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Maverick and friends
Maverick and his buddies at East Smithfield's Animal Care Sanctuary.
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The catery at East Smithfield's Animal Care Sanctuary.
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Erin and Joan
Animal Care Sanctuary adoption coordinator Erin Johnson (left) and Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese give voice to the voiceless.
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The good life: the “catio” gives the cats at the Animal Care Sanctuary a taste of the outdoors—without its inherent dangers.
The Animal Care Sanctuary—with its headquarters in East Smithfield and a branch in Wellsboro, one of the largest and most successful no-kill shelters in the United States—had its start with a woman who saw a problem and sought to solve it.
In Lesley Sinclair’s mind, there was criminal neglect taking place in her town of Toms River, New Jersey, and she found it most troubling.
People visited their summer homes on the shores of New Jersey and they brought their children and they brought their pets. The problem was that when these families left they found their pets to be excess baggage and they discarded them as if they were broken toys.
Sinclair, then an interior designer working in New York City, swept up these abandoned strays and took them as her own. By doing so she gave voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. “I am these animals’ last great hope,” she said.
She quickly outgrew the twenty-five acres she had in Toms River, finding that the developers of McMansions sprouting up weren’t keen to her droves of barking dogs taking bites out of the property value. The great disciplinary hand of the zoning board swept her away. She soon found a tract of land in north central Pennsylvania in East Smithfield, which would become Sanctuary Hill. She made thirty-eight trips there from Toms River with two yellow school buses. “The most horrible days of my life,” she said. “I prayed.”
Sinclair shared her house with fifty cats hopping up and down from bookcases and chairs, bureaus, and tables. Ten dogs meandered among the felines. There were 100 more cats in cages in the other half of her house and another 400 outside in the barn. In another building she housed 225 dogs that leapt at the fences of their cages and barked as loudly as they had barked in Toms River.
She wrote letters to donors, handwritten letters, asking for money to help pay for food and care. She wished she could hire a veterinarian for treatment but also to spay and neuter these animals to stop the problem at its source. She also needed help.
Sinclair advertised in the same way one may write looking for a mate, “It is a joyous yet lonely life. I am alone when everyone else is with their family. He/ she must be mature, have sown their wild oats, and be prepared to settle down to a lifetime’s work of caring about the animals…not looking for a wife or a husband—just the love of animals.”
This was in 1987. Sinclair died in 1998. Sanctuary Hill became something Sinclair only dreamed of.
The long drive up Sanctuary Hill Road ends in a lush, green field overlooking the mountains. People walk some of the forty-eight dogs down the hill and through the woods to stretch their legs. There’s no rush. This won’t be a dog’s last walk unless he’s adopted. The Animal Care Sanctuary won’t euthanize a single animal due to overpopulation. Some tenants are there for life.
To give you an idea of the volume that Joan Smith-Reese, executive director of ACS since 2009, and her staff deal with, ACS admitted 571 animals in 2013 and adopted out 553. Thirty-six animals were fostered. ACS’s vet clinic performed 3,859 spay/neuter surgeries and made 2,452 appointments at its clinic. People who need to spay or neuter an animal can bring their pet in and have the surgery performed by a qualified veterinarian for a small fraction of the price of a private practice.
Of those numbers above, Wellsboro admitted 231 animals and adopted out 226. Wellsboro’s animal shelter, now an outpost of ACS, was once run by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Smith-Reese had just taken the job as executive director of ACS and was spreading the word about their mission. East Smithfield is remote and the ACS was thought of as some cult up in the mountains, not a sanctuary for adoptable animals. Smith-Reese received a phone call from the Pennsylvania SPCA, which ran the Wellsboro shelter, saying it planned on closing, “Would you take the animals?”
Of course, ACS would take the animals. It wasn’t part of the plan, but the fate of the animals had she not absorbed them trumped any ideas of “plans.” A few months later the Pennsylvania SPCA called again saying it planned on selling the property of the Wellsboro shelter. It couldn’t. Written into the deed was a condition that the land be used for the care of animals. The ACS rented it from the PSPCA for one dollar a year and bought the property for one dollar in the third year. It was never in the plans to have an outpost in Wellsboro, Smith-Reese said, but that was how it happened.
“When we went in it was in poor shape,” Smith-Reese said. “They had pulled the plug on the refrigerator with $50,000 worth of rabies vaccines. I thought my vet was going to cry.”
