Volunteers help furry friends find homes

Ryan Bradley

A few weeks ago a small female pit-bull named Elf was adopted from the Evanston Animal Shelter. Beaten, starving, abused and neglected in countless ways, she arrived at the shelter months ago in horrendous condition.

“Her ears had been chopped off, for dog fighting … she looked like a concentration camp survivor,” recalls Gail Lovinger, a volunteer who has worked with dogs at the shelter for more than eight years. “Whenever she met somebody she immediately hit the ground. The place she felt safest was her kennel. She would carry her metal water dish around with her everywhere because she thought it was a toy. We worked very hard to teach her to play and become normal again.”

Now Elf is back in a home — this time receiving the care and love she once was denied.

Elf’s story is only one among the hundreds of dogs and cats that end up in the shelter every year. Run by Community Animal Rescue Effort volunteers, the shelter provides rehabilitation to animals overcoming tremendous odds and temporary safe haven to those who have lost their way. Had CARE and its volunteers not existed, a dog like Elf surely would have been euthanized.

“Before CARE, almost 95 percent of the animals coming in were put down,” Lovinger says. Today animals are put down only for extreme health complications. The shelter is literally alive with activity — people are introduced to their potential pets in the bathroom for lack of space, and lost animals are constantly being brought in.

“Today’s like a full moon day for dogs — you name it we’ve had it happen,” Lovinger yells over her shoulder as she dashes off to receive an incoming dachshund.

“You’ve been taken good care of,” Lovinger says to the wide-eyed dachshund. “This guy will be found right away,” she continues, temporarily setting the dachshund in the tiny office where CARE volunteers answer phone calls ranging from “What toys are good for my puppy?” to “Why doesn’t my cat use the litter box?”

People waiting to adopt sit in the small foyer. Some read from the magazines available — All Animals, Animal Watch, Cat Fancy, Bark. Others come with questions about their pets — How old is my cat? Is he sick? What type of dog should I be looking to get to play with my cocker spaniel? All advice is free, but with it comes the brutal honesty of experience.

“My favorite is the guy that comes in with his pet cat and goes, ‘She got out and got pregnant … I just don’t know how this could have happened.’ Then you just have to say, ‘Well, sir, do you really want me to explain it to you?'” volunteer Polly Stilp says.

Stilp volunteers at the shelter twice a week along with her husband, Tom. Like most volunteers, she has a day job — teaching English at Kendall College — and barely has time to work more than one shift a week. Volunteers are responsible for raising more than $80,000 a year for veterinary bills and medications. While the city maintains the facilities, volunteers must also raise money to buy cleaning supplies for about 52 kennels.

“We go through a lot of bleach,” Lovinger says.

To pay the bills, volunteers organize bake sales, dog washes and the upcoming Strut for Strays walk-a-thon. The event, to be held this Saturday at the shelter, will feature a three-mile walk and “Doggie Carnival.”

“The walk can be done with or without your furry friend,” Lovinger adds.

Besides money raising activities, volunteers play the crucial role of placing animals in good homes. To do this, both people and animals must go through a rigorous process of interviews and temperament testing to insure both the pet and the owner will be healthy and happy.

“Temperament testing places animals in situations they will encounter in a home: How do they respond to people holding them? Will they bite at people who come near their food dish? We will never knowingly put out a dog that will hurt somebody,” Lovinger says.

For the less furry, the process is surprisingly similar — an extensive survey with questions like “When you need to correct your cat’s/dog’s behavior, how would you do it?” must be filled out before any pet can even be seen. Before the pet is adopted volunteers conduct an interview to ensure the household environment is safe and pet friendly.

“Our goal is not only to find homes for all the animals but to help people make good choices,” Stilp says.

“We’d all like to be out of business and for there to be no reason for us to exist,” Lovinger adds.