Pets end up in shelters for many reasons: Families move, encounter medical expenses, have a new baby. Sometimes when pets get old, they're just discarded. Some are broken, and Shelter from the Storm picks up the pieces when it can.
"We can go down trying," says executive director Allison Davies, who founded the organization in 2005.
Working with about $1 million a year, the rescue provides low-cost medical services as well as spaying and neutering. It finds new homes for about 500 dogs and cats per year, with the help of 15-20 full-time foster parents. Shelter from the Storm's "above and beyond fund" covers major medical procedures that can lead to a better chance at adoption.
"As long as animals are happy and healthy and adoptable, they will stay with us," Davies says, for as long as it takes for them to be adopted. Euthanasia is reserved for animals with considerable health, behavioral or safety-risk concerns.
Shelter from the Storm funnels in 95% of its cats from the Dane County Humane Society. Although the group once was inundated with cats, Davies notices now that "we're up to our ears in dogs" during this economy. The rescue has seen a lot of English bulldogs, a breed often plagued with medical issues. Sometimes it can't accept very senior dogs; 16- and 17-year-olds don't adjust well to a shelter and are usually not adopted.
With Wisconsin's passage of a law in 2009 that finally mandated licensing and inspection for breeders, retailers, shelters and pounds that sell or transfer at least 25 dogs a year, more puppy mills are being put out of business. Davies thinks some of those dogs may be ending up in shelters, too.
Shelter from the Storm is known for taking on tough cases, often from other shelters.
Sasha, a wirehaired terrier from the Dane County Humane Society, was one of them. She came from a household where a mother-daughter double homicide occurred. "We just couldn't turn her around. It sucks, for lack of a more appropriate word," says Davies. "There are a lot of failures, and I try to be honest about that, because it's not our fault that these animals were failed somewhere along the line."
But in the case of Ilene, a little dog that was as wobbly as a dreidel due to an old injury - "happiest dog you ever did meet, though," Davies notes - the extra energy invested in her paid off. The group couldn't fix her medically, but she was placed in a home after several months in foster care. Such victories balance out the losses.
Foster parents play a key role in moving animals out of the holding shelter and into homes. Barb Flatman, a retiree who fosters and volunteers, used to be afraid of dogs; now she has a full house. "You fall in love with them. It's purely selfish," she says. Flatman is on her third scrapbook of fosters.
In addition to three dogs of her own (two from Shelter from the Storm), plus two foster dogs and a puppy, she fosters two cats with feline immunodeficiency disorder. "They've been with the shelter a very long time because they have FIV, so I kind of consider them ours," Flatman says, noting that only one application for them has been submitted in the last eight months.
Bosco the beagle used to be called "Dagger" by the family who moved without him. A pretty roughneck name, I thought, for this happy-go-lucky, tri-colored dog with springs in his bottom and rabbits in his head.
Lana Robotewskyj is a first-time dog owner who first fell for her sister's beagle, and then for Bosco. When she saw the dog-formerly-known-as-Dagger at Mounds' annual Dog Fest, she knew she had met her match. Bosco liked, well, everyone, but that's exactly what made him so right, says Robotewskyj: "That's how we knew he'd be the perfect dog. He was so friendly."
She and her significant other, Alden Grindle, vied with several others for his adoption. They won out with an email saying they already had toys and a new name. He came with some anxiety, but a Chinese herb blend does wonders, Robotewskyj says, and Bosco loves to lounge on a futon in her Sun Prairie piano studio.
Bosco has taught her to relax. "I used to be more of a neat freak. Now the housecleaning can wait - I'm missing out on life," she says.
For those who do have to consider finding a new home for a pet, Davies stresses taking time and looking at all the options, depending on the scenario. Leave yourself enough time to look for pet-friendly housing, for example. And investigate low-cost medical services, if that's the underlying cause.
But Davies also believes there are times when it's appropriate for pets to go to new homes. And for that, allow time too.
In certain cases (severe anxiety, destructiveness) a new home may actually exacerbate the problem. But Davies doesn't blame someone for not wanting to live with, for example, an animal that urinates inappropriately: "I don't want people to feel guilty about that," she says.
"Animals are a commitment, and it's important to acknowledge that commitment. But at the same time, stuff happens - I get that. That's why we're here."
A "Spay-Ghetti and No Balls" fundraising dinner for Shelter from the Storm and the SpayMe! Clinic will be held March 30 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at 3140 Edmonton Dr., Sun Prairie. $8 in advance, $10 at the door. Adoptable animals are available for a meet-and-greet at PetSmart East, 2216 East Springs Dr., every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.