Thursday, January 15, 2015

'Our pay is puppy kisses,' says Weigel

Here is a feature story I wrote for the newspaper that could not be printed due to lack of space and the low priority set on it by the fact that the subject of the story had been written about more than once in the last handful of years. Oh, well. I thought it was a good story, so may it live on here!
Carol Sue Weigel accepts a puppy kiss from Thor, a three month old Labrador-shepherd mix, Tuesday, Dec. 30 at the Stover Animal Shelter. Thor’s adoptive family returned him for a refund due to sickness. “He’s fine now,” said Weigel.
Many people may not know it, but Osage Valley Animal Rescue, Inc., of Stover - also known as the Stover Animal Shelter - is the only organization in Morgan County that finds homes for abused, neglected, abandoned and stray animals.

Its closest colleague is the STAFF Animal Shelter in Sunrise Beach, across the Camden County line. There was an Animal Orphanage in Versailles, but it went out of business.

Carol Sue Weigel, director and president of the board at the Stover shelter, said as of Wednesday, Dec. 31, her organization had placed 2,100 animals in either adoptive homes or shelters in bigger cities where they stood a better chance of being adopted.

She related the story of a coon hound whose new owner didn’t think he could hunt since he had been neutered. “Try him and if he doesn’t work out, we’ll give you a refund,” Weigel told him. The owner tried the dog out at a treeing contest, and he won.

“Of course he won,” Weigel laughed. “He didn’t have anything else on his mind!”

Weigel grew up on a farm surrounded by hounds and horses. Her father, Clarence Burkee, was an auctioneer at the sale barn in Versailles, and he kept fox hounds.

This may explain Weigel’s close connection with animals. At age 76 she still counts hunting, fishing, and handling animals among her hobbies.

She continued to ride horses until a few years ago. 2014 was the first time in 51 years she didn’t go deer hunting. Her last kill, two years ago, was a 10 point buck.

As for her own pets, she said, “I’m down to three dogs and one cat.”

Those are besides the two rooms of puppies and kittens she cares for at the shelter, plus the large basement kennel for smaller dogs, plus the shaded outdoor pen for larger dogs, all nestled beneath a thrift shop off Highway 52 at the west end of Stover.

Folks as close as Versailles may not know it’s there. But people regularly travel from Kansas City and St. Louis to adopt pets there. Many of them find their future furry friends through photos and descriptions posted on petfinder.com, a nationwide animal adoption website.

“I’ve had people drive here from Minnesota for adoptions,” said Weigel. “I’ve had them drive from Chicago. I’ve had them drive from Tulsa, Okla.”

A map in the thrift shop upstairs bristles with pushpins showing places where animals have gone from the Stover shelter. When last checked there were pushpins in 38 states, plus two in Canada.

Many of the adoptions have been local, but an important part of the shelter’s mission has been to move as many pets as possible to rescue groups that can put them on a faster track for adoption.

“Some dogs have been here as long as two years,” said Weigel.

They come to the shelter in a variety of ways.

Some animals are left on the shelter’s doorstep. Others are found abandoned in the country and brought in by concerned residents, or caught running wild by law enforcement. Many feral kittens have been collected from live traps. And occasionally a pet owner dies and leaves the animals behind.

Then there are the sad cases when a family can’t, or won’t, care properly for their pets. Weigel said she has been to court to testify against people whose abused and neglected animals she helped.

Weigel and her coworkers take the animals in, bathe them, give them flea tablets and vaccine shots, worm them, and have them spayed or neutered. Sick animals also get treated by a vet.

Beyond that, it’s amazing what regular food, water, and cleaning of the pen can do for the health and happiness of a pet.

One of Weigel’s favorite success stories featured an abandoned Chihuahua named Miracle - actually the name on her vaccination tags when she was rescued. The name became more appropriate afterward.

Miracle’s hind legs had been amputated due to a birth defect. When she was rescued, neglect had left her flea infested, and her leg stumps had open wounds.

By the time Miracle was adopted on Christmas Eve 2012, Weigel said, “She turned into the most loving little dog you ever wanted to see.”

The dog’s forever friend, Patricia Kirscht of Ford City, Pa., fitted Miracle with wheels to replace her hind legs. Miracle went on to become a therapy dog spreading affection and cheer to patients at Armstrong County Memorial Hospital in Kittanning, Pa.

Finding homes and rescues to house the animals is a big part of the shelter’s mission.

“Thank God for Katie and Jennifer,” Weigel said, speaking of two women in the Kansas City area who spend a lot of time arranging to move dogs to rescue groups such as Secondhand Hounds in Minnesota.

