When most people think of animal shelters, the first thing that comes to mind is Sarah McLachlan belting out “Angel” while terrified dogs and cats look worriedly into the camera while shaking in fear.
Although there are a few peering anxiously through the bars at the Chicago Animal Care and Control Center (CACC), most can’t sit still and their tails flutter with excitement at the sight of a human walking past their cage. They just want to be loved.
The CACC takes in almost 40,000 dogs, puppies, cats, and other furry animals a year—and their intake isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Almost all of the animals found running the streets are taken in by the CACC, and in addition to strays, many are given up by their owners or simply left at the shelter. Animals lining the cages include pit bulls, fluffy puppies, little Chihuahuas and even elderly dogs.
“The CACC is the front lines of animal welfare,” 10-year volunteer Kathy Booton-Wilson said. “Those babies sit in their metal cages day in and day out, and we are their only hope for a bit of sunshine and a better life.”
The CACC does have a regular staff to maintain the animals and make sure they are fed, but for the most part, volunteers keep the shelter running. Most of the volunteers have full-time jobs, their own pets to take care of, and yet, they still find time to give their time to the CACC animals.
“Dogs cannot be walked, socialized, trained and loved without volunteers,” four-year volunteer Susan Russell said. “We are also critical for assisting the public with finding their lost animal or for helping them find a great companion on the adoption floor: showing dogs, answering their questions, etc. Volunteers play a crucial role in getting the animals the exposure they need to hopefully find a great new home.”
Although the CACC has over 200 volunteers on the roster, there is still a shortage of help. There is no sign-up sheet and no requirements to come, so it’s a hit-or-miss if they will have enough volunteers for the day. Typical volunteer duties include socializing the cats, getting the dogs out of their cages for a walk around the yard, and simply giving the animals the attention they crave.
[The] best part is the incredible feeling you get when you realize that if you hadn’t gone to do your volunteer duties, some dear soul would not have had an incredible time out in the yard, would not have felt loved, even if briefly; that some member of the public might not have received the help they needed to find their perfect pet, and that some shelter animal might not have had the opportunity to go home that day. -Susan Russell
On days when there aren’t enough volunteers, some dogs don’t even get the opportunity to leave their cages.
“Volunteers are everything there,” regular volunteer Angie Dowiarz said. “Volunteers are the only people that get these dogs out of their cages. The shelter is a very stressful environment for these dogs. They have emotions that anyone would have being locked in a cage: sadness, confusion, depression.”
Dowiarz has two pit bulls of her own named Diesel and Diamond that she and her fiancé had gotten from a breeder over five years ago. But volunteering at the CACC has changed her view on shelter dogs.
“I love my boys with all of my heart and wouldn’t change them for the world,” Dowiarz said. “But I would never go to a breeder again. Now that I am educated in the world of rescue, I would only adopt. There are puppy mills that abuse and neglect dogs, while there are hundreds of thousands of dogs that don’t have homes.”
It seems that many people are realizing the opportunity that the CACC provides with adoption. Since 2006, total animal placement at the CACC has risen from 25.9 percent to 55.4 percent, and euthanasia rates have gone down from 17,215 in 2006 to 8,130 in 2012.
“Some people have a skewed look on shelter dogs,” Dowiarz said. “They’re the best dogs I’ve met and I love spending any free time I have with them. It’s the best feeling to see a dog get adopted.”
Most of the reason the CACC has become more successful is the hard work and dedication of the volunteers.
“Without volunteers, dogs sit endlessly in cages without being walked,” Booton-Wilson said. “Without volunteers, adoptions do not happen, because staff does not have time to show animals to potential adopters. Without volunteers, CACC would return to a ‘catch and kill’ facility (which it was in the 90’s). It can be a hard, bleak place, but without volunteers, the animals would have no hope. We are their lifeline, and they need us.”
COURT CASE DOGS
In 2010, One Tail at a Time and Safe Humane Chicago teamed up to create Safe Humane Chicago Court Case Dogs. The program works with animals that had been confiscated from their owners due to an arrest, abuse allegations, or anything that would leave the dog in a harmful situation. Many of the dogs had been chained up, beaten and even shot.
“No dogs are safe at CACC, as it is not a no-kill shelter,” Dowiarz said. “But they have trainers and volunteers to work with the dogs to earn their trust again for humans… I have met some of the coolest dogs through this program. You would never know the horrible life they lived prior. The program gives dogs a second chance.”
But it’s not even just the dogs that are given a second chance. The program has started to work with juveniles that have found themselves on the wrong side of the law so that they can get work experience. They work with the dogs that came from the same situations, and are trying to turn over a new leaf.
Before the program started, the shelter was in a tough place because the dogs were still technically property of their owners in jail. Therefore, they weren’t allowed to remove them from their cages, train them, socialize with them, or even play with them until the court had ruled them property of the CACC (which could take years) or until the owner had relinquished their rights. They were literally considered evidence.
“In the past, they were called evidence animals, because they’re property,” Safe Humane Chicago and Court Case Dog Program founder Cynthia Bathurst said. “We actually have changed the name to Court Case Dogs, and we’re really proud of that. They’ve done no crime. They’ve been abused and misused.
“When we first started this, only two percent of the dogs being kept for court cases made it out alive,” Bathurst said. “The reason being is that they were held in here–they didn’t have to be, but they were. They were always forgotten.”
Since Bathurst co-founded the Court Case Dog program, they now have a 59 percent survival and placement rate and the average length of stay for a dog is just under 60 days.
ADOPTING A PET
The CACC has continued to work towards a level of excellence with their dogs that are put on the adoption floor. Every dog brought into the shelter goes through a screening process, and all receive a health evaluation, microchip, vaccinations, and spay or neuter surgery.
Adoption fees for all pets are $65. A brief background check is required, and all members of the household must meet the animal before being brought home.
One of the most popular ways to see pets on the adoption floor is through the CACC’s Facebook page. Volunteers at the shelter post pictures of the animals available for adoption, and also supply updated information on their statuses. Most questions or posts receive responses within the same day.