NFAWL group brings change to town shelter

03/15/2014 8:00 AM |

After Chipper, a 10-year-old border collie, was found in downtown Riverhead, a North Fork Animal Welfare League volunteer made him a wheelchair. He’s with kennel attendant Tammy Henderson on shelter grounds last Friday morning, before Chipper was flown to his new home in Illinois. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch photo)

Not too long ago people talked more about conditions at the Riverhead Town Animal Shelter than about the dogs there who were up for adoption.

But ever since the nonprofit North Fork Animal Welfare League took charge at the Calverton shelter, contracting with the town through 2015, a lot more volunteers can be seen walking the dogs along Youngs Avenue. 

March 1 marked one full year since the nonprofit, which has run Southold Town’s shelter since 1980, took the helm at Riverhead’s facility.

Gillian Wood Pultz, NFAWL’s executive director, said that while there is still “so much more to do” to provide a decent facility for man’s best friend, the organization is focusing on the dogs’ health and well-being, the building’s ambiance and the community’s perception of the shelter in an effort to get more animals into “forever homes.”

Last year the shelter was managed by a single full-time worker, and union constraints limited the number of volunteers allowed, according to previous News-Review reports.

“Some of the dogs were getting physically sick because of the stresses of the old shelter,” Ms. Pultz said, adding that the town was “doing the best they could as a municipality.”

Now, four full-time and two part-time workers prepare peanut butter bones, take the dogs outside for play and promote the animals on the NFAWL website and through social media, helping to improve their chances for adoption.

While under 10 volunteers were on the books before NFAWL took the helm, that number has skyrocketed to 60 people who have filled out paperwork to become a volunteer.

“It feels like magic happened,” Ms. Pultz said. “Everybody who walks through the door says it just feels completely different.”

After sanitizing, painting and adding a number of outside play pens at the shelter, Ms. Pultz said community interest has definitely increased.

“We have volunteers coming every single day,” she said. “It is amazing what a difference a positive appearance has made toward changing the perception about the shelter.”

The shelter houses 20 to 25 dogs — all with different temperaments, eating habits and training possibilities, Ms. Pultz said.

NFAWL hired trainer Gina Rizzo, who had volunteered at the shelter before the changeover, to work with each of them daily.

The animals are dressed in harnesses and winter coats before going out for walks or runs with Ms. Rizzo, who bikes alongside them.

She also works with volunteers on specific training and socialization plans for each dog to improve their chances of adoption.

“Each dog spends the majority of its days in the fresh air,” Ms. Pultz said. “We got permission from the Town of Riverhead to use the more than 70 acres of open space [at the capped landfill] across the street for dog walking.”

In the past year, 63 dogs have been adopted, along with many more at Kent Animal Shelter, also in Calverton. The shelters work together to get as many animals as possible into homes, she said.

The Riverhead Town Animal Shelter. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

One of their success stories involved Buddy, a previously adopted German Shepherd-mix who was returned to the shelter when his owner became homeless and unable to care for him. When Buddy came back, Ms. Pultz said, “he wasn’t doing very well. He was one of those dogs we weren’t really sure we would be able to get adopted.” But Ms. Rizzo, along with other employees and volunteers, devoted extra time to helping Buddy. Today, according to Ms. Rizzo, Buddy is the prized pet of a little boy in Riverhead.

In December, a dog with paralyzed rear legs was found in downtown Riverhead and brought to the shelter. But it wasn’t long before a volunteer came to his rescue.

Scott Kessler, a NFAWL volunteer, modified a rolling cart that allowed Chipper, a 10-year-old border collie, to move around using the strength of his front legs.

Just last weekend, the organization found a new home for Chipper at an Illinois nonprofit that specializes in exotic animals, many of whom are injured. One of the organization’s founders expressed hopes of involving Chipper in a hospital therapy program, partnering him with a paralyzed kangaroo named Mr. Jingles, who is confined to a wheelchair.

Chipper and Mr. Jingles will visit patients at nearby hospitals and nursing homes who face similar medical situations or who just need companionship.

“Putting the dogs first makes a huge difference in [the volunteers’] lives. Everything we do is to help them find their forever homes,” Ms. Rizzo said.

As for Riverhead’s homeless felines, in February NFAWL also assumed management of Petco’s cat adoption center on Route 58 in February, joining forces with Spay, Alter, Vaccinate Every Stray — better known as SAVES.

Riverhead Town signed a three-year contract with NFAWL in December 2012, agreeing to pay the organization $223,135 for the first year, with 2 percent bumps for subsequent years, Supervisor Sean Walter said in prior interviews.

“I am so happy; it has been such an absolute pleasure working with NFAWL,” Mr. Walter said. “You can’t even portray my enthusiasm accurately in the newspaper. They have been responsive to our needs and the animal activist groups have been pleased.”

Looking ahead, the nonprofit is working closely with Riverhead resident Denise Lucas, who is raising funds to relocate the shelter to the Henry Pfeifer Community Center on Grumman Boulevard in Calverton.

Supervisor Walter said he is “expecting even better things when we combine Move The Animal Shelter with NFAWL. The sky is the limit.”

cmiller@timesreview.com