Adoption is Chester County SPCA’s goal; until then, add Mozart and spritz of vanilla
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The Doberman pinscher puppies yelped gleefully when a visitor opened the door to their pen; within seconds they enveloped the Chester County SPCA staffer, jockeying for position to grab the attention they anticipated.
Kennel coordinator Michele Amendola didn’t disappoint, picking up the enthusiastic tail-waggers one by one. “They won’t be here long,” she predicted while receiving copious nuzzles.
Quick adoptions remain one of the highlights of working at the agency, which has had an unarguably drama-filled year – from the completion of a much-needed expansion to the remarkable recovery of a pit bull terrier left for dead in a roadside ravine to a contract with Delaware County to house its rescues.
Several staff members sat down for a recent interview to discuss some exciting changes – such as aromatherapy for dogs – and to dispel some common misconceptions about the agency.
One of the most prevalent, said Rich Britton, who handles community relations for the Chester County SPCA, involves funding. “A lot of people think we’re affiliated with a national group, and we’re not: We’re an independent nonprofit,’” he said. “People also think we get government funding, which also isn’t true.”
The Chester County SPCA has contracts with some municipalities – Delaware County, for example – and gets fees for services. The rest of the agency’s operating budget – a much-needed infusion to cover the expense of caring for the animals – comes from private donations and fund-raisers such as the recent Walk for Paws and the upcoming Forget-Me-Not Gala, he said.
Britton explained that the Chester County SPCA is an open access shelter, which means that no animals are turned away. The goal is to find them permanent homes, a process that ranges from a few days to more than a year. “There’s no time limit,” he said. “Our main objective is to get them placed; we keep them as long as it takes.” Euthanasia occurs only as a last resort – when an animal becomes too sick or is too injured to recover, he said.
Even with the expanded facility, which includes training runs for the dogs, and a dedicated core of volunteers, some animals need more attention than the agency can provide. Amendola said the Chester County SPCA has a growing list of volunteer rescue organizations, some local and some as distant as southern Tennessee, all of which are vetted.
Some animals may return after an extended period of rehab, some may be placed by the other group, and others may remain with that group, she said. “We’re constantly looking to partner with rescue organizations,” Amendola said, adding that recommendations are welcomed.
“We are also always looking for foster families,” added Carin Ford, a board member. “Despite our wonderful staff and volunteers, this isn’t the best place to recuperate.” She said people willing to work with animals on a temporary basis to make them more adoptable are a valuable part of the agency’s operation.
For those animals who don’t need extensive care and attention, the agency looks for new ways to break up the animals’ routine and “keep them happy in the moment,” said Britton.
After Kelley Bollen, a well-known animal behaviorist, presented a two-day educational seminar, Ford and Amendola said they both went home and raided their kitchen cabinets. Bollen suggested spritzing an appealing scent into cages once a day to add a pleasant diversion.
“You can see what works,” Ford said. “Their noses perk up, and it keeps them alert.” She said vanilla, cinnamon, and coconut did the trick while basil was a dud.
Another new addition: 12 hours of music therapy. The agency is using its public-address system to surround the animals with soothing sounds, such as classical compositions and nature songs. The staff is also using clickers to reinforce good behavior with dogs, and cats are getting scratch boxes and covered shoebox homes, a place to retreat and “feel secure,” Ford said.
As any pet owner knows, an animal’s unconditional love comes with a price tag, said Britton, who estimated the monthly cost per animal at about $400, which includes food and veterinary care. Prospective adopters get a bargain since animals are already vaccinated, neutered and micro-chipped, he said.
Amendola said the agency works hard to ensure that animals are ready for adoption and is always looking for ways to make the process easier. Some new initiatives involve a matchmaking program, which enables people to be notified when a particular breed becomes available, and a dogs-on-tour promotion in which volunteers take adoptable animals to various public venues.
The outreach has proven successful, Britton said. Even though the agency is accepting more animals, adoption numbers have been keeping pace, thanks to the concerted effort. “We’re trying to cast a wider net,” Britton said. “We’re using social media, and constantly looking for new opportunities to get the word out.”
Ford said it’s impossible not to become extremely attached to some of the animals. In fact, working at the agency poses an occupational hazard: Many rescues end up going home with staffers or volunteers. “You can’t work here and not love animals,” Amendola said.
Sometimes families will bring their pets back to the Chester County SPCA for a visit. Ford recalled one dog that required a lot of socialization work because it didn’t interact well with other dogs. Despite the bond that she formed with the dog, it didn’t recognize her when it returned because it had become so acclimated to new surroundings.
Ford described the experience as a bit bittersweet. She said she felt a tinge of loss that quickly dissipated because the dog’s transition had been so positive. “I remember crying with happiness,” she said.
For more information on the Chester County SPCA, its programs, or its 26th Annual Forget-Me-Not Gala on June 9, visit http://www.ccspca.org.