Look up Petfinder.com on your Internet browser page. It’s a site where animal welfare groups can promote animals they have available for adoption. Type in a town or zip code. Let’s use Alexandria as an example. Check "Cat" for "Type of Animal." Hit "Search." Unless you specified a particular breed, be prepared to look through 293 pages of cats, about 25 per page. OK. How about "Dog – Any Breed?" That will get you 3 more pages – 296 total - or a staggering 7,500 dogs all vying for your attention as a potential adopter. The numbers won’t change much if you start your search with Chantilly, Reston, Springfield, Vienna, or anywhere else in the county.
Those pages mention dozens of worthy welfare and rescue groups. One name that will come up on quite a few of them, whether you are searching for a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a guinea pig, or even a horse, will be the Humane Society of Fairfax County, with President Vicki Kirby at the helm.
Established in 1965 by a few concerned citizens, the HSFC is one of the area’s oldest animal protection organizations. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor who gifted the group with two office buildings in Fairfax City, a major milestone was achieved in 1995 when HSFC opened the doors to its new administrative offices, no-kill animal shelter and thrift shop at 4057 Chain Bridge Road. One of the first to cross the newly renovated threshold was Merry, a longhaired, wide-faced, cancer-surviving feline Diva, who still holds court there, mostly from her cozy cat bed. Merry kindly allows Office Manager Janice Adams to think she is in charge of day-to-day operations.
ON A RECENT TOUR of the facility, the first thing noticeable is the smell — fresh and clean. Are there really 60 plus cats and kittens in residence here, not to mention a room full of rabbits and a collection of guinea pigs?
"It’s got to be clean," said Adams. "That’s the only way to keep a healthy and comfortable environment. In addition to our faithful volunteers who spend time playing with and socializing the animals, we have several part-time caregivers who look after the cats and their accommodations."
There are large, sunny rooms throughout the building. Cats and kittens are carefully arranged in compatible groupings, with separate spaces for newcomers in quarantine awaiting the vet’s all clear, or those overcoming illness or injury. Many of the rooms have wide-ledged windows perfect for sun bathing and people and bird watching. Since no dogs are housed at this location, most of the tenants are visibly relaxed in the quiet atmosphere, free to play or lounge.
HSFC also supports about 80 cats in foster homes, funding general care and medical expenses, and as part of their ongoing battle to curb the number of unwanted cats, HSFC sponsors a spay/neuter and return program. Recognized feral cat colony caregivers around the Northern Virginia area are assisted in feeding these un-adoptable cats, and HSFC picks up the cost of the spay/neuter, vaccinations, and any other medical requirements. "Feral cat maintenance is sometimes a controversial issue," said Kirby. "But if someone has a better answer, we’re all ears." Many feral cats can never adjust to an indoor existence, especially since many can never learn to accept human handling. "This way, we are true to our mission to behave humanely to all animals. These cats receive much-needed treatment. They are fed. They don’t add to the already unmanageable number of cats without permanent homes. And neutered, there is less fighting among them, less painful injury and death," Kirby added.
With such emphasis on population control by so many animal protection groups, why all those pages on Petfinder.com? "Several factors," says Kirby. "No matter how much we all preach spay and neuter, there are still so many people out there who resist it. There are even vets who tell owners it’s not necessary, or to wait until the female comes into heat for the first time. Others think neutering makes a male animal less masculine. That’s just not true."
HSFC has a good relationship with the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, as well as with several rural shelters. When there is room, they take animals from these locations to give them a better chance at adoption.
And then there is the economy. Both Kirby and Office Manager Janice Adams note that more animals are coming in when families can no longer care for them. Adams pointed out several cats whose owners had been forced to move. "These were much-loved feline family members," she said. "These owners were in tears, but they didn’t have a place to keep them. Couldn’t find pet-friendly living or afford the pet deposits."
HSFC keeps trying to help keep pets and humans together. They run the Ani-Meals program, just like a human food pantry. Owners struggling to care for their pets can pick up donated food and supplies at the HSFC offices. But for some, that just isn’t enough, and another often-distressed adult cat joins the HSFC waiting hopeful.
So where are the dogs? In 2002, HSFC realized another dream when they were able to purchase a farm in Centreville that now houses the horses and dogs in their care. Lisa Schroeder started as a volunteer and is now the fulltime farm manager. "My friends kid me," she said. "It can be pretty difficult to get time away with all the animals in our care, so they say I do all my grocery shopping at the 7-11 next to the vet’s office while I wait for one of our canine friends to be seen to."
JUST LIKE THE CAT ROOMS in Fairfax, the dog enclosures and the horse stalls at the Farm are clean. "It’s our volunteers," Schroeder is quick to credit. "They’re here first thing every day, cleaning and feeding."
Lisa Zimmer travels from Lorton every Wednesday to volunteer. "There’s lots of hard work," she said. "But when the work is done, we can spend time cuddling and playing. I get my dog fix, since I can’t have my own right now."
Kirby also praises the efforts of the volunteers. "None of this is possible without them," she said. In addition to animal care duties, volunteers foster. They run educational programs and staff the original Thrift Shop and the second, larger store in Falls Church. They work fundraising events. They transport animals from other shelters and to vet appointments. There are even volunteer trainers who provide the free training sessions available to those who adopt pups and dogs.
The services provided by the Human Society of Fairfax to animals and to their human friends is an expensive undertaking. Even with the small army of volunteers, significant time is dedicated to fundraising and recruiting even more assistance and donations of time, materials, and items to sell in the thrift shops. But everyone you ask who is touched by this group – new owners, people having to surrender animals, people who keep their beloved pets because of assistance from HSFC, people who learn from the educational outreach, volunteers and staff – all agree that the hard work and the occasional heartbreak is a small price to pay when they are greeted by that wagging tail or that contented purr.
The Fairfax facility accepts visitors. The Farm is by appointment only, after consultation and approval by HSFC staff. If you are looking for a new friend, be prepared. The adoption process is serious business. As Kirby said, "We are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to find the right home, the right match between animal and human, to make everyone happy. It really is supposed to be a ‘forever home.’"