MIDDLETOWN, New York—Animals communicate in their own ways, but if they could talk to us in our language, they would no doubt tell us about the human condition. Because they share so much of our lives, they end up either suffering directly because of our actions or just by being around us, in tune with our own emotional up and downs.
Apart from the emotional cost, there is the economic cost of our bad habits when it comes to keeping pets. It is estimated that over $2 billion is spent annually by local governments to shelter and ultimately euthanize 8-10 million adoptable dogs and cats.
No-kill animal shelters such as Middletown’s Pets Alive sanctuary are relatively few and far between. The shelter cares for household pets like cats and dogs that have been rejected by other organizations, as well as farm animals that require a lot more outdoor/indoor space.
“Not many sanctuaries have farm animals, this is the unique thing about Pets Alive,” said Mary Ann Bopp, the shelter’s Development Director.
As with all animals shelters, the emphasis is on getting the spay/neuter message across to the community alongside trying to rally interest so that the animals can be adopted.
Talking to Bopp, it becomes clear that the issue that remains largely ignored is the humans’ behavior.
Just last month the Pets Alive took in 50 cats and two dogs from a hoarding situation in Minisink, and more cats were born just after they were rescued.
Why so many cats?
“[People] might start with one or two and they don’t spay or neuter, so two ends up being six, and ten, and all of a sudden it just grows. Hording is somewhat of an illness,” she said explaining that the conditions that the cats lived in were “horrendous” with some of the cats starving and very sickly.
An even more unusual situation that Pets Alive was involved in over one year ago was when the roles were reversed.
“The couple that had the  cats were basically not eating because they were feeding the cats. It was just a crazy situation. We don’t understand it,” said Bopp.
All the farm animals come from cruelty cases—cruelty between humans, or abandoned animals that were once in fashion.
Mama Hazel, the lovable pot-belied pig was as happy to have her photo taken as Paris Hilton at a pool party. She’s happy now, rooting amidst the tall grass in the idyllic county setting of the shelter, but she was found in Ulster County emaciated with 11 piglets in a 10 x 10 foot pen. The owner was probably breeding for money and had high hopes, explained Cindy O’Brien, farm animal manager.
The pigs as pets fad arguably reached its peak in the 1990s when even heart-throb George Clooney posed with his Vietnamese black-bristled potbelly pig.
“They’re incredibly intelligent animals, they litter-train immediately and they can even learn how to do tricks faster than dogs,” said O’Brien about the breed that originated in Vietnam, and is much smaller than the American pig breeds.
They were brought into the United States in the 1980s and became very popular as pets due to their smaller size and amiable nature. But they do like eating and they can grow large enough to be hard to handle indoors.
And, according to O’Brien, “some of them are quite the couch potato in winter but they also need ample outdoor space, and people who adopt them need to be careful about how much they feed them.”
The Goats Got a Raw Deal
The six mountain goats that are currently at the shelter were rescued from a domestic violence situation where the wife had to be relocated out of N.Y. State. They stayed in her husband’s care who was short on caring and were badly emaciated by the time they were rescued.
This is not surprising to O’Brien. “With the cruelty cases we often see links between domestic violence in the home and the animals,” she said.
Goats in general make good pets because they eat poison ivy and any other weeds, though they will not be a good substitute for a lawn mower since grass is the one thing they will not eat. But the six mountain goats alongside with the pigs and horses are most likely to live out their days at the shelter since they are less likely to be adopted out.
Foxy and the Thoughtful Kill-Buyer
Foxy, a black Arabian national show-horse champion, came to Pets Alive in 2007. She was on a kill-buyer’s truck bound for slaughter.
Kill-buyers, as the name suggests, buy the horses and slaughter them for meat. It is a lucrative business and they get paid per pound. According to O’Brien, 150,000 horses are slaughtered this way every year.
The buyer stopped at the sanctuary knowing that Sarah Whalen, the original founder of Pets Alive, took in horses. He told Sarah that Foxy was “too good for slaughter”.
Foxy is currently content at the sanctuary, but she’s very shy and her spine is deformed due to being worked too hard. Her owners had used her as a pawn in a game of emotional blackmail.
Not Exactly Romeo and Juliet
As the story goes, Foxy’s owner bought the horse for his daughter who wanted to show her in competitions. But her daughter interests soon veered more towards boys—more specifically, the stable guy with whom she ran off.
Her parents got mad and threatened the girl with selling her horse and did just that. So the stable boy trumped Foxy, with a serendipitous happy ending for the horse.
“Whenever a horse is sent to auction 99.9 percent of them will be sent to slaughter. Very few gets saved, so [the parents knew] that they were sending [Foxy] to her death sentence. But they didn’t care,” said O’Brien.
Dogs As Far As the Eye Can See
By far, the most popular pets as well as most likely to be adopted out have been the dogs at the shelter. They have around 90 dogs, some of which came from the southern United States, where the shelters have a high kill rate.
Pets Alive are one of the many recipients of funding from the Sidewalk Angels Foundation, which was established by singer-songwriter Rob Thomas and his wife Marisol in 2003. Named Camp Tyler, after a dog that the Thomases adopted from Pets Alive, the dog housing is at least four stars in doggy accommodation.
The dogs are outdoors in spacious cages. Each dog’s personality is assessed and they get a paper note in one of three colors which indicates how friendly they are and some of their habits. Green means social, yellow might mean that they have an issue, and red means that they have shown some aggression, but not that they necessarily bit anyone.
Last year, the two Pets Alive sanctuaries—one being Westchester as well as the one in Middletown had an intake of approximately 700 animals each with almost 1500 animals being adopted out.
The sanctuary’s success rate is due to the shelter’s proactive off-site adoption events as well as the annual Fur Ball, held last Saturday.
“We’ve had some dogs and cats for a long time. But it’s a sanctuary so they live their lives out here if an adopting [person] doesn’t come along. Even after several years people come along and might adopt the animal so we never give up hope,” said Bopp.