Main Line Pet Shelters Go from Shabby to Chic

Forget breeders. Rescued pets have become trendy additions to local households. Have we suddenly grown a conscience?


Beth Goldwater and her Chester County SPCA rescue, Honey

Good breeding may be something, but apparently it’s no longer everything on the Main Line. These days, adopting a pet from a shelter carries its own cache—like shopping at Whole Foods or driving a hybrid. Even the term itself has received a heroic upgrade, from “shelter” to “rescue.” 

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None of this is a fluke, of course. Local rescues are quite selective about who adopts. Being accepted as a pet parent means you’ve met certain standards—and those standards are far from arbitrary. Tops among them are good references, plus a home with a yard and often a fence. 

Fulfilling such requirements is a fairly easy task for many families around here, which is why rescues must compete for potential adopters with fairly aggressive marketing campaigns for their organizations—and their pets. 

At the heart of all this competition is a sad truth: There simply aren’t enough homes for the animals that need them. Stats from the Humane Society of the United States show pet ownership in the U.S. more than tripling since the 1970s. In 2012, 62 percent of American households included at least one pet. But just 30 percent of those animals came from rescues, leaving an estimated 2.7 million pets languishing in shelters as potential targets for euthanasia.

Melissa Levy is among those working to change that. She’s the executive director of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, the largest no-kill shelter in the city. The daughter of former NBC10 anchor Steve Levy, she’s a trailblazer in making shelters chic, having turned an empty store at Second and Arch streets into a boutique-like adoption center with huge windows so passersby can ogle over the animals inside. Not surprisingly, Main Liners are among Levy’s prime targets for adoptions. To find them, she holds events at upscale spots like Vintage Home in Paoli. “Our attitude is, if we can make it happen, it will happen,” says Levy. 

In the King of Prussia area, Finding Shelter Animal Rescue hosts October’s Sproutfest, which features food, drink, music, a raffle and, of course, adoptable animals. More than 1,200 people attended the 2014 event. “[It gets] us the attention our rescue needs,” says Grace Kelly Herbert, FSAR’s cofounder and president. 

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Linda Walters with Spike

Chester County SPCA is in the process of streamlining its adoption procedures. “We’re shifting our focus to properly educating potential adopters, so we can help find them an animal that seamlessly blends with their lifestyle,” says CCSPCA spokesperson Micaela Malloy. “We still reserve the right to say no if we don’t think a particular animal and potential adopter are a good fit. We even have an adoption counselor and a behavioral team that check on the owner and are there for help.” 

Increased selectivity has hardly been bad for business. The Delaware County SPCA had a record 3,583 adoptions last year. Delco SPCA also follows detailed adoption policies, including a multipage application and pet-to-person meetings. “The process is essentially adding a new member to the family, so we require all members of the household to meet the potential pet, as animals can react differently than expected,” says Delco SPCA spokesperson Justina Calgiano. “We don’t want a good home to miss out on a pet, but we do look for personality in not only the adopter, but the breed of dog or cat.” 

When Matt Guyer adopted a dog from DelCo SPCA, he brought along his existing pooches, Zoey and Josie. Together, they met a German Shepherd mix who joined the family in December 2014. Guyer dubbed him Porter, an apt name for a guy who owns The Beer Yard in Wayne. “Generally, most of the dogs we adopt are older,” says Guyer. “There are a lot of other people who love puppies, but the older ones need homes, too.”    

As for all the precautions, they seem logical. But is it ever too much? “Unlike the general public, we’ve seen where these animals have come from,” says Bill Smith, executive director of Main Line Animal Rescue. “We know the awful conditions in which many of them lived. We want to spare them any further trauma. We’re not discriminating against any families, but we are careful.”

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The safety of the animal is paramount, Smith insists. That’s the reason for MLAR’s stipulation that all homes with yards must have fences. “We don’t want the pet to be able to run free and have the opportunity to run away,” he says. “Furthermore, we don’t want the dog to be kept outside unattended, or have any opportunity to get outside on his own. That’s why we don’t want homes to have doggie doors. That’s also why we ask people if they leave their dog outdoors when they go to work. We don’t want that for our animals. We believe it’s not good for them.” 

Matt Guyer and Porter

At the crux of these guidelines is a knowledge of animal psychology and the effects of abuse. MLAR is at the forefront of the battle against puppy mills, even working with Oprah Winfrey on a segment for her old talk show. Puppy-mill dogs are flight risks 80-90 percent of the time, says Smith. That’s why fences are crucial. “They’ve been living in something the size of a rabbit hutch for years,” Smith says. “When we put them down on the ground, they run so fast we can’t catch them.” 

In 2013 alone, MLAR spent $730,000 on veterinary care for animals who escaped from their homes and were hit by cars. “If a family lives near a major roadway, doesn’t have a fenced yard, and plans to leave the dog outside unattended, then that’s not a home that we want for our animal,” he says.

It’s the same at Delco SPCA. “A lot of the pets we receive are from high-risk shelters,” says Calgiano. “So, to reduce their stress, we allow for a transitional period within the new home, which includes counseling services, training classes and veterinary care.” 

Part of that involves housing pets with foster families until they’re adopted permanently. Wayne’s Linda Walters volunteered with Delco SPCA’s program, caring for eight dogs and two litters of kittens. The animals came and went, and Walters moved on to helping the next pet.

Then she met Spike. He was, as dogs go, a bad boy. Walters adopted him anyway in 2010. “He was an absolute mess,” she says. “He required a lot of work and a lot of acclimating. He was scared and needed basic behavioral training. I wasn’t sure what would happen to him. [But] I saw his potential.”

The Goldwaters saw the same thing in Honey, the cat they adopted from the Chester County SPCA. “He was the sweetest cat, and I felt that we bonded rather quickly,” says Beth Goldwater, who also lives in Wayne. “The woman who was supervising the meet-and-greet said, ‘He finally picked his family,’ explaining that he’d been shy and hadn’t responded to anyone. Until us.”

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!