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Story by Carol Bruyere I Photography by Steve Donaldson The Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County is dedicated to providing safe refuge, nourishment and love to homeless animals. 86 | H ARBOR STYLE

Animal Advocates

Carol Bruyere

The Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County is dedicated to providing safe refuge, nourishment and love to homeless animals.

No one wants to see a defenseless animal alone or suffering, especially Charlotte County’s Animal Welfare League. Its mission is to “advocate animal protection and welfare” by providing a temporary safe refuge, nourishment, medical services and lots of love for countless dogs, cats and other animals. Since thousands of creatures are brought in by Charlotte County residents and Animal Control every year, they have a big job.

Founded in 1963 and incorporated in 1964, the AWL is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that wants to alleviate the pain and suffering of homeless or abused animals, nurturing them and encouraging permanent adoption to “help eradicate the need for euthanasia.”

The AWL began as a few local residents who provided care on their own for lost and homeless animals until they found them a new home. As the county population and the number of strays grew, volunteers realized they needed a permanent facility.

The first shelter building was built in 1973 on the AWL’s nearly four-acre property at 3519 Drance Street, off Harborview Road in Port Charlotte. That original building is now used as the shelter’s dedicated intake facility.

In 2008, AWL opened a new 10,000-square-foot shelter and adoption center to accommodate an indoor dog kennel area and cat colonies, plus office spaces for staff, including the executive director, volunteer coordinator and assistant coordinator, operations manager and an on-site, licensed veterinarian. Additional dedicated areas include an educational and conference center, a surgical suite with a surgery prep center, storage rooms, a laundry room, bathing areas and food prep areas. Facilities and equipment were updated and refreshed in 2015. And in June, the shelter held a grand reopening celebration for its gift shop, which offers a selection of new products designed to make your pet’s life perfect – collars, leashes, food, t-shirts, food/water bowls, grooming accessories, GPS tracking devices, calming aids and more.

Currently, a Memorial Garden is being installed on the grounds that will include a walking path, a bridge, stone and wood benches, burial grounds and a mausoleum.

AWL is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, except for the seven major holidays. Staff is on duty every day to care for the animals.

The Animals

All animals are examined and have blood tests to determine if they carry any disease or infestation, which they will be treated for if necessary. Each is spayed or neutered (if they weren’t previously), given required shots and implanted with a microchip identification device. Veterinarian Dr. Luciana Tulcan has been performing those procedures, plus dental, growth or eye removals, bladder stone surgery, heartworm treatments and laser treatments, at AWL for the past eight years.

When Executive Director Sharon Thomas assumed her duties in 2010, she was somewhat shocked to learn there were no volunteers assisting with the daily caretaking duties or fundraising events. Staff was overworked. Things had to change.

Now the animals who find a temporary home at their shelter not only depend on 26 paid staff to manage their care and coordinate special events, fundraisers and multiple special programs, they can look forward to lots of help from more than 100 dedicated volunteers.

“Some of our volunteers are here as many hours as our staff,” Thomas said. “It’s amazing. They give you faith again in humankind.”

The AWL canine division includes an area where dogs are “transitioned” from the intake building to their private kennel spaces. There is a special room devoted to ensuring the safety of puppies and smaller dogs. Spacious, individual kennels house each dog and offer them access to food, water and outdoor areas. Glass-enclosed private spaces provide a place for dogs to heal and recover. Potential adoptive parents can view dogs ready for adoption and meet with them privately to see if it’s the right fit.

Dogs have access to a fenced “play yard” area where staff performs “temperament testing” on active canines. If they get along with others, they are allowed to play with their new “buddies.”

Several indoor and outdoor dog runs allow them to get some exercise, and volunteers and staff walk the dogs twice daily on the grassy grounds.

