Spot's story

How strays find a future in a trip from Animal Control to the Animal Care League.

Opinion

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By Kathy Capone

What happens to the homeless animals in our community? Where do they come from? How can the situation be improved? Previously, we looked at Oak Park Animal Control, which is usually the first contact a homeless animal has with the people entrusted to make decisions about his future. In this article we'll look at the Animal Care League, which is where more than 500 animals a year receive hope for a future.

Oak Park Animal Control (OPAC) has completed part of its job with Spot (a compilation of dozens of dogs who have gone from Oak Park Animal Control to the Animal Care League). They picked him up from an Oak Park alley while he was searching for something to eat in a garbage can. Although he was dirty and skinny, he was also friendly and responsive. He was wearing no identification, but he sits and stays on command. He was obviously a pet at some point in his life. He was taken to Hanover Animal Wellness Center in Forest Park, where OPAC animals are housed until one of four things happens: Spot is reclaimed by owner, Spot is adopted from OPAC, Spot is transferred to another organization, or Spot is euthanized.

But Spot has been living in a cage at Hanover for more than two weeks now.   Nobody has come looking for him. Nobody has responded to the information about him that has been broadcast on Channel 6. But OPAC and Hanover staff agree that he seems like a very nice dog, so euthanasia is not a consideration at this point. OPAC is looking for a place for him to go because it cannot keep animals indefinitely. Space must always be available for newly arriving animals. In his quest to find a place for Spot, John Hayley, OPAC supervisor, has called the Animal Care League (ACL).

Animal Care League is Oak Park's private humane society at 1013 Garfield Street.  It was founded in 1973, and it was known at first as the Village Humane Society.  It has grown steadily in the past 31 years, and now houses 12 dogs and puppies, and 40 cats and kittens at any given time. An additional 40 cats and kittens (often mother/baby families) will be in temporary home care outside of the ACL facility. ACL animals come from among the thousands of animals in our immediate area and beyond who are either impounded or are being surrendered by their owners. ACL is supported by donations and grants; it receives no tax dollars.

ACL has 3 full-time and 5 part-time employees. Those employees, with help from volunteers, keep the shelter clean and welcoming, the animals healthy and social, and the public apprised of animals available for adoption. They manage the adoption process, and field all the phone calls. The telephone seldom stops ringing, with calls ranging from people wanting to know more about an ACL animal they saw on the Petfinder.com website, to people wanting to know if ACL can take in a litter of kittens they found under their porch.

Some of the phone calls can be heart-wrenching. Shelter staff members hear about animals in deplorable conditions, and they look for ways to help. People whose life circumstances have changed, usually for the worse, call to say that they can no longer keep their beloved pet. Does ACL have a place for it? But the worst circumstances arise when pet owners do not take responsibility for their animals. These are the people who leave the cat in the locked apartment when they move, or the people who shove the dog out of the car in an unfamiliar neighborhood and then speed away. Those animals usually live in fear and hunger for days until they either die from lack of care or are picked up by animal control. If they are lucky enough to be picked up by animal control, some of them will eventually move on to ACL. Shelter staff deals with all the sad things that happen to animals and all the ways that people fail them, yet still manage to stay cheerful and upbeat.

Officer Hayley has called ACL today to ask Director Amy Soumar to come take a look at Spot. He is hoping that Amy will be able take Spot back to ACL, where he would have an excellent chance to be adopted. However, two questions remain: Does ACL have cage space available, and where does Spot fall on the adoptability scale? Amy tells Officer Hayley that she expects a cage to become available in the next day or two due to an imminent adoption, and that she and Martin Contreras, her right-hand man, will come to Hanover to give Spot a preliminary temperament evaluation.

