A pit bull arrived at the EASA very pregnant. Nine puppies were delivered by C-section. Submitted photo

The Evanston Fire Department recently rescued two dogs from a fire. Until their owner finds a new place to live, these animals will be in the care of the Evanston Animal Shelter. The RoundTable heard about the shelter’s  work on behalf of the City’s rescued and found animals – primarily dogs and cats, with an occasional stray bird or reptile – and wanted to take a closer look.

Creating EASA

To hear Vicky Pasenko, a retired computer executive, tell the story, June 1, 2015 was a momentous day in Evanston. That was the day the newly-formed Evanston Animal Shelter Association (EASA), a 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization, officially took over the management of the animal shelter. After years of volunteering at the shelter when it was run by another organization, Ms. Pasenko and Alisa Kaplan, co-founders and co-presidents of EASA, had submitted a proposal to the City and were awarded the contract.

The arrangement benefitted all parties: the City, EASA and the animals in their care. The City would be responsible for the upkeep of the building and would pay for utilities; contribute $65,000 per year for the salaries of two employees; provide the services of one Animal Warden, Jason Pounds, as part of the Field Operations Division of the police department; and reimburse the shelter for food, litter and vaccination costs not covered through donations.

In return, EASA agreed to manage the shelter’s operations, a 24/7/365-day commitment. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are like any other at the shelter: dogs and cats need to be fed, dogs need to be exercised, litter needs to be cleaned. Every animal in the shelter is assigned a color (green, yellow or red) attached to the cage that indicates the level of care required. Volunteers also are assigned a color based on experience and length of service. When the colors match, volunteers are allowed to interact with those animals.

The shelter is bustling with nearly 200 dedicated volunteers who show up for regular three-hour shifts. Every volunteer must sign up online for an orientation workshop for either dogs or cats. Spaces in the workshops fill quickly and there are minimum age requirements. Once approved, volunteers report to a Shift Captain who manages 10-15 volunteers per shift.

Volunteers are at the shelter from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. There is a Junior Volunteer program for kids 8-12 and a Rescue Readers program for children 4 years and older. Rescue Readers practice their reading skills by reading to cats and dogs during their play time.

Another mainstay of the shelter is its network of foster families who take animals out of the stressful shelter environment and keep them in their homes until the animals are ready to be adopted. The animals rescued from the fire are with a foster family until their owner has a new place to live. If an animal needs to be bottle-fed, has medical issues that do not require hospitalization or needs retraining, living with a foster family is a good solution to a temporary problem, and all of the animal’s expenses are covered by the shelter.

Why Animals End Up at the Shelter

There is a seasonal aspect to some of the shelter’s work. The time between late spring and early fall is the so-called kitten season. Female cats’ reproductive cycles are affected by the increase of daylight after the winter solstice and warming temperatures; they go into heat in January-February and deliver their litters roughly two months later. During kitten season, EASA receives anywhere from 100 to 125 cats. Some are community cats (those fed by a neighborhood or family, but not owned, per se); others are feral cats or escaped and abandoned cats. Some of the cats are pregnant. If a cat is pregnant, the shelter helps the litters to be born when necessary. Once the kittens have been weaned, they are set aside to be adopted.

The adult cats are neutered or spayed, and some become available for adoption. But not all animals are suitable for adoption, feral cats in particular. A cat that has lived its entire life in the wild is not typically one that would adjust well to living inside a home with humans. The shelter’s policy is Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR. When the shelter is notified of a feral cat, they send a volunteer out to humanely trap it. Once caught, the cat is brought in, neutered or spayed, and then one ear is tipped (snipped off) to let others know in the future that it has already been altered. Once healed, the cat is released back into the wild where it was found.

Animals come to the shelter for a variety of reasons. Some, like those rescued from the fire, need a temporary home while their owners sort out a personal situation. Other pets become homeless when the owner is moving to a nursing home or an apartment that does not allow pets or when the owner passes away.

Sometimes people come by as a last resort, thinking they have to give up their animals for financial reasons. The shelter has donated food and litter available free of charge for owners who cannot afford them.

