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Kevin Riordan: N.J. animal shelter struggling

It's helping more animals, but donations are down.

Nancy Welsh, director at Almost Home Animal Shelter, holds Autumn, a Chihuahua mix, at the shelter on Monday. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff)
Nancy Welsh, director at Almost Home Animal Shelter, holds Autumn, a Chihuahua mix, at the shelter on Monday. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff)Read more

When the Almost Home Animal Shelter opened in 2006, it was supposed to be temporary.

But the problem of unwanted, abandoned, or abused pets endures. So does the privately run shelter in Pennsauken, which lately finds itself struggling as cases and costs rise, and donations and adoptions decline.

The washer and the dryer recently broke down, too.

"We're doing the best we can, but we're in danger of closing. Very shortly," executive director Nancy Welsh says amid a cacophony of canine, feline, and telephone sounds, none of which cease during my visit Monday.

"We used to take in 600 animals a year. Now we take in 1,200, mostly dogs and cats," says Welsh, 52. "We used to do 600 adoptions a year, but those are down, too. It's the economy."

Almost Home collects a total of $172,000 annually in fees from Pennsauken and five other Camden County towns where it provides animal-control services, including investigating complaints of cruelty.

Thanks to people in crisis, South Jersey is loaded with animals in crisis.

"We took in two alligators that were living in a high-rise in Collingswood," Welsh says. Almost Home placed them in a zoo; most of the guinea pigs that were found abandoned en masse in Cooper River Park have gotten new lodgings, too.

Almost Home got its start five years ago, after the private West Jersey Animal Shelter in Pennsauken closed and the township reached out to Welsh, a veterinary technician, animal control officer, and lifelong animal lover from Collingswood.

The idea was to have the temporary shelter operate for about 18 months while a consortium of towns, working with Camden County, collectively came up with a permanent arrangement.

The county was interested in expanding its animal shelter at the Lakeland complex in Blackwood, with municipalities, which state law requires provide for animal welfare, ultimately picking up operating costs.

Then the Great Recession hit, the county began rethinking the approach, and Welsh found herself running not a short-term service but an ongoing business. "She's done a wonderful job," Township Administrator Edward Grochowski says.

When I ask Welsh for specifics about the falloff in donations and upturn in costs, she's not immediately sure of the figures. "I should be writing grants, but instead I'm out back scooping poop," she says.

But just getting a dog adoption-ready, Welsh notes, typically means $150 worth of spaying or neutering, vaccinations, and deworming. Almost Home pays for it all.

"We get small donations . . . the $25, $50 donations from private citizens," she says. "I have one woman who sends us $1,500 once a year." A "Save Our Shelter" fund-raiser is set for Dec. 10 at the Collingswood Community Center.

Meanwhile, "more and more people are calling to surrender animals because they can't afford them anymore," she continues. "But if it's [pet] food they can't afford, we have a small food bank in the back, and we'll set them up with some food."

Clearly, all of this is a labor of love. And even someone who's only mildly fond of animals can't help but be touched by the sight and sound (and less so, the smell) of 126 cats and 56 dogs, caged and desperate for attention.

They're here because they've been picked up as feral, or as strays; they've been surrendered by their owners, or simply left in boxes outside the office door. Like "F.B.," for Fat Boy, a 30-pound, hugely charming tiger kitty who hangs out as I chat with Welsh.

It seems that people have all sorts of reasons for ditching their pets.

"One lady called and said she didn't want her dog anymore because it didn't match her furniture," office manager Anna Panaccio notes.

The fact that many people don't take responsibility for their pets - letting them breed like, well, cats and dogs, for example - suggests that simply building more shelter space isn't the answer.

That's why Gary Passanante, director of shared services for Camden County, has been working on the larger issues of animal control and animal welfare with all four of the county's private shelters since last year.

Public education, using the Web and the mail, as well as countywide expansion of the popular spay-neuter clinic for cats in Lindenwold are under way, he says.

"There are more animals than the shelters can handle," Passanante notes. "We don't want to see anybody go under, because that will be a burden on everyone else."

Kevin Riordan:

To view video of the Almost Home Animal Shelter in Pennsauken, go to