Many of us find it impossible to think that our beloved cats and dogs could be anywhere but our homes, curled up by our feet or playing in the yard. For many pets, though, everyday life looks much different. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that approximately 6.5 million companion animals in the United States end up in animal shelters every year. Significantly decreasing this number may seem like an impossible task, but by tackling the problem of animal homelessness from every angle, a Pittsburgh-based "companion animal resource community" has saved and improved the lives of countless pets... and humans.
On the surface, Animal Friends is an animal shelter. The organization took in 2,620 animals in 2018 alone, 2,369 of which were adopted out to new families. When you look a little closer, however, a bigger mission becomes clear. Animal Friends is a force for animal welfare and animal-human connections, implementing spay and neuter programs, affordable pet wellness services to families in need, and outreach and therapeutic programs to strengthen bonds between pets and people.
Director of Communications Shannon Clarke explains that the organization's unique focus on reaching out to people through animals is vital to Animal Friends' continued mission over time. "[The volunteers and workers at Animal Friends] can't be here forever, so we need to know that we're passing on the love of animals to future generations," she says. "We want to support pet lovers and owners in every way possible. Animals are so intuitive and so important to our lives. Especially with pet therapy programs, our volunteers have told us some incredible stories."
The comfort that animals can offer is often a needed source of relief in the face of unspeakable sorrow. Last year, Clarke says that Animal Friends volunteers went out "in droves" after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, visiting with families and friends of the victims and people in the area who had been shaken by the tragedy. "People flocked to the animals to get some sense of comfort," she says.
Just as Animal Friends helps animals help people, they also empower people to help animals. The organization (which doesn't euthanize their animals for the sake of space) places a heavy emphasis on spaying and neutering both to help decrease the number of animals that need homes and as a way to improve pet health. "People joke about their dog living to be 100, and spaying and neutering is one way to keep your animal around for as long as possible. It prevents illnesses and cancers," says Clarke. "In the shelter and animal world, this is the only proactive and compassionate way to lessen the number of strays and litters born on the street. We can't adopt our way out of shelter overcrowding."
The overcrowding issue Clarke mentions is particularly prominent in cats and pitbulls. In fact, Animal Friends has a spay and neuter program called "Project Pitbull" that seeks to make the procedure even more affordable for pitbull owners. By reducing the spay and neuter cost to just $45, the organization hopes to stop owned pitbulls from being bred. "We love pitties so much. There are so many at shelters and have a bad reputation because people are scared based on what they hear in the media. They're surrendered to the shelter constantly," says Clarke.
In fact, it was a skinny, sweet pitbull who stood out most to Clarke during her five years at Animal Friends. Two years ago, two of the humane investigation program's officers went out to a house to investigate a case in which a child, four cats, and two pitbulls were the victims of neglect by their adult guardians. Social services helped the child, the cats went to another rescue, and Animal Friends took in the two dogs, which they named Corey and Topanga. "Topanga was stronger and a lot better off. Corey was so emaciated that he couldn't lift his head. We rushed him to the emergency vet. We had to carry him from the car because he couldn't walk," says Clarke. "But he came in and his tail never stopped wagging."
Corey's battle to survive looked grim for a while. He needed two blood transfusions, and the staff put a hoodie on him to keep him warm. "It was one of the worst cases we've seen. It was hard to tell what breed of dog he was because he was so thin. But we don't give up on our animals," says Clarke. Sure enough, the hard work of the Animal Friends staff began to pay off. He began to build up his atrophied muscles, and his range of motion began to improve. The media picked up on his story, and as soon as he was put up for adoption, the perfect family came in to take him home. "He was the friendliest thing you've ever seen. He showed us how grateful he was. He lives with another dog now, and his family still sends me updates and photos of him snuggled up in the covers with the other dog," says Clarke.
There are countless animals just like Corey out there waiting for their forever family to take them home. Clarke encourages prospective adopters to consider animals that might not be given a chance otherwise, like senior, diabetic, blind, or amputee pets. Animal Friends has a full medical and behavior team that can help owners overcome any challenge with their furry companions. Their goal is to ensure a lifelong match, saving not only that pet's life, but that of another as well. "When you adopt a pet from us," she says, "You're giving that animal a second or maybe even third or fourth chance. Plus, you open up space for us to take in another animal in need. With one adoption, you're saving two lives."
Learn more about Animal Friends and check out their current adoptable pets by visiting their website.