Pet Project

Radnor’s Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals celebrates 100 years.

Grace Kelly, Francisvale Home’s executive director, with Simon. (Photo by Jeff Wojtaszek)When company comes, Grace Kelly uses kibble to quiet the noisy canine crew at Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor. For now, its residents include Sherman, who has a home visit scheduled for next week, and the popular Kingston, who’s had several such appointments.

The nametags posted on each kennel feature clever promotions. Marsha is “good for walking,” one says. As it turns out, the chocolate Labrador just found a home earlier today.

With three legs and an abusive past, Punkin is more of a challenge. Francisvale will try placing her with Best Friends in Utah, where Michael Vick’s tortured dogs went for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to train and rehabilitate Punkin, and hopefully find her a home.

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“We’re part of the long history of the Main Line,” says Kelly, Francisvale’s executive director.

Indeed, Francisvale is believed to be the oldest continuously operating nonprofit no-kill animal shelter in the United States. It’s also the Laurel Hill Cemetery of the local pet world. More than 2,000 domestic animals are buried in its rural slopes. On Oct. 3, Francisvale will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala at the Wanamaker Building’s Crystal Tea Room in Center City. Organizers are expecting 400-800 paying guests.

In the winter of 1897, Dr. and Mrs. George McClellan were traveling by carriage to the theater in Philadelphia. George’s uncle was Civil War Gen. George McClellan, whose father’s estate was used to found Jefferson Medical College. That cold night, the McClellans noticed a shivering puppy huddled under a snow bank by the side of the road. They stopped and adopted the border-collie mix on the spot, naming him Francis (which dispels the notion that Francisvale was named after St. Francis, patron saint of animals).

Francis was such a fine dog that Mrs. McClellan was inspired to do something for other strays, acquiring the tract of land off Upper Gulph Road where Francisvale now stands. It was incorporated in 1909, and Francis died a year later. He’s buried at Francisvale, next to one of the McClellans’ horses.

The property was 11 acres at first, then neighbors added 5 more, for a total of 16. There’s plenty of ground left, but the sloping topography is tricky and there’s no access road. A pledge holds that no graves will ever be disturbed.

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As part of a developing master plan for Francisvale, a memorial garden is in the works for cremated animals. It would have walking trails. Tours to see the plots are a possibility—anything to increase visibility, bequests and donations. “We have to be very creative,” says Bryn Mawr’s Linda Schatzle, a board member who also served three years as its president.

About 20 plots remain before the contemplated expansion. All graves are hand-dug, and all records were kept on index cards until a computer database conversion. “There’s some charm in it,” Kelly says. “But it’s not so charming when someone shows up with a dead animal and says they paid for a plot years ago (but no index card exists).”

Francisvale’s mission, however, has stood the test of time. Accepting abused, unwanted and abandoned companion animals, the shelter provides loving care and medically necessary treatment while looking for permanent, carefully screened homes. A nine-person board, eight full- and part-time employees, and as many as 60 volunteers educate the community and raise public awareness of the plight of homeless animals while promoting the benefits of adoption.

Of course, Francisvale manages and operates the pet cemetery, too.

Burials cost $500 a plot. Burial fees are between $80 and $155, depending on the animal’s size. A simple pine casket is $75-$150.

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Francisvale requires a headstone and recommends a basic design. A $350 deposit for the grave marker is required at the time of burial.

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Once only a shelter for dogs, Francisvale opened its doors to cats in 1980. Now, felines (45 on average) outnumber canines (25 on average). The place is always at capacity. “We get room when another animal is adopted,” Schatzle says.

To call the work at Francisvale challenging is an understatement. There are 100 pounds of laundry a day, and the shelter’s goal of walking every dog every day is still somehow accomplished. Last year, Francisvale placed 55 cats and 157 dogs. Between 2006 and 2007, there was a 177-percent increase in dog adoptions and a 69-percent spike in cat adoptions. More importantly, of the 130 animals placed in 2007, 26 came back—but in 2008, of the 212 placed, just six returned.

Even those not adopted live out their days at Francisvale. As many as four cats have resided at Francisvale for upwards of a decade in the two communal sections where felines are housed. One well-behaved older dog, Annie, stays in the living room of the main house. Buddy, Mini and Louis—all Chihuahuas—occupy the office.

Kelly arrived as executive director of Francisvale in July 2007, after a stint in the development office at the Philadelphia Zoo. She’s made subtle changes. These days, visitation is by appointment. More time is devoted to forging matches between animals and owners, and to building relationships with like-minded organizations. The theory is that building rapport and lifelong relationships leads to repeat adoptions—and donations. “It all helps keep animals in homes,” Kelly says.

Run entirely through private donations and fundraisers, Francisvale almost went bankrupt in the 1960s and had to sell off the property’s original farmhouse to keep going. With an annual budget of about $500,000, there’s just the one major fundraiser, usually a holiday party in December. This year, because of the centennial celebration, Oct. 3 is the main event.

George’s Fund was established in December 2006 when a Basset hound mix arrived at Francisvale after he was abandoned at a local pet store. Francisvale took George to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was diagnosed with cancer. Francisvale posted George’s Fund on its website to help defray expenses, and the hound initially did well on chemotherapy. But when his condition worsened, he was euthanized.

Proceeds from George’s Fund are still used to pay for extraordinary medical treatments for Francisvale animals. “This has been a really challenging year,” Kelly admits. “People can’t afford their homes, so they can’t help their pets. We’ve heard of owners tying dogs on lawns, then moving and leaving the animal behind. We get phone calls from apartment managers all the time, saying the tenants moved out but left the cat behind.”

Around here, awareness of the plight of needy companion animals is at an all-time high, thanks to the growing number of natural disasters and the local media attention directed at puppy mills and the new, controversial state kennel regulations. Celebrities have always backed the cause. Former Phillies player and manager Larry Bowa—whose former wife, Sheena Bowa, is on Francisvale’s board—did a recent signing for an adoption event. At five Kildare’s locations, every (John) DeBella burger sold nets 50 cents for Francisvale.

“This place was always way ahead of its time,” Schatzle says. “In the past, rescues had a stigma. If a dog was in a shelter, something had to be wrong with it, or it had to be vicious, defective or untrainable.”

Francisvale’s four-legged residents arrive as strays, orphans whose masters have died, or owner surrenders. After a precise, careful screening and application process, minimum adoption fees range from $75 (a senior or special-needs cat) to $250 (a puppy less than 6 months old). And Francisvale does reserve the right to decline an application.

With owner surrenders, if the dog or cat isn’t spayed or neutered, Francisvale prefers that the owner pay for it. If not, they will still cover the costs.

“We never turn away an animal (if there’s space),” Kelly says. “We’re fortunate that the good always outweighs the bad. For every animal who is abandoned, there’s a family to take one in.”

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