Birth of a Shelter

HOPE's founders show that saving animals takes compassion and true grit

It is a sparkling night, and the crowd buzzes beneath the shimmer of bright lights. Gents glad-hand by the door; ladies chat over chardonnay; the glittering room is thick with fur.

A sophisticated soirée on the Lower East Side? Hardly.

This December bash took place in midtown Tucson, at the recently opened HOPE Animal Shelter. But Hope isn't some dreary outpost for end-of-the-line strays. Instead, it's on the vanguard of a rescue revolution, embracing the idea that animal shelters don't have to be dreary dungeons.

Gone are the sterile decor and clinical coldness of typical shelters. Instead, HOPE is filled with jaunty warmth. Jolly dogs scuttle among the visitors, and cats lounge on overstuffed chairs or nibble snacks from tiny bowls. Their homes are open, airy pens, and the room is a splash of yellow, lavender and lime green.

It is cheerful by design, says co-founder Susan Scherl. "When we painted this place, we used lots of bright colors. We wanted everything to really be user-friendly, so when people walk in, they can see that it's a happy place, that the animals are relaxed instead of stressed out."

The ultimate goal, of course, isn't re-creating a showcase from Better Homes and Gardens. Rather, the idea is to make the shelter a place where people want to come and adopt pets, and where the animals themselves are comfortable and content--which makes them all the more adoptable.

These are not meager goals. Starting a shelter and keeping it open are huge tasks. For example, HOPE began with a bankroll of $50,000. More than half of that was spent revamping the facility, a onetime auto-parts store. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, HOPE also enters the fiercely competitive world of fundraising, and struggles to meet annual operating costs reaching upward of $100,000. At the same time, it runs chronically short on volunteers to help care for animals.

That makes operating a shelter--even a stylish one--an exhausting labor of love. It's also why many animal lovers who dream of opening their own sanctuaries think twice.

"One of our most requested pieces of information is about how to form a new humane society or animal shelter," says Kim Intino, director of shelter issues for the Humane Society of the United States. But despite that multitude of requests, "there aren't the corresponding number of new shelters popping up."

In reality, starting a new shelter "is an extremely large undertaking," she says. "Our information packet walks people through the process, from incorporating 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, to insurance and liability issues, to forming a board of directors and writing your bylaws. There's so much involved even before you even open the doors."

Once those doors are open, new challenges emerge. "An animal shelter is a very unique nonprofit," Intino says. "There are many other nonprofits out there competing for funds, and of course, all of them involve hard work and a lot of struggle. But animal sheltering involves danger in some cases. It involves life-and-death decisions. It involves dealing with people's problems and their emotions, with whatever laws and ordinances are in place, and with health risks such as rabies on top of everything else."

Then comes the constant work of placing animals with homes. HOPE is among a number of so-called "no-kill" shelters, where animals are not euthanized. While entire cities--such as New York and San Francisco--are designated as no-kill zones, the total number of no-kill shelters remains relatively small, constituting only about 800 of the nation's approximately 5,000 animal sanctuaries.

By refusing to euthanize, these shelters face increased pressure to place their dogs and cats with responsible families, and often must cap the number of animals they receive. For example, HOPE rescues many animals from the Pima Animal Control Center, but can only care for about 40 cats and five dogs. To make space, it runs adoption clinics at PetSmart, and Scherl constantly networks to find homes.

But not all of her charges are cute puppies and kittens. "I personally take pride in placing older animals," she says. "It just warms my heart. I've adopted out a 17-year-old dachshund, a 15-year-old lhasa apso, and a little poodle that's going on 19."

"Last week, I also found a home for a 17-year-old cat that never came out of hiding while she was here. But the woman (who adopted the animal) called the next day to say the cat was delightful. It's those kind of things that really keep you going."

To achieve these successes, however, shelters must maintain a high community profile and constantly draw visitors through the door. Across the nation, they've gone to remarkable lengths to do just that. For example, in Chicago, the new PAWS adoption center, in ritzy Lincoln Park, boasts a fireplace, a coffee bar, classical music, rooftop gardens--and no cages. And the Washington Animal Rescue League's recently revamped shelter features glass-block "dens" for dogs and glass condos for cats, complete with private bathroom facilities.

But such lavish accoutrements also reflect the growing competition to place animals, says the Humane Society's Intino. "The majority of animal shelters are trying to be more progressive places--more open and inviting--because there is so much competition, from pet stores and Internet sales and all the other ways people can acquire their pets. Shelters have to be innovative."

At HOPE, upbeat openness is key. "People can walk right into our kennels and hang out with the cats," says Scherl, "and that makes for a much nicer adoption process. They sit there in the kennel and see which cats come to them. They're able to visit with all the cats and dogs, instead of just sticking their finger in a cage."

Still, at the end of the day--after all the litter boxes have been cleaned, all the dogs groomed, all the boarders fed--running a shelter is indeed a labor of love. While Scherl's sanctuary can't compete with swanky PAWS, the former advertising executive does dream of acquiring land for expansion. Meanwhile, she puts in dizzying hours and constantly seeks volunteers to make sure this shelter provides a dignified respite for pets until they find permanent homes.

"For myself and other HOPE founders, it's an absolute passion for the care of animals," she says. "That is foremost. It's so near and dear to my heart--there isn't anything else I'd rather do."