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Animal Friends: Thinking Outside the Cage

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Spring is here and "Cinco de Meow" is just around the corner. And if you're feeling like you need a new leash on life, you don't have to venture very far for a great place to go astray.
 
Here in Pittsburgh, Animal Friends maintains a sprawling suburban campus off Camp Horne Road in Ross Township that offers more resources than you can imagine for pets and pet owners. The Caryl Gates Resource Center at Animal Friends, four years young, has already welcomed nearly a quarter of a million visitors who participate in an impressive lineup of classes, workshops, events and programs.
 
The 30,000 square-foot resource center opened its doors in March 2006 with state-of-the-art kenneling for homeless animals along with a veterinary clinic, resource library, pet therapy suite, classroom and beautiful serene grounds, complete with a patio, and miles of walking trails.

Equally impressive was the $7 million capital campaign that raised funds to build the facility. With one lead donor giving a very generous $2.3 million, the rest of the funding was a grassroots campaign of community donors literally giving out-of-the pocket donations of $25 or more at a time.

With a mission to ensure the well being of companion animals, while ending overpopulation, abuse and unwarranted euthanasia, Animal Friends is a nonprofit organization serving Pittsburgh and Allegheny County that relies solely on community support.

And Pittsburgh is heads and tails above other cities in supporting their animal friends.

This week, for instance, the Village of Sewickley will host "Sewickley Unleashed" on April 24, a street fair where animals are the starts. The event includes pet parades, sidewalk sales and fundraiser party by the Sewickley Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Borough of Sewickley, and Animal Friends. For more info, visit www.SewickleyUnleashed.com

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Serving the needs of animals since 1943, the organization has grown from a type of matchmaking service to find homes for unwanted or abandoned pets.

"We do a little bit of everything, but our core focus at the forefront of our mission is our spay and neuter program," explains Jolene Miklas, director of communications. "Most people know us for our adoption program, which is important, but the big picture is that over 20,000 animals are euthanized in our county every year and that won't change without Animal Friends being a strong leader in spay and neuter."

"There is a misconception that people don't spay or neuter their animals because of laziness, but that's not true. There is a tremendous need for this – the minute we were able to announce a low-cost clinic, it filled up immediately."

Last year, Animal Friends launched an aggressive spay and neuter program that ensured accessible and low-cost services. The campaign unveiled a 30-foot mobile clinic, offering a significant expansion throughout the region and giving Animal Friends the ability to travel and partner with smaller organizations throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania and assist pets that would not otherwise have access to spay or neuter surgeries. Through these efforts, the goal is not just to relieve pet overpopulation and unnecessary euthanasia in southwestern Pennsylvania—but to end it.

What makes Animal Friends different from other shelters?

Certainly, it's the outreach programs offering meaningful opportunities pet owners to strengthen their bond with their animal companions. Last year, more than 37,000 individuals were impacted by a variety of educational programs designed to offer advice, information and supportive resources such as Pet Assisted Therapy. Similarly, the humane education program reached out to nearly 10,000 students with the valuable messages of kindness, care and safety toward pets.
 
"As a humane educator, I like knowing that my volunteers and I are teaching dog safety information that they can apply immediately in their homes or communities," says Dana Schultz, education coordinator at Animal Friends. "It's also fun to meet so many young people who have a true love of animals and want to help them. I'm always amazed at their generosity. Last year there were two little girls who raised over $1,200 for Animal Friends by fundraising for a whole year."

So think outside the cage. With so much going on, Animal Friends makes it easy to find a niche that meshes with any interest. Try Pup-Night at PNC Park; Small Dog Socials; Cinco de Meow Kitten Fiesta; Bow Wow Bingo; Sunday Bun Runs and BYODog to W(h)ine Night, for starters.
    
Animal Friends has a broad variety of volunteers, ranging from teens to retirees who fill wide-ranging needs. From socializing with cats and rabbits to walking and working with dogs, volunteers help with special events, serve as greeters, work with the rabies clinic and low-cost spay and neuter program, and provide administrative help. Some offer their talents or professional advice in areas such as writing, painting murals on the walls, and assisting in the litigation of animal cruelty and neglect cases. 
 
It's worthy to note that Animal Friends is the only local organization with a strict no-kill philosophy prohibiting the euthanasia of pets unless they're considered truly dangerous.
 
Siri Espy first became acquainted with Animal Friends when she adopted a pet. Years later, when her only child went off to college, she made a mental note to look into volunteering with the organization.
 
"I started out as a cat socializer, interacting with the cats to help them become social and remain happy and healthy while waiting for adoption, " she says. "I soon began to assist with the marketing program by writing for the newsletter, the Petsburgh Press and various e-blasts. I also helped to promote events such as the Tail-Gate party, the Red Collar Society, which features older animals, the telethon and the Black Tie and Tails annual gala."
 
Espy is also a member of the Cat Behavior Team which evaluates and works with felines to ensure they get the special help they need to become good future family members and helps with adoptions by assisting visitors in finding the perfect match.

"I am a sucker for a happy ending, and I thrive on seeing a potential adopter fall in love while visiting with a cat, as well as hearing stories later about the happiness the cat has brought to the family."
 
Animal Friends continues to serve as a national model nationwide for the role that animal shelters should play within their communities.  President and Chief Executive Officer David Swisher is proud that Animal Friends achieved significant success last year through the organization's core programs.

The list is long: from reaching record-setting numbers in education programs to forging new supportive partnerships with a dozen rural and underserved regional shelters; from breaking fundraising records at special events to helping more financially-strapped pet owners, Animal Friends reached out and made a difference in tens of thousands of lives in our community, both two and four-legged.

Find out more by visiting Animal Friends at www.ThinkingOutsideTheCage.org.

Animal Friends pictures courtesy Animal Friends

Cat and dog copyright Brian Cohen

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