Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause
Nancy King spent 23 years in the film industry, traveling the nation and the world to set up and manage movie locations, which included being the staff contact with the Humane Society on productions that involved animals.
“I had cats, they would go with me wherever I went,” she says. “The only place I couldn’t take them with me was New Zealand, which was unfortunate, but I kind of adopted one there. It was a natural segue into Pets Lifeline.”
You could call her a Crazy Cat Lady, but only professionally, because these days, as executive director of Pets Lifeline, King is surrounded by cats—up to 75 at a time (under the limits of a new county use permit) along with 20 dogs. And still, the Valley’s only animal shelter is, at times, bursting at the seams.
Which is why King’s one request for Christmas was $1.4 million, the balance needed to complete a $3.4 million capital campaign that will pay for a new, state-of-the-art Animal Resource Center, built onsite to replace the aging, antiquated and cluttered collection of buildings, trailers and sheds.
The ambitious project underscores a need that is often unseen by the general public and routinely overlooked in the face of pressing human service priorities.
But the fact remains the Sonoma Valley has a large and growing, non-human subculture of four-legged beings in critical need of care, medical attention, nurturing and permanent placement. Every year Pets Lifeline takes in more than 500 stray and abandoned dogs and cats needing medical care and adoption services. Another 375 animals a year are provided free spay and neuter services for families in need, the only such service in the county.
A critical part of the facility’s animal care equation is Pets Lifeline’s status as what is called a “limited capacity, no-kill shelter.” That means animals are never condemned to what is euphemistically called “euthanasia,” a waning tradition among animal shelters confronting over-capacity.
Put simply, PLL does not kill animals, except for extreme medical necessity. Which means that when the shelter’s capacity is reached, a large number of trained foster “parents” take dogs and cats home to foster until a permanent placement is found.
During the height of kitten season each summer, King says there can be as many as 135 felines in custody, with perhaps 60 in foster care. “The cat room will be full of kittens, the hallway’s filled with kittens, every available space has a kitten.”
Criteria for becoming a foster pet parent vary by circumstance. “We have a whole program,” says King. “People submit their application, our dog liaison will talk to them about how many hours they’re home, what kind of fencing they have, how many other dogs they have. There’s a variety of different fosters we use and every dog that goes out on foster; if there are other dogs in the home, they have to meet first. They can foster for an afternoon, a weekend or weeks at a time. It depends on the time that the people have available. So we try to make it as broad as possible to have the best possible outcome. Any time that a dog can spend out of the shelter is incredibly valuable. We don’t have the opportunity to see what they are like in a home, and we have found that the dog that we see here is a totally different dog in a home. So it’s really quite amazing the information we get.”
Add up the number of animals cared for by Pets Lifeline since its founding in 1982 and the statistics are staggering. “We’ve taken in nearly 19,000 animals,” says King, including more than 3,000 that were reunited with their owners and 12,500 that were placed in permanent homes. “We have,” says King, “what is called the 98 percent release rate. We keep the animals until we find homes for them.”
But care and placement are only two parts of a comprehensive shelter program. Every animal intake is assessed and treated not just for physical condition but for emotional health, socialization and behavioral issues as well. Neglect and abuse are not uncommon in strays, and PLL has a cadre of about 40 volunteer canine handlers. “They go through a pretty extensive training to identify behaviors in dogs,” King explains. “Body language, things like that. So, because we don’t usually know anything about the strays that come in and what their personalities are, we do an evaluation and an assessment and then Annie, our behaviorist, will give recommendations of the kinds of things that they need to be working on.
“So the handlers come in and, in addition to just taking them out and giving them exercise and giving them attention and love, they’ll work on those specific things. And we have this communication outlet online through Google where, every time somebody walks a dog, they do a little report of what they witness so that everyone can see as days go by what things have changed in the dog, what things trigger the dog to be frightened. They’re like clinical notes, and we talk about it all the time.”
The average length of stay for dogs is about 60 days, King says, about three weeks for kittens and maybe a month for older cats.
“We are surprised sometimes when an animal will get adopted right away,” says King, “and then somebody who we think would not spend time in the shelter ends up here for a while. It’s kind of random.”
