Paws & Claws Chicago Rescue was founded in May 2020; in the 16 months since, the organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Illinois and a registered business with the City of Evanston, has saved 414 kittens, puppies, cats and dogs by placing them in foster or forever homes.

The organization was started, founded and initially run by Ashlynn Boyce, then 18 years old. Paws & Claws is an outgrowth of a research project she completed during her senior year at Chicago Waldorf School.

Paws & Claws Chicago Rescue founder Ashlynn Boyce holds a cat at the Sept. 25 fundraiser in Evanston. (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

The Boyce family has always been involved with caring for and owning animals, so the idea of running a nonprofit like Paws & Claws wasn’t totally farfetched. The more Boyce learned while researching her senior year project, the more she realized there are many organizations in and around Chicagoland that provide fostering and adoption services, but the need far exceeds capacity.

The pandemic made the need for more animal foster families all the more prominent. “I kept wishing I could do more,” Boyce said. “Once the pandemic hit, I wanted to do something that would engage families.”

She remembers clearly what happened next. “I went to Google and typed, ‘How to start a nonprofit organization.’ I had no idea what was involved.”

She learned quickly. What followed were multiple applications and fees, and learning the regulations for how to run an animal rescue organization within the State of Illinois. (For example, each animal brought in from another state must have a current health certificate to enter Illinois.)

The IRS approved the application registering Paws & Claws as a nonprofit organization within a few weeks. The application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture licensing Paws & Claws to operate as a shelter took much longer, culminating in Boyce facing a formal interview with a government inspector on the front porch of the family home, which operates as the rescue’s headquarters.

Paws & Claws’ mission is to prevent and alleviate “the suffering caused by abuse, neglect, and overpopulation.” The group focuses on orphaned neonatal kittens, nursing kittens with their mothers, undersocialized cats, and dogs that have been in animal care or control facilities for too long.

Felines in clear backpacks joined the neighborhood parade at the Sept. 25 Paws & Claws fundraiser. (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

Boyce has spent months getting to know the people at about 30 shelters and control facilities, the groups that provide the animals Paws & Claws is committed to fostering and getting adopted. Vicky Pasenko, Executive Director of the Evanston Animal Shelter, has worked with the Boyce family in the past. “They are very sweet people,” Pasenko said. “They fostered kittens for us a few times before they decided to start this rescue.” 

By law, animal control facilities must accept all the dogs and cats they receive from people dropping off found or unwanted animals, or much-loved pets whose owners can no longer care for them. If these animals are not taken in by another organization like Paws & Claws, many will be euthanized, especially if the facility is overcapacity.

When a facility has more animals that it can care for, an urgent email goes out asking if any of the organizations on the mailing list can accept any animals. The lists include a photo of every animal and basic details (sex, breed, age, health status). Paws & Claws will only accept an animal if there is an approved foster family who has agreed to receive and care for the animal upon arrival. Once an animal is spoken for, transportation is arranged. It’s not unusual for animals to arrive at all hours, leading to late nights for Boyce and the recipient foster families.

Within the first hour of an animal being received by Paws & Claws, the animal is combed for fleas, dewormed, vaccinated and checked for ear mites. The goal is to get an animal checked and delivered to their new foster family as quickly as possible so the animal can decompress and sleep.

Whether the animal has been picked up from Chicago Animal Care and Control on the South Side or brought up from Louisiana in an overnight truck ride along with 20 other rescues, the animal is stressed and exhausted.

Neonatal kittens are usually received from local groups. These kittens require specialized care; fortunately, Paws & Claws supporters raised enough money within the past year to purchase an incubator for just this purpose. Neonatal kittens must be fed by hand every hour, a skill which Boyce and her younger sister Kelsie, 14, have mastered. Kelsie is also an avid photographer; it’s her handiwork that graces the pages of Paws & Claws’ website. Their younger brother Arri, 12, likes computer coding – he’s contributed his coding talents to the look and flow of the website.

All foster animals are seen by a veterinarian within the first few days. Paws & Claws provides foster families with the supplies needed to take care of their new charges, and it covers the animals’ veterinary bills. Most of the supplies are donated through Great Good Charities Rescue Bank. Paws & Claws has approximately 100 animals in care during any month. Medical care is the group’s largest expenditure. Adoption fees bring in some revenue, but it’s not nearly enough. Supporters who make monthly donations provide a steady source of much-needed income.

Fundraiser draws crowd

At the group’s first in-person fundraiser Sept. 25th, balloon sculptures of a grinning dog and a laughing cat stood guard by the steps of the group’s home base on Judson Avenue.

Branded T-shirts and tote bags were available for purchase, and a nearby table was piled high with snacks, coffee and other beverages. Volunteers sold raffle tickets and registered people for the silent auction. Another Boyce, Ashlynn’s brother Courtlin, 17, had earlier helped with the heavy tasks like lugging and setting up the aluminum tables.

Anmin Wang carries Miranda in a clear backpack at the Sept. 25 Paws & Claws Chicago Rescue event. (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

At about 9:45 a.m., part of the group took a short walk around town to draw attention to their cause and encourage passersby to consider fostering or adopting. Several of the kittens available for adoption were carried in clear backpacks that could be worn either facing forward or backward. The kittens appeared to enjoy the attention and the view. Also joining them was one of the puppies currently being fostered and available for adoption.

The group returned half an hour later and by this time, the crowd had grown to about 80 or so people, evenly split between adults and children. Nick Connell, a balloon artist and entertainer, was holding court, making various objects, animals and characters to the awestruck wonder of young recipients.

Balloon artist Nick Connell entertained the crowd at the Paws & Claws fundraiser Sept. 25th. (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

Ashlynn Boyce spoke to the masked crowd and thanked everyone for attending. She acknowledged the corporate sponsors, volunteers, foster families and those who previously have adopted from Paws & Claws, several of whom stopped by as a show of support.

The fundraising goal for the event was $15,000 and by evening it had raised $12,612, or 84% of its target.

Mary Beth and Graham Marsh display a balloon creation at the Paws & Claws Chicago Rescue fundraiser in Evanston. (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

Ashlynn Boyce’s parents say they are incredibly proud of her and a little bit in awe of her passion for rescuing animals, her dedication and the number of hours she spends each week (about 90, according to her mother, Cathy.)

Once Paws & Claws took off, Ashlynn opted to take a gap year and deferred enrollment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her dream school.

Fast forward one year. This summer, she made the momentous decision to give up her spot at Wisconsin and focus almost exclusively on Paws & Claws. (In her very limited free time, she is also taking a literature course at Loyola University.) She is resolute to continue her work with the organization she founded. For those adults who question her decision to forgo a more traditional college experience, she quickly and confidently reminds them of how much she is learning through this immensely gratifying work.

Ashlynn Boyce, now 20, is poised, a natural leader with an easy smile and a knack for getting people to embrace her cause. Many people love animals, but she finds those people and gets them to help her. She has yet to take a salary. Her father, Lee, said she uses some of her own money to purchase supplies. Her mother said she’s not worried about college. “Whatever she decides to do will be fine.”

Wendi Kromash

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...