Not all is well at SAVE: A Friend to Homeless Animals. The Princeton shelter is facing some tough decisions since it came to terms with the fact that it has become home to a significant number of unadoptable animals, including several dogs with aggressive tendencies that have lived there for years.
"The goal of SAVE is to put out as many adoptable dogs as possible," said Karen Azarchi, the shelter's acting manager. "By having unsuitable dogs in our runs, we are missing the opportunity of saving adoptable pets."
Assuming a dog adoption rate of one per month, having one unsuitable dog in the shelter means that 12 potentially adoptable dogs may not be saved. "That's what we are working towards," she said.
"Our policy is not to take aggressive animals," she said. "We do a temperament test to see if a dog is adoptable, testing for food aggression using a fake hand to try to remove the animal's food bowl and testing for stranger aggression."
The shelter currently has 18 dogs, including two just surrendered last Thursday, said Ms. Azarchi. "When surrenders come in, we temporarily go over our limit of 15," she said. "We will keep these new dogs and if we find them to be unadoptable we will give them back. That is the policy that I agreed with the shelter managers who found them. We can no longer be a sanctuary for unadoptable dogs."
The shelter also houses 110 cats, 40 more than the number they are supposed to have. "Currently they are in the situation of exceeding the limit allowed by the municipality and have been cited because of it and we are taking steps to manage this," she said.
According to Ms. Azarchi, previous directors loved animals and felt that if SAVE didn't take an animal it would be euthanized. "We inherited these problems," she said. "That's why we have 110 cats when we are only supposed to have 70. We have cats with leukemia, cats that are FIV, cats that are very old, and cats with kidney disease. We have animals that we should not have taken because we are not a sanctuary, we are a shelter."
Having taken a cold hard look at its problems, the shelter is taking steps to redress the situation. "SAVE has reduced its cat population by about 50 since May," said Ms. Azarchi. "All of our feral cats have been adopted and we are now working on a program called "Seniors for Seniors" whereby cats can be adopted by senior citizens at no charge."
The shelter has increased its outreach to include Petco as well as Petsmart where they are now showing dogs as well as cats.
Max and Josh, two of six dogs identified as unadoptable, are going to a sanctuary in Minnesota where they will live out their lives together. Sheba, another of the six long-term residents, was recently found to have cancer, and was euthanized. Staff and volunteers are working to find sanctuaries for the three remaining problem dogs.
In addition, all 15 of the shelter's cats with FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) are slated to go to the same sanctuary. FIV causes an infectious disease in domestic cats similar to immunodeficiency virus in humans. While there is no cure or a vaccine for FIV, and it is eventually fatal, an FIV-positive cat can live for many years without any signs of illness.
Ms. Azarchi, who has served as SAVE's acting executive director since Fred Ball resigned in May, sees her job as helping put SAVE back on track. Having started as a volunteer dog walker last fall, she immediately saw room for improvement. Asked by board members Brad Mills and John Sayer and board president Pauline Egan to find ways to cut costs (the shelter is currently operating at a deficit), Ms. Azarchi has been looking for ways to make improvements.
"We have cut costs by about at least a third," she said, "by decreasing staff, looking at less expensive suppliers, getting medications in bulk, and looking into hiring a vet to do some neutering for us so as to reduce our substantial vet's bill."
In addition to cutting operating costs, Ms. Azarchi also serves as staff manager at the shelter. A long time animal lover she has two dogs of her own but can't have cats because she is allergic to them Ms. Azarchi is delighted to be "doing something tangible" for SAVE.
"The staff here is awesome," said Ms. Azarchi of the shelter's 8 full-time and two part-time employees. "When there is a crisis, the volunteers and the staff rise to the occasion. We have a cat now that needs a $600 operation. The word goes out and money gets raised."