Last summer, student Lana Cardwell volunteered to walk some of the canine residents three to four times a week. “I loved it!” she exclaimed. “I made lots of friends, both with fur and without. The staff is amazing and the other volunteers make the process exciting and welcoming.” At summer’s end, Cardwell was granted the summer Dog Walking Scholarship, which she considered a true blessing that would help her pay her tuition at University of Florida. “I love the AWL and I love being a part of its family! I cannot express my gratitude enough,” she said.

The Dog Walking Scholarship program has now become an internship opportunity, with revised rules. Applicants can request the updated program rules from info@awlshelter.org, though no further applications will be accepted for the 2017 summer season.

After health clearance, feline rescues are housed in cages within two “cat colony” rooms along the glassenclosed “cat row,” where potential adoptive parents can see them in action. Cats and kittens are allowed to come out of their private cages, climb up some colorful stairs and go outside through a special access tunnel.

AWL will even take in feral cats. And there are a few cages designed for unusual pet rescues, like gerbils or mice.

Volunteers clean kennels and cages and provide food and water for the animals twice daily. Grooming services are provided as needed.

Though the number of animals temporarily housed and cared for at the shelter will vary, in June there were more than 40 dogs. Assistant Volunteer Coordinator Joy Vaught said during the winter months they typically take in more large dogs and in summer more small ones. “Right now,” she said “we have a whole house of small dogs.”

Apparently momma cats were especially prolific in April and May, since the population of cats plus their babies rose from the usual number in the 40s to 76.

Kittens require extra care, as do some adult cats and dogs, especially those recovering from health issues or procedures. Since shelter accommodations are limited, and volunteer and staff workers may be overwhelmed, AWL has a foster care program. Charlotte County residents may offer to provide food and care for an animal (or multiple animals) at their personal residence.

Maggie Peterson, an AWL volunteer for five years, calls herself “a foster failure.” She offered to take in an eight-week-old “active mix” puppy named “Sassy.” Instead of providing temporary sanctuary for Sassy, Peterson “fell in love” with her and became her adoptive parent. “She’s such a treasure!” Peterson exclaimed.

Programs & Events

Aside from adoptions, AWL offers several unique community programs. Since one of its goals is to teach the public about responsible pet ownership, staff and volunteers provide humane education classes, in which young people (preschool through 12th grade) are trained to treat animals appropriately. They learn antibullying behavior that also applies to their friends and classmates. Scout troops and students visit the shelter for a tour and interaction with the animals. Information handouts include fun word games about pet care and pictures of dogs and cats they can color.

Classroom Critters is a program that lets grade school students experience the joys and responsibility of having a pet. Students take turns caring for a classroom pet during the week and can take it home on weekends to care for it. 4-H groups also make a “Critter Program” presentation at Florida SouthWestern State College, where they teach students how to take care of and be kind to animals.

Senior Pets for Senior People offer humans “62 years young” or older a chance to adopt a cat or dog that is seven years old or older for only half the cost of a standard adoption. Volunteer Kathi Papaleo explained that almost everyone wants to adopt a puppy, so older shelter dogs are often overlooked. She fell in love with nine-year-old Milton, a miniature pincher, at an adoption event and couldn’t bear to leave him in a cage at the shelter. So, she adopted him.

“He’s kind of funny looking and only has three teeth, but he bounces around like a three-month-old puppy and says everything with his eyes.”

It is said that caring for a pet is good for an older person’s health, lowering blood pressure, decreasing depression and increasing activity. And older dogs and cats will form a bond with their new parents, knowing that someone they love and trust is nearby.

Papaleo feels this program is a real benefit to both the dogs and to the people. “There’s so many people out there in their 60s, 70s, 80s that have value to the community. If they can share that love with a pet, that’s amazing.”

This energetic senior volunteers at the shelter and really enjoys it. “I absolutely adore the people and the animals at AWL. The staff have hearts of gold…they make sure dogs get basic training and lots of love,” she said.

As part of the Pet Therapy Program, volunteer Kat Stamis and her helpers regularly take therapy dogs to local assisted living facilities, including Brookdale (in both Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda), Royal Palm, Harborview, Vick Manor, Consulate Health, Village Place, The Palms and Douglas T. Jacobson State Veteran’s Nursing Home.