Other animals come to the shelter because of abandonment. People drop off pets because they are old or have medical issues people do not want to deal with or cannot afford. Sometimes an owner boards a pet with a third-party such as a pet hotel and does not return for the animal.

Fortunately for the senior animals, some people prefer to adopt an older animal. If the pet has a relatively straightforward medical issue and the animal could live a normal life with a family after treatment, the shelter will make arrangements through its network of veterinarians.

Some pets are so far along in their decline that the most humane treatment is euthanasia. Of the hundreds of dogs and cats that come to the shelter in any given year, the live release rate is 97%, well above the 90% rate a shelter must attain to be considered a “no kill” shelter. Euthanasia is used if an animal has untreatable medical issues or severe behavioral issues and is thus unadoptable. It is a decision made sparingly and only as a last resort.

Pet Adoption

The shelter is open for adoptions every day of the week except Thursday. Prospective adopters complete a multi-step process for to make certain the prospective pet owner is a good match with the dog or cat they are considering. Lifestyle, needs and temperament – for the human and the pet – are taken into account. The shelter will not allow people with a known history of abusing or abandoning animals to adopt a new animal. All adopted pets are microchipped, spayed or neutered and brought up to date with their vaccinations prior to being released to their new homes.

The shelter relies on donations, fees and the City’s grant to stay operational. Seventy percent of the annual budget is for veterinarian fees. Ms. Pasenko raves about how supportive the Evanston community is of the shelter. Every year the shelter sponsors a gala, Tails in Bloom, that raises money that allows the shelter to continue the important work of care, socialization and rehabilitation of all the abandoned, abused and relinquished dogs and cats in Evanston.

The shelter is highly organized, noisy and, unsurprisingly, smells like pets, but there is no stench. The volunteers seem enthusiastic, happy to be at there and excited to see their charges. One assumes the animals feel the same way. One volunteer, Nikki, shared the story of the dog she recently adopted, a pit bull named Ellie.

Ellie showed up at the shelter hugely pregnant. She went into labor but was unable to deliver her litter. Ellie had an emergency Caesarean-section at Evanston Animal Hospital. She woke up from the anesthesia with stitches, lactating and without her puppies. Later that day she was back at the shelter where she learned, reluctantly, how to nurse her brood. One supposes Ellie was reluctant because she was uncomfortable: the C-section incision ran horizontally down the middle of her body and was bracketed on either side by her engorged mammary glands. Once the nine puppies were weaned, they were quickly adopted. But Ellie was a different story. She is an extremely active and mischievous dog. She is also smart and needed a lot of behavioral training; she was not having success being adopted.

Nikki met Ellie almost by accident during her regular volunteer shift. She was passing Ellie’s cage, and something about the dog made her stop. Their eyes locked. They had some kind of connection; they just clicked. (Non-pet people might view this experience with suspicion, but ask any pet owner: it can happen.) Every Wednesday, Nikki would take Ellie on a long walk. Soon she started to think about possibly adopting her. This would be a huge hurdle for Nikki, because she lives with her parents and has a non-communicative son with special needs.

Nikki convinced her family to meet Ellie. One by one, Nikki brought her parents and her son to the shelter to meet the dog. They were able to meet Ellie without any pressure or deadlines, and spent time getting comfortable with each other. Their first shock came when Ellie cuddled up to Nikki’s mom and put her head on the older woman’s lap. Win one for Ellie. Then Ellie went over to Nikki’s son and lay next to him. Whatever the child did or whatever sounds he made, Ellie did not react. She let the boy be himself. The boy adores Ellie and Ellie is protective of him. Nikki describes the interactions between Ellie and her son as “magical” and “life-changing” for their family. Win two for Ellie. The adoption turned out to be a formality – Ellie was already a part of the family.

The human factor is what keeps the shelter humming and makes it a happy place to be. The people who run the shelter are devoted to their animal charges and work together well as a team. The humans might come to the shelter a bit stressed from their daily lives, but after cuddling a few animals, their perspective shifts and all seems right with the world.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...