The First Animals In Distress “Shelter”

Many people thought the idea of not killing animals was impossible to implement. Many said that the founders were well meaning but impractical. Certainly, the founders had little money, no kennel building, and dozens of animals needing help. They relied mostly on volunteers who fostered animals in their homes.

Realizing that they needed a place to house animals where the public could come to see them, but having no funds, the founders decided to rent an old garage-type building in Emmaus, next to what is now the East Penn Animal Hospital. The animal hospital had once used the building for boarding pets during the summer. Cages containing both cats and dogs were stacked in the building, and volunteers took turns coming in to clean cages, walk dogs, and feed everyone. The first home of Animals In Distress, however humble and temporary, was established!

The Race Street Facility in Allentown

Local media told the store of this brave group of people. Modest donations came in, but not anything near the amount needed to pay rent, utilities, food and vet bills. Then disaster struck when the building was sold to Pizza Hut, who told Animals In Distress founders that they would have to find another home – and find it soon.

Frantically, the founders looked for a property. They had no money, they had no idea what was involved in getting zoning and other approvals, they had no building fund, they had no corporate donors of any size, they had no resources except an indestructible determination to keep their dream alive. They told their story to the public, and the residents of the Lehigh Valley responded. Publicity and a special appeal brought in enough money to put a down payment on a dilapidated 2.2 acre, old farm house property on Fashion Drive off Race Street, behind what is now the Lehigh Valley International Airport (then ABE Airport).

A mortgage was secured for the funds necessary to acquire the property and to construct a 20 x 100 foot concrete block building that would house both cats and dogs. There were 16 concrete dog runs, a small dog room for animals in cages, and a small office. Volunteers did much of the construction work. Building materials were solicited and used items were sometimes all the group could obtain. For example, the oil-fired furnace in the kennel was already 30 years old when it was donated to be installed in the concrete kennel building! The barn was in terrible shape, with a 16 inch sag in the center. What eventually became the Cat Social Room was an open, dilapidated carport underneath what was an unfinished apartment. No other buildings existed at the time.

When volunteers had finished painting and preparing the new kennel, the animals waiting in foster homes were brought in and quickly filled up the empty spaces. Cats in cages, dogs in runs and cages, a small office, a small feeding area – finally, the shelter had a place of its own.

The struggle for funding continued. Saving lives is always much more costly than killing the animals, and vet bills mounted very high. Utility, vet, maintenance, and mortgage bills were overwhelming, and the young organization struggled very hard just to survive. And still the animals who needed help kept coming, in greater and greater numbers.

Then disaster struck: the grounds suffered a severe flood. The Army Reserves were called in to help remove the animals from the shelter. Soldiers wearing ropes around their bodies waded through the river that tore across the parking lot, carrying animals from the building to the temporary safety of the Reservists’ trucks. This flood was the worst of several flooding incidents that occurred over the 23+ years that Animals In Distress was at this site. Years later, a hydro-geologist discovered that the shelter property lay in a flood plain and received the drainage of 7 square miles when the ground was saturated. In addition, an underground river would surface and drain through the property, compounding the flooding. The hydro-geologist, who volunteered his services to assess the property, concluded that the situation was not able to be corrected since Animals In Distress only owned the 2.2 acre tract and did not have enough land on which to redirect the flooding away from the buildings.

In the meantime, the founders were struggling to pay the bills. They initiated several fund raising events and hired a small paid staff to care for the animals. However, demand for the shelter’s services was enormous, since everyone liked the idea of saving the animals rather than killing them, and the shelter facilities became very crowded.

After several outbreaks of various cat diseases, which caused veterinary bills to skyrocket, a small modular building was purchased to provide an isolation area in which to keep incoming cats so they could be quarantined until being declared disease free.

During the 1980’s, the shelter facility was gradually improved due to donations and volunteer labor. Exercise yards, a puppy playpen, Cat Social Room partitions, and barn renovations were all made possible because of the donations of individuals. Eventually, the apartment above the Cat Social Room was refinished and made into a Feline Leukemia Room, an FIV Loft, and a Wild Cats Room.

Efforts to control the flooding were tried but remained relatively unsuccessful. Various efforts were made to improve the buildings, but the problems with the property made improvements very expensive and questionable. In addition, in the mid 80’s, money was insufficient to pay the bills. The situation was critical. Decisions were made to expand the mailing list and to do more fund raising. Our longstanding partnership with radio station WAEB 790AM and Bobby Gunther Walsh produced the annual Radiothon, which continues to this day and has become our single largest fund raiser.