“The lives of the residents…are enhanced a thousand-fold,” Stamis said. “They smile, laugh and become engaged…I’ve noticed a twinkle in their eyes.”

During one visit to a facility, a gentle elderly dog from the shelter insisted on snuggling longer than normal with one bedridden patient and pulled the volunteer back for a second lengthy visit with the same patient. He did not want to leave the man. The following week, staff at the facility informed the volunteer the patient had passed away later that same day.

Thomas told a personal tale of the power of pet therapy. While providing pet therapy in a facility up north, the patient, Millie, started to tell her stories about her childhood pet, Twinkle. When Thomas mentioned the interaction with facility staff, they told her Millie had been a resident for 14 years and had never said a word. “This does make a difference,” Thomas said.

A new addition, the Treasured Pets Program “is designed to help geriatric pets or those with chronic medical conditions such a thyroid issues, diabetes or severe allergies find responsible, loving homes.” Adoption fees are waived, but potential “parents” are carefully screened to make sure they understand the animal’s medical needs and are committed to giving them the best level of care and compassion. If the animal has severe allergies, AWL will supply special food for six months. Arrangements for low-cost food may be made when that time is up. AWL expects to receive updates from the parent and their veterinarian.

AWL believes that opening your heart and your home to an animal is a lifetime commitment. Another new program, We Care, was created to assist owners that have problems keeping a pet to find solutions. Maybe they need a trainer, low-cost medical help, help securing food or finding a pet-friendly rental home. AWL can help, and, if necessary, will advise and assist through the process of relocating the pet.

Another new offering is intended to help low-income or disabled seniors feed their pets. AWL just partnered with Meals on Wheels to deliver donated food, through the generosity of local businesses and animal lovers, so everyone can take care of their animal companions.

As hurricane season approached, AWL even hosted an annual Hurricane Preparedness for Pets in its conference room. Staff and volunteers shared valuable information on pet-friendly hurricane refuge sites and suggestions for what documents, food/water and first aid supplies to include in your Pet Disaster Kit.

They also periodically offer events with reduced-price microchipping, DNA testing and pet photo services.

Many people meet their new animal friends at the AWL shelter, but some may run into them unexpectedly at an introductory event.

Even though she has her own dog to care for now, Peterson continues to help out at AWL, including assisting at AWL’s numerous adoption events, where volunteers hand out information on programs and introduce pets to potential adoptive parents, such as June’s “Dog Days of Summer” at Gettel of Charlotte County, one of several adoption events held at the active AWL supporter’s business throughout the year

Another event volunteer, Lisa Sandusky, is retired and was looking for something to do with her time, so she signed up back in February. “I live around the corner (from AWL), and I love animals.”

Joy Vaught said it’s her third year doing this. Because of her mom’s allergies, they can’t have any animals in their home. “I wanted to come to a place where I could get my fix,” she quipped.

Volunteer Joanie Beley said she’s brought several dogs to adoption events. “I wished I could take them home with me, but I already have two.”

These ladies brought “Bandit” to the “Dog Days of Summer” in hopes of finding him a new home. A seven-year-old Pomeranian Maltese mix with no vocal chords, Bandit had previously been adopted from the shelter but was returned because his “parents” were moving.

“It’s great exposure for the dogs,” Thomas said. “One was adopted at the event.”

Regular adoption events are also hosted at the AWL shelter and local pet supply stores, including Petco, PetSmart and Pet Supermarket in Port Charlotte. “All three have been fantastic with us,” Thomas said.

AWL accepts cash, checks and some credit cards for adoption fees, which cover costs of shots, spay/neuter and microchip procedures, or return-to-owner fees charged when lost pets have needed care at the shelter.

Raising the Funds

All shelter expenses are paid for by generous donations and money raised through numerous fundraising events that the organization hosts throughout the year.

