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Delaware County towns scrambling to find shelter for stray animals

Almost a year has passed since the Delaware County SPCA warned it would get out of the lost-and-found business as of this summer.

Almost a year has passed since the Delaware County SPCA warned it would get out of the lost-and-found business as of this summer.

Townships and boroughs that for a century had deposited their stray animals at the Media shelter - as many as 2,000 critters last year and 4,300 the year before - would have to find other accommodations.

But with the July 1 deadline bearing down on them, most of the 49 municipalities still have no Plan B. They include Upper Darby and Chester City, which last year accounted for 41 percent of the strays dropped off at the SPCA.

Vicious dogs running the streets are of particular concern for James Maloney, Upper Darby director of administrative services. "I can't leave them in the back of my animal van," he said. "I can't put them in a jail cell."

The SPCA's no-strays rule was born of scandal. In recent years, the small, donation-supported nonprofit has been intensely criticized for mismanaging finances, delivering inadequate veterinary care, and keeping animals in unhealthy conditions. In July, it announced that it would focus on programs that prevent animal cruelty and overpopulation and promote responsible pet ownership.

To be accepted into the shelter, a pet must be brought in by its owner, said Justine Calgiano, a shelter spokeswoman. There may be exceptions, however. Pennsylvania law requires municipalities to hold stray dogs (not cats) for a minimum of 48 hours, after which they can be put up for adoption or euthanized. If a dog is deemed highly adoptable - say, a cute little Yorkie - and the SPCA has room, it might be let in.

These changes are only the prologue to the SPCA's intended conversion to a no-kill shelter by July 2012. Last year, 25 percent of its population was euthanized.

Although a group of community leaders has been meeting to find alternative housing, solutions - whether short- or long-term - are proving elusive.

County and municipal officials recently procured a five-acre tract on Calcon Hook Road in Darby Township free of charge from the Darby Creek Joint Sewer Authority. The land has been cleared by community-service workers, according to Mario Civera, a county councilman who has been working with the municipalities. And union representatives have agreed to provide some volunteer labor.

"How could you not love dogs?" said Danny Kubik, chairman of the Delaware County Committee of Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades.

With perhaps undue optimism, Civera said, "The big part here is that we were able to get the land."

But another big part is missing: the money to build a shelter, and to hire a professional service to run it.

The county has not even hired an outside consultant or conducted a national search, according to Civera.

Officials had pinned their hopes on Chester County businessman John DiMeglio, head of a newly founded shelter called Dinah's Way, which operates out of his Parkesburg home. He had a well-written blueprint for running a county shelter, but no experience at something that large and no funding.

A deal with DiMeglio appears to be disintegrating over another fundamental issue. Euthanasia is a reality in most urban shelters dealing with limited space and violent or unadoptable animals. But DiMeglio has a no-kill policy that he says he will not relax.

Tom Hickey Sr., a member of the state Dog Law Advisory Board who has been conferring with the municipalities, said the county also was talking with Operation Ava, a rescue group in Philadelphia.

With no central facility likely to materialize soon, a very few municipalities have come up with interim solutions.

Radnor officials said they were teaming with a local veterinarian and the Francisvale Home for Small Animals, a 102-year-old no-kill shelter in the township, to keep any dogs that could not be returned within a few hours.

Ridley Township, which typically has a small number of stray dogs, already has contracted with the Morris Animal Refuge in Philadelphia. Two abandoned dogs have been sent to the facility, said Township Manager Margaret A. Keegan, who now keeps a leash and biscuits in her desk just in case.

In Chester, Irshad Shaikh, the city health commissioner, said an agreement with a nonprofit, privately run shelter may be only an interim step.

"We have to come up with a sustainable solution that is long-term," he said. "The urgency of the message will hit us in the face on July 1."