Gradually, the shelter increased its funding – not enough to do much more than pay its bills, but at least that was a move in the right direction. The strained and stretched financial picture reinforced the group’s decision to rely solely on unpaid volunteers for all administrative, fund raising, and non-animal care duties. The only paid staff – and the staff were not paid very much – were those who fed and cleaned the shelter pets every day, a decision necessary because most of the Board and volunteers were at their full-time jobs and could not provide the consistent care required to keep 300+ animals clean, fed and medicated.

Programs and Services

The shelter also started several programs that had a major impact on the pets in the community. For example, the low cost spay/neuter program provided important services to thousands of area animals, reaching an all-time high of 1600 animals going through the program in one year. The shelter also implemented a dog behavior rehabilitation program in the mid 1980’s and made seminars and classes available to the public.

The whole field of animal behavioral science being applied to companion animals like cats and dogs was just beginning to gain momentum, and Animals In Distress embraced the knowledge that would allow them to rehabilitate animals rather than having those animals deemed worthless and unadoptable. The hope of the dedicated Board members and volunteers was that they could help more animals if they learned the modern and new ways of behavior modification. The shelter’s seminars in dog behavior included understanding and solving problems in Housebreaking, Jumping, Barking, Biting and similar topics.

The shelter also developed and hosted a series of half hour weekly television shows on Twin County Cable Television. Each show consisted of interviews with guests in various animal-related fields, training and behavior tips, and featured shelter cats and dogs.

The Decision to Relocate

In the mid 1990’s, engineers and contractors evaluated the existing facilities and recommended that the shelter consider relocating. The well-worn buildings, the limited and odd-shaped amount of land, and the flood-prone ground all made it undesirable to keep investing in the property. It was decided that somehow, at some time in the future, Animals In Distress would again have to pick up and move. It was also decided that this time, the move would be done gradually, so that no rushed decisions would result in the purchase of a problem piece of property. In addition, a supporter offered to make a substantial contribution toward a new shelter IF the shelter relocated. And a generous bequest was received specifically for the remodeling or relocation of the shelter.

The New Shelter: Full of Promise and Potential

A few more, larger, bequests were also received in the late 1990’s and were all dedicated to either improving the Race Street facility or relocating to a better site. Thus, the search for a new property began. Zoning, location convenience, and cost factors made the search difficult. However, a 42-acre farm property in Upper Saucon Township, next to Wedgewood Golf Course on Limeport Pike, was for sale. After extensive studies of the land and after various zoning matters were resolved, the property was purchased. It consisted of a log cabin farmhouse (part of which dates to the 1700’s), a barn (in need of repair but with potential), and a dilapidated garage. The garage was torn down. The bridge over Saucon Creek was ready to fall down, so it was replaced with a strong concrete bridge. An entrance road was cut through the fields and the site work was begun in 1999.

A large plateau for the 21,000 square foot, 3-wing building was created by blasting and removing half a mountain and building up the front of the plateau by about 18 feet. The new facility was designed for the 21st century: it wasn’t just a place to keep animals until they were disposed of, it was a home for the residents, and it was a community outreach and resource center.

Animals In Distress envisions a goal of making the community a no-kill community in which no animal dies simply because it is homeless. From the late 1990’s until the present, the nation has been experiencing a revolution in thinking about animal shelters’ role in their communities. Some communities, potentially even some states, have proven that it is possible to become no-kill, meaning that no healthy, adoptable pets are destroyed.

Animals In Distress continues to follow its original commitment to each animal it admits. Every animal rescued is kept until just the right home is found for it. And if an adoptive family cannot keep the pet, then that pet has a home at Animals In Distress for the rest of its life. Over the years, the shelter has rescued and placed thousands of cats and dogs, and has made that same commitment to each of them and their families.

The new Animals In Distress facility was designed with the physical and psychological health of the animals in mind. Lois Gadek and Leo DeLong met for months, working on plans for the new building, and produced plans that are now a reality. Shelters and other humane organizations from around the country, as well as people who design shelters, have visited to learn more about the construction details and to get ideas.