Another organization called Care Transport provides a connection between Kansas City and Denver, Colo. Many dogs from Stover have been placed in Colorado rescues over the years.

Some rescue groups specialize in finding homes for particular breeds. For example, there are rescues catering to basset hounds, retrievers, Labradors, and border collies.

Some of these rescues rely on families to foster animals awaiting adoption. Now and then, a foster animal becomes a permanent pet. Weigel said this is happening right now with a Wyoming woman, who had fostered a former Stover dog on behalf of a rescue group in Colorado.

Even with the help of other groups and concerned individuals, caring for so many animals costs a lot of money and manpower. How have Weigel and the shelter’s other friends kept it going these last eight years?

“The biggest helps,” Weigel said, “have been donations from generous animal lovers, and good volunteers.”

As a 501-c3 non-profit organization, the shelter does not have to pay taxes, and major donations and estate endowments can be claimed as tax deductions.

Weigel opened her pocketbook and showed some of the donation checks received over the past week. One came from a couple in Lee’s Summit. Another came from an organization in Tucson, Ariz. that had adopted one of the shelter’s dogs. Then there was a check from a couple in Smithton.

Adoption fees bring in a little income, but $95 is cheap compared to the $150 or more some shelters charge. It’s even cheaper considering it includes the cost of spaying or neutering the animal, or at least a voucher for part of the cost of the procedure if the animal is too young to be fixed when adopted.

When dogs are given up for adoption, or shipped from other towns without rescues of their own, the shelter asks for a donation, though it isn’t mandatory.

The shelter has a contract with the City of Stover to handle strays the police pick up. It has also taken more than 200 dogs from the Versailles city pound.

The shelter is also partly supported by the thrift shop upstairs.

Aside from that, keeping the shelter solvent is largely a matter of cost control.

“We’re an all volunteer group,” Weigel explained. “Our pay is puppy kisses.”

The dedication of the shelter’s board and volunteer staff give her hope the shelter will continue even when she can’t be there.

When Weigel slipped and broke her hip in December 2013, she worried what would happen to the shelter while she was laid up. But Elaine Jones, the thrift shop clerk, came to the rescue.

“She stepped right in and was a big help,” said Weigel. “I don’t know what we’d have done without her.”

Another hopeful sign, she said, is that the shelter has a good board of directors. Besides Elaine and herself, the members include Rick Everhart, Doug Catliff, and Barb Ulmer.

“They’re all animal lovers,” said Weigel.

It also helps that the Warsaw Veterinary Clinic gives them a price break on spay-neuter services. Other organizations they work with, such as Care Transport, offer their services for a donation as small as $10.

Even the building that houses the thrift shop was a freebie. Built in two sections in 1968 and 1986, it served as the Scrivner-Morrow Funeral Home until the owners decided to demolish it and rebuild.

Weigel said she discussed it with Honey Scrivner and Doug and Jamie Morrow, and they offered to donate the building if she could have it moved before the demolition date.

With the help of a Foristell company called Expert House Movers, the building was moved in July 2009 to its present site at 709 West Fourth Street. At first it was propped up on stilts while the basement under it was dug and poured.

After a few adjustments to make it all fit together, the thrift shop opened in the old funeral parlor. Meantime the downstairs area was furnished with a raised tub for bathing animals, an office and supply room, and roomy cages and pens for the dogs and cats.

A rack on the wall displays a a wide variety of collars, harnesses and leashes for adopting families to take home with their new pet.

Among the striking pets awaiting adoption Tuesday, Dec. 30 were a Maine coon-Siamese mix cat and a basset hound-cocker spaniel mix dog.

Adoptions are for life. Families thinking about adopting a pet should think seriously about the responsibility before making the commitment.

There is a two week guarantee on adoptions. “If it doesn’t work you, you get your money back,” said Weigel.

But she also said she would think twice about letting a family adopt again after it returned an unwanted animal.

Rescued dogs and cats must be spayed or neutered by state law. Pets under six months old may be adopted though they are too young to be fixed. The voucher they come with is an incentive to have the procedure done when the time is right.

The Stover shelter opened in January 2006, one month after the Warsaw Animal Shelter closed its doors, because Weigel saw a need for another animal shelter in the area.

Even then, she said, “We knew the Versailles shelter was in trouble.”

Now the county’s only licensed rescue organization, it takes in animals from surrounding counties as well.

Staffed by volunteers, supported by donations, the Stover shelter has nonetheless kept its lights on for eight years. It’s labor intensive, but those who know say it’s worthwhile.

“It’s the joy you see in the people’s faces,” said Jones, “and the little animal as they go out the door together.

“Their tails are wagging, and even though they’ve never seen this person before, they know instantly: this is their person.”

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