If ever there ever was a rock upon which the Delaware County SPCA could build a foundation of support, look no further than Dave Savar. The week of last fall’s centennial celebration, the owner of Swarthmore’s Pyramid Developers tore down a dilapidated house on the shelter’s Media property to make way for a temporary medical-building addition. He also re-roofed the back section of the existing building, cleared space for a larger parking lot, removed dozens of dangerous trees, did electrical work, donated dryers and built sheds.
The winner of the Delco SPCA’s 2011 Community Partnership Award, Savar even volunteers to walk dogs when he can. And he’s done his share of pet rescues, finding them along the roads in Chester or abandoned at project sites. On occasion, he’ll bring the Delco SPCA staff lunch on Saturdays, and with one Christmas bonus from a contracting job, he bought $10 Wawa gift cards for every one of them. “If you’re going to be successful in life, you have to give more than you take,” says Savar, whose father supported the organization though the ’60s and ’70s. “You follow people you want to emulate.”
Savar’s stability has been crucial after recent turbulence at the Delaware County SPCA. In its historic 100th year, change was the one constant. Until the end of 2011, the shelter had served as an open-admission facility, receiving stray animals from county municipalities with animal-control contracts. Now, those municipalities have had to assume responsibility for picking up and boarding strays. It allows the SPCA—once the only solution—to focus on adoptions and programs designed to curb overpopulation and animal cruelty, while promoting healthy pets and supportive owners.
This July, the Delco SPCA will be designated a lifesaving organization. That means it will strive to save every animal that enters its adoption center. Euthanasia will be used only sparingly.
At first, the shelter was prepared to designate itself a no-kill facility. In Pennsylvania, however, an animal organization can’t do so if even a single animal is euthanized. “Our definition of lifesaving is a save rate of over 85 percent, with the understanding that we’ll occasionally receive animals that are either incurably ill beyond our resources or too aggressive to be adopted out,” says Justina Calgiano, the Delco SPCA’s director of community relations. “In those cases, animals would be humanely euthanized.”
Even so, the over-arching mission at the shelter remains saving lives. Resources are devoted to adoption, prevention, education and outreach programs that prevent animal cruelty and overpopulation, place animals in caring homes and promote responsible pet ownership through education and affordable care services.
Meanwhile, most Delaware County municipalities have contracted with the Chester County SPCA for animal-control services while Delaware County and its newly formed nonprofit Animal Protection Board builds its own shelter on a three-acre site in Darby Township. The $1 million, 7,500-square-foot facility should be completed by summer.
With 575,000 residents in a largely urban setting, there’s a gross need for an animal shelter in Delaware County. “Some say the county shouldn’t be responsible, but I oppose that,” says Delaware County Council vice chairman Mario J. Civera Jr., a former state representative. “It’s the right thing. We need to get the building built. We’re under the gun. The bottom line is that we have to have a shelter. When the county shelter is finally open, then they’ll say, ‘Where would we be without it?’”
The Delaware County SPCA’s name has always contributed to its identity problem. It’s never been a county shelter—it’s a private one. The nonprofit has no affiliation with any local, state or federal agency.
Initially established in 1911 to provide watering troughs for working horses, the shelter could’ve changed its name. But then it would’ve risked losing its brand, not to mention donations. It takes $2.1 million a year to run the shelter, where 45 employees and more than 300 volunteers and foster homes handle about 4,000 animals a year. That’s up from $1.7 million, before the county pitched in funds to extend services and continue temporarily accepting strays until the end of 2011.
Heading up the Delco SPCA transformation is executive director Richard Matelsky, who first arrived in May 2009 from North Shore Animal Shelter in New York, a nationally known facility. Of late, adoptions are up 69 percent. On average, 60-70 cats and dogs find homes each week.
Matelsky was recommended by Mike Arms, who has a national reputation for flipping shelters from bad to good. He agreed to help the Delco SPCA free of charge. Flown in, Arms rated the old facility as one of the worst he’d ever seen.
Arms’ primary focus: quality of care. He recommended a full-time veterinarian, and Dr. Kimberly Boudwin was hired in 2010. There are also three per-diem vets.
As the existing Delco SPCA board was changing over, Arms returned a year later and pointed to Matelsky. Today, the executive director travels to Media four days a week from Queens, N.Y., though he’s on-call seven days.
Initially, Matelsky was a consultant. But the longer he stayed, the more impressed he was with the staff and the new board. He became executive director in May of last year. Now, at 61, he calls this his last stop. “It’s not a career stepping stone, but I have to leave it better than I found it,” he says.
