The scraggly little dog looked confused and afraid after having been abandoned in the lobby of the animal shelter. Clearly an elderly dog, he moved stiffly, his teeth and gums were a mess, and he was mostly blind from what appeared to be a chronic eye condition.
Xavier, as he would later be named, had had a rough go of it. But his future was now in the hands of ACCT Philly — the nonprofit organization with the animal care and control contract for the city of Philadelphia. ACCT takes in most of the region’s strays, surrendered animals, and other animals in need — whether they be furry, scaled, or hooved.
Not too long ago, Xavier’s story would likely have ended in euthanasia. But this time, ACCT found a rescue partner, City of Elderly Love, that specializes in older pets and was able to get him the medical care he needed. Today, he’s in a loving foster home where he’s finding his spunk again, has developed a fondness for back scratches, and even sings for his supper, standing up on his back legs to do so. His foster family is dedicated to caring for him until a forever home comes along.
Second-chance stories like Xavier’s play out every day across the Delaware Valley — and especially in Philadelphia, which is closer than ever to achieving something that once seemed impossible: becoming a city in which all healthy, treatable, and adoptable pets find homes.
While we have long been a pet-friendly city in terms of dog parks and cat cafes (not one, but two), for decades we trailed almost all other large U.S. cities in how well we treated our homeless pet population. That has changed dramatically as the number of pets coming into ACCT has plummeted and the percentage of pets leaving alive has reached levels that seemed unattainable a decade ago.
From the time of ACCT’s founding eight years ago to 2019, the number of animals entering the system has decreased almost by half — from over 32,000 in 2012 to 17,000 last year. Addressing the root causes that land pets at the shelter in the first place has played a large role in this decrease.
Not long ago, pet owners who were no longer able to care for their pets typically surrendered them to their local shelter. But now, instead of simply accepting each pet, shelters are trying to help owners keep their pets when possible. In Philadelphia, as of 2018, resources are being provided to help pet owners and their pets stay together through, most notably, the help desk at ACCT. The help desk is a program of Citizens for a No Kill Philadelphia, a member of the No Kill Philadelphia Coalition.
The Coalition was formed by the city’s three largest animal agencies - ACCT, the Pennsylvania SPCA, and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) – with the goal of ending the euthanasia of Philadelphia’s savable pets. Helping owners keep their pets is a central priority of the Coalition, and the CNKP help desk counsels owners who are considering pet surrender and assists them with alternatives that include support with medical care, training needs, and supplies.
The result? Over 75% of those who were counseled in 2019 did not surrender their pets.
While reducing intake has been critical to the effort to get pets out of the shelter alive, just as critical has been the help of shelters and rescues both within and beyond the city’s borders in finding homes for the animals being taken in. Of the animals entering ACCT in 2012, only 62% made it out alive. Today, the live release rate has increased to 87%, higher than it has ever been, and close to the 90% goal many shelters around the country strive to meet or surpass.
These days, when animals enter ACCT, the odds of being adopted or transferred to a rescue are strongly in their favor. Organizations like the PSPCA, PAWS, and Media’s Providence Animal Center are perhaps the most recognizable advocates, but the 300-plus partners of ACCT consist of groups across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and beyond, and now also include rescues with a specific focus.
Rescues like Tiny Paws Rescue, focused on small dogs, and Brick City Rescue, focused on pit bull-type dogs, are among many. There are even organizations whose entire mission is to support these efforts — like Philadoptables, which focuses on supporting groups that help Philly’s homeless pets, and Hand2Paw, which pairs at-risk youth with homeless pets via the PSPCA, with whom the teens work.
Even pet shops are doing their part by hosting adoption events for rescues and shelters. Stores such as Doggie Style Pets and PetValu are making adoption convenient by housing available animals on their premises and donating adoption fees back to partnering rescue organizations.
This tremendous progress is due in large part to a surge in community awareness and support. Whether it’s the thousands of hours donated every year by dedicated volunteers, the partnerships among organizations, or the broader understanding of the issues faced by companion animals in our community, we’ve made remarkable progress for the homeless pets of Philadelphia.
While further progress needs to be made, the lives of more animals are being saved each year. And that’s something in which we can all take tremendous pride.
Marsha Perelman is a civic leader and local and national animal advocate.