New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2008

Off-Site Adoptions: Uniting the Pet Rescue Community in Maricopa County, Arizona

By Debra J. White

Three-month old puppies and kittens were crammed into cages with paws touching cold, concrete floors instead of permanent homes. For years, thousands of unwanted pets in Maricopa County died because of overcrowding, public indifference and a beleaguered shelter staff.

A growing metropolitan region, Maricopa County is known for stunning desert beauty, prickly six foot Saguaro cactus, and abundant sun. The nation’s second busiest animal shelter system after Los Angeles is here. Despite many individual shelters and rescue groups there was little coordinated effort to save these animals. Animal lover Bari Mears saw an opening and seized upon a glimmer of hope.

Already on board with the Animal Benefits Club, a limited intake private shelter, Mears flew to Chicago for a conference in 1998 to network with shelter professionals. A major conference topic was Maddie’s Fund, recently founded by former software giant Dave Duffield and his wife Cheryl. Maddie’s Fund backed plans to move shelter animals into homes. Mears came home encouraged but still challenged. The Phoenix shelters and rescue groups, over 75 organizations in all, were as scattered as the desert brush. Unless they united, they might not share in the goals and funding of Maddie’s Fund.

“I had to bring people and pets together,” she says. “Too many dogs and cats who should be adopted lingered in shelters.” Mears started the Phoenix Animal Care Coalition 911 formerly known as the Pets 911 Auxiliary to usher in change. “Saving the animals’ lives was my entire motivation. Someone had to do it. Why not me?”

Once Mears assembled a board of directors, all from the animal rescue community, they planned off-site adoption events. “Taking animals to the public gave them a greater chance for adoption,” says Mears. The sight of dogs yapping behind bars and cats clawing to get out upsets too many people. They shun going to animal shelters. Furthermore some shelters such as Maricopa County Animal Care and Control are so old they are infested with vermin, have leaky plumbing, cracked walls and water-stained ceilings.

PACC 911 pitched the idea of hosting pet adoptions to churches, community centers, shopping centers, park managers and anyone who would listen. Now PACC 911 hosts at least twelve annual adoption events that are often covered by the media and attended by hundreds. PACC 911 built a solid reputation in the community.

One two-day event at the Franciscan Renewal Center, in conjunction with animal blessings to commemorate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, is responsible for the placement of at least 200 dogs and cats. A dog named Ginger found a second chance because of PACC 911. A big, brown mixed breed, Ginger entered the county shelter as a stray and was not reclaimed. For at least three weeks no one picked Ginger. No one at the adoption event wanted her either. Fifteen minutes before closing, a middle-aged woman named Nancy arrived. She wanted a mate for her older dog. Calm and mild-mannered Ginger met her demands perfectly. As Ginger trailed behind Nancy to the parking lot, there wasn’t a dry eye at the PACC 911 information table. “That’s what we’re all about,” Mears says. “Finding homes for pets, especially hard to place ones like Ginger.”

Besides adoptions, Mears was instrumental in starting the emergency medical fund (EMF), a source rescue groups can use for veterinary bills when sick or injured animals enter their care. For small rescues like Finding Fido the EMF is a lifesaver says director, Pam Heine. “The EMF has saved many of our dog’s lives. Without it, we couldn’t have paid the vet bills and the dogs would’ve been euthanized instead of placed into good homes.”

Raising money requires clever and creative thinking. Mears used her literary talent to publish several books. All proceeds from book sales are plowed into the EMF.

Bowl A Rama, now approaching its sixth year, is the group’s major fundraiser. Held the first Saturday of August, Bowl A Rama has brought in almost $1 million so far. Bowl A Rama racked up endorsements from Governor Janet Napolitano, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Glendale Mayor Shirley Scruggs and Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross. Sheriff Joe Arpaio may be America’s toughest cop but he has a soft spot for animals. At nearly every Bowl A Rama Sheriff Joe throws out the ceremonial first ball and stays to meet and greet the rescue community who support his own efforts to save animals.

On January 12, 2008 PACC 911 hosted a fundraising luncheon called Hope for the Animals. Donated hope chests painted by local artists with animal themes were auctioned along with other items. In front of a sell out crowd of 450 guests, Rags to Riches awards were handed out to pets who survived incredible odds. Members of the rescue community also were honored for their devotion to unwanted animals. The event raised almost $200,000 for the EMF.

PACC 911 is a special organization. From 2004-2007, at least 2,500 pets were placed in good homes as a direct result of off-site adoption events. Dr. Rodrigo Silva, director of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, recognizes how PACC 911 augments his efforts to adopt shelter dogs and cats into responsible homes. “PACC adoption events certainly add to what we’re doing.”

To date, the emergency medical fund has paid out over $135,000. Only a handful of other groups like PACC 911 exist across the US. But until all homeless animals are safe in responsible homes, Mears cannot rest. “Without us the animals have no voice. We must speak for them, educate the public about spay/neuter and the horrendous overpopulation that exists.” PACC lives by the philosophy that pets are a lifetime commitment. They are not disposable.

Debra J. White volunteers with Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, AzCats, Gabriel’s Angels and sits on the board of Phoenix Animal Care Coalition.

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