No-kill Delaware County SPCA shelter celebrates a year of rescuing animals

Tanya Hopkins waves her arms as she does a magnetic clearing around Jackson, a nearly 15-year-old Jack Russell mix.
Tanya Hopkins waves her arms as she does a magnetic clearing around Jackson, a nearly 15-year-old Jack Russell mix. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2013

Cindy Baker and her Healing Touch team had their reiki-like work cut out for them with Pocahontas.

Down on her luck and at times homeless, she had bounced from shelter to shelter. It was enough to leave anyone a bit depressed and stressed out.

"We're going to make things better for you," Baker promised. "Yes, we are."

Baker and crew got down to therapeutic business, using their hands and minds, they said, to clear out energy blockages and release pain. A whiff of scented oil made Pocahontas sneeze, but before long, relaxation seemed to set in.

"What do you think?" Baker asked the patient.

Her wagging tail spoke volumes.

Pocahontas, a black-and-white pit bull terrier rescued from a Philadelphia animal shelter where she likely would have been put down, is one of the current guests of the reinvented Delaware County SPCA. Winding up its first year as what is called a 'lifesaving' facility where only animals that are incurably ill or severely aggressive are euthanized, the SPCA is a far cry from the shelter that just six years earlier racked up negative headlines for the Whiskers and Keecha debacles, two wrongly killed family felines. Even before that, the Media facility was the target of complaints of mismanagement and inadequate veterinary care.

"I used to call it a prison because that's all it was," said director Richard Matelsky, an administrative veteran of New York's North Shore Animal League, a well-known and well-regarded lifesaving shelter, who was brought in to help turn around the Delaware County facility in mid-2009.

"Right now, if you are an animal in need of a home, it's a good place to be," board president Jo-Ann Zoll said.

Baker and her Healing Touch trainees who volunteer their services are just one of the spa-like innovations. Rescue Remedy, a holistic, flower-based potion used by people to reduce stress, is added to the animals' drinking water. Classical music is played in the kennels and cat room. Aromatherapy provides scent enrichment. Dogs get bedtime treats, and animals are assigned to individual staff members to get that personal touch.

The SPCA's statistics reflect the changes. In 2009, the shelter euthanized 2,325 animals and processed 1,845 adoptions, according to agency spokeswoman Justina Calgiano.

This year, adoptions are at an all-time high - 3,087 as of Friday, just shy of a 3,100 goal. Only 137 animals have been put down, Calgiano said. Instead of one veterinarian, the SPCA employs a full-time vet and four part-timers. Public service and education programs have been instituted.

Better care and more services cost more money, SPCA officials say; in 2012, the agency's budget was $2.2 million, compared with about $1.6 million in 2009.

Not everyone agrees that going no-kill for shelters like the Delaware County SPCA is in the best interest of animals.

"While it sounds great, it is not for most animals. It's good for a select proportion of these animals" fortunate enough to be taken by the no-kill shelters, said Tom Hickey, a member of the state Dog Law Advisory Board and founder of DogPAC, an animal welfare political action committee. "The other animals are on their own."

Municipalities in the county do pick up strays, which are taken to the Chester County SPCA since Delaware County's SPCA went no-kill. Through November, 1,293 Delco strays - 637 dogs and 656 cats - have been taken to the Chester County shelter, which charges $250 per animal, according to Thomas Judge Jr., chairman of the Delaware County Animal Protection Board. The Delco SPCA last charged $116.

However, even though there is somewhere for the towns to take their strays, Hickey said he fears that as the number of no-kill shelters grows, more animals will wind up on the streets.

Matelsky defended his shelter's policies.

"We are helping more animals now instead of killing them," he said.

The SPCA does take in animals it considers adoptable, but he said it also takes the harder to place, such as senior animals or those with health problems.

On the day Pocahontas got the Healing Touch treatment, the practitioners also worked on Jackson, a nearly 15-year-old Jack Russell mix who had been at the shelter six months, the longest of any dog there.

"He's very discouraged and frustrated," said Cindy Baker, after giving him an energy read.

But a few weeks later, Ivan Hicks, a bank vice president and photographer from Upper Darby, came looking for a dog to give his three daughters for Christmas. They met Jackson and fell in love.

Now at night, Jackson has his pick of girls' beds to sleep in.

"My oldest daughter calls him T.I., like the rapper, because he's so short, but he's got all this attitude and chutzpah and charisma," Hicks said.

The other day on a stroll, Jackson tried to pick a quarrel with a Rottweiler, Hicks said, chuckling. They go for runs together, and the little old guy keeps up fine.

He has a cough; his trachea may have been damaged by somebody yanking too hard on his leash. His new owner finds it hard to imagine who could have done such a thing:

"He's an awesome little dog."

For more information about Delaware County SPCA services or adoptions, call 610-566-1370 or visit delcospca.org.


Contact Rita Giordano at 609-2127-8357, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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