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Photo by Rebecca Blackwell © 2003 Town Topics

FINALLY AT HOME: Cheryl Mills, founder of the Friends of Homeless Animals, stands with her two dogs, Paros and Gaylin, in front of the Van Zandt House in Montgomery. The animal rescue and adoption organization will restore the historic building to serve as its offices. End of caption.

Friends of Homeless Animals Organization Finds a Home for Itself in Montgomery

By Sue Repko

Cheryl Mills, founder of the Friends of Homeless Animals Trenton-Mercer, has a knack for taking what no one else wants and giving it new life. For the past five years, her organization has been rescuing dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens from certain death and placing them with adoptive families. And by locating its new facility on the site of the historically significant Van Zandt House in Montgomery, the organization is also giving a rundown building a second chance.

When Ms. Mills' dog, Patches, died in the spring of 1998, she wanted "to give life where life was taken away." That led her to the Trenton Animal Shelter, a facility run by the city's Bureau of Animal Control.

When Ms. Mills arrived there and saw all the animals waiting to be reclaimed – or face death – she knew in her heart that she'd have to do more than just take one animal home. Shortly thereafter she founded Friends of Homeless Animals (FOHA), a non-profit organization that has saved more than 1,200 animals in its five-year history.

According to Richard Salter, health officer for the City of Trenton, State law requires that any strays picked up by a municipality's animal control officer be held for at least seven days. This gives an owner a chance to claim the pet. During that time animals are given a series of shots and put into the kennel population. "We hold them as long as we can," said Mr. Salter. "We have space for an estimated 20 dogs and 15 to 20 cats. We're usually full to capacity."

Before the advent of FOHA, the reality was that if an animal was not claimed within seven days and the space was needed for a new animal that had just been picked up, the first animal faced certain euthanasia. But that has changed.

"Our staff, along with the Friends of Homeless Animals, does a series of temperament tests because we have a certain liability when we place an animal with an adopter," said Mr. Salter. The animals that pass all the tests get into FOHA's adoption program, which includes spaying or neutering as a first step. "The Friends of Homeless Animals works diligently to get animals adopted," he added. Animals are taken to PETsMART stores in West Windsor or Fairless Hills, Pa. on Saturdays where they are available for adoption.

"Our program has been so successful that last year PETsMART Charities from Phoenix, Arizona filmed us for a day and now uses this video to show their employees how a public-private partnership can make a real difference," said Ms. Mills.

According to its website, PETsMART Charities is a non-profit arm of the commercial chain and supports its in-store adoption programs and other animal welfare organizations.

New Building

Ms. Mills hopes to make even more of a difference in the very near future. After negotiating with the State of New Jersey for three years, FOHA, in October 2001, purchased a building and ten acres in Montgomery on Route 601 near the intersection with Route 518. A new building, which will house animals waiting for adoption, will go up in several phases, while the existing building – a red brick mansion of approximately 7,200 square feet – will contain offices, classrooms, and meeting rooms. This combination of old and new will allow FOHA to expand all aspects of its mission.

The existing building – the historically significant Van Zandt House – has been designated a key building within the Blawenburg Historic District, which was named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places in February 1998.

According to J. P. Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, James N. Van Zandt, of a long-standing Montgomery Township family, was considered a model farmer. He built the brick home along with some outbuildings in 1860. His property comprised about 170 acres at the time.

Ursula Brecknell, Montgomery Township historian, commented, "The house was situated next to a stream, and an allee of trees lined the drive to the house." She has heard stories from residents who claim to have seen chutes running out of second story windows and original woodwork being sent down them in the renovations done by the State over the years.

Interior Alterations

The State of New Jersey owned the Van Zandt mansion from the 1930s through 2001. By the 1990s it was being used as a low-security detention center. Much of the interior had been altered with the installation of walls and dropped ceilings. Fortunately, those sorts of alterations covered up many of the architectural details of the structure rather than destroying them.

Michael Calafati, AIA, of Historic Buildings Architects, a Trenton firm that specializes in historic preservation, is project manager for the Van Zandt house. "Last year at this time we undertook a selective demolition project. Much of the original details were intact, and there were enough remaining so that we can recreate what was missing in some areas."

Mr. Calafati is an advocate of giving buildings a second chance. "There's such a throw-away mentality in this country," he said. "We immediately think about tearing down old buildings. Old buildings need to have a new life. There's always a way to do that sensitively."

For now, paint is peeling on the exterior trim and porch of the house. A peek inside attests to last year's demolition work: Wall studs are revealed in some places. The dark wood of a gracefully curving staircase stands out in the shadows. "The foundation is solid," said Ms. Mills. "But it hasn't had any love in a long time."

Matching Grant

A major boost in getting the restoration portion of the project underway was Governor James McGreevey's recent announcement that the Van Zandt project is a recipient of a nearly $14,000 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust. These funds will be used to devise a preservation plan for the building.

Down the line FOHA hopes to get State funding for the actual bricks and mortar work that will be done on the building. The Van Zandt House qualifies for this funding because it is part of a historic district named to the State and National Registers.

Renovate and Preserve

It is estimated that renovation and preservation of the interior and exterior of the Van Zandt mansion will cost about $1.2 million, but that will actually constitute the second phase of development of the site. The first phase, construction of a 4,500 square foot facility for animals waiting for adoption, will contain office space, grooming areas, consulting and examination rooms, and a conference room. It is projected to cost just under $1 million. Steven S. Cohen, a FOHA board member and architect in Princeton, is designing this building.

Additional phases of new construction are planned with total costs expected to fall in the $4 to $5 million range. When completed, the entire project will provide just under 20,000 square feet of office space, classrooms, and residence space for animals.

Ms. Mills can't say enough about the dedicated volunteers and generous donors who have given her organization so much vitality during the past five years. "And I am so blessed to have a wonderful board and advisory board," she added.

The executive vice chairman of her board is local realtor, Pete Callaway, who has always had a special interest in animals. "I've known the Mills family for many years, and I've got two chocolate labs. It was my love of animals and connection to the family that got me involved."

It would seem natural that Mr. Callaway might lend his expertise in locating a suitable site for the new facility, but it was Ms. Mills who found the Van Zandt house and property. "We had looked at several locations, but she sniffed this one out," said Mr. Callaway.

Along with her dogged pursuit to give animals loving homes and to bring an old building back to life, Ms. Mills plans to continue reaching out to and educating young people. The new facility will be just down the road from the new Montgomery High School. The school's Interact Club, dedicated to community service, has already done several projects with FOHA. "Having those high school students next door – we can't wait to foster that partnership," said Ms. Mills.

Animals are available for adoption every Saturday at PETsMART, West Windsor, from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. The Friends of Homeless Animals Trenton-Mercer website is www.be-a-friend.org.

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