Their faces flash by on a TV screen in rapid succession -- dogs and cats whose unique trials in life brought them together under one roof on Main Avenue in Norwalk.
There's Bailey, a yellow Labrador retriever, Sweet Pea, a pit bull/terrier mix, feline brothers Lenny and Tony and many more. Across from the TV in the lobby of PAWS, a non-profit shelter that rescues homeless animals, are plaques that people have purchased to pay tribute to pets that have since passed on.
Sweet Pea may not be adopted yet, but she has a fan in longtime PAWS volunteer Cissy Tiernan of Stamford. "Sweet Pea's been here a long time," Tiernan said, adding that the dog is wary of strangers and doesn't get along well with other dogs and cats. But once Sweet Pea's defenses are down, she's "a big mush," Tiernan said.
"I adore her," she said. "I always have to have time with her when I come in."
PAWS recently received a citation for its work from the state's General Assembly after celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding by a Westport animal lover.
PAWS is a "no-kill shelter," said Michele Rinaldi, the shelter director for the past two years. She said dogs and cats are never euthanized due to space, age or disabilities. The only time a dog or cat is euthanized is if it has a terminal disease and is in pain, Rinaldi said.
"We do believe that every animal has a prospective adopter somewhere, and we never give up trying to find that someone for them," she said. "We feel there is a home for every animal no matter what their needs or circumstances are."
All of the PAWS' staff have dogs or cats in their offices, and Callie, a 10-year-old calico cat that Rinaldi adopted last year, slept on her desk last week, occasionally getting up to shift positions.
PAWS, which purchased its 504 Main Ave. building 11 years ago after a fund-raising campaign, has room for 25 dogs and about 100 cats. As of last week, the shelter had about 20 dogs and 90 cats, Rinaldi said. "It's a revolving door," she said. "We do very well with both adoptions, cats and dogs."
In 2010, PAWS adopted out 349 cats and 123 dogs, and, in 2011, 262 cats and 67 dogs were adopted, Rinaldi said. "We adopt out well over 300 cats and dogs a year," she said.
The difficult economy has affected intakes and adoptions at PAWS and other shelters, Rinaldi said. Adoption rates have dropped, and more people have given up pets after losing their homes due to evictions or foreclosures, she said.
"I wouldn't say it was overwhelming, not terribly, terribly dramatic, but it's hard not to recognize on some level there's been some impact from the economy," she said.
But the economy's impact isn't felt so much on donations to PAWS, both in money and volunteer time, Rinaldi said. She said PAWS over the past 50 years has built a large network of individual and corporate supporters. "We have a very, very generous and committed core group of supporters," she said. "In spite of the economy, they recognize the need."
Giving animals a second chance
Tiernan, a volunteer at PAWS for about 12 years, said she manages the gift store, trains and schedules volunteers to work at the reception desk, and oversees and recruits people for off-site events, such as collecting pet-related donations outside supermarkets. She said volunteering at PAWS is rewarding in a different way than her previous volunteer work in literacy.
"The pets can't help themselves. They don't have anyone standing up for them, and the circumstances they find themselves in didn't have a lot to do with their doing," she said. "Plus, it's hard to be in a bad mood when you're around great pets."
PAWS takes dogs and cats as long as they don't have behavioral problems that can't be corrected, Rinaldi said. She said Annie Madden, the kennel manager, will evaluate dogs and cats and that it's rare an animal will be turned away. After PAWS accepts an animal, it's quarantined for two weeks to ensure it doesn't have behavioral or medical problems and so PAWS' staff can get to know it, Rinaldi said.
The personalities of dogs can be identified pretty quickly, but a cat's personality may not be revealed until it's comfortable in a new environment, Rinaldi said.
PAWS requires people who want to give their animals to the shelter to schedule an appointment ahead of time and make sure the cats and dogs are up-to-date on vaccinations. PAWS can't accept stray dogs by law and advises people who have found a stray dog to contact the Animal Control shelter in their town. A minimum "surrender fee" of $210 for dogs and $100 for cats has to be paid due to expenses of boarding and caring for the animals, though reduced fees are offered in special circumstances, according to PAWS' website.
The cost to adopt a cat from PAWS is $100, and the cost to adopt a dog is $210, Rinaldi said. Included in the cost are spaying or neutering, vaccination, micro-chipping, testing for heartworms, and flea-preventative medication. Adopted cats also are tested for feline AIDS and leukemia, Rinaldi said. She said new adopters receive "a goody bag" for free that includes food, bowls, leashes, collars and toys.
But adopting a dog or cat at PAWS isn't as simple as walking into a pet store and buying one. Rinaldi said PAWS wants to ensure the potential adopter can provide a good home and that the animal is a good fit with the potential adopter's expectations and lifestyle. "You are matching up personalities," she said. Some people want a lap cat, and people who aren't home much may not be suited for a high-energy dog, she said.
The potential adopter has to fill out an application and submit three references, including a reference from a veterinarian if they've owned a pet before. PAWS then meets with the prospective adopter, and, if he or she already owns a dog, the PAWS dog is brought to the home more than once to see if they get along, Rinaldi said.
"Most people are pretty comfortable with it," she said of the adoption process.
Rinaldi said buying a dog from a rescue organization was cheaper and in many ways better than buying a dog from a breeder or pet store. She said many people don't know about the conditions of puppy mills, which supply dogs to pet stores, and that dogs from breeders aren't immune from behavioral issues.
"The difference between going to a breeder and going to a rescue is every rescue organization's mantra is, `Save a life. Give an animal a second chance.' "
"You are so much better off going to a shelter and actually rescuing an animal and providing a better home for them," she said.
Some of PAWS' dogs are older, and Rinaldi said benefits of adopting an older dog include an already-formed personality and little risk of accidents in the home.
"What you see is what you get ...They only require love and a good home," she said.
PAWS has always been in Norwalk, and, before it bought the 504 Main Ave. building, which Rinaldi said used to house a MAACO franchise, it boarded homeless pets at Norwalk Veterinary Hospital and people's homes until they were adopted.
PAWS was founded in 1962 by Betty Holmes Long, an actress and singer, who lived with her husband Harry, an art dealer, in Westport. Harry supported his wife's crusade for animals, which took root in Fairfield County after they relocated from New York City. There acreage in Westport became " a veritable aviary and at one time Betty had 65 animals in her home," according to an article written by Rinaldi for PAWs' 50th.
Rinaldi also wrote: "Betty rescued all sorts of dogs in all kinds of weather. She would go to Norwalk Animal Control and feed dogs every day without exception."
In recent years, PAWS has done more to "step out of its comfort zone and become more involved with the community and forming partnerships to advocate for animal welfare," Rinaldi said.
PAWS now educates the public about conditions of puppy mills, the importance of spaying and neutering animals and why de-clawing cats is not a good idea, and it recently partnered with the Stepping Stones Museum for Children to provide an animal-related educational program for children. PAWS also recently held its fifth annual fundraiser, called "PAWS in the Park," which raised $40,000, and has expanded its alliances with other animal welfare organizations and those who support them.
PAWS is overseen by a five-member board of directors and is always open to new volunteers and financial donations, Rinaldi said. She said the non-profit wants to solidify a fund for non-routine medical care and raise money to open a spaying and neutering clinic in its building. Opening the clinic won't require an addition onto the building and would be less costly than having those procedures done at a veterinarian's office, Rinaldi said.
"That is really a huge undertaking we're looking forward to," she said.
For information about PAWS or to volunteer, visit www.pawsct.org, or call 203-750-9572.