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Where Cats and People Meet

Humane Society of Fairfax County offers alternative to adopting animals from county shelter.

The building that houses the Humane Society of Fairfax County (HSFC) looks more like a home then a shelter for animals, which is exactly what Vicki Kirby, president of the HSFC, was going for.

"Some people say the animals have it so good here they’re never going to want to leave," Kirby said.

The two-story building is home to the cats and rabbits ready to be adopted. The volunteers and office staff have taken a special attachment to these animals, especially the "office cat" named Merry. Merry, named as such because she was brought in around Christmas time, has medical and behavior issues that will guarantee she won’t be adopted. She is usually seen lounging around the office on chairs or under tables. Kirby, and others, have turned Merry into the guideline for adopting the other animals. "If you’re in with Merry, then you’re probably a good candidate to adopt any animal here," Kirby said.

The HSFC keeps each animal they receive until they are adopted or pass away.

"Our main goal is to give an animal a good home," Kirby said.

The HSFC also has a large farm in Centreville where construction is taking place to improve conditions for the dogs, horses, reptiles and other animals that reside there.

The Humane Society, created in 1968, moved into the building on Chain Bridge Road in 1995. It was formed as a non-profit organization whose mission is to rescue and protect domestic and wild animals from abuse, neglect and cruelty. The society thrives on donations, volunteers and the two thrift stores, one in the basement of the building on Chain Bridge Road, and the second, much larger, in Falls Church.

"We take anything from clothing to furniture," Kirby said. "We don’t take anything made of fur though, and it’s getting harder to tell what’s real and what’s fake."

The HSFC split with the animal shelter in 1968 but has since continued to support the shelter and take animals from them when they are overloaded.

Along with the shelter, animals are brought to the Humane Society from families who can no longer care for their pets.

Volunteers come — many of them students from George Mason University — to sit and play with the animals. "Some GMU students sit in the rooms and do their homework," Kirby said. "The cats just like to be sat with."

Volunteers work with the animals, especially the ones who have difficulty interacting with people. "Some animals won’t come out until they really know you," Kirby said. Many times the volunteers end up adopting certain animals because they become so attached.

Jaci Balancia, a "cat socializer," has been volunteering at the Humane Society since June and previously adopted a kitten from the organization.

"I’ve been working with animals my whole life," she said. "If you work with the cats, their personality comes out. You have to be patient with them, they have limitations just like you and me."

Kirby has been a volunteer at the society for 30 years. "I love it, and I’m fortunate enough that I can do it," she said.

As president of the Humane Society, Kirby’s office is in the center of a cat and rabbit haven. Each door in the building, marked with the animal’s name, description, date of birth and picture, leads to a room of cats or rabbits.

"The idea here is to have no animal in a cage all the time," Kirby said.

Melissa Mackey, office manager, has been working at the HSFC since April. Mackey, a self-proclaimed "dog person" said working at the HSFC has made her look at cats in a different way. As office manager Mackey takes calls and tries to give people resources to best answer their questions.

"I’m so proud to work here with all the dedicated volunteers," Mackey said. "It really makes a big difference."

A CARETAKER comes twice a day to clean and feed the animals. She also sweeps the rooms clean and bleaches the floors.

Each room is specifically designed with the animals in mind. The rooms include a radio, usually playing classical music, a nightlight and toys and linens, donated from Fairfax County residents.

The "rabbit room" was "de-bombed," as Kirby described. Every item that a rabbit could chew on and cause an explosion was removed. A schedule is taped on the wall indicating the rotation of which rabbits are allowed to be out of their cage. Some cages contain more than one rabbit. Animals are only placed together if volunteers at the society see that they will get along.

"If they are placed in cage together, then they are adopted together," Kirby said.

THE SOCIETY has adopted a slightly different approach for the cats; they are not in cages all day. The cats are first tested to see how they play with others. If volunteers see that the cats are getting along, they are placed in a main room that opens another room for new additions. Cats that don’t get along with others are placed in a room by themselves to avoid any trouble. Many of the cats are feral, which means that the cat grew up in the wild and has no real contact with humans. Feral cats will always accept each other, but many times will not get along with other cats.

"You won’t see a personality of a cat in a cage," Kirby said. "Without cages you can see who they really are."

On the farm in Centreville, the HSFC is building new 12x10 foot fiberglass kennels, each equipped with a "doggie door." Dogs, once they’ve been adopted, are given four free training lessons from the HSFC. They are also trained once they arrive at the farm, until they are adopted, or completely educated.

Before any animal is brought into the HSFC they are taken to a veterinary hospital to get spayed or neutered and receive all the appropriate shots. Afterwards, they can be introduced to the other animals and wait on being adopted.

Animals are kept at the Humane Society until they are either adopted or die. The HSFC has an "anti-euthanizing" policy, unless it is strongly recommended by the veterinarian. Because the people who work at the HSFC become so attached to the animals there is a strict adoption policy to avoid an "impulse adoptions," Kirby said.

"Our adoption policy is strict, but fair," she said.

Before adopting a pet, Kirby said she asks the families to do research and make sure the animal they want will accommodate their lifestyle. "For example, if you want a dog that will run and swim with you, don’t buy a bulldog, they sink," she said.

HOME VISITS are done before the animal is adopted and a number of weeks after to make sure the animal is being treated fairly. Some restrictions include: cats may not be de-clawed and must be indoor pets, dogs cannot be chained, rabbits must be indoor pets and horses must live on the owner’s property, they cannot be boarded, Kirby said. If a kitten is under six months, they must be adopted either with the mother or another cat. "Kittens learn from other cats," Kirby said, "and if you take them away that young they will not learn anything."

Kirby said it is hard to see animals that are so special to the volunteers leave, but it is important to know that they are going to good homes. "When somebody falls in love with a 12- or 13-year-old cat, it just pulls on your heart strings," Kirby said.

The HSFC also works with foster homes for their pregnant mothers and the newborn babies. "The foster homes are people, like you and me, who don’t want to adopt but have room to keep the mom and babies for a little while," Kirby said. It is the hope that the families in the foster homes fall in love with the animals and end up adopting them.

"The animals go to people who are willing to be companions, and want a companion themselves," she said.

Along with helping animals find new homes, the HSFC helps families pay for their pets, the food, vet bills and more. "We’re here to help the animals, but if it involves helping people at the same time, we don’t mind," Kirby said.