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May 12, 2017; Chicago Tribune

When it comes to the no-kill ethos, at its heart is the concept that saving the healthy or treatable animals entering a shelter is a worthy community endeavor. Defining “healthy,” i.e., adoptable, has always been relatively straightforward. The word “treatable,” however, can be a moving target, relying on the resources of the specific shelter. A puppy surrendered with canine parvovirus that could be treated by an onsite medical team and streamlined into a quarantined care situation at one shelter could bust the budget of a smaller shelter relying on private veterinary care.

What makes the difference is shelter medicine, a field of veterinary medicine dedicated to the care of homeless animals in shelters or other facilities with the goal of finding them new homes. Where private practice veterinarians focus mainly on the health of individual animals with owners, shelter veterinarians provide a unique blend of individual and population-level care for homeless animals, including a strong focus on physical and behavioral wellness. Not only is training in shelter medicine gaining in popularity in veterinary schools, it’s at the heart of the next big leap in shelter care.

PAWS Chicago was founded by a mother-daughter duo, Paula and Alexis Fasseas. Alexis was in high school 20 years ago when she dedicated her 25 hours of required community service to volunteer at a Chicago shelter for homeless pets. To her surprise, shelters in Chicago, and across the country at that time, practiced a herd mentality when it came to animal management and care. Animals that were sick, had complicated injuries, needed immediate treatment, or were too old were quickly removed and euthanized.

Alexis didn’t like what she saw, and she was not alone. At that time, only about 24 percent of animals entering shelters were released (adopted or reclaimed by an owner) alive. Finding her home quickly filling up with homeless cats from the shelter where her daughter was volunteering, Alexis’s mother, Paula, sought community solutions to an obvious pet overpopulation in Chicago. What started as a labor of love and the knowledge that animals and the humans who love them deserved better has turned into a thriving animal shelter at the heart of the city’s dramatic decline in euthanasia of unwanted pets, PAWS Chicago.

In 1997, the year PAWS opened its doors, 42,561 homeless pets were put down in Chicago. That number had dropped to 8,682 in 2015. After opening their doors in the late ’90s, PAWS quietly blazed the trail for cage-free adoption centers, a no-kill model, adoption events involving tony Michigan Ave shops, and aggressive spay/neuter campaigns in areas of the city where they were most needed. Now, they are setting their sights on expanding their clinic, allowing the mother-daughter duo to redefine what “adoptable” means by helping some of the hardest of the hard-luck cases to land in Chicago shelters.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the total cost of the expansion project is $6 million. It is financed in part by a $2.5 million grant from Maddie’s Fund, a California-based animal welfare organization. PAWS is raising the rest of the money for the project, which is expected to begin this fall and take about a year to complete.—Carrie Collins-Fadell