Help for Homeless Animals: Where do we go from here?

Editor’s Note: For four weeks, The Sun has looked into the state of homeless pets in South Jersey and what is being done to find homes — and futures — for thousands of animals. This article is one of three featured in the final week of this series.

Thousands of animals find themselves in local shelters each year, with no permanent home through adoption guaranteed.

Solving a problem of this magnitude will undoubtedly take years, but it is clear animal shelters across South Jersey have a plan.

“We think the demand for our service will continue to grow,” Animal Welfare Association Executive Director Maya Richmond said. “One thing we can always be sure about moving forward is people always having love for animals.”

It will just be a matter of if these organizations can properly capitalize and collaboratively tackle this common goal in an efficient manner.

Increasing family involvement

The behind-the-scenes planning to reduce homeless animals requires extensive research, and shelters across the region are doing their homework. The groups strategically plan for the future by studying trends.

They are constantly evaluating needs in the community to discover consistent ways to provide resources to specific populations as efficiently as possible. They’re also actively looking for ways to get more families involved through education outreach, engagement and service projects that bring families and corporations to their location.

“We host educational outings like our Yappy Hours to be accommodating to these families and make them feel comfortable,” Richmond said.

The executive director of the Camden County Animal Shelter, Vicki Rowland, believes the economy has an impact on family involvement.

“More people would get involved if they had more time,” Rowland said.

Families are often deterred from experimenting with the idea of fostering or adopting animals because they believe it would be too much of a financial burden.

However, with organizations such as the CCAS, it is completely free. The rescue provides everything it takes to care for a foster pet. According to Rowland, the major challenge it faces is getting the word out to families that fostering is free, fun and rewarding.

The organization recently got involved in targeting feral cats — an animal Richmond agreed is being brought into shelters more frequently.

Owner reclaims of animals that come into CCAS are not especially high, specifically for cats. Historically, Rowland said reclaims of cats are less than 2 percent of intake compared to 12 percent of dogs.

Getting phone calls from residents concerned about feral cats living in their town is not uncommon for local shelters and rescues.

“We’re still trying to brainstorm action steps,” Rowland said. “How do we answer the questions and provide the solutions for those people who call?”

The CCAS looks to continue to educate and provide appropriate resources for families moving forward to help them deal with these problems and get involved with shelters.

Building regional relationships

Over the last 15 to 20 years, non-profit rescues have continued to grow. However, donations have not.

According to Richmond, this has set up a dynamic the shelter community needs to be aware of.

“We need to work more collaboratively, maybe even combine some shelters in order to reduce cost so animals can get more,” Richmond said.

One Love Animal Rescue Chairwoman Sherri Smith agreed with Richmond in the sense that she would rather see existing shelters get funded more appropriately instead of creating more.

“I would like to see those existing organizations be able to expand discounted or free veterinary services to the community, be able to create educational and outreach programs for the community, and be able to create and support more programs to get shelter pets trained to assist individuals who need companionship or special help,” Smith said.

Rowland has noticed a trending decline in intake over the last five years.

“Five years ago, I was taking over 6,000 animals a year, and now I’m taking nearly 4,000 animals a year,” Rowland explained. “I don’t believe the number of shelters and rescues in New Jersey will increase in the future.”

In 2011, the Camden County Animal Alliance began bringing organizations together when it joined the CCAS, Animal Welfare Association, Animal Adoption Center, Voorhees Animal Orphanage and Independent Animal Control to help improve the services it provides to animals and communities. The alliance now meets once a month with a focus on continuing to look for partnerships with struggling communities.

For example, the AWA recently started bringing in animals from Cape May County to help an area that doesn’t have great exposure.

Spay/neuter targeting

The promoting of targeted spaying and neutering has become a top priority of shelters statewide.

“Specifically-targeted spay/neuter is one of our goals in trying to prevent pet overpopulation,” Rowland said.

The AWA focuses on continuing to commit efforts toward underserved communities or what it refers to as “deserts of services.”

“We try to be proactive and mindful of their situations so we are not degrading anybody, but being there to support their community and building trust and providing resources to them,” Richmond said.

The AWA is making a particular effort to have cats spayed or neutered due to the rising number of feral cats in the area. The CCAS recently hosted its first cat clinic targeted toward Camden residents. The clinic, subsidized by a grant, offers free spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations. About 10 cats were spayed or neutered at this first clinic.

