give the dog the proper attention,”

Smith said.

The deceased owner had not put aside a substantial amount of money to cover vet bills, food and other supplies necessary for pet care. With the Guardian Angel program, pets are guaranteed adequate supplies, along with regular walks and attention, according to Barrish.

“This sounds sick, but everyone does die,” Smith said. “If everybody who had an interest in their pets’ security would put PAWS into their will, so many pets would be saved.”

Barrish pointed out there is a new program established in nursing homes and soup kitchens where food is now provided for the elderly owners’ animals. They found that seniors were giving their meals from the food banks to their pets, so they were lacking in nutrition.

According to Barrish, volunteer workers at the soup kitchens came up with a solution to start distributing pet food, and now the health of the elderly and their pets are improving.

According to Walmsley, shelters across Chicagoland have made virtually no cuts or changes to the way they care for their animals. In fact, through these tough times, she said they have improved their services.

“We have not compromised the care for the animals,” Walmsley said. “We have been fortunate in that when the recession hit, we were down about 10 percent in our contributions—so for the most part, there were little changes.”

Barrish credits PAWS’ successful programs to people’s innovative methods of coping with the recovering economy.

“We have been able to create all these great new programs because of the difficulties people are facing with today’s financial crisis,” Barrish said. “We are going to keep growing and innovating. We will make new programs to meet the needs of people and animals out there.”