Kevin Schuh, a marketing executive who chairs the Pets Lifeline board, applauds the extra dimensions of the organization’s care. “To me it’s way different than an animal shelter that just holds animals until someone comes to pick them up. They actually work with the dogs here to get them to a different level. Most city shelters don’t do that. If the animal doesn’t work they’ll just move on.”
A wide array of services are also offered for the public at large, including dog training and a humane education program that is now taught in every school in the district. Founded and led by veteran teacher Mary Green, the humane education program includes classroom visits, a summer camp for kids aged 7 to 12, and Kids Speak for Pets, which introduces humane education concepts to elementary school students.
Broadly speaking, the program encompasses ethics, animal protection, human rights, social justice, citizenship and character development while helping students develop a sense of responsibility, stewardship and self-esteem.
Other services provided by Pets Lifeline include a low-cost microchip program; a lost-and-found service; a trap-neuter-release feral cat program; a mobile emergency shelter and other emergency services. And it’s worth remembering, that Pets Lifeline is, perhaps fundamentally, a place for beasts and children, with annual summer camps and ample opportunity for junior volunteers.
To the surprise of most Valley residents, none of this is paid for by government funding. The shelter’s annual budget of some $950,000 is all raised privately.
“We’re the red-headed stepchild of the county,” says Nancy. “Because, Pets Lifeline’s been here since the mid-’80s, people are just used to seeing us. They don’t really know exactly what we do, they just assume we might be a municipal or county-run facility. All they know is that, if they find a dog or a cat, they bring it to Pets Lifeline. And if they’ve lost a dog or cat, they call Pets Lifeline.”
After a modest refresh and the addition of two donated trailers in 2003, Pets Lifeline has been struggling to stay ahead of the demand for space and services. So, after several years of research, discussion and consultation with other shelters, animal wellness experts, architects, contractors, donors and members of the community, the organization’s board concluded a new facility, built on the existing footprint was essential to continue meeting the Valley’s animal shelter needs.
Santa Rosa architect Henry Wix was brought in to design a two-story, environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient facility of close to 11,000 square feet. Its features include rooftop solar panels; a rainwater harvest system with an emergency potable water supply; a vermiculture system to process kennel waste through four levels of microbial bacteria to result in worm food, resulting in worm castings that can be used as fertilizer; a propane-powered generator system; drought-resistant landscaping; a high-pressure Spraymaster washing system to clean kennels with minimal water and labor cost and increased cleanliness.
The new building will feature kennel capacity for 20 dogs (instead of 13), with indoor-outdoor connected kennels and an outdoor dog adoption garden; two meet-and-greet rooms and an adoptee interview conference room, where now there is just a cramped hallway; indoor classrooms with attached courtyard; eight community cat rooms (instead of two); 20 cage intake rooms (instead of 14; a dedicated feral room; a 1,375-square foot veterinary clinic (compared to 160 square feet today; expanded dog run and play area; an indoor-outdoor cat patio (called a “catio”); and a multipurpose room that will convert into a temporary emergency shelter for up to 75 people and their pets.
In the wake of the 2017 wildfires, and as the Valley’s only emergency animal shelter, Pets Lifeline will have a dramatically enhanced capability of serving both human and animal refugees.
It’s an ambitious project and the organization’s board has high hopes construction can start in 2019.
Schuh says it’s all worth it. “I just think animals, dogs and cats, provide unconditional love to humans and there’s nobody who can speak for them, so that’s our job. That’s why I’m so passionate about this, and the programs we do here go beyond just taking care of the animals. They include education of the community and children, and really making the world a better place for animals and for us. That’s why I love it so much.”
Monica Dashwood, a former board president and now chair of strategic planning for the capital campaign, says she grew up with, “seven cats, three dogs, horses, ducks, geese and snakes. It was a little Doctor Doolittle situation. There’s a great line from the Carpenters song, “Bless the beasts and the children/For in this world, they have no voice, they have no choice…” I think, probably more than anything, that is the reason we do the work we do at Pets Lifeline.”
For more information about Pets Lifeline, or to inquire about supporting the capital campaign, go to petslifeline.org, call 707.996.4577, or visit at 19686 Eighth Street East, Sonoma.