Temperament evaluation is a series of small trials that evaluate a dog's suitability for family life. The trials range from being aggressively petted to having a prized toy and a delicious meal taken away. The test is not pass/fail, except for obvious aggression (euthanasia is usually the outcome in that case).  Its purpose is to let shelter personnel know where this dog would most likely find success as a pet. A large, boisterous dog who does not like being hugged would not be recommended for a family with small children. A very confident, pushy dog would be recommended for experienced dog owners. But the more restrictions that become evident during the evaluation, the harder that animal will be to place. And that's where Amy and Martin will consult, and their professional judgment will come into play. They know that they cannot save all the animals who need a place to go, as much as they would like to. If Spot comes with a lot of "ifs," he will wait longer to be adopted. And while he is waiting, his cage is occupied and will not be available to any other dog whose time may be running out. Therefore, Amy and Martin look for animals who have the best chance for adoption, thereby continually clearing the way for the future dogs and cats who will be looking for their chance at adoption.

But Spot is a slam-dunk in his temperament evaluation?#34;he's a born lover. His only "if" is his age: He's not a puppy anymore, and many potential adopters will only consider puppies or kittens. But there are enough people who know that babyhood is the most fleeting of conditions, and that maturity has its benefits, so there should be a family out there for Spot. He will be transported to ACL when the current tenant of his cage goes to his new home. After a 5 day settling-in period, he will be evaluated again to confirm the previous results.  If all goes well, he will then be available for adoption.

Spot's life will take an immediate upturn when he moves to ACL. He'll live in more spacious quarters, he'll have a blanket and toys in his cage, he'll meet more people; he'll get more attention and activity. Volunteers will take him for walks and play with him; some volunteers will even take dogs home to spend the weekend.

This is a serious improvement over scrounging out an existence on the street or being a client of animal control. The situation is different, however, for an animal that is being surrendered by its family, as he is moving from a family situation to a shelter situation. The initial days at ACL for a surrendered animal are usually spent grieving for his lost family. 

Many people find even great animal shelters like the Animal Care League to be inherently sad places. So many animals in need of attention, goodwill, and homes of their own, and each animal is the centerpiece or at the periphery of a sad story, either born into unfortunate conditions or falling into them.  Occasionally, an animal at ACL will decline while waiting for his hoped-for family. He cannot adapt to shelter life, something inside him changes, and he is no longer adoptable. When that happens at ACL, there really is no place else to go, and euthanasia is necessary. That necessity is very hard on ACL staff, who have cared for and nurtured the animal since its arrival.

Adoption is the counterbalancing joy to the occasional euthanasia sorrow. ACL will exceed 500 adoptions this year. Thousands of people will have visited the shelter in order to effect those adoptions. Shelter staff members guide potential adopters through the adoption process, which is intended to make a good match between animals and people. It includes an interview, introduction to the animals, and time for the entire household to spend with their intended pet.  When the decision is made and a homeless animal is chosen to become a member of a family, a volunteer veterinarian will perform a spay/neuter surgery, give the animal any remaining necessary inoculations, and insert a microchip. And thus Spot (or one in his legion of compatriots) will begin his new life as a loved pet.

What would happen to dogs and cats in Spot's situation if places like the Animal Care League did not exist? Animal control facilities, being the final repository for human carelessness and neglect, would be forced into the situation of wholesale euthanasia, because they cannot stockpile all the animals that come their way. Consider our neighbor, Chicago, which is in exactly that position.  The bigger the jurisdiction, the higher the likelihood of irresponsibility towards animals, the more animal impoundments, the more euthanasias. There are simply not enough places like ACL to absorb the number of adoptable homeless animals that need a place to await a future.

Would you be interested in helping Animal Care League? There are so many ways to do so, from becoming a member to making a donation. To learn more, visit the ACL website at animalcareleague.org. And always, when it comes time to add a pet to the family, please visit the shelter first. 

Oak Parker Kathy Capone is a former Chicago high school teacher who now primarily volunteers for animal and education causes. It was a letter in WEDNESDAY JOURNAL that brought her to the Forest Park Ark four years ago. She's now on the Board of Directors for the Animal Care League, and on the Citizens Task Force working for an animal shelter in Oak Park.

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