As Evanston Animal Shelter moves to rebuild, Vicky Pasenko reflects on more than 15 years of service


Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern

Vicky Pasenko. Pasenko co-founded the Evanston Animal Shelter Association and serves as executive director of the shelter.

Iliana Garner, Reporter

Surrounded by photographs of cats, dogs and people, Vicky Pasenko gushed about Salty, the Evanston Animal Shelter’s black and white office cat.

“In the afternoon, when nobody else is around except one of us office people, we just let him go, and he runs everywhere,” Pasenko said. “He loves it here.”

Pasenko is the executive director of the city’s only animal shelter and co-founder of the Evanston Animal Shelter Association. The shelter’s mission is to “give companion animals the best chance at the life they deserve” and keep “pets with the people who love them,” according to its website

On Feb. 27, City Council approved the construction of a new facility for the shelter, which would offer animals more space and expand pre-existing projects like its food pantry and custodial program. 

The shelter started writing a grant proposal for the renovations in November 2019, Pasenko said. Since then, she said she’s stood in front of City Council at least 10 times to advocate for the shelter. 

“I’m still pinching myself to make sure that it’s real,” Pasenko said. “It’s been such a long road.”

Growing up on a farm in central Illinois, animals surrounded Pasenko since she was born. The first pet she said she remembers having is a lamb that her mother bottle-fed. 

A gray, striped cat playing with a colorful toy.
Evanston Animal Shelter leaders who work with Vicky Pasenko said she keeps the team optimistic. (Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern)

Pasenko’s daughter, Christina Cocagne, said Pasenko inherited her care for animals from her own mother. 

Cocagne said Pasenko has always surrounded herself with animals, whether they were guinea pigs, birds or dogs. Emma, Cocagne’s childhood dog, loved Pasenko and would sleep on her every night, Cocagne said.

“Some of the animals she gets (at the shelter) are challenging for most to work with,” Cocagne said. “She’ll sit on the floor and wait for an animal to get comfortable when most people could be like, ‘Okay, we’re out of the cage, but we’re done for the day.’”

Pasenko left the farm to pursue a degree in business administration. After working for the Illinois government and a multinational technology company, she joined the shelter in 2006. 

Alisa Kaplan is also a co-founder of the Evanston Animal Shelter Association. She and Pasenko took over the shelter from its previous owners in 2015, establishing the Evanston Animal Shelter Association together.

“She has a very good hand with animals, and she’s not afraid of them,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan’s dog, Boomer, was supposed to be euthanized by the previous organization that ran the shelter. She said Pasenko was the only person who knew how to walk him on a leash. 

“Vicky just had this firm way of handling him,” Kaplan said. “I always say she saved his life because she was the only one who could get him out of the kennel.”

Jill Cabot, vice president of the Evanston Animal Shelter Association and Pasenko’s close friend, said Pasenko keeps the team optimistic.

Cabot said Pasenko worked both behind the scenes and with City Council to establish the shelter in 2015. 

“She keeps us all going even when sometimes it seems like we’re up against a wall,” Cabot said.

Since the Evanston Animal Shelter Association took over the shelter, its services have gradually expanded thanks to a combination of luck and hard work, Pasenko said. However, she said the current building can’t accommodate the shelter’s animals, because many kennels don’t lock and the air conditioning is broken.

Pasenko said she hopes the shelter’s new and larger building, located on the old building’s grounds, will provide a better quality of life for more animals. 

The shelter, she added, provides the community with an essential service: helping Evanston residents find their animal companions.

“It’s a part of what makes us happy,” Pasenko said.

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Twitter: @iligarner

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