The Wellsboro shelter has the capacity for thirty cats and nine dogs. It can take in what it can until it reaches capacity. The two facilities work in concert.
“If the animal control or dog law people bring a dog and we can take it, we do, and it will stay there,” Smith-Reese said. “If there’s an overflow, we’ll take it [in East Smithfield]. We have a transport once a week back and forth because our vets are over there and here so they can treat the animals.”
Wellsboro’s shelter needed a lot of work. “It was dirty, it needed an overhaul,” Smith-Reese said, “and the people in Wellsboro were really angry because all these years they sent money to Philadelphia for their SPCA. When they saw the condition of the place and that it closed, we gave that a lot of thought.”
So she spoke with the newspaper and spread the word to the community that when the shelter re-opened it would be community based. People arrived in droves, sixty to seventy people, to trim leaves, mow the grass, paint. It still has many needs, but it has become a worthy satellite to the space station in East Smithfield.
Erin Johnson is ACS’s adoption coordinator. She spends much of her time screening people to ensure that if one of her cats or dogs goes out, it has little to no chance of coming back. No hard feelings, but an adopted animal incapable of reproducing is a beautiful sight, another success story.
“I just had someone in here who wanted to surrender their eleven-year- old, very sick Jack Russell,” Johnson said.
“Oh, my, God,” Smith-Reese said. “Did you strangle them?”
“It’s amazing. People will say, ‘I’ve had this dog for fourteen years and we’re moving to Florida and we want to surrender it.’ I’m not kidding.
“This one woman’s going to Hawaii and said, ‘I need to know what my options are.’ I said, ‘Your option is to bring the dog with you.’”
Voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless.
Such is the maddening part of working at ACS. People often dump animals off because they’ve grown inconvenient, a commoditized toy they outgrew and want to toss aside. On the other hand, sometimes animals come to them because a woman was killed in a car accident and left behind a dog, or a grandmother passed away leaving her two cats uncared for. Perhaps the surviving family rents their home, and the landlord doesn’t allow animals.
“Literally, you can’t have a guinea pig around here,” Johnson said. “If they rent, that’s the first phone call I make. Three non-family references. It’s hit or miss.”
Johnson started over three years ago and has adopted out roughly 700 dogs and 500 cats. She tries to keep the dog kennel to forty-eight dogs, fifty tops. When she arrived there were over eighty dogs. “We sense a shift in the vibe of the kennel when it’s over fifty,” Johnson said. “The animals aren’t getting out as much. Playtime in the yard is cut in half. You feel it when you walk in. Even though we can house double, that doesn’t mean we should.”
The cats number in the 450 range. They live in communal cages in the cattery. They run free in the cattery when staff cleans the communals. “We live to clean,” Smith-Reese said.
A group of donors helped build the “catio” (pronounced like patio). It’s a screened-in porch with different shelves, levels, and toys for the cats to have an outdoor experience. Trish Steves, who has worked at ACS for seventeen years, said, “We wanted a safe place for them. Our cats usually don’t go outside. Some didn’t get to experience fresh air so we got this built. It’s nice to see some of them that haven’t experienced it to lay out in the sunshine. They can watch a bird for the first time or a bug.”
The vets and behaviorists screen all the animals to profile them accordingly. Potential adopters will know if a dog is housetrained or good with other dogs, cats, and children.
One of the mobile trailers at ACS acts as a home simulator. There’s furniture and kitchen appliances that behaviorists can use to give new meaning to a dog’s house training. It’s simply a way for dogs accustomed to being outdoors (possibly tied to a tree for years like one German shepherd) to learn there’s nothing to fear about a dishwasher.
A few yards from this trailer is another where the interns work. They come from all over the country and range from animal science majors to pre-vet.
ACS also hosts different types of programs for school children of all ages. The youngest of the young get to learn how to handle animals properly. In the middle grades ACS introduces “bully breeds” like pit bulls to dispel the myths so commonly associated with them (thus allowing educators to spin that toward how children are mistreated and discriminated against). High school students take a course that covers many topics from ethics to legalities surrounding animals.
The animals are safely harbored at ACS. Leslie Sinclair’s vision is reflected in every action.
“I think she would be thrilled,” Smith-Reese said. “Thrilled with the adoptions. She would hand-write letters to the donors, ‘I wish I could have a vet in a mobile home to do spay/ neuters.’ I discover these things long after we’ve done them. It’s like she’s watching and telling me what to do.”