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Party provides a doggone good time as rescued dogs, cats are featured guests

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One of the cheerier New Year's Eve parties in Pittsburgh had to be the one that began yesterday at 11 a.m. at 2643 Penn Ave. in the Strip District. Despite the cramped quarters, there were food, nonalcoholic beverages and lots of laughter.

Lots of howling, baying and mewing, too.

As part of his treatment at Animal Friends, Tango, a stray found in North Strabane, Washington County, gets a microchip implanted in his back for future identification. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

That's because this party's guest list included not only about two dozen men, women and children but Sweetums, Miss Piggy, Two Step, Waltz and any number of dogs and cats who had been rescued that morning from certain death by euthanasia.

"This is the feel-good event of the year," declared Shirl Ransley, as she munched on an iced doughnut during a break from steering animals -- on leashes and in cages -- through the narrow front hallway of the Animal Friends headquarters on their way to be checked, bathed, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and fitted with a microchip for future identification. Then, if all goes well, they'll be placed with loving familes.

"This always makes you feel wonderful because these animals weren't going to be alive this time tomorrow," added Ransley, a volunteer who had driven from her home in the North Hills to help out.

This is the fifth year that Animal Friends, which bills itself as the only "no-kill" shelter in the region, has embarked on a "New Year's Rescue" of animals slated to be euthanized at various animal control facilities. While such rescues are ongoing -- Animal Friends picks up about four to five such animals a week -- they decided that an annual New Year's Eve event was a good way to publicize the availability of the animals.

Last year, the organization rescued 26 dogs and seven cats from local pounds during its New Year's Rescue and placed them for adoption. This year, the number will be closer to 50, said the shelter's director, David Swisher.

That's still only a drop in the bucket -- about 15,000 animals were euthanized in Allegheny County last year by various animal control facilities and shelters deluged with abandoned pets and no families who will take them.

Some progress is being made in reducing those numbers, however. Animal Friends saved 1,600 animals from euthanasia during the year 2000, and was able to save 2,000 animals in 2001, Swisher said, thanks to increased cooperation with such organizations as Triangle Animal Control in McKees Rocks, Animal Rescue League in East Liberty -- which is trying to become a "no-kill" shelter by 2005 -- and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Side.

While some are unable to live in a domestic setting, Swisher said, many are companion animals in need of nothing more than a good home. Indeed, there were a number of gentle-looking creatures peering through cages or scampering along floors yesterday. Miss Piggy, a healthy, young basset hound, barked a greeting to visitors while Janice, a shy collie, ducked her head. Two Step, a beagle, nuzzled a volunteer's hand as she was led to her medical exam.

"What we're trying to get across to people is how many placeable animals are being euthanized across the region," Swisher said. Many of the animals that are picked up have been allowed to run wild, or are neglected, or are let loose because their owners have simply tired of them.

"So many people believe these are throwaway items, when in fact owning a pet is a lifetime commitment," said Swisher, noting that Animal Friends will not, for example, allow any adoption of its pets around the holidays, when animals are presented as gifts during a hectic time of year, and sometimes go to people who don't really want them.

Animal Friends finds adoptive families by advertising and word of mouth, although one new "outreach" option being discussed is a Web site with photos and descriptions of dogs that are available, although that's still in the talking stages, he said.

As it is, Pennsylvania law doesn't make it easy on owners searching for lost animals. Control facilities who pick up stray dogs and cats only have to keep them for 48 hours before killing them. And in many places, there are no outreach or adoption services available.

While the burden is on the owner to find the animal, many just don't bother.

Indeed, that carelessness continued to puzzle some of the animal lovers who gathered at Animal Friends yesterday. Many were volunteers who have come for years to help care for and exercise the strays.

"I'll walk these dogs 'til I'm beat," declared Sara Kiesler of Shadyside, who said she's come once a week for 11 years.

Ransley, who's been coming for eight years, recalled a case last year when television cameras captured volunteers bathing a dog, a boxer, after the New Year's rescue. When the newscast aired, the dog's owner called up to claim him.

It was a happy reunion, but Ransley still couldn't understand why the owner hadn't bothered to look for the dog before then.

"Why didn't the owner make sure the dog had proper tags on before letting him out loose?" she wondered.

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