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2016-07-01 / Features

Homeward Bound

Centre County PAWS does whatever it takes to connect pets with their forever homes
Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern


Cats and dogs are amazing creatures. Dogs can smell things up to 40 feet underground. Cats have 32 muscles in each ear. A border collie named Chaser knows more than 1,000 words. A cat can jump up to six times its length.

But possibly their best trick is human companionship. For many people, it doesn’t get much better than snuggling on the couch with a family pet.

Tragically, not all animals get that chance. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 6 to 8 million cats and dogs are entering shelters each year; 4 million of those get adopted. That’s a gap that’s difficult to accept, and it’s one that many shelters around the country are working hard to close.

In State College, Centre County PAWS has been helping cats and dogs find their forever homes since 1980. What began as an all-volunteer effort expanded into its current form with the new facility built in 2007 off Shiloh Road. Then-shelter supervisor Lisa Bahr took on the role of director of operations.

MaximusMaximus“We got the facility and then realized that we needed to figure out exactly what we wanted to do with it and what would be the best use of our volunteers and our facility and our funds and our energy,” Bahr says.

PAWS has at least a couple of those items in spades; the volunteer database shows upwards of 600 individuals, though a core group of about 100 to 125 “gets everything done,” Bahr says.

And there’s a lot to do. Each day at 7:30 a.m., the first shift of volunteers arrive to greet the animals, somewhere around 50 cats and a dozen dogs. They open up cat cages, take dogs outside, feed breakfast, give medications, walk dogs and more. Though the facility can hold up to 28 dogs, a full kennel is rare, says Christine Faust, director of development and marketing.

“If there are 28 dogs in house and only four volunteers, it’s very challenging to get them all walked,” she says. “A number of our dogs are in foster families.”

Our ideal fosters are the ones who just keep taking dog after dog or litter of kittens after litter of kittens. They’re a really important part of why our program runs the way it does.”

Those foster families, though relatively unseen, are a hugely important segment of the volunteer base. While cats are able to have a fair amount of freedom at the PAWS facility — there are several rooms where cats can be out of their cages and lounge on climbing towers built by Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, as well as a screened-in porch for feline fun — dogs tend to be kept in their kennels. That’s out of necessity, as they don’t all get along, but that’s also why the PAWS staff would rather have the dogs in foster homes.

HazelHazel“Our ideal fosters are the ones who just keep taking dog after dog or litter of kittens after litter of kittens. They’re a really important part of why our program runs the way it does,” Bahr says. “We do have fosters that we lovingly call ‘foster failures’ because they keep one.”

And that’s good too — after all, the idea is to find each animal a forever home, no matter how long it takes. Bahr says the average stay is three months for cats and two months for dogs, but for some animals, it’s so much longer.

“We don’t ever want them to stay here for several years,” Bahr says. “Those are really few and far between. Those are special cases that I think at a traditional shelter wouldn’t have been given the chance to be adopted.”

ElaineElaineThose special cases include dogs with behavioral problems, which often stem from the undesirable situation from which they were rescued. Those dogs receive special attention and care from experienced volunteers and, if necessary, time with a professional dog trainer, which is paid for via the Good Dog Fund, just one of many ways people can donate to PAWS.

“It’s amazing the amount of energy and work that has been put into these dogs that have been here for a really long time,” Bahr says. “It’s important to us that we never have a dog that’s just sitting here being walked twice a day for three years. We never, ever want that to be the case. We’re always keeping in mind their mental health and the relationship with the people around them.”

That includes people like Bob Barry, a retired Ferguson Township police officer and longtime PAWS volunteer. “I’ve been president, vice president, treasurer and then a general board member off and on,” says Barry, who has been volunteering with PAWS for 25 years. He takes a couple of regular shifts but also works to train new volunteers for dog walking and floor volunteer roles.

We don’t ever want them to stay here for several years. Those are really few and far between. Those are special cases that I think at a traditional shelter wouldn’t have been given the chance to be adopted.”

“The floor volunteers come in while the center is open and they escort the public back and forth, get dogs out for people,” Barry says. “They can also do the Sunday showing when the foster dogs come in. We try to get all of our dogs out of the kennels and into the meet and greet rooms, or during the summer when it’s nice, we get them outside.”

Though Barry has seen a lot of pets come through the PAWS doors, he’s never sad to see them leave. “I don’t like to get to know them very well because that means they’re here for a while,” he says. “I’d rather get to know them a little bit and see them go. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. My favorite dog was Jenny. I think she was a pit mix. She was here for a couple years. She had some behavioral issues, but we keep them until they find the right home. Eventually, she found a great home and she’s still in town. You get some special favorites.”

