OLD TOWN — For 23 years, The Animal Orphanage in Old Town has served the Old Town/Orono community’s stray dogs and cats, even if that means a tenant has to stick around a while.
“It’s not unusual for a cat to live with us for a long time,” said Board Member Roberta Fowler. “That’s the reason I can work with The Animal Orphanage. I helped start it up, but it’s the reason I can stay with it — because we’re a no-kill shelter.”
A no-kill shelter is generally considered one that euthanizes fewer than 10 percent of its animals, and then only in extreme circumstances such as an aggressive illness or a dangerous animal. The orphanage makes every effort to avoid euthanizing any animal, a mantra Fowler says the organization takes very seriously
“We had a cat that lived here 16 years — Jasmine,” Fowler said. “She just died this past summer … she couldn’t move her bowels herself, so she had to have enemas once a week.”
Instead, staff and volunteers helped Jasmine out during her long stay, a small price to pay for the orphanage to observe its mission, which it has done since its inception.
The building was once a municipal shelter where the police and animal control would bring strays. Officers would open guillotine doors to let the dogs out on the run. The police did the best they could, but couldn’t always get up there. This meant that stuck-open doors might let in the elements and make the poor pooches miserable.
“I came up one time in a snowstorm, and the dogs were huddled way in the back,” Fowler said. “They couldn’t get away from the snow.”
In January 1991, on a bitter cold day and during a snowstorm, Fowler and 14 other people decided to do something. Two of those concerned people were a local veterinarian, who at the time owned Timberland Animal Hospital, and his wife, who was very fond of cats. With a too-small building that barely served dogs and couldn’t serve cats, the group decided to start a no-kill shelter to serve Old Town, Orono, and Penobscot Nation.
The city of Old Town turned the small building over to the fledgling group, but the cramped facility wasn’t ideal, with cats and dogs caged in the same room. By 1998, it was clear the shelter needed to expand, so the group began a $100,000 fundraising campaign that enabled nearly tripling the building’s size, separating the cats from the dogs, and creating quarantine areas for new arrivals.
“We only take strays,” Fowler said. “We occasionally will take in a cat if somebody is elderly and died and there was no family to take the cat; then we’d consider it an orphan.”
Owners usually reclaim stray dogs right away, but cats tend to be unwanted and abandoned. Populations can vary wildly, but typically there are 35 to 40 cats at any given time.
The orphanage reaches out to the public however it can, primarily through Facebook (AnimalOrphanageMaine) and its Web site (www.Animal-Orphanage.com), but also through appearances on WABI-TV Channel 5 every other Tuesday morning. Fowler is surprised where people come from to adopt pets.
“We had a lady come up from Sebago,” she said. “She saw us on the Internet and liked our shelter, so she came up to get one. We’ve had them come from as far as Portland … We never really know quite where we are reaching.”
The orphanage does it all with a skeleton crew of three employees, so volunteers are crucial. Last year, a presumed-clean kitten infected the entire shelter with scabies. It forced a shutdown for three months, and every week volunteers had to bleach everything bleachable and throw out anything that wasn’t.
“We had a lot of sororities and come in, and fraternities, to help us bleach down everything,” Fowler said.
Luckily, volunteers have not been a problem. Between sororities and fraternities from nearby UMaine, clients through the ASPIRE program, and citizens willing to help or foster-parent animals at their homes — typically cats with what the orphanage calls “cattitude” — the volunteer numbers are consistent.
What The Animal Orphanage needs is operating funds. Until recently, Timberland Animal Hospital in Orono performed physicals, administered shots, and spayed and neutered the shelter’s animals free of charge. But the costs have caught up with them, and the orphanage will be paying about $500 per week to cover those costs, which is still a bargain, but represents new expenses for the shelter.
As well, the orphanage has two key projects it needs done. The first is to replace the fencing in a currently unused dog-kennel area; the existing fencing poses a danger to collared dogs. The second is to enclose an outdoor concrete pad to create more indoor heated space to create an isolation area for cats. Currently, the isolation overflow goes to a heated trailer, which isn’t ideal. That project will cost about $2,000.
Adoption fees are very low, typically around $20 per cat — fixed, with shots, and ready to go — so donations of items and money are vital.
The orphanage also has a wish list of everyday items. If you can donate supplies or funding, or volunteer your services at the shelter or as a foster parent, visit www.Animal-Orphanage.com.