Ms. Azarchi coordinates volunteers on Saturdays and Sundays, taking dogs to adoption clinics at Petsmart and Petco. "When I first got here, SAVE wasn't showing dogs at Petsmart, just cats. Then we asked Petco and they agreed to show dogs, too. We have about 10 cats at Petco and now we are also showing our dogs there."
Ms. Azarchi conducts the volunteer orientations, and has asked the shelter's trainer to give volunteers tips on animal behavior training. "It makes it more enjoyable for the volunteers and it teaches the dogs to be more sociable, which they need because we have a lot of unsociable dogs," she said.
One of the longest-term residents is Casper who has been at SAVE for 5 years. "Casper should be unadoptable," said Ms. Azarchi, "but he's not."
Lisa Watson, owner of the pet-sitting agency A-Door-A-Pet, agrees. When Ms. Watson heard that a dog had been living at SAVE for over five years, she was moved to action. She is so determined that Casper find a loving home that she has advertised the dog in Town Topics to promote his adoption.
"I cannot foster myself but it's my mission to have him adopted," she said. "I've been in business for 16 years and I want to know what is being done to improve SAVE." Ms Watson said that while she was concerned about SAVE, she had nothing but praise for Karen Azarchi.
"In the recent past, people have come to SAVE looking for adoptable dogs and we have had none to show," said Ms. Azarchi. "Now we just rescued three adoptable dogs from Camden (Lizzie, Ophelia, and Sasha). Two of them have already been marked for adoption. That's the point of SAVE. They should come in. They should go out."
On the agenda for the board of trustees this fall is a new adoption contract and a review of policies and conditions that go back at least 20 years. "I think that under previous executive directors it was difficult to adopt an animal because there were a lot of hoops," said Ms. Azarchi. "But there are some simple guidelines such as ensuring that if you live on a street, you keep your cats indoors."
SAVE's policy is that all animals must be spayed or neutered. Kittens can only be fostered until they are of an age to be spayed or neutered, for which they must be taken to the adopter's own vet or brought back to the shelter.
"We don't yet have software to match owners with pets but we have some ground rules," she said. The shelter looks at cases individually, recommending, for example, that large dogs have a place to run, and that apartment dwellers with large animals ensure that they get enough exercise. Potential adopters can pre-qualify on the basis of references, in particular from a vet if they already have animals.
Move to Montgomery
Regarding the shelter's plans to move to a new site in Montgomery Township, Ms. Azarchi said. "There have been statements in the press that SAVE was planning to have 200 dogs there. It is not. We are planning on being the same size as we are here but with a better facility for our animals."
The new 10-acre site at 1010 Route 601 is a substantially larger improvement on SAVE's current 3-acre site at 900 Herrontown Road in Princeton. The organization's administrative offices, currently housed in space donated by Goldman Sachs in their building on Mt. Lucas Road, will be housed in an renovated 1860s brick building on the former Van Zandt property that it acquired through the generosity of Brad and Cheryl Mills. A new shelter will be built for the animals.
This summer, Ms. Azarchi arranged for board members Brad and Cheryl Mills to meet with Montgomery residents, but the timing was not right since many residents were on vacation. Another meeting will be arranged in the fall, she said. She believes that many of the residents' concerns will be unfounded. [See interview with SAVE board member John Sayer on page 11.]
"Our current shelter, which was built in 1941, is not sound proof. The new shelter will be sound proofed so that noise will not be an issue at the new site," she said.
Montgomery resident Sarah Romagnoli who wrote to SAVE in May, representing the Van Zandt Mansion Neighbors, is one of the concerned residents anxious to hear from the board. "I am hopeful that the new management will take us into consideration. We'd like to hear from them soon."
According to its website, SAVE focuses on rescue, shelter, adoption, health and welfare, spay/neuter, and humane education, with the goal of reducing animal overpopulation and the corresponding euthanasia of adoptable and treatable animals in the Greater Princeton community, currently serving Princeton Township, Princeton Borough and Plainsboro.
For more information, call (609) 924-3802, or visit www.savehomelessanimals.org.
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