Merged shelters, special-needs pets keep director busy – Pittsburgh Post


Dan Rossi’s new office in Homewood is bigger and brighter than his old one in Larimer, but some things never change. He still shares his work space with a changing cast of special-needs animals. On this day it’s four 10-day-old kittens and two parrots — one with a feather-plucked breast — who screeched and chattered until he stepped over to their cage to greet them.  

At the new $15 million animal shelter that opened in January, he sits for an interview to discuss the benefits and challenges of running a “new” shelter formed by the merger of  the Animal Rescue League and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. 

Since the merger, Mr. Rossi has been CEO of what is temporarily known as Animal Rescue League/Western PA Humane Society. Next Friday the new name will be announced. Mr. Rossi has been executive director of the Animal Rescue League for seven years. 

Since the new shelter in Homewood opened, “We have had twice as many visitors and adoptions are up,” Mr. Rossi said. “We had 23 adoptions last weekend.”

The public is invited to an official grand opening of the new facility — called the East End Animal Resource Center — next Saturday from noon-4 p.m. Visitors can tour the building and see all of the animals available for adoption. There will be refreshments and vendors.

Each year, the merged shelters adopt out more than 7,000 animals. Mostly dogs and cats, they also include rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, hamsters, turtles, snakes, spiders, and the occasional pig or other pet that owners are unable or unwilling to care for any longer. 

The merged shelters have a yearly operating budget of $6.5 million, 140 full- and part-time employees, and 500 volunteers. There are three locations: ARL’s wildlife center in Verona,  the Humane Society’s North Side shelter and the new shelter in Homewood, which replaced the ARL shelter three blocks away in Larimer. That building has been sold and the new one is almost paid for, thanks to more than $12 million in fundraising, Mr. Rossi noted. 

The interview moves out of Mr. Rossi’s office, made noisy by the chattering conure parrots. The birds had a loving owner for 15 years, but she became too ill to care for them. After losing her owner, the female plucked out her breast feathers, which is what parrots do when they are stressed. The feathers are growing back now.

The interview continues in a nearby conference room, where the quiet is quickly broken by the squeaks and meows of the four tiny kittens, each weighing 2-3 ounces. Clearly an accomplished multitasker, Mr. Rossi answers questions as he feeds each one with a very small bottle topped by a long, skinny nipple.

“They were dropped off at a church when they were only 1 day old,” he said.

Because they need to eat every three hours around the clock, the kittens go home with him at night. Several other employees also take kittens home; this is the start of the spring season when every shelter and rescue is inundated with kittens. In recent years, two-thirds of the animals coming into the shelters have been cats and kittens, Mr. Rossi said.

“These four kittens were dropped off without their mother, so they only got her antibodies for one day. Statistically, half of these guys will not make it. You have to be prepared for that when you take this on.” 

When each kitten has eaten, he puts them in a covered habitat with a water bottle that has been warmed in a microwave. “That’s mom,” he said. The kittens cuddled, quieted and went to sleep. By Friday, the smallest one had died.

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society opened in 1874 and the Animal Rescue League in 1906. Board members of each shelter, who will continue to serve the merged organization, “are aware of the history and the passion” of workers, volunteers, donors and adopters and hope to maintain that good will, Mr. Rossi said. 

Administrative costs are expected to be lower, starting with the fact that there is now only one executive director. The merger happened after the executive director at the Humane Society resigned.

Dog training classes and reduced-cost wellness clinics will continue to operate at both shelters “because in Pittsburgh people don’t like to cross rivers,” Mr. Rossi said with a chuckle.

Two veterinarians and 24 veterinary technicians work at the shelters, and two more veterinarians are to be hired. They treat any pet as long as it has been spayed or neutered — it can be done on site — “because we cannot be responsible for putting more puppies and kittens into the community,” Mr. Rossi said.

Animal Rescue League has taken in strays from Pittsburgh’s Animal Control since 1912, and that will continue with the merger. Both shelters are “open door” shelters, which means no animal is turned away. It also means that some must be euthanized.

Mr. Rossi doesn’t talk about how many animals are put down. He and other shelter workers talk instead about the “live release rate” of animals adopted into new homes. Last year, the rate was 87 percent for dogs and 76 percent for cats.

“We do not euthanize for space or time,” he said.

Animals stay for weeks or months until an adopter steps forward. Those that are euthanized include sick animals and dogs deemed too dangerous to release into the community. 

As the interview ends, the kittens start meowing again, just one hour after their last meal. A big black cat runs into the conference room, jumps onto the table and sniffs the kitten Mr. Rossi is feeding.

“That’s Kitty the office cat,” Mr. Rossi said.

“No, you’re not getting any milk,” he told her.

As we left the conference room, adoption manager Joe Tedesco announced:

“You just missed it! The tarantulas just left! They are adopted!”

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.

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