For the Give a Dog a Bone program, money is donated to provide medical care or surgeries that may save a dog’s life or improve quality of life. Donors write their name on a paper bone and post it on a large bone-shaped display in the shelter’s lobby. This program recently paid for a specialized surgical procedure that helped a young dog, Flynn, be able to walk and be adopted.

Pet Sponsorship fees of $25 guarantee you can visit “your” cat or dog during regular shelter hours, get a photo of you and “your” pet, be listed as a pet sponsor in the AWL newsletter and receive a courtesy call when “your” pal is adopted. A large star is displayed on the sponsored pet’s enclosure to draw attention to it.

Volunteer Coordinator Bruce Klemish recently became “a human billboard” for AWL. He grew his hair and beard, then had barber Ray Silva from Easy Clipper shave an image of a dog and cat from the shelter’s logo, plus the letters AWL, into his buzz cut. He attracted more than twice his $500 fundraising goal, mostly through Facebook. AWL’s Operations Manager Aggie Aquila said, “There’s lots of time included in brainstorming, so we can come up with fun ideas.”

Many local individuals and businesses provide sponsorship funds, including healthcare providers, pet care and veterinary clinics, restaurants, realtors, investors, retailers and service providers. A list is available on the AWL website, and local residents are urged to support these generous businesses. In addition, when online purchases are made on Amazon, you can click on the Amazon “Smile” button and select AWL as your charity of choice, and a portion of each sale will then be donated to AWL.

Numerous donors remember AWL in their estate plan via the Loyal Companion Legacy Program or the Charlotte Community Foundation. Gifts can be allocated for general needs, specific donor-requested allocations or invested into an endowment fund with AWL access to earned interest dollars.

“Bark in the Park” started two years ago when the Charlotte Stone Crabs and Charlotte Sports Park invited AWL to a home game to set up an information table and bring some adoptable dogs. It’s now an annual event where spectators can purchase discounted game tickets if they donate items from AWL’s “wish list” of food, care products, supplies or pet toys. Many guests bring their own dogs for what has been called “a doggone good time.”

Upcoming special events include a Quarter for a Cause Auction on August 15; the monthly Gettel Adopt-A-Thon on September 2; the Blessing of the Animals on October 1; AWL’s Lip Sync Showdown on October 8; the AWL (online) Auction from October 16 to 22; and a Useppa Island Trip on November 18. Information on these and additional special events, like the annual Golf Tournament and Yappy Hour, are available on the AWL website, www.awlshelter.org.

All About the Volunteers

On the second and fourth Saturday of each month at 11:45 a.m. AWL holds a volunteer orientation where opportunities are explained and questions answered. Volunteer opportunities and requirements are listed on the website, or you can call (941) 625-6720 for more information.

Joanie Beley lived in Naples for 45 years and volunteered at the Humane Society there. She moved here to be closer to family and became involved with AWL. She’s glad she did. “I’m not paid, but I’m treated like staff,” she said.

“They take good care of the dogs and cats. And the staff is very appreciative of the volunteers,” she added.

Yes, they are. “Thank God for volunteers,” Thomas said. “We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

Volunteers keep track of the number of hours they dedicate to assisting at the shelter or events and are recognized for their service at an annual Volunteer Appreciation Party, scheduled this year for September 24.

“What AWL does…is something to be very proud of,” Aguila said. “It’s giving back and doing something good. We continue to strive to make things better for all.”

Board member Nanette Leonard echoed those sentiments. “We care about so many neglected and abused animals. The organization has the most incredible volunteers and staff. They’re so committed and passionate and so is the board. Everyone works for the higher good.”

AWL has previously been recognized as the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce Nonprofit of the Year and the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce Pinnacle Business of the Year.

“It’s one big family here – the staff, the volunteers – it makes it work,” Thomas said. “It’s a happy place…a happy shelter…a beacon in Charlotte County.”

Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Animal+Advocates/2834585/424397/article.html.

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