A new Pets Alive

It's a year since we got a call asking for help at a struggling rescue shelter in New York.
By Best Friends Animal Society

It's just a year since we got a call asking for help at a struggling rescue shelter in New York. What a difference a year makes!

The founder and director of the shelter, Sara Whalen, was dying from cancer, and the shelter was in serious disarray. A friend and volunteer, Kerry Clair, described the situation as very bleak, filled with undernourished animals living in squalor. Could Best Friends help?

The rapid response team was soon on the ground there, and reporting that what Kerry had said was an understatement. They saw underfed horses shivering in the cold. Cows, pigs, goats and other farm animals seemed on the verge of starvation. One of the buildings on the 80-acre property housed nearly 100 cats; one room held seven exotic birds. Dogs lived inside crowded cages in a cement building; some of them hadn't been outside for walks in years.

How could something like this happen? Information was sketchy at best. Over the course of 20-plus years, Pets Alive founder Sara Whalen had taken in just about any animal in the area who was abandoned, slated for death row at a shelter or simply no longer wanted.

In recent years, Sara kept to herself and Pets Alive was off-limits to all but a few caretakers. It wasn't until she passed away last March that people learned the sanctuary had deteriorated considerably and was barely functioning.

Kerry, who's now co-director of Pets Alive, was one of the few people who knew Sara well. "In the last few years of her life," Kerry says, "Sara found it difficult to delegate any kind of authority. She was a good person and she meant well, but she really believed she could and should run the place on her own.

"When she died, I was thrust into the chaos of trying to help Best Friends resolve some of the issues here. I really started to understand how much Best Friends has done to revolutionize the no-kill movement and how to properly run a sanctuary. Within days, things were fixed here that I didn't fully understand were even broken. And then things just kept getting better. This has been a tremendous learning experience for me."

In the beginning, it was all about triage. Best Friends' medical team concentrated their efforts on getting care to the sickest animals, followed by general medical attention for the other animals and spay/neuter surgeries. The construction team tore down structures that were beyond repair, put up runs and safety fences, and renovated existing working buildings. Best Friends logistics personnel helped with records and organization.

Within 90 days, Pets Alive looked like a brand-new entity, with new buildings, shelters and even a proper dog trail that snaked through a forest. Animals were living in the lap of modest luxury, complete with blankets, baubles and toys. There were now plenty of volunteers to lavish attention and affection on the animals. And thanks to a higher profile in the community and several adoption events, most of the Pets Alive "old-timers" found new homes.

By October, operations were running so smoothly at Pets Alive that the organization was in a position to reach out to help Best Friends with our rescue of 179 Virginia puppy mill dogs.

Pets Alive made space to house and care for the puppy mill dogs as they waited to find forever homes. Thanks to Pets Alive, Best Friends was able to complete the rescue from start to finish in less than six weeks.

People who have seen the "before and after" of Pets Alive say the place has been transformed. There's plenty of space and sturdy, attractive support structures to house the 125 animals currently on-site.

Kerry and co-director Matt diAngelis oversee 10 employees and several volunteers, and work with an enthusiastic board of directors. Pets Alive is hoping to launch a spay/neuter initiative, develop a children's program, promote adoptions and continue its community outreach by partnering with other animal rescues and shelters.

As Pets Alive moves forward, we at Best Friends wish them the best of luck in continuing their important work in the no-kill movement.

Written by Amy Abern


Photos by Molly Wald

In the March/April 2008 issue of Best Friends magazine, Kerry Clair talks about her plans, hopes and concerns for the future of Pets Alive. To become a member of Best Friends and receive Best Friends magazine, click here.

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