Among other initiatives, Matelsky has begun a public wellness clinic on Wednesdays and Thursdays; a vet visit costs $30 for a full exam. “We see so many animals turned over because of a lack of ability to provide vet services or care,” Delco SPCA’s Calgiano says. “We’re doing everything we can so owners can keep their pets.”
Public surgeries are scheduled Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; other days are reserved for in-house procedures. Spaying and neutering represent 90 percent of the latter—impressive when you consider that, up until 2010, the Delco SPCA didn’t the staffing to spay and neuter any incoming animals. Now, they’re also microchipped for identification.
Before bringing on a full-time vet, one estimate had the shelter spending $400,000 annually on outside medical fees. “The level of care here has blown through the roof,” Calgiano says. “I mean this still isn’t the Sistine Chapel, but it’s so much better than it was.”
The shelter’s paid staff has increased by 15. Employees are assigned specific areas and animals to socialize and make adoptable. “Morale is up because we know we’re getting animals into the right homes,” says Calgiano.
Now that he’s helped to shore up the quality of care, Matelsky has turned to fundraising and development. His initial outsider status helped. “I had no connections and wasn’t beholden to anybody,” he admits.
“If I rubbed people the wrong way, they’d just have to understand that I came here to right the ship.”
The Delco SPCA’s centennial celebration helped bring attention to the struggle to do more for the animals, boosting fundraising. Initially, the new county facility was supposed to be ready by December 2011, but Matelsky says the delay wasn’t the county’s fault. “Civera is sincere,” Matelsky says. “He’s made an attempt to do things, but thus far no one [from the county] has come to the shelter and asked, ‘What do you do, and how do you do it?’”
Despite good intentions in its animal-control days, the Delco SPCA—like others of its kind—could take in only 30 new animals overnight. It had to draw the line. So, in November 2009, it gave verbal notice that it would discontinue municipal animal-control contracts. By July 2010, the declaration was in writing.
The 39 participating municipalities in Delaware County accounted for 66 percent of the shelter’s strays. Philosophically, the Delco SPCA could no longer adhere to its original charitable mission, nor could it afford to maintain what had become business as usual.
On a visit one day last summer, the shelter had 251 animals—219 of them cats. Its capacity was 280 before the recent reconfigurations, but there were times when the shelter was boarding 300 animals. With another 200 volunteer homes providing foster care at any time, as many as 500 animals were in the facility’s care.
Strays were held for four days (two days longer than the state mandate) for possible owner reclamation and for observation. All were immediately brought up to date on vaccinations. Sadly, just three percent of cats were ever reclaimed, and less than 10 percent of dogs. Of the 4,000 animals that arrived last year, just 423 were reclaimed—perhaps a result of the $25-per-day bordering fee the owner had to assume.
Strays could stay as long as three months at the shelter, and 12 months in a foster home. The average shelter stay for highly adoptable pets was 17 days. As many as 20 percent of the dogs taken in are pitbulls or pitbull mixes, a breed Calgiano says the staff has a “serious adoration” for.
The Delco SPCA is also confined by its infrastructure, which includes a 1930s building and a seven-acre property, some of which is restricted. The simple reality was never easy on staff members. “We couldn’t keep asking them to kill,” says Matelsky.
Once a volunteer, Calgiano came on board full-time in May 2010, shortly after the initial no-kill decision and the immediate backlash that followed. She was hired, in part, to quell the barking. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” she admits. “But here I am.”
In an area as large as Delaware County, Calgiano equates having one animal shelter to “having one hospital for the entire county.” There are private rescue groups, but no other facility like the SPCA. “We provided services for a long, long time,” Calgiano says. “We’ve been the hub—the dumping ground. It has never been a legal responsibility, only a moral one.”
Under the extension agreement, the county had to pay the SPCA another $125 for each stray, plus the $116 fee each municipality would owe per animal. But previous directors, Calgiano says, didn’t properly follow
up with those municipalities who didn’t pay their fair share.
In its new configuration, the facility will continue to accept owner-surrenders and abused animals turned over after criminal investigations. “We’ve been the Good Samaritan, but now we’ve told everybody we can’t be,” says Calgiano, who acknowledges that it’s a tough explanation for the public. “It’s been flooding in our basement for so long, and now we can’t afford a plumber. Now, we’re the plumber and we’re using a wrench and hoping to make a dent. We’re coaching people to be responsible pet owners, and we’re giving them additional resources.”
To learn more, visit delcospca.org.