New and Expanded Programs

Various Board members and volunteers at Animals In Distress have attended conferences and workshops to learn the latest and best information in everything from training, volunteer coordination, and shelter procedures to reading animal body language, conducting educational programs for children, and new ideas in fund raising.

In moving forward to achieve the goals of saving as many animals as possible and to be a community resource and educational center, the new shelter building provides a wide range of programs and services to the community and to all who care about helping animals. Behavior and training information, networking information, guidance on pet selection and adoption, low cost spaying and neutering, referrals to other groups and individuals doing rescue and rehabilitation of all species of animals both wild and domestic, programs for children and the elderly, pet therapy training, and so much more – these programs are important outgrowths of the area in which various training and fun events are held for people and their dogs. A volunteer maintains almost 5 miles of walking trails on our 42 acres, which gives dog walkers a variety of scenic paths to share with our canine residents.

Volunteers can only do so much, however, and building maintenance is starting to be a bigger and bigger issue. Wear and tear on the HVAC units, for example, has cost us thousands of dollars, since the units run 24/7 to keep clean air in the building Рa necessity for disease prevention. The roof has some major issues, and other areas are showing signs of wear. We must always have adequate funds to repair, and eventually replace, some of the building components as time goes on.

The possibilities of the new facility are endless. However, Animals In Distress is committed to providing all services at a reasonable cost and will not deny services to those who truly lack the financial resources to pay. To date, Animals In Distress has operated without public funds, and has existed solely on the donations and help from individuals who care. Grants and support for some of the new and expanded programs will require substantial start-up funding, and the shelter is exploring options for securing that funding.

Some Guiding Principles as We Face the Future

Over the past 35 years, Animals In Distress has been blessed with the help of many caring people who have donated money and time to keep its doors open. Some Board members – specifically Nancy Michener, Rose Yanger, and Lois Gadek – have actively served on the Animals In Distress Board of Directors for over 25 years. Other newer members of the Board and staff share a common dedication to the organization’s principles and are important to the future success of the shelter. They will continue the organization’s work, with compassion and dedication.

The construction project for the new facility was begun on the assumption that debt would not be incurred to build the building and that no dollars donated for animal care would be used for its construction. Under no circumstances were the animals residents of the shelter to be denied any care to pay off a building.

Because funds were being used up, we focused on building the dog wing, Hopeful Hall, and the Hospitality Center, in the first phase of the construction efforts. All shelter animals, both cats and dogs, were moved from Race Street to the new facility in November 2002. Sections of the dog wing had to be modified so cats could be housed in them until some future time when we could afford to build the cat wing, Purrfect Place.

Because of donations and bequests, we were able to construct Purrfect Place and moved all the cats from the other parts of the building to Purrfect Place in December 2003. Visitors to Purrfect Place are charmed by how bright, cheery and clean the facility is, and most importantly, how happy the animals look!

The Race Street property was acquired by the Lehigh Valley Airport Authority as part of their expansion in that area.

The present challenges for Animals In Distress are mostly those related to growth. Our reliance on volunteer labor has challenged us to expand our pool of volunteers and to provide many areas of service not formerly possible in the old facility. Volunteer orientation sessions are held several times a year, and are usually attended by 25 to 40 people.

Improved computerization of records has made a lot of mailing and data analysis much more efficient, and brought our donor tracking and mailing list capabilities up to date. Areas presently being targeted for ongoing development are pet behavior assessment and training, volunteer recruitment and training, staff coordination and training, expanded fund raising, grant and foundation writing, and program development. We have some initiatives in progress: one is a memorial for former and deceased military and police dogs. By working with an Eagle Scout, we were able to get this project started, and look forward to a formal dedication in the future. Another project, a Memory Garden, is in the planning stages, as is a Memorial for Service Animals (those who lead the blind, alert the deaf, do pet therapy, etc.).

The future looks bright but challenging. It is such a privilege to be part of this wonderful organization. The major challenge will be to maximize the potential of this future while holding fast to the values that have made Animals In Distress special. So far, we have relied totally on donations and fundraising for all our support, and have supplemented the gap between expenses and income because of the kindness of people who made bequests to us. Without those bequests, we would not be where we are now. They are essential to our past and future survival. To meet the future, we pray for the support of those who have made our work possible, and embrace the opportunity to make new friends and supporters who share the vision of a more compassionate time – for both pets and for people.