Barry has four cats and three dogs, five of which are former PAWS pets. He says he’s a little partial to BrooklynBrooklyncocker spaniels, and he recently met one that stole his heart while helping with PAWS’ newest programming success, a partnership with Freedom Fences. That’s a South Carolina-based group that brings dogs from overfull shelters to no-kill ones, usually up north.

“We have been lucky enough that we don’t have a waiting list or any overwhelming need from the public to take in puppies from our immediate area,” says Bahr. But that doesn’t mean the demand to adopt puppies is any lower.

“We want to be able to give the public what they want, and we want to avoid perpetuating backyard breeding,” she says. “There are these shelters in the South that are just overrun with puppies and need our help. We started bringing puppies up to see how it went, and it’s extremely popular. We’re getting those dogs adopted very quickly. It brings some positive publicity to PAWS and to our other animals, who are adults from the Central PA area. People might come in and think they want a puppy and end up leaving with an adult, so that’s great.”

Though PAWS can’t accept cats from outside the county — they’re usually at capacity — they started a Nursing & Orphaned Kitten Program last summer to help find homes for the litters of stray cats that are a constant in almost any community.

And like dogs, kittens can help bring attention to older cats that might need more special attention. “Like any animal and people, some are more outgoing and friendly than others,” Faust says.

Some cats just need to learn to be around people, and that’s how the PAWS Reading Program started.
“Parents can come in with their children and sit and read books,” Faust says. “It’s a very unthreatening way for them to practice reading out loud and pet an animal at the same time. The cats get more socialized.”

SophieSophieWhat began as a partnership with Park Forest Elementary School has expanded into a twice-monthly event — every first and third Tuesday. And that’s not the only way kids get involved at PAWS. The shelter hosts birthday parties, where guests bring donations instead of gifts, meet some of the animals living at the facility, and learn about responsible pet ownership.

“One of the birthday party themes is that they can go through an intake exam where they have stuffed animals and our volunteer shows them what we do: check their ears, give them their vaccines, check them for fleas,” Bahr says. Plus, the birthday child can provide a list of names for an animal that comes in without a name. “They used to just give us one name, but we ended up with a dog named Cake and a dog named Icing.”

If you’ve ever browsed the PAWS website (a dangerous undertaking for any animal lover), you’ve probably noticed some other silly names. Sometimes they come in with names, says Faust, but “if they’re kittens or strays, our volunteers or intake people name them.”

SonnySonnyThough each animal gets a different name, spends a different amount of time at PAWS, and gets individualized treatment, there is one commonality among all the animals that go through the shelter: They are all spayed or neutered.

“One of the considerable things we put effort behind is our spay-neuter effort and spay-neuter vouchers in the community,” Faust says.

That could run up a huge vet bill, but Bahr says the community steps up.

“The vet clinics in Centre County all either give us gratis spays and neuters or discounted services. They’re all generally very supportive and helpful.” Still, medical costs are the single highest expense for PAWS, particularly since some animals come in with very little past veterinary care.

“These animals who have not received good care, either good veterinary care or have been mistreated, or maybe just not given much attention at all, they come in here and they still just love people,” Bahr says.
Besides financial assistance for medical costs, Bahr notes two other constant needs for the nonprofit: foster homes and volunteers.

These animals who have not received good care, either good veterinary care or have been mistreated, or maybe just not given much attention at all, they come in here and they still just love people.”

“We have that corLisa Bahr with RuffaloLisa Bahr with Ruffaloe group, but there’s always turnover,” Bahr says. “We live in an area that’s really transient, so we might get some fantastic graduate student who’s here for two or three years, and then after he or she leaves, we have a little gap that we have to fill. That’s a huge need.”

Potential volunteers need to be at least 18 years old and commit to 30 hours of work a year. “We have training, we have mentor shifts, and you can schedule yourself for as often or as little as you would like, as long as you can commit to that 30 hours a year,” Bahr says.

Thirty hours is a not a lot to help close the gap on the number of stray pets or animals living in a shelter. And getting to do that day after day is what keeps Bahr going.

“My favorite part of my job is when we bring in new animals who have come from not-so-good situations. Not because they came from a bad situation, but because I know that everything is looking up for them. I feel a sense of relief for that animal. You would expect sometimes that they would just be afraid and hate people, and they so rarely ever do. They’re just so happy to be here.” •SCM

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