The plaintive expressions on the tenants’ faces haven’t changed. With only rare exceptions, they all implore a visitor to open the crate, reach in and take them home, to where the people live.
Incorporated on Aug. 17, 1979, the Naperville Area Humane Society will mark its 35th anniversary later this year. Homed in from day one on meeting the needs of homeless cats and dogs, the agency continues to put that mission first. But now it also attends to the needs of humans, offering student internships during school breaks, “Paws for Tales” animal-enhanced reading opportunities in schools, and other programming that support the ultimate goal of animal care for all.
“Over the years, this component of services for the community has really expanded,” said Angie Wood, the nonprofit’s executive director and a 16-year employee. “I think there’s been a focus more on people … kind of cultivating that human-animal bond, which is key to our mission.”
Wood has helped sharpen that focus, establishing after-school and summer programs for young animal lovers and expanding education programs and tours of the shelter in her early years on the staff. She began as the humane education manager and then worked as director of operations before being promoted to the agency’s top job in 2011.
Today, the shelter cares for 750 to 800 animals each year while they await families prepared to give them permanent homes. The Diehl Road facility has capacity for up to 25 dogs and 60 cats, and there is a seasonal flow to the demand for space. These days, when cats typically bring forth fresh litters of kittens, shelter staff are preparing for the newborn felines to be ready to adopt in a few weeks — a time of year known in the industry as “cat season.”
A thriving foster program helps ease the load, with volunteer families giving dogs and cats interim shelter until they’re chosen for adoption. Fostering picks up notably during the summer months.
“It’s all about that personal connection,” Wood said.
Her own family connected with border collie Lucy, who went into foster care after she and her brother were brought to the shelter, and took her home to Plainfield.
The priceless people-pet bond is something founder Ardis McCallion recognized back in 1979. Wood related in a 2012 column in The Sun that McCallion was compelled to act after seeing strays being hauled off to the city pound in the trunks of police squad cars. The organization’s beginnings from there were humble, but filled with resolve.
“She rallied a group of friends, and they all started sheltering homeless pets of all kinds in their homes while finding adopters,” Wood wrote. “After almost a decade, they were finally able to raise enough money to build a shelter, our home on Diehl Road.”
In more recent years, since the economic downturn began, there have been numerous published reports of families having to relinquish their pets because of the cost of caring for them. Wood sees that difficult choice as a last resort when families call to say they are struggling with the expense.
“We try to have a conversation with them about what they’re having trouble with,” she said. “Is it food? Is it pet care?”
When possible, the society provides the necessary referrals or resources to enable the dog or cat to remain with its family.
Partnering for pets
The agency is no stranger to budget limitations. Aside from the occasional grant — such as the one from the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that helped provide 14 “cat condos” not long ago — the NAHS relies on private donors, some of whom give on an annual basis.
“That’s how we exist, through these private donations,” Wood said.
Also helpful are the donations of supplies, often prompted by the sign out front that specifies what items are particularly needed at the moment. There are limits to what can be covered by the nonprofit’s relatively modest yearly budget. It currently runs about $571,000, but is subject to the realities of inflation.
“There’s a certain little increase each year,” Wood said.
Partnerships help the shelter do more, fueled in part by a growing awareness of the volume of homeless pets nationwide. The NAHS takes in pets that are picked up by Naperville’s animal control workers if they remain in city custody for an extensive period without being claimed, and tries to find them new homes. The agency also counts organizations in Oklahoma, Indiana and southern Illinois among its rescue partners.
“Because of the great desire of folks and passion to help animals, there’s a lot more foster groups out there that are pulling animals out of high-euthanizing areas,” she said, adding that the organizations work collaboratively to support the goal of matching animal with family. “Ultimately we want them to adopt a pet, versus visiting a pet store.”
More information can be found at napervillehumanesociety.org.