“It went well,” Rowland said. “We’re really trying to supply outreach to Camden as far as offering the services to an area that doesn’t have them already offered.”

The clinics will continue until the grant obligation is fulfilled, meaning 130 cats will be spayed or neutered. Another clinic is planned this month.

“We will keep spreading the word — spay /neuter your pets! It won’t change until this is widely accepted by everyone as the only way to responsibly care for your pet,” Smith said.

Objectives

The №1 goal of all these organizations is to eventually reach a 100 percent live release rate.

But with each new animal brought, a new challenge is presented.

“I don’t have a choice of what comes in. I have to take all owner surrenders and extreme cases,” Rowland said.

To increase adoption rates at a record pace, One Love works extremely hard to portray rescue and adoption in a positive light.

“We have good cameras and make sure our photos of adoptable dogs are more like a dreamy, happy portrait than a sad, dark photo of an animal behind kennel bars,” Smith said.

The rescue wants people to associate adopting a rescue pet with the amazing and positive experience they truly believe it to be.

“It is our goal to show how glorious and rewarding it is to foster and/or adopt an animal in need,” Smith said.

To do this and in turn raise adoption rates, the group has set a number of objectives.

It continues to grow its communication plan with surrounding shelters and its online following by enhancing its website and social media experience. It posts things such as happy family adoption photos and photos that show the progress of rescue pets to shine the positive light on what can come of the services with the help of families in the area.

It is also constantly looking to expand communication when it comes to the local available pets in shelter to understand as much as possible about each pet’s behavior and medical services.

Expanding and upgrading

Limited space has also become a problem local shelters are looking to tackle.

“We have to have more space,” Richmond said. “We operate in 40 percent of the space that organizations similar to us around the country have.”

At the Burlington County Animal Shelter, a new cat room was added in 2014 and opened in 2015.

“The cat room was made as an alternative to cages that the cats would normally stay in. This allows them to get the socialization they need as well as for families to see and interact with cats they could potentially adopt,” Eric Arpert, Burlington County public information officer, said.

The BCAS also has a new dog play area and dog play groups, which help with socialization. Being cooped in a shelter can have a potentially negative impact on dogs, causing anxiety and stress, according to Arpert. Areas for dogs to play outside and with other dogs help with that.

“The outside play area makes these dogs more adoptable,” Arpert said.

Many local shelters have expansion projects in place and underway.

The AWA is looking into a three-year facility upgrade that includes remodeling its adoption center to make things more welcoming for visitors. The association plans to expand its technical and training expertise programs as well by looking into animals’ needs and trying to cater to them through these programs.

The Voorhees Animal Orphanage’s $1.6 million “Take Me Home” capital campaign was launched in January. At a Jan. 28 press conference, VAO officials said the organization hopes to raise the funds necessary to consolidate several outdated and separate outbuildings on its grounds into one new, modernized structure.

BCAS is also looking to expand its current facility. Some of the main features of the project would include an expansion to the front, including a new welcome area, entrance and parking lot; the addition of new acquaintance rooms and cat rooms; more offices; and dog runs and play areas outside.

The expansion was approved for $1.9 million and is incorporated in the county budget, according to Arpert.

“We believe that the new expansion will help more pets be adopted,” Arpert said. “This will save lives, with hopefully having more adoptions and less pet overload and costs, having less to pay for pets.”

What’s the answer?

“There’s no one set answer,” Rowland said. “Spay/neutering is clearly the top thing — education, awareness, the whole nine yards.”

Smith agreed with this notion. One Love plans to place a special focus on getting the spay/neuter message to the public, providing more discounted or free sterilization services to everyone, and promoting awareness and education specifically in low-income areas.

Encouraging adoptions is key, too, according to Rowland, along with making sure the public knows there are all sorts of animals available at shelters.

“It’s that awareness that we have so many great dogs, great cats, all different shapes, sizes, breeds, and I think there’s that misconception. We have everything. We get everything in,” she said.

Shelters across South Jersey are trying to set the standard for care extremely high, in hopes other rescues will follow their lead.

“We are striving to create best practices that might someday guide other rescuers and help adopters find reputable rescue organizations,” Smith said.

They strive to supply their communities with skills people need to make an impact and elevate the well-being of homeless animals.

“It’s incredibly touching for us when we see it work out,” Richmond said. “We believe if we help the humans, they will help the animals.”

Kristen Dowd, Zane Clark and Brigit Bauma contributed to this article.