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Love by the pound

For the dogs and cats that arrive at the Northeast Animal Shelter, home isn’t far away

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / May 1, 2012
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SALEM — At 9 a.m. one day last week, a minivan with West Virginia plates pulled into the parking lot behind the Northeast Animal Shelter (NEAS) in Salem. Caged in back were 22 dogs: 7 adults and 15 puppies. All healthy, all adorable. Having survived a 15-hour car ride, they yelped with relief as shelter workers greeted them with smiles and hugs — and a few tears, too.

Back home, these dogs had been deemed all-too-expendable; had they not made it to Salem, they would almost certainly have been euthanized. On this sunny springtime day, however, they were well on their way to new homes, and to owners eager to care for them.

While the dogs were being taken inside for a 48-hour quarantine period and medical checkup, Dina Wood, a volunteer with the Monroe County (W. Va.) Animal League, talked with shelter staffers about her next trip north. Her organization had sent more than 4,000 dogs to the Salem shelter, she said. More would soon be arriving. “They do great work, here,” said a road-weary Wood.

So began another busy day at NEAS, one of New England’s oldest and largest “no-kill” shelters. Here, hundreds of dogs and cats are placed with adoptive owners each month. Not one is put down because the shelter has run out of room or can no longer care for the animal. And just as the animals are screened, so are potential owners.

Some of the animals are rescued strays. Many are so-called private surrenders, given up voluntarily because an owner is moving away, has developed allergy issues, or for a host of other reasons. Still other animals, like the West Virginia group, come in through the shelter’s Puppies Across America program, a rescue network spread over a dozen states and Puerto Rico.

Since opening in 1976, NEAS has placed more than 100,000 animals in homes around New England. Last year, 4,400 dogs and cats passed through the facility, for periods ranging from a few hours — puppies and kittens go the fastest, staffers say — to a couple of weeks, on average. Their goal this year is 5,000 adoptions, each costing between $50 and $500, fees that include shots and spaying or neutering if needed.

“Until recently, the [kill] rate was around 90 percent” at animal shelters across the US, says Cindi Shapiro, NEAS founder and president. “That’s declining, because there’s more awareness that it just isn’t right.”

Still, Shapiro says, NEAS, whose “no-kill” policy has never wavered, only accepts animals that can be successfully placed, a labor-intensive process that includes screening prospective owners, too.

“We’re not salespeople, we’re social workers,” explains Shapiro. “We want this to be a considered purchase, not an impulse purchase. We don’t want someone saying, ‘I want Fluffy! She’s so cute!’ And then the next day, Fluffy’s back here.”

‘It’s a process’

As the day wore on, more couples and families showed up to undergo a process that might begin with casual browsing — Is that 6-month-old, mix-breed border collie right for us? Should we take a 2-year-old cat, or would the kids prefer a kitten? — and end up in a cat visitation room, or on a supervised walk outside with a tail-wagging canine.

Some arrive with a particular pet in mind, having seen pictures on the NEAS website or viewed one of its dozens of YouTube videos. On a busy weekend, the adoption process may take 2-3 hours. No one is in a hurry to rush it.

“You’re always looking for red flags. With dogs, a lot has to do with their personality,” says adoption counselor Ray Vilandry. “Certain breeds you’d be hesitant with, like herding dogs — with younger kids, a dog like that might push them around.”

On this day, a relatively quiet one, Perry and Matt Pelky, from Middleborough, were celebrating their recent wedding by adopting their first dog. After about an hour, they selected a 1-year old Chihuahua named Riley, for whom they paid $295. The couple said they’d spent the past three weeks looking at shelter dogs, considering their options. Before making their decision, they spent some bonding time with Riley in one of the shelter’s four doggie visitation rooms.

“He’s very laid back, and we are too,” Matt Pelky said, his wife cradling the small dog in her arms. “He wasn’t barking at all, so we knew he’d make a good choice for us.”

As they were leaving, Helen Kamins showed up with her dog, Dixie. Kamins, an artist and illustrator from Manchester-by-the-Sea, is working on a book about rescue dogs. But she had not come to the shelter for research. She was checking out Missy, a Labrador-terrier mix. Kamins had met Missy before and was considering adopting her. How the two dogs interacted would prove pivotal to her decision.

As the two dogs sniffed one another without barking or backing off, one of the shelter’s adoption counselors, Julie Whitney, commented, “This is good, this is good.”

Their friendliness notwithstanding, Whitney cautioned that Missy was a shy, sometimes fearful dog, possibly due to past abuse or neglect. “I don’t want to sugar-coat it. [Taking Missy,] it’s a process,” she told Kamins. “She has great potential, but she’ll also take patience.”

Kamins nodded and, an hour later, left with Missy in tow.

Megan Skinner and James Breen, a Stoughton couple, settled on Casper, a 3½-year-old black and white cat. Why Casper? “This one came up to us right away and started purring,” Skinner said. “I guess it’s true what they say. You don’t pick a cat, a cat picks you.”

‘They’re counting on us’

Each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, roughly 7 million homeless animals enter US shelters, and for millions their fate is sealed once they get there. Shapiro founded NEAS in 1976, determined to make a difference in a business she knew nothing about.

By chance, she had read an article about Alexander Lewyt, a businessman-inventor who founded the North Shore Animal League on Long Island, N.Y. That facility is now the world’s largest no-kill rescue and adoption shelter, handling 20,000 animals per year.

“I was 25, fearless, and stupid,” recalled Shapiro, whom Lewyt agreed to tutor and, eventually, to fund as well. Their partnership ended with Lewyt’s death, in 1988.

NEAS started out with 10 cages — all dogs, no cats — and two part-time employees. Today it has 54 full- or part-time employees and a volunteer staff of more than 300. Four years ago, it moved into a 13,000-square-foot complex that once housed an auto dealership. Handsomely renovated — Shapiro wanted it to have the ambiance of a day-care center, and it does — its facilities include a retail store for pet supplies, a medical clinic and spa, isolation rooms for sick or quarantined animals, and ample space for animals and families to spend quality time together.

The shelter does not “cherry-pick” its animals, according to Shapiro. Dogs and cats that have survived severe injury, abuse, or neglect are welcomed. All must be in good health and cannot be prone to biting, or they will not make good candidates for adopting. So-called bully breeds (pit bulls, rottweilers) are excluded. Total capacity at the shelter is 105 animals.

Numbers aside, there’s an emotional component to what staffers here do and whom they serve. “It gets hard when animals have been here for a while,” says kennel manager Lesley Cefalo. “With the long-timers, you do develop a bond — and then suddenly someone shows up. It’s hard to say good-bye.”

To shelter director Betty Bilton, it’s mind-boggling how many healthy, adoptable animals get put down every year when they could thrive elsewhere. In many regions, like the South, where many of the dogs and cats come from “it’s unfathomable that we’d want these animals,” says Bilton. “The more we do, though, the more states need our help. They’re counting on us. We’ll never stop.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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