Man’s best friend: Local animal shelter puts pets first

Bella is a golden retriever mix. What she's mixed with, no one's sure - other than love. She can be found at the Small Animal Veterinary Endowment in Skillman for a new home. (Photo by Samantha Brandbergh)

Clutching kittens as they answer calls, the receptionists at the Small Animal Veterinary Endowment (SAVE) animal shelter in Skillman work as the de facto starting line for people looking to add a furry companion to their home.

In the lobby, benches dedicated to SAVE animals like Audrey, the orange tabby cat, give visitors an inkling into just how important the creatures housed there are to everyone involved.

So as National Clear the Shelters Day approaches on Aug. 18, those at SAVE are hoping to help their feline and canine friends can find new homes.

This Saturday, shelters like SAVE across the country will do what they can to get the pets in their care into good, loving homes. That generally means lower adoption fees, as well as a concerted effort to bring animal lovers into shelters and raise awareness to the “adopt, don’t shop” mentality.

“It’s a great time to be in this day and age to adopt a homeless animal, because people are much more open to it,” Heather Achenbach, executive director at SAVE, said. “They used to think it meant [the animals] were damaged. ‘How did it get there? It must not be good.’ Or, ‘Oh it spent time there, it must be damaged.’ No they’re not.”

SAVE — which was originally founded in 1941 by Princeton resident and veterinarian Dr. Cornelia Jaynes and her friend Emily Myrick — joined forces with the Princeton non-profit Friends of Homeless Animals in 2006, and has been in operation in Skillman since 2015.

It works with Princeton, Lawrence, Hopewell, Montgomery, Cranbury and South Brunswick Township animal control officers to “provide a safe haven for lost, stray, or abandoned cats and dogs,” according to its website.

Achenbach, who celebrated her one-year anniversary with the non-profit back in June, regularly walks through the various cat rooms, greeting each pet by name. Many of the cats, she said, come to the shelter via animal control or “owner surrender,” meaning that the animal’s owner passed away, or they can no longer keep them.

“People find [cats] under their porches, in their sheds, in their backyards, under their car. So animal control is obligated to bring them here,” she said.

Similarly, many dogs are brought to the shelter from animal control, most commonly if they are lost. Because of this, 80 percent of dogs that come to the shelter are reclaimed by their owner, Achenbach said. Only 20 percent of cats are reclaimed.

“If animal control brings us an animal, they stay with us for seven days — a lost or stray hold. That’s time for the owner to find that pet and claim it,” she said. “After the seven days, SAVE makes the decision on if that is an animal we want to put up for adoption. And it becomes our pet, and that’s when you see them on the adoption floor.”

Not every cat cage or dog kennel run is filled, however, as SAVE brands itself as a limited admission shelter.

While SAVE has a capacity for 100 animals — 75 cats and 25 dogs, Achenbach said the shelter took in 657 animals and found homes for 536 in 2017. The remaining number of animals were either reclaimed by their owners, trap-neuter-returned, transferred to a rescue group, passed away at the shelter — such as a sick kitten — or are still at SAVE.

Achenbach also estimated the shelter takes in 50 animals a month. While most animals are from the Mercer County area, some come from Cape May County shelters, or as far as Oklahoma.

With overcrowding in animal shelters still an ongoing issue and puppy mills are still legal in some New Jersey counties, Auchenbach said SAVE combats the problem in a number of ways, including fostering some of their animals.

“We like to let [the pets] have some time in foster homes so they are socialized with people well, it also keeps them out of the shelter environment,” she said. “That also leaves space for other animals, so it’s a revolving door.”

SAVE welcomes shorter-term overnight and weekend fosters, as well.

“It does tug at your heart, but we tell fosters and volunteers, you did the right thing, you gave them a good time, don’t take away from that,” Achenbach said. “Do not do it because it hurts to put them back, if you hadn’t, they wouldn’t have had it at all. Take heart in that you did a really good thing.”

The shelter occasionally lowers the prices of their animals — dog adoption fees range from $250 to $350 and $125 to $175 for cats — or through specials like “Black Cat Friday” around Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

SAVE also leaves some cages and kennel runs available in case animal control stops by with a lost or stray animal. Unfortunately, this means they might have to turn away other cases, such as owner surrender.

“I think for us, our biggest challenge is you want to help as many as you can, and if you’re full and someone’s calling with the saddest case, and you’re like, ‘I can’t help you today,'” Achenbach said. “Some of the saddest ones are, ‘My parents passed away and they have these animals, I live out of state.’ We want to be able to provide a service to these people and most important, the animals.”

To aide this, those at SAVE recommends the website Get Your Pet, founded by New Hope, Penn. resident Angela Marcus. The website allows current pet owners across the nation who can no longer keep or need to re-home their animal to put them up for adoption. Other users can fill out an application and potentially meet the animal. This, Marcus said, allows the pet to go from home to home, skipping the shelter all together.

“A shelter isn’t a normal living environment for a pet,” Marcus said. “[The owners] get to decide who would be the best fit for their pet, so they get the peace of mind knowing that their pet is going to an environment that they’re comfortable with and can stay in touch.”

SAVE also recommends Get Your Pet or shelter training classes if an animal is undergoing behavioral issues and the owner feels the need to re-home them.

For Achenbach, an animal shelter should be a last resort for a pet that already has a home.

“No pet that’s been in a home deserves to be in a shelter,” she said. “We do our best, but this isn’t what we want for any pet. But there are truly homeless animals out there.”

Marcus echoed this sentiment, saying that her website is a “complementary service” to animal shelters.

“Sometimes people hear about us and say, ‘Isn’t that competing with shelters?’ But we’re not at all,” she said. “Shelters across the country are saying, ‘Yes, use this service.’ We want to help animals who are stray or victims of cruelty who have no other alternative. It’s truly a benefit to the shelters.”

To ensure the animals in the shelter go to deserving homes, an online or in-person application can be filled out, where two references and a call to the applicant’s veterinarian is required. If the applicant currently doesn’t own any other pets, a third reference replaces the veterinarian call.

“We really try to help those who are trying to adopt on matchmaking,” Achenbach said. “We know when you walk out, and we feel like it’s a match, they’re probably going to stay in your home.”

She also said that the idea of “adopt, don’t stop” has been widely encouraged recently, taking the negative stigma away from shelter animals.

SAVE currently uses social media like Facebook and websites such as Petfinder to advertise adoptable pets, and features their animals at local pet stores and events, such as Montgomery Fun Fest taking place on Sept. 9.

Until then, Achenbach said, she hopes local residents consider adopting a homeless animal, especially on Clear the Shelters Day.

“It’s a great national day to encourage people to adopt. I can say, anytime an animal goes home, we celebrate,” she said.