Late last month, on a cold upstate New York night, a starving puppy was dumped at a veterinarian's office in Buffalo. The story caught our attention because an employee of the vet clinic left the puppy out in the cold and called the local shelter.
(The vet later defended the employee, a janitor, saying the dog - about five months old and unable to stand - could have been vicious or diseased.)
Before the shelter staff arrived, though, a team of paramedics who happened to be passing by, saw the shivering bundle and whiskered her to the Erie County SPCA.
The crack team of veterinarians and vet techs at the shelter nursed her to health, while groups like PETA offered hefty rewards for the arrest of the person who dumped her..
"She was starving but was otherwise healthy," says SPCA director Barbara Carr. Within the next few days, little Metro - named for the ambulance service that rescued her, Rural Metro - will be going to her new home: with the paramedic that plucked her off the pavement.
When I called for an update, I got a lesson in running a successful open admission animal shelter.
Take heed Pennsylvanians, the Erie County SPCA has a recipe for improving animal welfare worth following.
The SPCA, founded in 1867, is an open admission shelter serving one million people in Erie County, including residents of Buffalo, one of the nation's poorest cities. Even the shelter's website URL. www.yourspca.com, underscores the community connection.
They haven't had to euthanize a healthy dog in ten years and have successfully treated almost 96 percent of the sick and injured dogs that come to the shelter, Carr told me.
The SPCA is so successful in placing its local dogs that they took in 400 puppy mill survivors from a rescuer in Pennsylvania this year.
How do they do it?
"It is important to our community that we are a humane community," said Carr. "We've had leash laws since the '50s. A dog on a leash is less likely to get pregnant."
She said the county doesn't have the scale of dog fighting or pit bull overpopulation problem that has overwhelmed cities like Philadelphia.
With more dogs saved, including older dogs, care costs have gone up. "We do 30 dentistries a week," said Carr. When a shelter is putting down older dogs, said Carr, as Erie used to, you don't need as much dental care.
"We just work harder," said Carr.
To support its operations, which includes three staff vets, 14 vet techs and three "peace officers," who handle cruelty cases, and place pets, the shelter has employed aggressive - and novel - efforts to get the word out.
They have 20 satellite adoption centers and, for business that can't take in pets to display, such as restaurants, they've installed digital photo viewers where patrons can see the adoptable pets.
So while you're waiting for your table, you can see changing images of cats for adoption, said Carr.
Carr took a stroll through the shelter infirmary while we were talking and counted 72 patients awaiting treatment. She said they have shifted to scheduled admissions to avoid overcrowding. That means people who want to turn over their pets have to wait until there's room.
"People are very cooperative," she said. "We've had 600 cats on the list. Sometimes it means a four-month wait, but we'll get them in."
In Pennsylvania more shelters - Humane League of Lancaster, Delaware County SPCA, Center for Animal Health and Welfare in the Lehigh Valley among them - have closed or are closing their doors to strays and ending animal control contracts. They become "pick and choose" facilities and proclaim they are "no kill."
Carr says shutting out dogs and cats does not address overpopulation and only pushes the problem on other shelters and rescues.
"You don't get to be 'no kill' by closing doors," she said. "You get to be no kill by working with the community. "'No kill' is one of worst things and best things. It's made traditional shelters work harder to save animals. But where exactly are animals ending up if not at the shelter?"
Carr says most of the euthanasias performed at her SPCA - about 2,000 - are by owner request at the end of a dog's life. They offer the service to the community - asking only what people can pay or free if needed - because vets charge as much as $300 in the area to euthanize a dog, she said.
The SPCA also works with a coalition of animal welfare groups, Operation Pets, that provides low cost spay/neuter services to the community.
(Photo courtesy Erie SPCA)